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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Spider-Man on Broadway

Partner and I try to follow what's new on Broadway. We watched the “60 Minutes” piece on Sunday night about the new Spider-Man musical with interest; it looks lavish and fun, and Julie Taymor – well, if you've seen The Lion King, you know what she can pull off. Partner still talks about the time we saw Lion King here in Providence: during the big opening number, with the animals slowly entering the theater through the aisles around us, rhinos and elephants and giraffes, after a while he wasn't watching the show anymore; he was watching the kids around us, who were completely open-mouthed and mesmerized by the spectacle.


But Sunday night's preview performance of Spider-Man was not good, according to the Times. There were lots of problems with the aerial stuff (which is what they're hanging most of their publicity on). At one point on Sunday night, Spider-Man had a sudden mid-air breakdown and had to be pulled down from his harness by stagehands.


And after hearing some of the score on TV on Sunday night, I will say that the music is terrific – but the lyrics are cheesy. “I sleep with my clothes on”?


But, man, I'm wary of criticizing anything without due review. I remember E. B. White's story about Walter Kerr refusing to see “Oklahoma!,” because he thought it was stupid, and he was afraid he'd like it if he saw it in person. How's that for perverse?


I used to work with somebody who was a Theatah Snob.   He was a sometime actor, and he had more than the usual number of likes, dislikes, and prejudices . I remember describing “Avenue Q” to him (which Partner and I had just seen on B'way), and he wrinkled his nose in disgust. “Puppets?” he said with disdain. “That sounds stupid.”


Oh, mama, that sent me livid. “You want stupid?” I said. “How about a musical about a killer barber and his girlfriend the baker? How about a singing Austrian governess? How about the members of the Continental Congress – all men, by the way – dancing a minuet? How about Che Guevara dancing with Eva Peron? Musicals are all about stupid.”


I remember my own words now. I remember the other night, when I saw the Spider-Man stuff on TV, the comic-book sets and the villains and the swoopy choreography and the loopy lyrics, and I thought: This looks stupid.


So I hope they keep up the tradition. I hope they break through the barrier, and work out the kinks in the aerial stuff.


I hope it turns out to be a triumph.




Monday, November 29, 2010

Cracking the Bullwinkle code

Pop quiz!


Explain the following jokes:


  1. Newspaper headline in a Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoon: ROCKET HITS MOON. WALLY OUT FOR SEASON.

  2. Bullwinkle, having been rescued from a pit full of poisonous snakes, leans back over the pit before he leaves and says, “Goodbye, Olivia!”

  3. Indians in a Peabody & Sherman cartoon attack the settlers by throwing Charlie Barnet records at them.

  4. Peabody says: “I have a theory, Sherman.” Sherman says: “Chateau theory, Mister Peabody?”

  5. Bullwinkle finds a ruby-encrusted model boat with the words OMAR KHAYYAM written on it. It is, of course, the Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayyam.

  6. Rocky and Bullwinkle plan an escape through Pennsylvania: “We'll travel by night and rest in Scranton. There's a farmer who lives near Gettsyburg who'll put us up for a few days.”


These are, of course, all from Jay Ward cartoons. I watched these cartoons when I was very young. I laughed like hell at all these jokes. And I had no idea what they meant.


Kids learn culture by watching and imitating; they're eager to figure out this mysterious complicated thing called Adult Life, and there's no instruction manual, so they have to figure out how to act, what to say, and what things mean. So they pay attention, and they struggle very hard to figure things out. Nothing is too insignificant for analysis.


Here's what I learned: adults speak in code. Sometimes you could crack the code, and sometimes you couldn't. Sometimes you had to act as if you understood, even if you didn't. And there was always something more to learn.


I don't know about you, but I'm still figuring out the code.




  1. Wally Moon was a baseball player in the 1950s and 1960s.

  2. Olivia de Havilland was the lead actress in a movie called “The Snake Pit.”

  3. Charlie Barnet was a bandleader one of whose biggest hits was “Cherokee.”

  4. Chateau-Thierry is a town north of Paris where a famous World War I battle was fought.

  5. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a famous Persian poem translated into English by Edward FitzGerald.

  6. The “farmer outside Gettysburg” was President Dwight Eisenhower, who moved there after his presidency ended in 1961.


Don't you feel better now?



Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sunday blog: Russian teacakes

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, so I thought it was time for something Christmassy.

This is (approximately) my mother's recipe for Russian teacakes. Here in Rhode Island people call them “butterballs,” or “Mexican wedding cookies,” or “Italian wedding cookies.” Call them whatever you like; they're easy and very nice.

