I learned something about myself yesterday: I’m not hip. I thought otherwise, but yesterday I saw The Wooster Group’s musical play — at least, I think that’s what it was — at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York, and I realized that I am a Pod.

This play, which has been around in one form or another since 1983, is called “North Atlantic.” That’s because it is set on an American aircraft carrier, during the cold war, off the coast of the Netherlands. It’s 90 minutes long. The creators have opted for no intermission. No doubt they had in mind to maintain the continuity of the piece at which, in a certain sense, they succeeded. The piece certainly continued — so much so that 90 minutes seemed like a geologic epoch. Another benefit of eschewing a break, perhaps unintended, is that the audience stayed to the end. I know four people who would have opted for an earlier dinner at Park and Orchard.


Far from disliking experimental theater, I have always appreciated it. But then, I have always understood it. In 1969, for example, I saw Omar Shapli’s play, “Rules for the Running of Trains on the Erie Railroad to go into Effect on Jan. 1, 1882 – Section 10,” and I understood that the frenetic activity and the references to the Haymarket Riot and the reportage of Nelly Bly was painting a portrait of American life, and the hypocrisy that affected it, at the turn of the 20th century.

By contrast, at the Baryshnikov yesterday, I had no idea what was going on, and I’d wager that most of those in the theater who pretended that they did understand were embarrassed to admit the truth. The program was an unbroken stream of scrambling about, incongruous argument, unprovoked yelling, and filthy sexual repartee. The actors frequently and by design talked over each other so that any chance, however remote, that a clip of dialog here or there would make sense was conclusively thwarted. It may be apocryphal, but I heard a rumor that the playwright, James Strahs, appeared backstage in a fury after the show because he thought he had heard a coherent sentence.

A scene from "North Atlantic"

This play, which has been revised and revived several times over the decades, is offered as a spoof of programs such as, say, “South Pacific,” that portray life in the military. If I hadn’t learned better, I’d have thought that it was a sophomoric attempt at best. The constant stream of graphic references to penises and vaginae and variations of intercourse sounded more like a spoof of the conversations in the locker room at Passaic Valley High School, say around 1958. It turns out, though — as it frequently does in my life — that I was on the outside looking in. The critic in the Los Angeles Times, commenting on the West Coast run of this revival, said so in so many words: “The piece navigates in a zone that will be a delight to devoted fans and avant-garde hipsters but will probably leave ordinary theatergoers dog-paddling to safety.”

All this time, I thought I was an avant-garde hipster, whereas I was actually the duffer flapping around at the shallow end of the pool.

I have only myself to blame for this rather expensive faux pas. I talked my companions into seeing this play because Maura Tierney was in the cast. My wife and I had seen her two previous appearances on New York stages, and I didn’t think we needed any more evidence than her magnetic presence in those plays and my general conviction that she is a fine actress. It wasn’t discouraging at all to also note that Oscar winner and Tony nominee Frances McDormand is in the ensemble.

I’m going to see Boyd Gaines in A.J. Gurney’s play “Sylvia” later this week. It’s about a man who brings home a stray dog he finds in a park. I think I’ll understand it.

Some of the players in "North Atlantic"


"Rosie the Riveter"poster from World War II era

Like many  people,  I guess, I frequently brood over the questions I should have asked when I was a kid. One category that came to mind today is related to my father’s work in an aircraft assembly plant during World War II. All I know is that Dad was not drafted into military service, but was assigned to work at the Curtiss-Wright Corp., I presume in Caldwell. He was 29 years old when my brother was born in 1941, and his age might have had something to do with his exemption. He told me that he worked in my family’s grocery store during the day and at Curtiss-Wright at night, but how long he worked at the plaht and what he did, I didn’t ask. Along about 1976, it became too late. I can’t blame it on the ignorance of youth, either; by the time Dad died, I was in my 30s, and I still  hadn’t asked.

Fortunately, most people are smarter than I am, including some filmmakers who are tracking down women who worked in the defense industry during the war — the fabled labor force that shared the sobriquet “Rosie the Riveter.”

