29 April 2009

Berliner Luft

Willkommen: The Brandenburg Gate

On my first trip to Berlin, in 1995, I was told flatly that I’d come at the wrong time. “You should have come five years ago,” a Berliner said. “Right now, there’s so much construction and development — we’ve lost the human dimension. Come back in five years, and we’ll have readjusted.”

I took much longer, and the Berlin I discovered this weekend was all but unrecognizable beyond its famous monuments; one of those, the Wall, was conspicuous by its absence, having been almost entirely dismantled. (Mostly to chip up and sell for souvenirs, I suspect.) Potsdamer Platz has become a mini-city unto itself, with gleaming high-rises; Prenzlauerberg, an erstwhile down’n’dirty neighborhood in the East, is now gentrified, even bourgeois, and a bit dull. And there’s still construction everywhere, all over town. Who knows what I’ll find the next time I go?

From the Gemäldegalerie, Vermeer’s The Glass of Wine

And return I must, not least because I made the mistake of saving the Gemäldegalerie for the last day, when I had the least time to linger over its irresistible collection of European paintings. Forced by the clock to prioritize, I checked out a special exhibition, “The Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden,” in which the museum’s significant holdings were supplemented by works from as far away as the Getty and Detroit; then turned to the permanent collection, remorselessly skipping the 18th-century work and hurrying past Dutch landscapes and still-lifes in favor of Renaissance masterpieces. (Giotto! Rafaello! Caravaggio!) The ensemble boasts excellent examples of the work of great artists, and even the minor works are lovely.

At the Pergamon, the Gate of Ishtar

I began my museum-going on the Museuminsel, revisiting the Egyptian Museum and the Pergamon, and exploring the Bode, which had been closed for remodeling in 1995. (All I got to see then was the equestrian statue in the entrance hall, not really worth the bother.) Brilliant though these places are, and absolutely essential to anyone interested in ancient or medieval art, I wanted to visit two other museums, dedicated to communities that have defined the city for me in many ways, though the city itself hasn’t always embraced them. And so I went to the Jewish Museum and the Gay Museum.

In the Jewish Museum

The two make an interesting contrast, and the most immediate impression one gets is simply that an oppressed community that procreates and identifies itself publicly will leave more stuff to the future than will one that is childless and hidden. The Jewish collection is vast, housed in a brilliantly designed structure that, seen from above, cuts a jagged slash across the landscape, almost like a Star of David that’s been ripped open. The architect, Daniel Libeskind, incorporates empty spaces in the galleries, air shafts and unadorned nooks, as a reminder of absence — the thousands of Jews who were removed from German society, and from existence, by generations of bigots. Exhibits demonstrate that the Nazis were hardly the first, only the most systematic, to scapegoat and attack the Jews. Yet the vitality of the community shines through consistently (You won't let us hold most kinds of jobs? So be it: we'll become the world’s greatest traders, bankers, and doctors), and there is much to celebrate here. This is in fact why I opted to visit this museum, rather than one dedicated to the Holocaust, a horror that is represented here at the Jewish Museum, of course, but there’s more to the story than that, and this Museum’s exhibits provide additional histories and personalities. The family of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, in particular, shines as a beacon.

That said, my biggest thrill of the trip may have been the sight of an old theater decked out with what at first appeared to be Nazi banners. Then I noticed that, instead of swastikas, there were pretzels, and the Adolf Hitler gazing down from the balcony was only a cardboard cutout of an actor’s photograph. The Berlin production of Mel Brooks’ The Producers is opening soon. Who’d have believed it?

From the Schwules Museum, ancestors without issue

The collection of the Gay Museum is smaller than that of the Jewish Museum, with more pictures (old photos, reproductions of illustrations from old books) and very little original material (the nieces and nephews having inherited all that), housed in a few stark rooms in an apartment building in Kreuzberg. Display and documentation are bare bones, and for those visitors with limited German, the only option is to follow along with a little book, a translation of the signs and captions that accompany the displays. Because so much is not illustrated by the artifacts, the texts are numerous and lengthy: one winds up reading a monograph. Yet the exhibit is serious and important, offering glimpses into the ways that communities were formed, opinions expressed, desires acted upon, despite every kind of obstacle. Including those that came from within: many of those who led the oppressing institutions were themselves gay.

At the tip of the Museuminsel, the Bode:
It looks small from this angle, but wait ’til you get inside.

Under warm, sunny skies, I spent the rest of my days looking at landmarks (several of which I’d missed on my previous trip; these included Checkpoint Charlie and the Tiergarten — where I saw two rabbits!), strolling along the boulevards and riverbanks, and drinking beer. Having just spent a couple of days pointing out the sights of Paris to a friend from Texas, I was stunned by how much cheaper the touring essentials are in Berlin: beer is less than half what it costs in Paris, and my most expensive meal was less than 10 Euros. My bed-and-breakfast was no-frills, and a bit far from any point of interest, but at 30 Euros a night, I wasn’t complaining (and my room was spacious and airy). Bier, Brot, und Bett: the rest is superfluous, when you think about it.