I've compared about four or five recipes, and the variations are slight:

  • You can chill the dough if you like.
  • You can use other kinds of nuts (although I like walnuts best).
  • I always use more nuts than the recipe calls for. Just make sure they're finely ground.
  • My mother used margarine. I use butter. Don't even think of following her example.
  • The cookies are very delicate when they first come out of the oven, so be careful. They explode like grenades if you drop them.
  • You don't want them brown on top when they come out of the oven. Try peeking to see if they're brown underneath; if so, they're done.
  • I use parchment paper on my cookie sheets these days, and it has transformed my life in a small pleasant way.
  • Be careful with baking time. My oven's fast, so eight minutes is sometimes too much, especially for the second batch.


Russian Teacakes

1 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups flour
1 cup finely chopped walnuts
1/4 teaspoon salt
Additional powdered sugar, for coating

  • Heat oven to 400 degrees.
  • Mix butter, 1/2 cup powdered sugar, and vanilla.  Stir in flour, nuts, and salt, and mix until dough holds together.  Shape into 1-inch balls.  Place about 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheet.  Bake until set but not brown (8 - 10 minutes).
  • Roll in additional powdered sugar when fresh out of the oven.  Cool for about 30 minutes.  Roll again in powdered sugar.

Makes about four dozen.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Magical thinking

Partner is a very pragmatic person, but I know he believes in luck. If his team (the Patriots / the Red Sox / the Bruins) is too far ahead or too far behind, he doesn't like it. He doesn't want to watch, but he's afraid to look away; I think he's afraid that his awareness is affecting the game in some quantum way, and he doesn't want to stir the pot too much. He gets very jittery, I can tell you.

I catch myself talking to the world a lot, as if I could influence it. It's not exactly praying, and it's definitely not bargaining – what can I offer the rain gods, or the gods of luck, if they do what I want them to do? And how would I be able to tell, in any case? But evidently I find the conversation comforting. I do it a lot.

So Partner and I are both magical thinkers.

I have read Jared Diamond and Richard Dawkins on the idea of “cargo.” This is the idea, common in some South Pacific locations, that Westerners have lots of mysterious stuff, including airplanes, radios, guns, and medical equipment. They're never seen to make this stuff. If an airplane breaks, they don't fix it; they send for a new one, and magically a new one appears.

Silly people, who think airplanes and radios are magical!

When I lived in Morocco, I heard lots of stories about the former king, Mohammed V. He had baraka, magical power, partly because he was king, partly because he was considered a saint.

My favorite story was this:

The French, who used to control most of Morocco, did not like Mohammed V, as they were afraid he might lead his country to independence someday. They exiled him first to Corsica, then to Madagascar. On the way to Madagascar, the airplane carrying Mohammed V had engine trouble. One of the crew came back to the passenger compartment to let the king know there was a problem. Mohammed V was lying down; he had a heart condition. When he heard the news, he rose from his couch, went to the cockpit, took off his prayer cap, put it on the plane's control panel, and said: “Fly.”

And the plane flew.

Mohammed V's son, Hassan II, was no saint. He was by all accounts a venal man, shrewd but not brilliant, willful, certainly not saintly. But he was the King, and he inherited his father's baraka.

He survived two brutal assassination attempts. One was at his birthday party in Skhirat, south of the capital, in 1971; a group of Moroccan military cadets came into the palace and opened fire. As many as a hundred people died, by some accounts.

But the king survived.

A year later, returning from France in the royal plane, pretty much the entire Moroccan air force tried to shoot him down.

And again, the king survived.

Funny, funny. People believe in magic.

I don't believe in magic. Do you?

Oh, wait a minute. Yes, I do.

Friday, November 26, 2010

This crazy weather we've been having

It's late November. And there are rhododendrons and magnolias, and lilies, and roses, blooming in our neighborhood. In New England.

I really didn't notice until about a week ago, when I noticed a few rhododendron blossoms here and there. Then I noticed the magnolia trees on the Brown campus were budding out, just the way they usually do in March and April, with those huge obscene buds. And what do you know? They popped.

It's colder and rainy today, and it will probably freeze tonight. So the trees have wasted a lot of energy for nothing.

This isn't really new. Two years or so ago, I was in downtown Providence around this time of year, and the cherry trees by Kennedy Plaza were in bloom.

In New England!

I first arrived in Rhode Island in 1978, six months after the big blizzard of that year. The winter of 1978/9 was snowy and bitterly cold; I got frostbite on my knuckles from carrying a suitcase down the street for twenty minutes without gloves on. Two years later, there was another bitterly cold winter, with wind chills down around twenty below.

Those days are past, however. We still get cold winters, but the timings are all off. The plants are confused. They're blooming in the wrong seasons, at the wrong times. Cold weather is followed by unexpected warm spells, and the plants go into panic mode, I think.

I'm no botanist, and I'm obviously no climate scientist. But things are changing, becoming more volatile. More than volatile: unpredictable.

And there's nothing to be done about it. Whether (as seems obvious to me) it's human interference, or whether it's simply part of some larger ice-age / pluvial-age / sunspot cycle, it's already begun, and nothing can stop it.