Women at work in a defense plant during World War II

I saw a note on the web site of the Detroit Free Press indicating that the filmmakers plan to visit Michigan next month looking for women in that state who had supported the war effort by building aircraft and manufacturing munitions and other matériel.  This is a project of New York University’s Tamiment Labor Archives; it’s explained in some detail at THIS LINK.

Several years ago, a project in Morris County, here in New Jersey, conducted several lengthy interviews with women who had been part of the Rosie brigade. The interviews, and photos of those women, are available at THIS LINK.

The term “Rosie the Riveter” was first used in 1942 in a song by that name written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb. In poking around on this subject, I also learned that the women who did this indispensable work have been commemorated in the Rosie the Riveter Charter High School in Long Beach, Calif., a school that gives girls an opportunity to learn non-traditional trades.

A student at Rosie the Riveter Charter High School learns to operate a power saw.


So Ann Coulter spoke at the University of Calgary last night, and Canada is still intact. There is no way to know whether Coulter’s remarks at the University of Ottawa – which she did not deliver because she was, in effect, driven away by a crowd of protesters – would have differed from the remarks she gave at Calgary, where she was treated almost politely.

The episode at Ottawa was interesting in its own way because the protesters presumably were to the left of Coulter on the political spectrum but were behaving a lot like people in the States have behaved recently — people who, one would assume, are in Coulter’s vicinity on the philosophical scale. So folks of all stripes are capable of intolerance.

This incident and others like it also expose the fact that many of us are almost infantile in our understanding of the very institutions we pretend to uphold.


In particular, people like those who hounded Coulter at Ottawa don’t grasp, or don’t want to accept, the radical principle that by whatever criterion we mitigate the rights of one person, we put our own rights in jeopardy. Such people also don’t grasp that they have to be willing to be offended if they want to live in a free society. It’s what the ancients called “a hard saying,” and far more of us subscribe to it rhetorically than like it when it’s put into practice.  “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all,” as Noam Chomsky put it.

There’s a guy who occasionally sets up shop outside the post office down the street to spread his vitriol about Barack Obama — which I don’t agree with, and Nancy Pelosi — which is negotiable. I hear neighbors complaining about that guy, but to me he is just a part of the big portrait of America. I don’t like Ann Coulter, but I feel much more secure in my own life to the extent that she is allowed to say what’s on her mind.


We watched “Speak,” a 2004 television movie based on a well-received novel by Laurie Halse Anderson, who specializes in books for teens and young adults. “Speak” focuses on Melinda Sordino — played by Kristen Stewart — who is entering high school at a pivotal time in her young life. She has been the victim of a sexual assault, and she has not been able to confide in anyone — a frequent dilemma for women and girls who have been abused. The assault on Melinda has indirectly estranged her from her former clique so that she enters the new school environment as a solitary and lonely figure. Her parents — played by Elizabeth Perkins and D.B. Sweeney — are not completely inattentive to Melinda, but they are preoccupied with their own problems and clueless about hers. In the event, as she is increasingly isolated, Melinda becomes less and less willing to engage anyone in conversation. The only people with whom she has any satisfactory relationships are a rebellious art teacher — played by Steve Zahn — who alternately goads and encourages Melinda to express her self through images of trees, and her lab partner — played by Michael Angarano — who seems immune to the social dynamics of the high school.


This is a well written and well told story. It’s all about Melinda, and therefore all about Kristen Stewart. And Kristen Stewart is up to the challenge. She is this movie, and the other players, perhaps with some help from director and screenplay writer Jessica Sharzer, give Stewart space. The actress has been busy since she made this movie at the age of 13, and it’s reasonable to expect that she’ll stay that way.

Melinda is presented as an observer of her own life, and her narration is laced through the story. Stewart’s understated delivery of the quick-witted teenager’s sardonic remarks adds palpable substance to the film. “It’s time for a mental health day,” Melinda explains. “So conjugate this: I cut class. You cut class. He/she/it cuts class.”

