When Gretchen Wyler was appearing on Broadway in Larry Gelbart’s “Sly Fox,” we met her after a matinee for a lunch date. During the performance, we noticed two men sitting in the front row who clearly were there to see Gretchen. The cast included Vincent Gardenia and Jack Gilford, but we could see by their body language that the fellows up front were paying little mind to two fine actors. Even when Gardenia or Gilford was speaking, those fans were watching Gretchen.

I can’t say I blame them for their attention to a woman whom I and many others admired. However, I couldn’t help thinking, while I watched them, of John Lahr’s novel “The Autograph Hound,” which describes people who carry their fascination with celebrities beyond the borders of rational thought and into the realm of obsession.



We waited for Gretchen outside the theater. Those two men were waiting, too. When Gretchen came out, they approached her and she spent several minutes with them. When she joined us, she said, “I must have given those men my autograph a hundred times by now. I don’t know how many times they’ve seen this show.” She said she encountered the men on virtually every performance day, that they handed her index cards for her signature and inquired about the health of her Great Dane, which they mentioned by name, and made other small talk.

At no time, either during her conversation with the two fans or during her explanation to us, did Gretchen display any impatience. She was a person of grace, a person who understood her symbiotic  relationship with the public and, not incidentally, with the press. I don’t know what statistics Manny Ramirez will amass during the balance of his baseball career, but no one will ever attribute to him the quality that distinguished Gretchen Wyler.

You can read about Manny’s version of grace at this link:,0,3496566.column

tillieIt was sort of uplifting yesterday to be able to sit at a restaurant on the boardwalk at AsburyPark, admiring the details on the Paramount Theater/Convention Center building, and watching the passing parade. The last time I drove near that boardwalk, many years ago, I was afraid to get out of my car. It wasn’t that I was afraid of the people there; I’m kind of foolhardy in that way — seldom afraid of people. I was afraid that looking more closely at what was obvious from inside my car would break my heart altogether. I knew what happened there, but I had never seen it.

We were staying in Belmar for a couple of days this week, so we drove up to Asbury Park to tread the boardwalk and have dinner. There was a very mixed crowd making the promenade — which reminded us of the corniche in Beirut. That was one of the best things about the reborn boardwalk, that all sorts of people seem to feel welcome there.



There wasn’t a crowd there last night although several of the retaurants were doing a brisk trade, but the waitress at Tom McLoone’s told us that on weekends the boardwalk is packed. Again, better than it’s opposite.

One can’t help wondering, though, how this regeneration will be sustained and made to grow. I understand progress has been stunted by the general economic malaise, and while it is heartening to see what is new on the boardwalk, it is chilling to see what is still in ruins and to see the voids where businesses and games and rides have vanished. I tried to recall where Bubbleland was located — the collection of kiddie rides that was owned and managed by Lloyd McBride, who also was one of my instructors in communications when I was an undergrad at Seton Hall. We took our eldest three children there, and Mr. McBride — I still have too much respect for him to call him anything else — would often let them ride for free.

I was sorry that at the same time I was feeling a certain elation at seeing that boardwalk revived I also had a sense of foreboding that this grand experiment wasn’t going to work. But when we got home, I puttered around the Internet until I found an interview with Mr. McBride that was published in the Spring of ’08. He’s retired from Seton Hall and he lost his rides to eminent domain, but he’s still in Asbury Park and he assured the interviewer that the city “will come back.” Since I’m too much of an optimist to be afraid of people, I think I’ll be too much of an optimist to think that Mr. McBride could be wrong.



Where our mouth is

July 15, 2009

education_clip_art_3President Barack Obama proposes to spend $12 billion on American community colleges over the next 10 years.

I’ve lost count of how much money this administration plans to spend, and while my instincts have been saying “Ahem!” for months, I endorse this idea in concept — as far as it goes. After listening to a discussion of deficit spending the other night on the Charlie Rose show, I’m convinced that I am the last person to ask whether we should turn off the presses at the mint or put them into overdrive. From what I can tell, those are both good ideas, or — to put it another way — no one knows.

Anyway, the administration argues that this money would not add to the deficit, because it would be offset byending subsidies to private student-loan companies and banks. What impact the end of subsidies would have on the borrowing and banking public, I am not aware. Whenever government says that a spending initiative isn’t going to cost anything, I reach back to check for my wallet.