Certain that a particular dress code is pretty much obligatory in Berlin, and that visitors are turned away at the city limits if they’re not wearing a mandated amount of leather, I wore my Doc Martens, a mistake that became painfully clear after I’d walked only a few kilometers. (I’m not sure what Doc Martens are good for, actually, but they aren’t good for walking.) Naturally, I wound up going to no single place where anyone cared how I dressed.

There’s no place like Dom.

My interactions with the Germans were hampered by the lamentable fact that I no longer speak German. Oh, I tried, yes, but I can’t remember a single declension, my vocabulary is spotty, my reflexes slow when not altogether arrested. I had an adequate stock of phrases for survival, but the Berliners tended to answer me at speeds too rapid to comprehend: the worst were the guard and docent at the Bode, who spoke to me simultaneously, when understanding them singly would have been challenge enough.

But then, we do not travel in order to do that which we would do at home, and I tell myself that a little humiliation from time to time is exceedingly good for my character. Especially when it’s so easy to drown my sorrows afterward. Ein Glas Bier, bitte!

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28 April 2009

Swine Song

The following test is offered as a public service. Please read carefully and answer all questions thoroughly: the life you save may be your own.

Are you concerned about a scratchy throat or runny nose?

If you answered “Yes,” do you have any of the following symptoms: chills, sweats, loss of appe­tite or increased appetite (especially before or after mealtime), sleep­less­ness, drowsi­ness, increased heart rate, fatigue, muscle pain, nervous­ness or headache?

If you answered “No,” shouldn’t you be concerned?

Describe the last time you came in contact with a pig. (Please be specific.)

When was the last time you washed your hands?

When was the last time you checked your temperature?

If you answered “Yes,” did you use the back of your hand or a thermometer?

If you answered “Thermometer,” did you remember to sterilize it first?

Have you recently visited Mexico?

Have you recently visited anyone who has recently visited Mexico?

Have you recently visited anyone who used the word “Mexico” in a sentence?

Have you recently visited a doctor or hospital emergency room?

If you answered “No,” why not?

Complete the following sentence: The most important problem facing the world today is ________________

When was the last time you heard a news report about swine flu?

When was the last time you heard a news report about anything else?

Following the news report, did you (choose one):
a) Run screaming from the room?
b) Scream first, then run out of the room?
c) Scream, but remain in the room, because it’s too dangerous to leave the house?

If you are a journalist, when was the last time you delivered a news report about swine flu?

Did you (choose one):
a) Lower your voice dramatically?
b) Omit, shorten, or otherwise minimize a report about the economy or war in the Middle East?
c) Wear a blue surgical mask?

Conclusion: If you answered the questions above, you may be suffering from Swine Flu Pandemic Panic (SWPP), a potentially serious condition. Seek medical attention immediately.

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25 April 2009

New Revelations

Amid renewed cries for an independent investigation and possible criminal charges, new details emerged yesterday about alleged “extreme training techniques” and other abuses committed on and by the Texas Rangers baseball team during the administration of former co-owner George W. Bush. A previously confidential report by the American Red Cross, published this week in Sports Illustrated contains sometimes shocking testimony from former players and assistant coaches, including allegations of an obscure practice known as “water-boying.”

According to sports historians, “water-boying” began during the 1927 World Series; uncooperative players are subjected to repeated exposure to the water boy. The practice is said to be traumatizing.

“Coach put me in the batter’s box for eight innings,” said one witness, whose name was withheld, but whose address is 165 Maple Lane. “Then they started to water-boy me. I think they said his name was Kenny, I don’t know. He just kept coming at me and coming at me. I started to black out. I thought I was going to die. I wanted to die.”

“There is no indication that anything illegal was done during Mr. Bush’s term of office,” said a Bush spokesman in a prepared statement. “The public demanded nothing less than total victory, and a variety of experts concluded that, however unconventional or allegedly extreme, these were the best and most reliable means to achieve that end.”

It is unclear whether Mr. Bush authorized or was directly aware of any of the alleged abuses. However, critics charge, as managing general partner of the Rangers between 1989 and 1994, Bush bears responsibility and must be held accountable.

“Even if he didn’t know — and I’m not convinced that he didn’t — he should have known,” said local sportswriter Clyde Berry. “You had players locked in something called ‘The Cage’ for three, four, even nine and ten hours at a time. You had men out, cold; some players tell me they didn’t even feel safe at home. Inappropriate use of bats and benches, forcing players to practice without helmets, gloves, or a cup — without access to bodacious cheerleaders, nightclub openings, cocaine or steroids, or lucrative endorsement contracts — this is inhuman. This goes against everything that baseball represents.”

“You have to remember that this was all-out war,” argues one sports-intelligence analyst, Keith Wolf. “The Rangers were consistently mired in the middle of the Western division of the American League. Everybody in Arlington was terrified, nobody wanted to be blamed for another loss. It’s easy to look back and say, ‘Oh, that‘s immoral,’ but when you’re under that kind of pressure, you’re willing to try anything. If you had the opportunity to make the Rangers practice an extra seven hours, or to put itching powder in Darryl Strawberry’s jockstrap, wouldn’t you do it? I don’t know that many of us would act any differently, in those circumstances.”