This is the grim thing about writing a blog called “FutureWorld.” I don't think the future is going to be a very nice place for the people who come after us. I don't think they'll have much to thank us for. I suspect they'll think of us pretty nastily; they'll know we did exactly what we felt like doing, and we left the place in a mess.

I'm so sorry, and I wish I could tell them so. I'm doing the stupid little bits and pieces than I can, to keep my footprint small and light. But I know that my contribution probably won't make a hell of a lot of difference.

I hope they forgive us.

In your ending when the words were forgotten,
in your ending when the fires burned out,
in your ending when the walls fell down,
we were among you:
the children,
your children,
dying your dying to come closer,
to come into our world, to be born.
We were the sands of your sea-coasts,
the stones of your hearths. You did not know us.
We were the words you had no language for.
O our fathers and mothers!
We were always your children.
From the beginning, from the beginning,
we are your children.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving blog: Thank you

In the spirit of Thanksgiving: the last few stanzas of Kenneth Koch's wonderful early poem “Thank You.”


. . . Thank you for the chance to run a small hotel
In an elephant stopover in Zambezi,
But I do not know how to take care of guests, certainly they would all leave soon,
After seeing blue lights out the windows and rust on their iron beds –
I'd rather run a bird-house in Jamaica:
Those people come in, the birds, they do not care how things are kept up . . .
It's true that Zambezi proprietorship would be exciting,
with people getting off elephants and coming into my hotel,
But as tempting as it is I cannot agree.
And thank you for this offer of the post of referee
For the Danish wrestling championship – I simply do not feel qualified . . .

But the fresh spring air has been swabbing my mental decks
Until, although prepared for fight, still I sleep on land.
Thank you for the ostriches. I have not yet had time to pluck them,
But I am sure they will be delicious, adorning my plate at sunset,
My tremendous plate, and the plate
Of the offers to all my days. But I cannot fasten my exhilaration to the sun.

And thank you for the evening of the night on which
I fell off my horse in the shadows. That was really useful.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


I collect, among other things, cookbooks. They fall into several categories:

Useful. Only a few in this category. The Joy of Cooking. Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. The King Arthur Flour Cookbook (I have the 200th-anniversary edition, for which there is no replacement). When in doubt, I turn to these three. My friend Stu, years ago, referred slightingly to “Joy” as “101 Ways to Cook String Beans.” Well, ha ha. But if you want the basics, they're all there. And some damned good recipes, too.

Magisterial. Again, only a few. Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The Larousse Gastronomique. My grandma's copy of the Encyclopedia of Cookery. I look through them sometimes for entertainment and inspiration, but I never ever ever ever use the recipes. I seldom need to know how to stuff a figpecker, or how to gut a wild boar.

Eccentric but useful. The Molly Goldberg Jewish Cookbook is a goldmine of mid-century “ethnic” cuisine. My friend Paula turned me on to Betty Crocker's Dinner For Two, which has some excellent recipes in it, and which has a very satisfying 1960s look and feel. I bought The Best of Shaker Cooking in 2009 up in Hancock, Massachusetts, and it's full of interesting ideas. Peg Bracken's I Hate To Cook Book is no joke: it's loaded with excellent (and easy, and quick) recipes. And I have a little local cookbook from the late 1940s, published by a Lutheran church in Nebraska, with red-white-and-blue binding, and it's got some of the best cookie recipes I've ever seen, along with handwritten comments (“very good,” “try with almonds,” etc.) in the wavering old-lady handwriting of its first owner.

Church-group collections. Also PTA groups, Chamber of Commerce, 4-H Club, etc. The same recipes over and over again. Here's the test: if it has a recipe for “Wacky Cake” in it, discard it immediately. (Or, if you're like me, file it on the “cute but useless” shelf.)

Cookbooks to read for pleasure. Anything by Elizabeth David. Summer Cooking. A Book of Mediterranean Food. Elegant, precise, and beautiful. She measures things in wineglasses and teacups. If she says something is “very delicious,” I believe her.

And Alice Toklas! Try (if you dare) her recipe for Oeufs Francis Picabia:

Break eight eggs into a bowl and mix them well with a fork, add salt but no pepper. Pour them into a saucepan – yes, a saucepan, no, not a frying pan. Put the saucepan over a very, very low flame, keep turning them with a fork while very slowly adding in very small quantities ½ lb. butter – not a speck less, rather more if you can bring yourself to it. It should take ½ hour to prepare this dish. The eggs of course are not scrambled but with the butter, no substitute admitted, produce a suave consistency that perhaps only gourmets will appreciate.

I've never made it. I can only imagine the pan of glop it would produce if I did.

But I never tire of reading about it.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Point of etiquette

So I get a big fat envelope in the mail on Friday from the Pacific Northwest, where I have friends and family. What could it be? Then I notice the cutesy little bride-and-groom stamp on the back of the envelope. Ah ha! A wedding invitation! But from whom?