Deficit or not, Obama proposes to allocate this money for construction, on-line education, and competitive grants. As long as money is no object, those are worthy causes. There is also a provision for performance-based scholarships and for resources to help colleges to better plan schedules around students’ work demands.

extended_home_01I have taught on and off at community colleges for years, and I have been teaching at one since the newspaper industry  noticed my obsolesence. Every class I teach introduces me to more men and women who are operating under punishing stress because of their inability to pay tuition and fees, support themselves or their families, and devote the time and energy necessary for a real learning experience. I have had students, sometimes on the verge of tears, tell me that they cannot afford to buy a textbook — and don’t get me started on the price of books and the shell-game of “second editions” — or that they cannot afford to buy a PC or laptop computer to use at home, or even commonly used word-processing software for the ones they have. Frequently, these are the very laid-off or undertrained folks that the President says must be prepared for the future demands of business and industry. If they’re really the point of this program — and as long as we’re going to rob Peter to pay Paul — let’s think first about how that money can fill the basic needs of these eager, talented, strung-out students.

MICHAEL JACKSON Megan Lewis/Reuters

MICHAEL JACKSON Megan Lewis/Reuters

“I hate it,” Charlie Brown once complained, “when there are two sides to a story.”

Too often for our comfort, there are that many and more. Carol Norris Green, writing for the Catholic News Service, perceived that with respect to Michael Jackson. Her thoughtful column follows:

Some people are insisting there were two Michael Jacksons –– the iconic entertainer and a bizarre, very troubled individual.

But there was always only the one man living out two sets of fantasies –– his own and those of so many others.

Fantasies can be both inspirational and detrimental. But it is when they motivate us to be our best that they are life–giving.

Consider Olympians, or scientists who give us groundbreaking discoveries. Many worked hard for years to realize what their spirit told them was possible.

However, their achievements were not always embraced on a monumental scale. While people worldwide appreciated what these remarkable people achieved, they didn’t always see themselves in their accomplishments.

It was this seeing of oneself in the journey of Michael Joseph Jackson, dead June 25 from cardiac arrest, that sparked an outpouring of crowds in streets and unabashed tears as people recollected the life of the “Gloved One” who overcame shyness every time he walked on stage.

Shyness can be crippling for so many people. When I work on Catholic News Service’s religious education series (Faith Alive!), I am amazed by the number of Catholics who are uncomfortable at the thought of putting their names to a simple reply to a “Faith in the Marketplace” question! They prefer to have their priest speak for them or remain anonymous.

Rest assured, you won’t see any of them in the spotlight, attempting to moonwalk.

But who hasn’t, even for the most fleeting of moments, wondered what it would be like to strut Jackson’s signature moonwalk?

I’ve done it many times –– in my mind. But I’d turn beet–red if someone caught me attempting to do that in my basement, let alone at an employee dinner–dance.

But, wow! What if one day I found the nerve and actually did a respectable imitation? It would be so fulfilling personally because it would mean I mastered a fear and experienced absolute joy.

As human beings, we all are challenged to come out of our shells to achieve our full potential. But so much of our formation, our discipline says “hold back … not now … what if it is not received well?”

And so we live the reality of routine, daydreaming –– until something out of the ordinary happens.

Enter Michael Jackson, not the child star, but the childlike adult who, like most adults, knew the meaning of love, of pain and suffering, of fantasy too wondrous to let go.

By virtue of his trade as an entertainer, Jackson could do all the things we were taught it was vain to do –– wear flashy clothes and jiggle our bodies, offering freeze–frame poses that said, “Look at me!”

He sang, he danced demanding choreographies. He was so vainglorious!

No wonder Jackson’s death is so personal for so many people.

At death, when we are judged, Scripture tells us that all of our deeds will be tested by fire; what is worthless will be consumed as if “wood, stubble and hay,” and what is worthwhile will become our lasting reward.

And so it will be with Jackson’s legacy. Media, to be credible, must review the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of Jackson’s life. The public receives it, consumes what is tragic, then clings to whatever beauty remains.

Those who choose to remember only the good about Jackson will do for him what we all want done for ourselves: to be remembered for the best that we were and tried to be.

And when we think on what is good, the reward is always an experience of love.

Copyright (c) 2009 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops



I was sorry to read this week that Maura Tierney is ill. The nature of her illness has not been disclosed, as far as I know, and that is a good thing – especially in view of the recent excesses in the reporting on the illnesses and deaths of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. If Maura Tierney can keep the details of her health to herself — or at least be allowed to reveal them when, how, and if she chooses, there may still be a chance for civilization.

Her illness will cause an eight-week delay in production of “Parenthood,” an NBC project that is based on a 1989 film by that name. I am not a big television fan, but I was a devotee of “ER,” and Maura Tierney was one reason for that. With “ER” off the air, I have been left with “Seinfeld” reruns, baseball in season, Charlie Rose, and the occasional film on American Movie Classics. My sense is that if Maura Tierney thinks “Parenthood” is a worthwhile project, it will be worth a look.

I hope the fact that Tierney has signed on to another television series doesn’t mean she won’t pursue her stage career. She has appeared in two off-Broadway shows — Neil LaBute’s “Some Girl(s)” in 2006 and Nicky Silver’s “Three Changes” in 2008. We saw both — particularly because Tierney was in the casts. I don’t know how these plays were received critically, but they clearly established that Tierney has a feel for the stage and can make a live audience accept her character — in fact, to want more of it.