“We cannot afford to bunt here,” insisted Arlington City Manager James Holgersson during a press conference yesterday. “That’s why I’m calling for a truth and reconciliation commission. The people of this community deserve to know what happened, who knew about it and when they knew it. Only then can we right any wrongs, and move on.”

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23 April 2009

Le Petit Nicolas

To celebrate the fiftieth birthday of France’s most popular schoolboy, Paris’ Hôtel de Ville is sponsoring an exhibition of texts, drawings, and memorabilia, Le Petit Nicolas, now through May 7. My initial attempts to see the show met with failure: long lines of people waiting in the rain led me to conclude that they were being paid to stand there, and they prevented my breezing on in. Yesterday, I succeeded, and discovered four rooms with plenty of interest. It’s safe to say I’ve never laughed so hard at an exhibition.

The brainchild of writer René Goscinny and artist Jean-Jacques Sempé, “Little Nicholas” appeared as a weekly feature in the newspaper Sud-Ouest Dimanche; after a brief interval, the stories would be published in Pilote, the hugely influential comic magazine founded in part by Goscinny, and home base for his most famous creation, Astérix the Gaul. Reflecting an idealized (indeed, almost completely imaginary) childhood and a curiously timeless nostalgia, Le Petit Nicolas became a series of five books of gently humorous anecdotes, recounted in a child’s voice and identifiable to anyone who has ever been seven years old. They were among the first books I read as I resumed the business of reading in French, and they’re wonderfully funny. Attending the exhibition was a kind of pilgrimage, an act of devotion, but also a reunion with an old friend.

Goscinny and Sempé met when each arrived in Paris, almost simultaneously. Sempé had been living in Bordeaux, where he was born, and come to the big city in search of his fortune. Goscinny, born in Argentina, had been living in New York City and working at MAD Magazine, where he drew inspiration that informed Pilote (and most especially his collaborations with the artist Gotlib, which are perfect MAD features but for the French texts). The two men became each other’s first friends in Paris, Sempé recalls, and as they talked about their background, they identified common threads among their very different boyhood experiences. Petit Nicolas was born.

Goscinny was a master scenarist, with a phenomenal capacity to pick up simple, yet satisfying plots and solid gags. His achievement in Le Petit Nicolas is the narrative voice, perfectly childlike and yet not quite like any kid you ever met. Nicolas has a repertory of slang phrases (C’est chouette! C’était terrible! Sans blagues!) and a passion for les cow-boys; he gets into scrapes with his teacher, his parents, and above all the assistant principal, Le Bouillon, but he’s fundamentally a good kid. As are his friends, each of whom bears an antiquated first name and a signature personality trait: Agnan, the teacher’s pet; Alceste, the fat kid and Nicolas’ best friend; Clotaire, the slowest kid in the class; Eudes, who likes to punch people; Geoffroy, the rich kid.

Sempé almost always depicts Nicolas in his school uniform, short pants and necktie. His quick, seemingly nervous lines are in reality rigorously controlled, and one of the impressive things about the exhibition was to see the immaculate state of the drawings, with no trace of pencil and only rarely any Wite-Out corrections. His use of white space is stunning, and his work is all the more impressive for its tininess: I’d always assumed that the drawings were fairly large, then shrunk for publication, but the originals are indeed the size we see on the printed page, often no bigger than a postage stamp. “Sud-Ouest Dimanche didn’t give me much space,” he remembers in a caption accompanying one of the exhibits. Sans blagues. My favorite pictures in any Petit Nicolas story show the little boys running around and yelling: tiny glimpses of the exuberance of childhood. You look at them and think, “Yeah, I used to do that, too.”

The series ran five years at the outset, and that seemed enough: a certain repetition had begun to set in, and the publication in recent years of thick volumes of unpublished stories is at once welcome and tedious, because they show Goscinny going over the same ground, with only slight variations, and relying excessively on catch-phrases. He was a genius, yes, but a journeyman, too.

Though Sempé is alive and well, and contributed some new drawings for the exhibition, Goscinny died in 1977, when his daughter was a very little girl. As an adult, she’s begun to mine her father’s desk for all kinds of unpublished material, and released them to the world, building on his several franchises while feeding on the cult of personality surrounding the old boy. (It’s commonly accepted as fact that, had Goscinny lived, he would have been the first comic-book writer admitted to the Académie Française.) In her exploitation of her father’s work, she’s shown more restraint that other authors’ heirs: Dr. Seuss’ widow, by endorsing all kinds of substandard knockoffs by other hands, has tarnished her late husband’s reputation almost beyond recognition. Yet one can’t help wishing that a few of Goscinny’s treasures had remained hidden: he really did have a sense of what his best material was, and most of it he published within his lifetime.