Ah ha.

My Christian conservative nephew.

The invitation was addressed only to me, not to me and Partner, by the way. And I have been informed that, back in 2004, this kid registered to vote solely because he wanted to vote to forbid gay marriage in Oregon.

I get it. He probably doesn't want me at the wedding, but he figures I won't fly cross-country for his nuptials in any case. But they'll maybe get a gift out of me.

Okay. First question. What should I get them? There was a cute little note included with the invitation, cheerfully informing me that they're registered at Target.

Terrific! I can just pick up a People magazine and a Three Musketeers bar and some batteries at the local Target checkout counter and send them along to the happy couple, now that I know they're registered there.

But that would be too easy!

How about a gift in the names of the bride and groom to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation? Or ACT UP?

How about a year's subscription to “Out”? Or “Lusty Bears Monthly”?

Second question. I wasn't planning to go to the wedding, but maybe we should go after all. What do you think? Would drag be too much? Or how about if we show up dressed as Jesus and Mary Magdalene?

And third question.

Why are people so damned dumb?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Harry Potter and the box-office juggernaut

Partner and I (and most of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere) saw the new Harry Potter movie yesterday. Now, I'm one of those people who read the ending of a book first, because I hate suspense. But I could not make head or tail of the ending of this book! (No spoilers here – but is there anyone who doesn't know how this story ends?) But still. I mean, if Harry's linked to Voldemort, that means he – but, wait a minute, Voldemort drank some of Harry's blood, so he – and there's the whole Horcrux thing, so they both – but they have the same wand, so they -

Anyway. This movie only gets us halfway through the book. We don't have to worry about the face-off between Harry and Voldemort until next July. In three-D. It will be spectacular.

Partner and I liked this movie. It's dark without being obscure. It breezes right along (mostly). It's a whole Who's Who of British cinema, too. (Colin Farrell, on Graham Norton this week, made a funny/sad observation that he hadn't been asked to be in it, and that he was probably the only actor in the British Isles who wasn't asked. It's a shame. He would have been adorable.) There are a few jump-out-of-your seat scenes, which are pleasantly startling without being heart-stopping. The magic is beautifully depicted; it's become so natural over the course of the past six movies, they don't need to feature it anymore. When a newspaper photo turns and looks at you, or someone lights a lamp with a wand, it's not even surprising, even for us Muggles. It just seems normal. (Also, now that Daniel Radcliffe is all grown up, he takes his clothes off a lot. It makes for a pleasant diversion.)

But there's a long dry spell in the middle of the movie: Ron and Harry and Hermione wander in the woods and bicker with one another. Time passes. The scenery is very stark and lovely. Aren't we on the clock here? Isn't Voldemort doing bad stuff off in the distance? Why are you guys just kicking around through the dead leaves and pouting at each other? It's exactly the same dry patch that the novel had, and I remember being very irritated with it. A couple of the novels gave me the sense that Rowling was just filling pages with words, to bulk up the novel – kids like their novels bulky! - and this was one of them.

The movie has a sad / ominous ending. Voldemort (what's with that nose? Do evil wizards get their noses revoked?) is winning. Helena Bonham Carter is a cackling maniac. And somebody nice dies.

But don't worry, kids. Stay tuned. All is not lost. There's more to come.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sunday blog: The revolutionary costume for today

For today: Christine Ebersole as Little Edie Beale in “Grey Gardens.” I never got to see it on stage, and am awaiting the revival. This number kills me every time I watch it.

“There's more to living than Kelly green . . .”

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Full documentation

Roz Chast has a piece in this week's New Yorker about a man who kept track of everything he ever ate for dinner, on three-by-five index cards. No commentary, just the facts:

On Saturday, January 5th, he cooked Poached Bay Scallops in Marinara Sauce; Zucchini, Onion, Mushrooms, and Celery in White Wine Sauce; Rotelle Pasta. On Saturday, April 20th, he made Cooked Chicken in Tomato and Vegetable Sauce; Pasta. On Thursday, May 2nd, he didn’t make dinner.

Why did he do this?

The impulse to record everything, everything, everything, runs in my family too. My uncle Earl recounted his whole life, in minute detail, to my aunt Louise, who transcribed it carefully as part of our family history:

. . . The Yakima business agent called Pasco and they needed some carpenters on the Montgomery store being built on Nob Hill. I got a work permit and went to work the first work was building pallets with a man from Sunnyside by the name of Ben Franklin. We built several hundred of them and were able to pool rides with him and two others. Then another man came from Ellensburg. They partnered me with him. I have forgotten his name but he had experience cutting glass . . .

Believe me when I tell you that this is exactly the way Earl spoke. Read it aloud with a folksy Will Rogers twang and you'll get the idea. I can just imagine him still chuckling over the man named Ben Franklin. Ben Franklin!