The Lifetime Channel will broadcast this film at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, March 23.


Once again the other morning, instead of getting up I clicked on the TV and turned to Turner Classic Movies. Never a good idea. We ended up watching “The Harder They Fall,” a 1956 movie starring Humphrey Bogart, Rod Steiger, and Virginia Mayo. It was Bogart’s last film; he died the following year.

“The Harder They Fall” was ostensibly based on the life of Primo Carnera, and if it was, it wasn’t meant as a compliment to the Italian boxer. The film concerns an Argentine giant who is brought to the United States by an unscrupulous promoter (Steiger) whose angle is to build up the unwitting and incapable kid through a series of fixed bouts and then bet against him when he fights for the heavyweight title. As far as I know there is no proof, but there is a persistent story Carnera was used in just that way.

Jersey Joe Walcott

The cast of “The Harder They Fall” included Jersey Joe Walcott, who won the world heavyweight title in 1951, when he was 37 years old. Walcott — who served as sheriff of Camden County and chairman of the N.J. State Athletic Commission — played a trainer in “The Harder They Fall,” and seemed comfortable in the part.


Also in this cast was Max Baer, who played the heavyweight champion who beat the Argentine kid and put an end to his career. This appears to have been a none-to-subtle  reference to the fact that Baer took the title from the 275-pound Carnera in 1934. There is also an episode in this film in which the boxer played by Baer gives his opponent such a beating that the man suffers brain damage and dies. That, too, happened in Baer’s career: In 1930, a fighter named Frankie Campbell — brother of Dodger star Dolph Camilli — died after a bout with Max Baer in San Francisco.


Max Baer — father and namesake of the actor-director-producer who played Jethro in “The Beverly Hillbillies” — appeared in a couple of dozen movies and television productions. His brother, Buddy Baer — who was just as hard a puncher  — had a record of 52 wins and 7 losses with 46 knockouts. He never won a title, but he had the distinction of once knocking Joe Louis out of the ring — in a fight that Louis ended up winning on a disqualification call. Baer claimed Louis had hit him and knocked him down after the bell ended the seventh round, and he refused to answer the bell for the eighth. Buddy Baer, too, appeared in numerous movies and television shows after he gave up boxing.


There were other personable guys who dabbled in entertainment after they were through in the ring, including Rocky Graziano and “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom.

Graziano was a New York street brawler and thief who did time on Riker’s Island and spent lots of time in other sorts of incarceration and under the protection of the Catholic Church. He went AWOL from the Army after punching an officer, and he was suspended from boxing for failing to report an attempted bribe and again for running out on a bout. He was a very good boxer and immortalized himself in the annals of the sport for his three bloody fights with Tony Zale in 1946, 1947, and 1948. The second of those fights made Graziano middleweight champion of the world.


After his fighting career, Graziano — who, like a lot of guys with his background, was a charismatic figure — became a popular entertainer, especially on television comedies and variety shows.

Rosenbloom won the world light heavyweight title in 1932 and held it until 1934. On the one hand, his method of moving around the ring made it hard for opponents to land decisive blows, but that quality also meant that his fights often went the distance, and he took a lot of shots to the head. This eventually affected his physical health. Still, he capitalized on the image of a goofy pug and became a familiar figure on television. Although he wasn’t a serious actor, he played a significant role in Rod Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” the iconic boxing story that starred Jack Palance and Ed and Keenan Wynn and included in its cast Max Baer.


In an interesting parallel, Primo Carnera, who was even more unlikely an actor than Rosenbloom, also hit one high note in a limited screen career. Carnera was a giant. When he defended his heavyweight title against Paolino Uzcudun, the two fighters weighed a total of 488 3/4 pounds — the most weight ever in a title match. And when he defended the title against Tommy Laughran, the average weight of the two fighters was 227 pounds, but Laughran weighed only 184. It was the biggest disparity ever in a title bout.