Several of his creations have enjoyed all kinds of after-lives: Astérix, Lucky Luke, and Iznogoud continued their adventures, not only in comic books written by the artists who collaborated with Goscinny but also in movies (both live-action and animated) and television cartoons. Now it’s Nicolas’ turn: part of the exhibition is dedicated to clips from a forthcoming live-action film (to star Valérie Lemercier and Sandrine Kiberlaine) and animated TV show. Somewhat to my surprise, I’m cautiously optimistic for the results.

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22 April 2009

The Curse of the Ring

The directors of the Metropolitan Opera wish to announce that the role of Brünnhilde in tonight’s performance of Götterdämmerung will be sung by Liselotte Wurmbein.

Miss Wurmbein replaces the previously announced singer, Bette Angostura, who sustained knee injuries in a polo match last weekend. Miss Angostura is the cover for Ännchen Faulheit, another previously announced singer in this role, who is ill. Miss Faulheit was slated to substitute for Tara B. Scott in tonight’s performance; Miss Scott, who is suffering from food poisoning, had been the announced substitute for Eva Harrington, who has laryngitis and who was to substitute for a previously announced singer, Fiamma d’Inganno. Operagoers are encouraged to contact the police with any relevant information leading to Miss d’Inganno’s recovery.

Miss d’Inganno replaced a previously announced substitute, Gudrun Lautschreier (picnic, lightning), who was engaged to appear after Angela Gheorghiu, making a role debut as Brünnhilde this season, suddenly remembered that she plans to wash her hair this evening. Originally announced for tonight’s performance was Birgit Nilsson, who passed away in 2005. Why does no one bother to tell us these things?

A graduate of the Copacabana Conservatory, Miss Wurmbein is best known for her portrayal of a Flower Maiden in Parsifal, winning acclaim from German critics, including her mother. Born in Düsseldorf, she can be found in the Yellow Pages under the listing “Sopranos, Wagnerian.”

Please enjoy this evening’s performance.

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20 April 2009

Columbine, Ten Years After

What many people don’t remember is, it snowed the next day. Late April in the Rockies looks like winter in most other places, and by the time I got to Littleton, the flurries had begun. We remember the children in their T-shirts and shorts, on the day of the shooting, but we forget how it really was.

Ordinarily, we welcome the way in which snow covers over the details of everyday life. We talk about a “blanket” of snow, as if it offered comfort. As if there were some intelligence or sensibility behind the weather. The day after the shooting, the snow wasn’t pretty or even welcome; it was messy, a hindrance, dropping in clumps and turning to slush. Literary scholars speak of the macrocosm reflecting the microcosm, and it seemed easier to focus on that possibility — to see the snow as a metaphor for a world that had become suddenly colder and more difficult — than to look squarely at what really was happening, and had happened already.

I was one of hundreds of journalists from around the world who came to Littleton to try to prize out some hard facts from the event, but few among us knew anything at all. We moved among the police and the mourners who, like us, didn’t have any answers. Not really. Not the answers that counted.

For the things that others knew didn’t explain much about what had happened. Most of the time, I wanted to stand back, not only to let the police do their work but to put distance between myself and the awfulness of what I saw. Having no children of my own, I couldn’t know what the parents felt: bad enough to imagine how I’d feel if those were the names of my godchildren on the little wooden crosses on the hillside, where the Columbine families had set up a little shrine.

In the students’ confusion and in the ungraspable, unmanageable dimensions of their emotions, I saw a litle of myself, the teenager I used to be. Yet I’d never suffered as they did, and I was frankly afraid of understanding too closely. Some kind of assurance, some kind of defense was required: I wanted so much to believe that nothing like this could ever happen to me or to anyone I knew. That was selfish, yes. It was a survival mechanism.

Eventually, the world learned a few things about the shootings. Not enough to prevent other incidents, or to make us feel safe. It turns out that there’s no universal psychological profile, no guaranteed warning sign that would enable us to stop a boy before he picks up a gun. And though for the moment it seems as if every shooter or would-be shooter is indeed a boy, I expect it’s only a matter of time before a girl somewhere breaks the pattern.

The best security measure, it seems, is to take seriously any threat that a kid makes, yet we don’t seem to agree on what to do next. In many cases, we’ve overreacted to lesser provocations. (A young relative of mine paid an extravagant penalty for a stupid prank, in the post-Columbine atmosphere of zero tolerance.) Yet who wants to be the one who lets the next killer slip through his fingers? The debate over guns in America doesn’t seem to have progressed an iota during the past decade, but as a young man in Germany capably demonstrated a few weeks ago, mass shootings are not exclusively a Second Amendment issue.

Crime reports in French journalism are referred to as faits divers, which translates roughly as “random facts.” And how do we make sense of those? Even artists fail, and some (like Gus Van Sant, in his Columbine-inspired film, Elephant) don’t even try to do anything more than to reflect the randomness. That doesn’t stop me from wanting to make sense of this, to put into perspective the things I saw and the people I met in Littleton, to close this chapter. But I can’t.