As for me, I'm an inveterate diarist. I even catalogue my dreams. Here's the night of May 8, 2010:

President Obama was shipwrecked in the Caribbean with some other people, but we weren't sure which island; there was an island with a town called Obama Town, but we thought that was too obvious; I think he was on Dominica; we saw people there.  Then an apartment in (I think) Tunis; a bunch of expatriate / sophisticated people I was trying to impress; the hosts' dog, a big dark bullmastiff, kept climbing up in my lap and chewing on the sleeve of my suede jacket; it was actually very cute.

Why do I bother?

Wittgenstein said: “The world is the totality of facts, not of things.” People die, things are lost and discarded and destroyed. But facts remain.

Facts are never not true.

After I'm gone, my body will go to dust, and my possessions will be spread to the four corners of the universe. But it will still be true that I was here once. And that I did this and that, and that I made an egg-and-vegetable pie for dinner last night, and that I had a dream about Barack Obama on May 8 of this year.

Roz Chast said this of the man who wrote down all of his dinners:

Maybe it was just his way of keeping track of the passage of time, or of organizing his experience, just as other people sort their clothes by color, or alphabetize their books, or write down their dreams. For whatever reason, he felt compelled to do it. I respect that.

I respect it too. More that that: I understand it.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The biggest little state in the Union


Rhode Island is a funny place.


Everyone actually does know everyone. I remember buying a drink during intermission at a show at the old Ocean State Theatre (formerly Loew's State Theatre, now the Providence Performing Arts Center), and looking at the guy morosely nursing a drink across from me, and realizing that he was the Lieutenant Governor.


And you know the dancing traffic cop? Of course you do. Well, that cop is my barber's brother.


People seldom leave their own neighborhoods. People don't like to cross bridges, or county lines, or state lines, if they don't have to. Usually they don't have to.


People talk funny. It's not quite a Boston accent and not quite a New York accent. It's got its own vocabulary, but a lot of the words are dying now; people don't order “cabinets” anymore, they order milkshakes. But they still say “downcity” instead of “downtown.”


We choose odd emblems and symbols. Our state bird is a chicken. Our state drink is coffee milk. Our state shell is the quahog. The Tennis Hall of Fame is here, near where the the Croquet Hall of Fame used to be. Streets have the names of virtues and intangibles and qualities: Friendship, Benefit, Beneficent. Our state motto, endearingly, is “Hope.”


Everyone remembers where everything used to be. “Turn where the Outlet department store used to be, and take a left where the Speidel factory used to be.” I can point out the location of the Rhode Island Auditorium, even though it was torn down before I moved here. And anytime you want to go up to Federal Hill, I can show you where that vending-machine place used to be. You know the one. The Mob one.


We were “founded” by a renegade Baptist preacher named Roger Williams, with some help from an Antinomian preacher named Anne Hutchinson. (It was news to the Narragansetts that we needed to be “founded” at all.) Before either arrived, back in the 1630s, a man named William Blackstone built a cabin in what's now Cumberland, and lived among the Native Americans, and grew apples, and once he rode up to Boston on the back of a bull. He preached under an oak tree that stood in Cumberland until the legendary Hurricane of 1938 toppled it.


Our neighborhood includes two houses where George Washington spent the night. One is vacant, echoing, badly renovated; the other is small, cozy, like your grandmother's house. When you go up the narrow staircase, it occurs to you that you're climbing the same stairs that Washington climbed on his way to bed, and probably the house didn't look so much different then than now. It gives you a pleasant odd solemn feeling.


The ocean is never far away. Narragansett Bay is murky and usually choppy. The ocean off Newport and Matunuck and Westerly is wide and flinty and bright. You can pretend that you see Block Island and Long Island to the south. Sometimes maybe you can.


Winters are gray and cold. Summers are humid and stifling. Spring is brief and vivid and very beautiful. Autumn is long and bright and very beautiful.


A few months after coming here, back in 1978, I sat near a duckpond in Roger Williams Park and wondered if I'd made the right decision in coming here.


Thirty-two years later, I'm still here.



Thursday, November 18, 2010

Island magic

Sam Sifton, the new food critic for the New York Times, wrote up a nice piece on Wednesday about a new joint in Manhattan called the Hurricane Club.  It’s a Polynesian restaurant. 


Be still, my heart. 


I checked my own reaction with that of a person less than half my age.  She didn’t know what a “Polynesian restaurant” was, but she brightened up when I mentioned Mai Tais and Scorpion Bowls. 


Polynesian restaurants rate their own entry in the Encyclopedia of Bad Taste.  Their patron saint is Trader Vic, their hallmarks the Mai Tai and the Pu Pu Platter.  They specialize in sweet-and-savory Chinese-style food, elaborate sweet-and-sticky drinks (the Fog Cutter! the Luau Sizzler!), and over-the-top décor featuring volcanoes and palm trees. 