MAURA TIERNEY Wireimage Photo

MAURA TIERNEY Wireimage Photo

There’s something quirky — one might almost say broken — about Tierney, and from what I’ve read it isn’t an act. It certainly is appealing. She evidently doesn’t lack for composure, however, because she apparently is a good poker player. That fits with one aspect of her genius as an actress — her ability to project a wide range of emotions with a much narrower range of expressions. We saw that often in “ER,” and it also serves her well on stage. In fact, one of the way she fascinates me is by so often making me wonder, “What is she really thinking.”

Be well, Maura Tierney.



The Christian Science Monitor has joined the chorus whose song is that Michael Jackson was likely one of the the last “mega-stars.”

A story in the Monitor this week, written by Stephen Humphries, included these passages:

That Jackson could command such an audience is testament to the kind globe-straddling star power that was possible in an earlier, simpler entertainment age. Amid today’s fragmented popular culture, in which an unlimited buffet of mass media has segregated consumers into niche-oriented tribes, Jackson was arguably one of the world’s last superstars.

“It isn’t just that Michael Jackson was the last superstar because he was one of the last people to benefit from an unfragmented media,” says Timothy Burke, a cultural historian at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. “He may also have been one of the last people who could surprise us with a stunning innovation where we didn’t have that sense already of being so jaded by the ubiquity of spectacularly good entertainment. That someone could just leap on the stage and do this thing, and you could go, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen that before!’ “



I don’t know that either niche marketing or a need for innovation supports the bold prediction that no one after Jackson will be able to appeal to a global audience.

Luciano Pavarotti, for example — whose estate was worth about a half billion dollars the last I read about it — appealed to millions of people all over the world, including people who knew nothing about opera, including people who did not want to know anything about opera, and he didn’t appeal to them because he was an innovator — certainly not in the sense that Michael Jackson was. Pavarotti’s performance was pretty much traditional. Whether he was, as a friend of mine claimed, “the second greatest tenor in history,” is a matter of conjecture — and conjecture, I might add, that has no real meaning. Most of those who bought Pavarotti’s recordings, attended his concerts, and watched his television appearances, wouldn’t know if he were second greatest or not. What they knew was that they liked him, and that was all that mattered. The implication of my friend’s remark was that Enrico Caruso was the greatest tenor in history, and Caruso and Pavarotti were alike in this: There was something about each of them that simply appealed to people, including those not normally in the opera crowd. The very fact that the something can’t be quantified, while both tenors’ enormous audiences and coincident earnings can be quantified, should tell us that it’s foolhardy to predict that no such performer will appear again.



Susan Boyle’s experience is also instructive. The record-setting video on YouTube featured Boyle, not Jackson. That doesn’t imply any parallel between the two as performers, and that’s exactly the point. Boyle’s appeal was unpredictable. No one saw it coming. And I dare say that even experts in the field, if they had heard Susan Boyle perform before her appearance on the British TV competition, would not have forseen her appeal, which has cut across all the usual borders of musical taste and which, it is important to note, has been a function of a new mode of almost universal communications whose implications and whose future we can’t even imagine. Jackson only got to scratch the surface of the rapidly evolving technology. Even if Susan Boyle  turns out to be a comet that will soon fade to black, we don’t know that there won’t be another Susan Boyle who will burst out into the world via YouTube or some unforseen successor to it and re-define the concept of a “star” in ways we haven’t dreamed of.

frustratedIn one of his monologues, Garrison Keillor talks about the way in which our society has abandoned competence. His point was that as we have mastered more and more complex technologies and as we have educated ourselves in more and more specialized tracks, we have lost our grasp on the world that immediately surrounds us at every moment of the day.

Keillor used as an example a farmer who is capable of grappling with each of the many, and often unpredictable, circumstances that arise in his daily life. For the most part, the farmer does this on his own, Keillor said, drawing on a combination of knowledge, experience, skill, common sense, and wit that cumulatively constitute his competence. He is an electrician, a mechanic, a carpenter, a veterinarian, as the demands of the moment dictate. He doesn’t turn to someone else for help every time things don’t go just as they should.

Recently, we ordered a laptop battery from Dell. According to Dell, it was to be delivered on or before July 8. It wasn’t. On the night of July 9, I called Dell at the number the company provides for checking up on orders. Over the course of about 35 minutes, I talked to three people, each of whom required the order number and all or part of my Social Security number, and each of whom required that I tell my story from the top.