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19 April 2009

The Susan Boyle Experience

Chances are good that, by the time I’ve posted this, you’ll have heard of Susan Boyle already. Even the French television news programs have run feature stories on her; my old friend at CBS, Harry Smith, interviewed her by satellite the other morning; bloggers and YouTube mavens have run wild about her. And why not? Her performance on Britain’s Got Talent last weekend was like a scene from a movie — not unlike Slumdog Millionaire, in fact — in which the unlikeliest of underdogs achieves a sensational victory (and on a condescendingly hidebound TV competition, too).

Much has been made of the disdainful reception Ms. Boyle was accorded upon her entrance on the stage: she looked like yet another deluded soul whom the producers had admitted primarily so that she could humiliate herself before a live audience. This is of course a regular feature of these talent competitions (and it’s why I don’t watch them), and also of a great chunk of Britain’s popular culture. About 99.44 percent (roughly) of British print journalism, for example, is devoted to humiliating anyone in or near the public eye: the MP in a sex scandal (thanks, John Profumo, for making those seem significant), the drunken Royal, the naked starlet, the sagging Spice Girl. I suspect part of the reason lies in the country’s class system: resentment of the successful is even more bitter in the U.K. than elsewhere, and scorn for the unsuccessful just about merciless. After all, the unsuccessful are those who dared to transcend their station.

The night of Susan Boyle’s audition, I’ve learned, there was at least one such deluded contestant, a 60-year-old “dancer” who spoke glowingly of Gene Kelly’s artistry yet, when called upon to perform, merely waved his arms over his head — while audience and judges alike hooted at him. There was every reason, almost, to believe that Susan Boyle was another such self-deluded loser. Watching her demonstrate that, on the contrary, she’s a lovely singer who inexplicably kept her talent hidden from view for 47 years — watching her give the judges their comeuppance, rather than receiving hers from them — is wonderfully satisfying.

Bully in Chief: Talent judge Simon Cowell

No matter the rest of the context, however, the real reason Susan Boyle’s entrance was greeted skeptically (at best) was the overriding popular prejudice that only good-looking singers are worth listening to, and that anyone destined to be a star will have achieved fame already by the age of 23. Yet I hasten to point out that this isn’t a question of circumstances dictating the status quo: sex sells, and it’s the popular-entertainment industry that made the rules, without regard to the actual talent pool.

Not to be smug about it, but in Opera World, the rules are different: with remarkably few exceptions, we listen first to the voice. If the singer can also act, so much the better; if she remotely justifies the libretto’s insistence that she’s gorgeous, we celebrate. Good looks in opera are like chocolate sprinkles on top of a sweet, sweet donut. Yet the vast majority of our most cherished pin-ups don’t pass muster outside the opera house. Even the lovely Renéee Fleming, the top-rank soprano who frequently figures in glamorous fashion shoots in mainstream publications, isn’t a conventional beauty: her eyes are wide-set, her silhouette not so lean as a runway model’s, her age closer to Susan Boyle’s than to Miley Cyrus’. As a further illustration, please note that I once witnessed the intriguing phenomenon of Rodney Gilfry, one of our leading “barihunks,” working out in Manhattan: in Opera World, we drool over his blond, muscular radiance, but at the World Gym, nobody noticed him at all. Why bother? We had soap-opera actors and Broadway chorus boys to look at!

Susan Boyle looks perfectly suited to Opera World, then: by our standards, she’s even rather slender and dear. Vocally, however, she belongs rightly to the West End musical theater, an anthem-driven art form that mixes semi-operatic range and grandiose orchestration with Broadway belting and scenic overkill. Looks (and amplification) are important there, yet Sarah Brightman isn’t a conventional beauty, either, and she’s done just fine for herself. Though Ms. Boyle’s future career seems all but guaranteed, English songsmiths will need to write a few roles just for her. Ideally, these will be roles with lots of kissing — something she says she’s never done.

That’s almost sufficient incentive for me to sit through a West End musical, some day, though I’m not likely to start watching television talent competitions any time soon.

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18 April 2009

Le Patois New-Yorkais pour les Touristes

Songez-vous à un voyage à la capitale américaine? Comme bien des français, vous rêvez au shopping le long de la Park Avenue, aux vedettes de cinéma Hollywoodien sur tous les trottoirs, et aux gratte-ciels de duty-free. Et pourquoi pas?

Pourtant, il faut savoir communiquer avec les indigènes, et le patois new-yorkais ne ressemble en rien à l’anglais que vous avez appris à l’école. Nous vous proposons donc le petit guide suivant, pour perfectionner votre maîtrise et vous assurer le meilleur des voyages.

Bonnes vacances à tous!

Première Leçon: La Conversation Quotidienne

FrançaisÉquivalent New-Yorkais
Bonjour, Madame/Monsieur!Yo!
Comment allez-vous?What are you lookin’ at?
Enchanté(e) de faire la connaissance, Madame/Monsieur!Back off, mac!
Il fait beau aujourd’hui.I said back off.
Je suis d’origine française.Up yours.
Chez moi, on admire beaucoup votre charmant Président.Frickin’ Obama, man.
Qu’est-ce que je suis ravi(e) de voir votre beau pays!What a fricking dump!
S’il vous plait.Gimme that.
Merci beaucoup, Madame/Monsieur.Fuck you.
De rien/Je vous en prie.Fuck you.
Au revoir, Madame/Monsieur!Fuck you, asshole!