It goes without saying that this is not Chinese food, not Japanese food, not Polynesian food.  What is it?  It is a Good Time. 


The Polynesian trend followed the usual curve.  First the restaurants were fun and different; then they were commonplace; then every Chinese restaurant in America began offering Mai Tais and teriyaki skewers; then the Polynesian joints became run-down and tacky. 


And now we have the backlash to the backlash. 


Sifton mentions one local and well-preserved specimen: the Kowloon in Saugus, Massachusetts.  The menu has gone Thai/fusion, but the décor is still Bali Ha’i, and you still walk in beneath the feet of a giant Tiki god.  Downtown Providence had Luke’s Luau Hut (with the Volcano Room in the basement) into the 1990s.  Partner and I always hit the Tiki Port in Barnstable when we’re on Cape Cod.  And you can still find the Mon Kou in South Attleboro, though its palm trees are dusty and sad. 


I’m glad to see the trend coming back.  Everything old is new again.  Save me a crab rangoon and a crispy shrimp, kids. 


And maybe order me a Luau Sizzler.




Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The problem with Problem Movies

As I mentioned before, Partner and I saw “Due Date” with Robert Downey and Zach Galifianakis on Sunday. We'd seen the previews and were anticipating a vacuous little romp, and we both like a vacuous little romp once in a while.


About fifteen minutes into the movie, however, I began to sweat. Oh no, I thought. A Problem Movie.


This is my own pet category, which I define like this: “a movie, usually a comedy, that throws the protagonist(s) into one bad situation after another, each worse than the last, until you want to climb the walls.”


There are lots of these movies. “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.” “Lost in America.” “The Out-Of-Towners.” “The In-Laws.” “Meet the Parents” (which spawned a whole Problem Movie franchise). In each one of these movies, every time you think the plot is beginning to ease up, you get hit in the face with another bag of doorknobs.


They keep making these movies, so I can only assume that people enjoy this kind of thing. For me, they're like fingernails on a blackboard.


There are less venomous variations on the formula. Take “The Hangover.” The movie begins with four dimwits, and ends with four slightly happier and more self-assured dimwits. And the problems they encounter along the way are over-the-top and funny rather than gratingly awful.


Why are Problem Movies popular? Do they make people feel better about their own lives? “Geez, look at these simps. I'm stupid and unlucky, but I'm not that stupid and unlucky.” Or are we supposed to identify with the protagonists, and nod sadly and knowingly?


Either way, I'm not on board. If a movie gives me the sense that only bad stuff happens – that things just gradually keep eroding – then no thank you, please refund my ticket.


I think this is because of my own psychological makeup. I'm a nervous person with a moderately negative outlook on life; I expect things to get worse and worse. I don't need to be reminded.


This is probably genetic. I remember my Grandma Boitano in the hospital, in 1975, the last time I saw her alive. She was lying in bed before heart surgery. I was 18 or so. “Don't worry, Grandma,” I said, not knowing what else to say. “Everything will be okay.”


She looked at me with this wondrously woeful look and said, “Oh, honey, I don't think so.”


And she was right.


And I should go see a movie that reinforces this point?


Oh, honey, I don't think so.





Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"Pippin" at Brown

Partner and I saw “Pippin” at Brown's Stuart Theater on Saturday night. I knew nothing of it except what I'd read in the 1970s; I knew Ben Vereen had his first big career break in it, and I knew poor Irene Ryan (who played Pippin's grandmother) died early in the production. And that was all.


College productions are fun. They do interesting plays, and they take chances. Over the past few years at Brown, we've seen the Oresteia, and “Lulu,” and “Peer Gynt,” and many others. They use strange lighting, and silhouettes, and people hanging by ropes from the ceiling during the big love scene, and they stage battle scenes in their underwear.


We weren't disappointed by “Pippin.” The voices (mostly) were very good. The actor playing the Leading Player, the Ben Vereen part - a student named Ned Riseley - was superb, and I hope he goes on to great things. The dancing and the choreography were excellent (it looked like Fosse, and I was bemused later to read that Fosse had choreographed the original). The costumes were amazing (they collaborated with Providence's Big Nazo puppet people, and we saw robots and bizarre helmets and big crazy beasties onstage).


But mostly, for me, it was the music.


I didn't know the score at all, so I just sort of let it wash over me. Some of the songs are actually pretty good, though none of them has made it into the popular repertoire. I heard echoes of Kander and Ebb; I heard lots of jazzy pseudo-pop riffs that reminded me of Bernstein; I heard the kind of kitchen-sink rock 'n roll that's in “Hair”; I even found myself thinking about Burt Bacharach at times.


But something was missing.


And then, about halfway through the first act, I thought: this is 1972! Sondheim is only just breaking through, with “Company” and “Follies.” Andrew Lloyd Webber was still noodling around with the score of “Joseph.” A little show called “A Chorus Line” was only a twinkle in Marvin Hamlisch's eye.