Carnera used his size and generally menacing appearance to his advantage in the 1955 film “A Kid for Two Farthings,” and he won critical approval for his portrayal of villainous wrestler Python Macklin.

Rocky Graziano knocks Tony Zale through the ropes in their 1947 fight.


To hear Josh Olson tell it, he’s courting all kinds of trouble by writing a script for a proposed follow-up to MGM’s classic film, “The Wizard of Oz.” According to the Los Angeles Times interview with Olson, who wrote the 2005 film “A History of Violence” — don’t tell me he’s not versatile — he expects some pushback from purist fans of the original. Actually, what he said was the following: “You want to write something that takes people back to the fondness they had for the original. I’m aware of the fact that there are a couple million people who will come to your house and burn it down if you don’t get it right” — which would, after all, be one more chapter in the history of violence.


However, the script Olson submitted to Warner Brothers is not intended as a re-make of the Judy Garland film, which is why I used the term “follow-up” earlier.  The proposed new film, to be called simply “Oz,” would deal with a granddaughter of Dorothy Gale who visits the Other Side. This really would be in keeping with the history of the story introduced in 1900 in the form of a children’s book (“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”) by L. Frank Baum. The book and a play adapted from it a couple of years later were very successful, and Baum — apparently nobody’s fool — wrote a total of 14 Oz books. Those books, plus 19 written by Ruth Plumly Thompson, two written by Frank Kramer, one written by Rachel Cosgrove, and a final one written in 1963 by Eloise Jarvis McGraw and Lauren Lynn McGraw, are considered the “canon” of Oz literature. Obviously, in the aggregate they wander far from the premises of the original story.

The title page from the original "Oz" book.

Literary critics with a lot of time on their hands have tried over the years to read political messages and other serious subtexts into Baum’s work, but Baum himself insisted that he had intended only to write stories for the entertainment of children. Oz, in other words, was not like Wonderland.

Olson’s premonition of an angry mob — tongue in cheek, of course — put me to mind of the furious gang that gathered outside the Binney & Smith plant in Easton, Pa., about a decade ago to protest the retirement of certain colors in the Crayola spectrum.

Change can be a buster.

The LA Times blog is at THIS LINK.

Dorothy meets the Cowardly Lion in W.W. Denslow's illustration of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."

Sir John Tenniel's drawing of Alice

It’s one of the paradoxes of both history and human nature that the man who wrote some of the most enduring literature for children has been accused of pedophilia. I refer to Lewis Carroll — that is, the Rev. Mr. Charles Dodgson — author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.” The notion that Carroll had improper relations with under-aged girls evolved from his real relationships with females in general and young girls in particular — neither of which was entirely consistent with the norms of Victorian England — and his career as an amateur photographer, which included photographing naked young girls.

This characterization of Carroll has been debunked in the past, but it persists in the popular imagination, probably because the popular imagination would find a pedophile more interesting than the person Carroll seems to have been in reality. The issue is examined again in a new book by journalist Jenny Woolf, “The Mystery of Lewis Carroll.”

Lewis Carroll and his camera, 1863, in a portrait by Swedish photographer Oscar Rejlander

Based on her research of primary and secondary sources — and a certain amount of logic and common sense — Woolf comes to the conclusion not only that Carroll was not a pedophile, but that the most prominent features of his life and his mind militate against such a thing — that, in fact, he had a horror of abuse of women and children that was consistent with his horror of sin in general.

Woolf emphasizes a point about this issue that is useful to remember when we are reflecting on any historical figure. She points out that those who have charged Carroll with every crime from adultery to murder — one author even wrote that Carroll and a confrere were jointly Jack the Ripper — have often tried to interpret his behavior and his work without taking full account of the Victorian context in which he lived. The most telling evidence she presents, in fact, is that neither the children whom Carroll photographed nor their parents thought of the sittings as anything but proper, and that some of those children grew to adulthood and even old age with only the highest regard and affection for Carroll.