Deuxième Leçon: Le Sight-seeing

FrançaisÉquivalent New-Yorkais
Je voudrais bien voir le célèbre Parc Central, le Musée Métropolitain d’Art, et surtout le quartier historique, le Village de Greenwich.Don’t make me tell you again: back the fuck off.
Quand serait-ce possible de rencontrer la belle Jennifer Aniston, ou plutôt votre trésor national, Jerry Lewis? Je voudrais bien voir aussi quelques cow-boys, typiques de ce pays; y a-t’il un rodéo près d’ici?Yo, where can I get laid?
S’il vous plait, où se trouve le métro?What smells so shitty around here, anyway?
Je cherche le duty-free le plus proche, s’il vous plait.I’m walkin’ here, shit for brains!
Combien est-ce que c’est, s’il vous plait, le prix d’un hot-dog au ketchup? C’est délicieux!You call that a hot dog? My grandmother’s better hung than that!
Est-ce que le service est compris?Blow me?
Est-ce que ce taxi est libre, Madame/Monsieur?Was I here first or what, asshole?
Est-ce que vous aimez la musique? Moi, j’adore le jazz!Look, you want it in writing? Back the fuck off!
Je voudrais rentrer à l’hôtel, s’il vous plait.Get me the fuck out of this shit-hole.

Prochainement: Le Patois Brooklynais!
(Leçon Avancée)

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16 April 2009

Current Events: A Walt Disney Production

All this talk in the news about pirates leaves me feeling that I’ve seen this movie before — only the songs were snappier. As one continues through the other headlines (Republican tea parties?), one can easily get the impression that far too many newsmakers are suffering from a kind of arrested development, living out fantasies they developed in childhood.

Consider the examples of Rush Limbaugh…

…Britain’s Gordon Brown…

…France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni…

…Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi (at right)…

…Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev…

…Germany’s Angela Merkel, at a summit meeting with other European leaders…

…North Korea’s Kim Jong Il as he sees himself…

…and Kim Jong Il in reality…

…Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedinejad…

…America’s George Bush…

…Dick Cheney, conducting an extraordinary rendition…

…Bill Clinton…

…and let’s not forget Hillary, as she sees herself…

…and as others see her.

Thank goodness that one world leader today has the maturity and vision to focus on the urgent problems of our times — while a hardworking press corps provides detailed coverage, background, and analysis.

I feel safer, don’t you?

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15 April 2009


For it is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.

One year ago today, Madeline Lee Gilford passed away. When I first got the news, I couldn’t imagine how I could go on — though I knew that Madeline would insist upon my doing so, and that my failure to obey her would result in her finding some way to reprimand me. She had no patience for people who feel sorry for themselves. Life had dealt her harder knocks than it has ever dealt me, and she’d coped, uncomplaining; she’d always dusted herself off and gotten on with her business. So, therefore, should I.

But I do feel sorry for myself. She’d be furious over that, but I can’t help it. I miss her too much. I can’t express to you how much lonelier and less interesting New York is without her, what an ache it is to know that she’s not going to call me up, and that I can’t drop by to see her whenever I please.

How I’d have loved to share with her my “Other Madeline” project, the Madeline Kahn biography! She’d have torn open her address book, looking for mutual connections, and then begun to dial: “It’s Madeline! When are you going to talk to Bill Madison?” Not Do you want to? but When? And woe to him who resisted her!

Though Madeline made me an honorary Jew, she wasn’t herself observant, and she didn’t pass on to me very many traditions of the faith. (History, politics, art, psychology: yes. Chopped liver and random Yiddish phrases: absolutely. Faith: no.) That task was left to others, and it was from a school friend, Laurence Zakson, that I learned of Jahrzeit, the year-long period of mourning a loved one. We were in seventh grade at the time, and the concept didn’t mean much to me: it was an obligation to light a candle, Laurence said, and to recite the Kaddish on the anniversary of the death of a close family member.

Years later, Melia Bensussen explained it differently to me. The year of mourning wasn’t so much an obligation, she said, as a process, really something like a gift. “You get a year,” she said, a whole year to work through your sadness. For me as a WASP, the orderliness implicit in that system held great appeal, as did the permission to feel bad for a while. But at the end of the year, Melia said, the process is over and done.

I hope today to combine the practices. If I can find a Jahrzeit candle in Paris, I’ll buy it; if I can’t, I’ll improvise. I may even say the Kaddish. That will make me feel a little better, I expect, but only a little. No matter how much I tell myself I’m lucky to have known Madeline at all, no matter the comfort I draw from my enduring connections to her children and friends, this process will take more than a year.