And let's not forget the forty years of popular music that have flowed over us since then.


It was like reading a book written in sixteenth-century English. I understood it, I enjoyed it, but the idiom was quaint. I thought: Wow, we used to talk like that!


Yes, and we thought we were pretty cool too.


After we got home, I watched a YouTube video of Ben Vereen doing the opening number in the 1972 production, and it was wonderful; he earned his Tony. And then I watched a YouTube video of Martha Raye in the 1981 production (with William Katt!), and it was charming.


The kids at Brown are keeping up the tradition. They gave an energetic and very entertaining rendition of the show, and they've put their own mark on it.


And that is why Partner and I love The Theatah.


Those of you in southern New England: it's at Brown next weekend too. Come see it. You'll have a spiffy time.



Monday, November 15, 2010

Coming attractions

Partner and I went to see “Due Date” at the Showcase on Sunday. We got there in plenty of time for the previews.

Here, as a public service, is what you have to look forward to over the next few months:

Love & Other Drugs. Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway. They're hot! He's a wise-guy pharmaceutical salesman and a ladies' man, with beautiful eyes and the devil's smile. She's beautiful and has huge dark eyes, and she only wants him for sex. She hits him with a suitcase! He sells Viagra! They fall into bed, no strings attached. Stuff happens. Now they're in love! Oh my god, what now? Coming November 24.

Faster. Dwayne Johnson used to be the Rock, but I guess he's more serious now. He's killing everybody, including girls! Apparently it's revenge for something, but I'm not quite sure what. Revenge is great! Justice is slow. Dwayne Johnson is faster! Coming November 24.

(Notice how they alternate romantic-comedy previews with action-movie previews? I guess the action-movie preview is supposed to clear your palate. Or something.)

The Next Three Days. Russell Crowe looks hunky and vulnerable in a white t-shirt, just like in “A Beautiful Mind.” He and his radiant blond wife, Elizabeth Banks, are having breakfast and playing with their little boy. Then the police break in! She's arrested! She's in prison! What are we going to do? I suppose we could appeal the conviction, but what did we just learn a minute ago from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson? Justice is slow. Let's do it faster! It's a jailbreak! They're running through the streets of Pittsburgh! Wait a minute, what? Coming November 19.

Hall Pass. Opens with a shot of the Providence skyline. Why? Doesn't matter. Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis are bored with married life. Sudeikis looks like Ward Cleaver as a young man, and Wilson looks like a big pile of dirty laundry. Their wives meet Joy Behar, who tells them to let their husbands go wild for a week. Let them do anything they want, Joy says wisely. You'll see: they'll be miserable in no time at all! And it's working! The guys' idea of a good time is to go to Applebee's and overeat. They've forgotten how to pick up girls! Will they ever be able to face their wives (and Joy Behar!) again? Coming February 25.

(“How many more of these are there going to be?” Partner hissed. I shushed him. I hate missing previews. They're full of vital cultural information.)

No Strings Attached. Ashton Kutcher, who is not young anymore, takes off his shirt a lot. He's looking pretty doughy, by the way. He wakes up after a blackout in a strange apartment, and all of the people there pretend they had sex with him, including the gay guy! Ashton just wants to have sex with Natalie Portman, no strings attached (see “Love & Other Drugs,” above). Then he falls in love with her! I didn't see that coming, did you? Coming January 21.

Sucker Punch. It's in enhanced color, so you know something's up. A girl goes to a Vermont insane asylum. (Vermont?) There's only one way out: through controlled visualizations! It turns into a video game. Three CGI babes are running around shooting up everything! There's a dragon! There's a zeppelin! (I'm not making this up.) Why are they showing this preview before “Due Date”? Coming March 25.

People are always talking about the death of Hollywood. I'm not worried. Hollywood just keeps reinventing itself, over, and over, and over again.

Would you like Raisinets, or Milk Duds?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sunday blog: Marilyn Monroe's poultry stuffing

Here, just in time for Thanksgiving, is Marilyn Monroe's stuffing recipe.

Makes enough to stuff one turkey, or two to three geese, or eight chickens.

Please note: no garlic.

Marilyn’s Stuffing


(Adapted from “Fragments” by Marilyn Monroe, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux)


Time: 2 hours


  • No garlic

  • A 10-ounce loaf sourdough bread

  • 1/2 pound chicken or turkey livers or hearts

  • 1/2 pound ground round or other beef

  • 1 tablespoon cooking oil

  • 4 stalks celery, chopped

  • 1 large onion, chopped

  • 2 cups chopped curly parsley

  • 2 eggs, hard boiled, chopped

  • 1 1/2 cups raisins

  • 1 cup grated Parmesan

  • 1 1/4 cups chopped walnuts, pine nuts or roasted chestnuts, or a combination

  • 2 teaspoons dried crushed rosemary

  • 2 teaspoons dried crushed oregano

  • 2 teaspoons dried crushed thyme

  • 3 bay leaves

  • 1 tablespoon salt-free, garlic-free poultry seasoning (or 1 teaspoon dried sage, 1 teaspoon marjoram, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger and 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg)

  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more to taste

  • 1 tablespoon pepper


1. Split the bread loaf in half and soak it in a large bowl of cold water for 15 minutes. Wring out excess water over a colander and shred into pieces.