This is not to say that Carroll’s life was without its complications, including sexual ones. One important aspect of his life was odd even for that time, and it has to have figured prominently in some of the behavior that contributed to rumors about him then and since. Carroll took a position as a mathematics instructor at Christ Church, one of the colleges at Oxford. The school continued a medieval discipline in which a man accepting that position must receive holy orders as an Anglican deacon and remain celibate until he was ordained a priest, at which point he would take a parish, marry and begin a family.

Lorina Liddell, in a portrait by Lewis Carroll. Lorina was an older sister of Alice Liddell, the namesake for the title character in Carroll's most famous works.

Although it was expected of him by everyone beginning with his father, a priest himself, Carroll postponed and eventually opted out of priestly ordination, which meant that — unless he gave up his position, which he could not afford to do — he opted out of married life and, therefore, sexual relations. At the same time, while he outwardly kept up the grim image of a Victorian college don, he maintained a lively social network, more often than not conducted in the company of women. He loved women, and he didn’t disguise that, and they were charmed by him. On one hand, these relationships — including private tet-a-tets in Carroll’s rooms, were not usual in Victorian England. On the other hand, Woolf explains, there is no evidence at all that any of them crossed the lines that everyone in that time and place knew to be unmovable.

Still, Woolf shows convincingly that Carroll at a certain point in his life began to grieve over some unstated offense that he perceived he had committed, and this guilt ran head-on into the strict sense of morality that he measured himself by throughout his life. It was this crisis, Woolf thinks, that at least in part inspired Carroll’s cultivation of friendships with young children, and especially young girls, who — in Victorian society — were regarded as the antithesis of sexual. In these relationships, Woolf argues, Carroll could have beauty and affection without the complicating ingredient of sexual attraction. And, of course, he could indulge in his lifelong fascination with word games and fanciful stories and children’s playthings.

Alice Liddell, for a time one of Carroll's child friends and the namesake for his most famous literary character. Carroll's portrait of her as a beggar girl has been used by some of his critics as evidence of peversion.

One of Woolf’s frustrations — and she is hardly alone  in this — is that Carroll and his family seldom talked about his private life, not an unusual scruple for the time, and significant documentation of his life, including some of his diaries, were either redacted by his survivors or simply vanished.

Woolf does write about the possibility, or the likelihood, that the much-discussed rift between Carroll and the family of Alice Liddell — at whose request he committed the original “Alice” story to writing — may have had to do with his attention, not to Alice but to her attractive older sister Lorina. Marriage in those days often had little to do with romance, and the Liddell family may have had bigger plans for Lorina than a liaison with a math lecturer, and a mediocre one at that.

The Boston Globe’s review of Jenny Woolf’s book, which treats many aspects of Carroll’s life and work, is at THIS LINK.

A page from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" with Carroll's own sketch of the title character.

Richard Owen died on June 6, 1944. Yes, what the date implies is true: He died during the Allied invasion of Normandy. Sgt. Owen was a paratrooper with the Army’s 101st Airborne, 506th PIR-E Company — the “Band of Brothers.” His plane was hit during the early hours  of the operation; it crashed during a landing attempt and burned for three days.

Sgt. Owen was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, one of the most precious possessions for an American or his or her family. I was born a little less than two years before Sgt. Owen died. As I was growing up, remnants of the war were still evident in our house. My Dad was 30 years old when the war began, and I guess that’s why he was assigned to civil defense and aircraft construction on the Home Front. But there were letters and uniform buttons on shelves and in drawers that evoked the recent service of our cousins, Mike Aun in Europe and his brother Fred in the Pacific, and our dear friend Jack Mawhinney, also in Europe.

The Silver Star

Among the keepsakes from the recent war were clippings from the Paterson Evening News, and there I read that Mike Aun, who by then had married and moved to Lexington, S.C., had been awarded the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, and the Purple Heart with three Oak Leaf Clusters. I asked my Mom, to whom Mike was like a brother, what those awards meant. She explained as best she could to an ignorant child, but I was much older before I understood the implications of “meretorious service” and “gallantry in action.” I already understood, though, what she meant when she said that Mike had been hurt four times while he was “overseas,” as my Mom always expressed it. I loved Mike for a lot of reasons, but I idolized him for that Purple Heart. No doubt because I was introduced to the award in such a personal way, I have always paused over references to men  and women who have earned the Purple Heart, and so I was particularly attracted to the story of Sgt. Owen, whose award certificate turned up at a Salvation Army center in a box of donated household tchotchke.