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14 April 2009

Madeline Kahn: Progress Report 2

I’ve spent the past several weeks entirely consumed with the preparation of the book proposal for the authorized biography of Madeline Kahn, which my agent will be pitching to publishers in the weeks to come. It’s been exhilarating yet frankly exhausting work, assembling and synthesizing my research (thus far). On the one hand, I’m almost giddy with the tally of my interviews: more than three dozen, including Madeline’s relatives by her mother and stepfather; and a stellar contingent of her professional associates, including Mel Brooks, Peter Bogdanovich, Lily Tomlin, and Gene Wilder. I’ve made my own, really gratifying personal connections, too, especially with Madeline’s friends Betty Aberlin, Walter Willison, and the sublime Gail Jacobs. I’m looking forward to speaking further with all of them — and with tracking down the many other friends and colleagues who can help me to tell her story.

As I write, Madeline shines through every anecdote and reminiscence. Many of her friends describe her as “luminous,” and that quality transcends their speech. I’m getting a clearer sense of her — and a sense, too, of just how phenomenally difficult an actress’ life can be. It’s not just the question of getting or not getting a role: it’s what happens after you’ve gotten it, the many factors beyond your control that can capsize not only the movie or play but your entire career.

Madeline Kahn’s reputation springs from a handful of movies, made between 1972 and 1975. Thereafter, picture after picture turned out to be a dud, with few exceptions, and it doesn’t seem to matter much that Madeline was giving terrific performances.* The scariest thing may be that, time and again, there was no reason for Madeline to suspect that the picture would be anything but terrific.

Take the case of Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976). This was Madeline’s big chance for leading-lady status, following her classic featured performances in the Bogdanovich and Brooks pictures, and all the signs looked favorable. Won Ton Ton would boast a competent director (Michael Winner, who had recently scored a hit with Death Wish), and talented co-stars including the great Art Carney, Bruce Dern, and Madeline’s friend Teri Garr. Supporting them were dozens of old-time Hollywood stars in cameo roles, which must have sounded like fun, and reportedly the script looked terrific — on paper. The finished picture is a catastrophic mess, marked by egregious lapses in taste and clumsily handled slapstick; even the star cameos fall flat. In movies thereafter, Madeline stuck to supporting roles and cameos of her own. Safer that way.

“You go into every project with hope,” the actor David Marshall Grant told me the other day. (He co-starred with Madeline in Happy Birthday, Gemini, a movie based on Albert Innaurato’s hit Broadway comedy, for which both he and Madeline had high expectations — that went unmet.) Grant talked about the actor’s need for “optimism,” yet I’m struck by the need for courage. Merely in order to communicate with you and me, an actor works hard and takes phenomenal risks, with no guarantees, then wakes up the next day and does it all over again.

There’s a reason we applaud these men and women. They do that which we could not.

* Clue, from 1985, is a curiosity: since its release, it’s become a cult classic, and from what I can tell that’s largely due to Madeline’s performance. (“Flames! Flames on the side of my face!”) Now, if news reports are to believed, Gore Verbinski is actually planning a remake, though of course he won’t benefit from the performances of the original cast: Madeline, Tim Curry, Eileen Brennan, Christopher Lloyd, Martin Mull, and Leslie Ann Warren. If you can’t have those guys, why bother?

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13 April 2009

It’s All Auvers! (How Vexin)

The Cathedral of St-Pierre in Beauvais: Then it fell into the swamp.

Easter Sunday afternoon is an ideal moment for a leisurely drive in the country — and happily, very few French people seem to agree with me. Yesterday, Bernard fired up his new Kia, and we charged north, into the Vexin, to check out a couple of sites.

Our first stop was the town of Beauvais, home to what is surely the unluckiest cathedral on earth, Saint-Pierre. Those of a superstitious bent might be inclined to blame the local bishop, who condemned Joan of Arc to the stake in 1429, yet many of the mishaps occurred before that fatal barbecue. A previous Romanesque structure burned to the ground three times before the locals decided to try something new. The present construction began in 1225, getting no further than the choir and transept. In 1284, part of the vaulted ceiling around the choir caved in. So, they stopped work on the rest of the structure, in order to make repairs. Then they started again on the transept and a bit of the nave, which were progressing nicely until 1567, when somebody had the bright idea to erect a steeple. One of the tallest of its kind, it promptly collapsed, taking with it much of the roof and ceiling.

The locals were getting tired of ponying up for this project, and in 1600, they ceased work, with only one bay of the nave completed. A long, shingled covering was thrown over the south side, “temporarily,” against the day when construction might resume. (It never did, and the covering in still in place.) Now the interior is crammed with braces and scaffolding; it’s a bit unnerving to walk around there. Saint Peter, the cathedral’s patron, is of course the rock on whom Jesus would build His church, yet you start to wonder whether He shouldn’t have considered some other material.