2. Boil the livers or hearts for 8 minutes in salted water, then chop until no piece is larger than a coffee bean.


3. In a skillet over medium-high heat, brown the ground beef in the oil, stirring occasionally and breaking up the meat, so no piece is larger than a pistachio.


4. In your largest mixing bowl, combine the sourdough, livers, ground beef, celery, onion, parsley, eggs, raisins, Parmesan and nuts, tossing gently with your hands to combine. Whisk the rosemary, oregano, thyme, bay leaves, poultry seasoning, salt and pepper together in a bowl, scatter over the stuffing and toss again with your hands. Taste and adjust for salt. Refrigerate, covered, until ready to use as a stuffing or to bake separately as dressing.


Yield: 20 cups, enough for one large turkey, 2 to 3 geese or 8 chickens.



Saturday, November 13, 2010

Reading list

I have a confession. I don't read novels much anymore.

If my thirty-year-old self could hear me saying that, he'd kill himself. Novels, up until recently, were a vital part of my reading diet. I actually learned things from them. The really good ones are well-written too; you can actually read a sentence aloud without embarrassment. (All together now: “It is a truth universally acknowledged . . .”)

But novels tire me now. One more saga of failed marriage, one more Bildungsroman, one more academic mocking Academia. And they go on, and on, and on.

I'm talking about Novel Novels, you understand: the things they review in the New York Times, the big chunky things you talk about with your friends at the Explorer's Club. I still feed on a steady diet of Other Stuff, as do we all: for me, it's biography (especially autobiography and letters), diaries, popular science, spirituality (go ahead, mock me!), history, and cultural stuff. And young-adult fiction, which for me fills the need that some people fill with crime novels or science-fiction novels. As Alice noted very astutely, books should have pictures and conversations.

But we're talking about Novel Novels.

Here's what I've read over the couple of months:

English, August. Upamanyu Chatterjee. Okay, this wasn't bad. It's set in modern India, about a guy taking a civil-service job in a city he hates. It's funny, and the depiction of Indian life is interesting. But he repeats himself too much: too many trips back and forth from the office to the hotel, too many long digressions. I know it's supposed to depict the main character's boredom, but all it did was stimulate my own boredom. I put it down about two-thirds of the way through, but I still remember a couple of the scenes vividly, so I'll probably go back and finish it one of these days.

The Towers of Trebizond. Rose Macauley. A reread. A laugh and cry book. “All camels are insane, but this one is more insane than most.” I think, when I die, I want a copy of this book in the coffin with me.

Against the Day and Inherent Vice. Thomas Pynchon. I feel about Thomas Pynchon the way you feel about someone who saved your life. I love him, and I will buy every book he writes, and I will tote it around with me, even if (like “Against the Day”) it weighs eighty pounds. But I will never finish “Against the Day.” It's too scattered, and I'm not sure what he's getting at (I even tried annotating it, as if it were “Finnegans Wake,” to no avail). “Inherent Vice,” on the other hand, had some good stuff in it, and a little hint of “Crying of Lot 49,” and one of those almost-happy endings that Pynchon does very well. (Most of his endings are pretty dark; when he ends something on a positive note, it's a good day.)

The Violent Bear It Away. Flannery O'Connor. Another reread. Vicious, evil, funny. I picked it up, and I had to finish it, I couldn't stop. Can you think of a better name for a character than “Tarwater”?

What's For Dinner? James Schuyler. I'd never heard of it. I took a chance on it, and it paid off. Funny, dry, unsentimental, and unexpected. Worth reading.

The Western Lands. William Burroughs. I wish I were William Burroughs. I have a copy of his last diaries; he cried for days when his cats died. His books are dark and self-consciously perverse, but I love them anyway, because he was a good writer, dammit.

The Summer Before the Dark. Doris Lessing. She throws words at you like lawn darts, and her sentences are long and clumsy. But her books are amazing. The plots don't matter; people come and go, things generally go downhill, oh well, that's life. But the people – ah. Remember what I said about actually learning things from novels? I learned something from this one. I coudn't tell you what it was, but I did. Haunting.

Okay. So maybe Novel Novels are okay after all. I just get a sinking feeling sometimes when I walk through the Fiction section in the bookstore, that I'm letting the team down. But I guess we're okay for now.

And what have you been reading lately?