The first agent explained, after consulting “the system,” that the battery — which Dell had predicted would be delivered by July 8 — wouldn’t be delivered at all, because “Dell Financial” hadn’t approved the order. She neither knew nor could discover anything further about the matter.

biz12_cThat agent transferred the call — but, of course, no information — to Dell Financial. The agent there, after making me repeat everything, said he could not see in “the system” why the order wasn’t approved but that “the system” wouldn’t let him do anything further with it. He suggested that I talk to the Order Modification Department, have the original order cancelled and a new one issued. He transferred my call — but, of course, no information — to the gang at Order Modification.

The agent there, after making me repeat everything, said he could issue a new order, but that he couldn’t guarantee that it would be approved and suggested that he transfer my call to Dell Financial. As I, becoming increasingly agitated, tried to tell him that I had just spoken to Dell Financial and had been redirected to him, he kept repeating himself as though he were reading from a cue card. It never occurred to him that he, not I, should talk to Dell Financial and anyone else in the Dell empire who was in a position to let me spend my money with their company. I wouldn’t let him transfer my call, so — probably to get rid of me — he cancelled the old order and issued a new one and brightly told me that the battery should be delivered by July 21.

I figure the only way that’s going to happen is if the shipping department at Dell is run by a farmer.

Remain calm

July 10, 2009



Personal attacks may be driving Sarah Palin from public office, but not so the prime minister of Italy. Silvio Berlusconi told G8 leaders gathered in L’Aquila, “You all know very well they are making personal attacks on me, but don’t worry, I will be leading my country for another four years.”

Berlusconi’s perceived dalliances and affairs and his tumultuous marriage have made for lively reading, and they have also made for no end of righteous explanations from the prime minister. He and Gov. Palin have this in common: Neither has done anything wrong.

It’s unusual, to say the least, for the head of a government to address an internal matter like Berlusconi’s circus of a life before  a gathering of his peers, but this is no ordinary man. Perhaps the most interesting thing about his statement was the tone of reassurance: “Don’t worry,” he told his colleagues, “ma state tranquilli” — the expression literally means “but remain calm.” Here was Berlusconi — within himself seriously concerned about the battering his reputation has taken in capitals around the world — expressing his determination to remain in office in terms that make him sound not vulnerable, but indispensible.

On balance, even coming from Berlusconi, it was more heroic than anything we’ve seen in Wasilla.



One thing that is unlikely to appear in a photograph of Boston Red Sox players is red socks. Players for Boston, like most players in professional baseball, have forsaken the knickers and high stockings that have been a distinctive element of the baseball uniform for 140 years.

According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame web site, knickers were introduced to the game in 1868 by the Cincinnati Red Stockings. The innovation met with some resistence. The Hall of Fame site reports as follows:

“The showing of the manly leg in varied-colored hose … [was] unheard of, and when [team captain] Harry Wright occasionally appeared with the scarlet stockings, young ladies’ faces blushed as red, and many high-toned members of the club denounced the innovation as immoral and indecent.”



But stockings quickly became de riguer in the game and remained so for many decades. Now, however, in this epoch in which everyone does what he pleases, this tie to the past has been withering away. During last night’s game between the Yankees and the Twins, I counted only four men on the field wearing high stockings: Alex Rodriguez, R.A. Dickey, Joe Crede, and Brendan Harris. The rest looked like they were wearing their pajama bottoms — and walking on the hems at that. Besides looking foolish, they’re monkeying with something essential about The Game — its tradition.

Remember what Terence Mann told Ray Kinsella at the climax of “Field of Dreams”?

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.”





While we have been absorbed in the death of Michael Jackson and the whatever-you-call-it of Sarah Palin, Bernie Ecclestone has been telling what a swell guy Adolf Hitler was — and then sort of taking it back.

Ecclestone is the top man in Formula One. He was commenting recently about the seeming inability of governments to do anything to improve the economic condition of most of the world. Now Hitler, Ecclestone said, there was a guy who could get things done.

And that he could.

The remark attracted a predictable response. Ecclestone, describing himself as a “fool” for having said such a thing, took a second crack at it, writing in The Times of London:



During the 1930s Germany was facing an economic crisis but Hitler was able to rebuild the economy, building the autobahns and German industry. That was all I meant when I referred to him getting things done. I’m an admirer of good leadership, of politicians who stand by their convictions and tell the voters the truth. I’m not an admirer of dictators, who rule by terror.

Evidently Ecclestone was absent the day the teacher told how the German government, soon after Hitler took power in 1933, suspended civil rights including the writ of habeas corpus, suppressed the Communist party and other opposition organizations, and violently — sometimes to the point of murder — drove the Communists away. And Ecclestone might have dozed over that part of the history text that described how Hitler’s government, before turning the Fatherland into heaven on earth, got the legislature to pass an act that pushed aside inconvenient constitutional provisions and made the regime a legal dictatorship.

Every once in a while someone who hasn’t done his homework “discovers” how beneficial Hitler would have been for Germany if he hadn’t been the devil incarnate. These epiphanies always end the same way.