The Bronze Star

Personnel at the Salvation Army, Capt. Ron Heimbrock and Darlene Pelkey, were aware of the importance of that certificate, and they were upset to think of it as discarded along with things  of no value. They launched a search that eventually involved many other folks, and the combined effort led to members  of Sgt. Owen’s family who honor his memory. One of them has custody of the medal itself, and she treasures it.

The fact that people who had no direct connection to Sgt. Owen thought enough of what that certificate represented is a comment on their own sensitivity. It is also a fitting salute, across the decades, to one of the many who never should be forgotten.

You can read the Washington Post story about Sgt. Owen himself and about the discovery of the certificate and the search for Sgt. Owen’s family by clicking HERE.

Darlene Pelkey and Salvation Army Capt. Ron Heimbrock with the Purple Heart Citation and a photo of Sgt. Richard Owen / Daily Courier-Observer photo by Bob Beckstead


I suppose Jim Bunning is used to being taken off the mound. As good a pitcher as he was, he still got the hook from time to time, so the maneuver tonight to put an end to his filibuster so the Senate could pass a bill extending unemployment benefits and other programs should have felt familiar.

If Republican leaders have found Bunning hard to handle, they will get some sympathy from Gene Mauch, who managed — some say mismanaged — Bunning when he was playing for the Phillies and Mauch was his manager. Mauch, who is a partaker in Glory at present, was an early practitioner of calling pitches from the bench — that is, giving signs to the catcher as to what pitch to call for.


Bunning would irritate Mauch by shaking off pitches repeatedly when he knew the signs were coming from the manager. Mauch, who is deservedly well respected as a manager, has come in for some criticism of the way he used Bunning and Chris Short during the 1964 National League pennant race. The Phillies that year performed the flop heard ’round the world. They had a 6 1/2 game lead on September 21, but they lost 10 games in a row to finish tied for second place while the Cardinals won the pennant. Mauch, some say, overdid his reliance on Bunning and Short, who were worn out by that time in the season. I think he started Bunning three times in one week.


It’s a shame that Bunning, whose baseball career was outstanding, chose to make himself a laughing stock in Congress. He might have emulated Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell, who pitched in the majors for nine years and ended up with a winning record and a respectable lifetime earned run average. He was no Jim Bunning on the mound, and he was no Jim Bunning in Congress. A conservative Republican like Bunning, he was one of the most popular men in the House of Representatives, where he represented a North Carolina district from 1968 to 1974, when he was swept away in the voters’ reaction the scandals of the Nixon Administration. He later served in a number of appointed federal offices.

The PJ Library

The Boston Globe has an interesting story today about a real estate magnate who was inspired by Dolly Parton to give away two million books to the children of Jewish families — and he’s just getting started.

The subject is Harold Grinspoon, who unloaded most of his expansive real estate holdings when he sniffed something sour in the market. Grinspoon is concerned about children who for any one of a variety of reasons are at risk of losing touch with their Jewish heritage, and his solution has been to establish the PJ Library — “pj” for pajamas — through which he sends books with Jewish themes to kids all over the country. The program is administered through local Jewish organizations that have to add their own financial contribution to Grinspooon’s funding. He intends to will his estate to the program as permanent endowment and envisions a day when its books will reach virtually every Jewish child in North America.


Grinspoon, who started this project after hearing about Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library,  isn’t just writing checks. He is intimately involved in the project, including the selections of titles. That kind of passion doesn’t come along every day.

The Globe’s Story is at THIS LINK. Information about PJ Library is at THIS LINK. And information about Dolly Parton’s program is at THIS LINK.