Van Gogh’s home in Auvers

Next, we went to the town of Auvers. Though less well-known than Monet’s Giverny as a tourist destination, Auvers was the final home (and resting place) of Vincent Van Gogh, and his old neighborhood is densely packed with buildings and landscapes he painted, and the homes of his portrait models. It’s a perfectly charming town, yet in most regards not much different from any other in France: perhaps only Van Gogh’s special gifts could detect the artistic possibilities here. Several sites are easily recognizable from his paintings, but others are not, so the city has thoughtfully put up all-weather signs with reproductions of the pertinent works, along a little trail that takes you from Van Gogh’s home (over an inn) to his grave.

The original…

… and the artist’s rendering

In his own time, the locals were more interested in another artist, Charles-François Daubigny, who lived in town and whose monuments jostle Van Gogh’s for our attention today. I confess I’ve heard of the guy but couldn’t identify a single of his paintings. Over time, as Van Gogh’s reputation exceeded Daubigny’s (and almost every other painter’s), Auvers embraced him. In a park stands a modern statue of the artist, by Ossip Zadkine, a fascinating image. Van Gogh stands, emaciated and unsteady, a brush dangling from one hand and the other tools of his trade strapped to him like the instuments of a saint’s marytrdom. An all-too apt portrait, and a sobering reminder that what is tourism to us was painful reality to others.

NOTE: Yes, the beloved Quatrelle has gone to her reward. The new Kia is comfortable and more luxuriously equipped (air conditioning!), yet I’ll miss the old Quatrelle. She kept me young, somehow, probably because no sensible grownup person would ever go near her.

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12 April 2009

Holidays Around the World

Some lucky child has pâqued her Oyster Basket to the brim!

Most cultures celebrate springtime renewal with a religious holiday or festival. Some of these celebrations are more obscure than others.

For example, in many countries it’s said that, each year at this time, the Oyster Bunny rises out of the sea, distributing gifts to all the unshellfish little boys and girls.

A French woman in a typical Oyster Bonnet

Of course, other cultures observe dietary restrictions that don’t permit the eating of shellfish. This is the reason behind an even earlier tradition, in which the men and women of the community line up, facing each other, and then begin to throw fresh fish in the air. This holiday is known as Bass Over.

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11 April 2009

What Quiz Are You?

Take this quick and easy quiz to find out!

1) The highest level of education you have completed is

a. High school
b. College
c. Graduate school
d. Vocational/technical or obedience school
e. Facebook

2) Your favorite color is
a. Red
b. Blue
c. Yellow
d. Mauve
e. Facebook

3) Friends and co-workers are apt to describe you as
a. Highly motivated and hardworking
b. The life of the party
c. Intuitive and caring
d. Armed and dangerous
e. Obsessed with pop culture and trivia

4) In your spare time, you enjoy
a. Watching television
b. Gardening
c. Team sports
d. Sudoku and other forms of masturbation
e. Endless hours on the Internet.

5) When anything of even minimal significance occurs in your life, you immediately
a. Twitter
b. Twitter, but using Twitter, and not just making twittering noises
c. Otherwise notify hundreds of “friends,” whether they care or not
d. Add an inscription to your mausoleum in Illinois
e. Take another quiz


If you answered mostly “a,” you are What Stooge Are You?

Your time is valuable to you, so you take only quizzes with very few potential results. In extreme cases, you may even be the quiz Are You Joe Besser?, a one-question quiz with only two possible answers.

If you answered mostly “b,” you are What Element on the Periodic Table Are You?
Highly analytic, you reduce any problem or situation to its essence. Also, you are probably interested in science, since most of the rest of us don’t even know the difference between one element and another.

If you answered mostly “c,” you are Patsy Cline.
No, really, you are. Though many people believe you are dead, you continue to sing a number of toe-tapping, heart-tugging pop–country hits in a mellow, plangent contralto. I realize that this result is not, strictly speaking, a quiz, but please bear in mind that, in all likelihood, you are “Crazy.”

If you answered mostly “d,” you are What Character from 17th-Century French Literature Are You?
While waiting to find out whether you got tenure, you drink heavily, engage in vicious arguments with your spouse, and sleep with graduate students of all sexes. In your heart, you are secretly afraid of Virginia Woolf. You wear mostly black, and you smoke clove cigarettes.

If you answered mostly “e,” you are What New Jersey Town With Population Under 5,000 Are You?
And I cannot begin to tell you how sorry I am.

If you took this quiz in the first place, you are What Quiz Are You?
That’s right, you are this very quiz! Burdened with entirely too much spare time and abundant but unfocused curiosity about yourself, you’ll take any quiz you see! Pat yourself on the back! And then compare your answers with those of your friends!

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09 April 2009

Bush Endorses Obama Weapons Proposal

DALLAS, TX -- Former U.S. President George W. Bush today made the surprise announcement that he fully endorses President Barack Obama’s proposal to eliminate nuclear weapons, “so long as America's precious nucular weapon stockpiles are maintained and kept at the ready to protect the American people from evil.”

Admitting that he’d only heard about President Obama’s proposal via television reports, the former President continued, “What are ‘new, clear arms,’ anyhow? Some kind of Plexiglas stick that you bop people with, or something? I don't see what good that would do anybody. Let's illuminate ’em – just get rid of ’em.”

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