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Friday, December 10, 2010

News from the Garden

My garden is blooming like crazy. It's weird. It's December. In New York City. It's cold out there.

I can understand why the chrysanthemums, and even the marigolds, are still going strong...they are early spring and fall flowers and are used to shorter, cooler days. But I just don't get how it is that my more fragile plants – the roses, violas, dianthus, snapdragons, and even the petunias – are still alive and flourishing.

I have had trouble keeping my petunias alive during a heatwave in July. Each year when I buy my flats of petunias or pansies, or as I deadhead the dianthus and irises, I wonder how I got suckered, once again, into expending my time and energy on such thankless creatures.

They do not fight. They do not last. They are here for a short time, and then they are gone.

Pretty as they are (and I do insist on brightly-hued, flowering plants), they require hours of bending and stooping, sweating, plucking and watering. In short, they need lots of care and attention and they do nothing to repay those who work so hard to bring them to life, feed and nurture them. Even their beauty is just a matter of self-preservation. They need to attract the attention of birds and insects in order to survive and propagate. My enjoyment of their charms is of no importance to them at all.

Still, each year, I eschew my mother's leafy green hostas and Andromeda and rhododendron bushes, which are slow and dim and stingy with their flowers, and choose to plant annuals for their gaudy petals of pink, purple, orange, yellow and red. It that means that I can never be sure if I will see masses of gay, vibrant flowers, or sad, droopy specimens, well, that is the choice I make. I live with it. And keep on weeding and hoping for an abundance of color.

Every year I plant more bulbs in the hope of eventually having a garden of perennial blooming flowers, such as crocus and hyacinth, daffodils and tulips, lilies and roses, peonies and camellias. And as I stoop and dig and sweat and curst, I think it will all be worth it in the end if I never have to plant another annual again. But this year, my little garden has flourished far beyond my expectations. Petunias in December? Who would have thought it? My hearty little annuals seem determined to last.

Maybe my garden will continue to bloom all the way through the New York winter. Then, next spring, I won't have to decide whether to buy impatiens or pansies – my garden will already be full of color and life. Wouldn't that be great? It might, almost, be enough to make me actually enjoy gardening.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Things to do in New York City


I hope that those of you who read this don't find my title too misleading. Titles are hard for me.

I had a difficult time coming up with the title for my blog because I knew that - for a while at least - I'd be writing about a number of unrelated topics. I thought I would be writing and posting a new blog every two to three days, and couldn't imagine any one topic that I would want to write about that frequently. However, I also knew there were matters that hold a certain fascination for me, and I would write about them.

I chose "truth to tell," because I tend to examine and analyze myself in my writing and I wanted my readers to know I would try and be as honest as possible in those revelations about myself. And I chose "reviews" because I read a good book most days, or an interesting article, and I love to think about what I read, so I thought I might be doing a lot of book reviewing. (Not a single book review in two months! Who knew.) At my most desperate, even if I couldn't think of anything in my life to write about, or say a single intelligent or discerning word about the latest book I read or movie I saw, at least, I figured, I'd be able to write about New York City, where there is always something interesting to do or see. My opinions about New York's sights and sounds, people and politics could be called reviews, right? But I haven't been posting that much. It's harder than I thought it would be.

The subjects that interest me range from books to movies and plays, to child advocacy (my avocation), to daily life, including dieting, exercise, shopping, laundry and other chores, to relationships (between friends and family more than lovers), to politics, to money, to travel, to writing. I swear I could write about any of these subjects every single day. A new thought occurs to me, or an old thought recurs, on an hourly basis and I'm constantly formulating and revising my many theories. Whether anyone else will share my unending curiosity about these matters is the question. Time, I guess, will tell the tale.

Today my topic is To-Do Lists. I am an inveterate list maker, from shopping lists to my daily calendar to my ongoing short term and long term lists of everything from books I plan to read to renovating and repairing my home. The problem with compiling these lists is that instead of making me more efficient, my to-do lists only make me anxious, primarily because I am terrible at prioritizing. For example, I've been known to spend hours updating and revising my lists of things to do, rather than actually completing, or even starting to do any of the items on any of the lists.

My only consolation: crossing items off the lists is so very very satisfying.

Today, I think I had a breakthough. I realized that I can't stand having the same to-do list day after day. On October 10, 2010, I wrote in my calendar:


Continue writing chapter five of LIGHT IN MOTION
Finish laundry
Write a new blog post
Water plants
Weed garden
Work on Oct budget (pay bills-household/personal)
Sign up for Continuing Legal Education classes Oct/Nov
JOB APPLICATIONS (revise resumes, write cover letters)

Not only is this the most boring to-do list in the universe, but it is also 1) an exact replication of yesterday's list and 2) almost exactly the same list as the one I wrote last Sunday, and the Saturday before that and the one from Friday, the 10th of September, and...but I won't go on. You get the picture, right?

Alright, so my big revelation is not exactly earthshattering news. The thing I hate most about to-do lists is also the thing I hate most about doing stuff...repetition. I will be doing laundry, and weeding the garden, and taking continuing legal ed. classes and paying bills forever and ever and ever. It will never end. And most of it is boring.

I have mentioned my disgust with this situation to more than a few friends over the years, and they agree, but not one has come up with a solution to the problem. Thanks, Guys. (To tell you the truth, I don't think they are really trying.)

And, of course, Mom - who has had to listen to me whine ceaselessly year after year since I learned to talk - says A) that's life, B) you want to wear clean clothes don't you? C) but isn't the garden pretty, and didn't you enjoy the tomatoes this summer, D) I warned you that being a lawyer is no fun, and E) I don't know why no one's hired you yet, you're such a brilliant, creative, fabulous person, it's a complete mystery to me, but I'm sure you'll find the perfect position some time soon and would you like a cup of tea? (So her advice is basically, "Suck it up, kid!" but is at least tempered by her support and encouragement.) Thanks Mom.

Amazingly enough, while I was writing this blog, I think that I finally figured out why I make my to-do lists, despite the obvious pain and suffering that is caused by this destructive habit. It's not an addiction, it's a coping mechanism. As I look down at each clean, fresh, blank page to create or revise a list, there is a moment, a nanosecond, when I am vaguely aware that this may be the one -- there is an infinitesimal, one-in-a-million, completely unlikely, just-barely-there chance -- that today it will be different. This list, or perhaps one of the items on this list, will fill my soul with hope and joy and a deep and abiding belief in the wondrous future that awaits me. Today may be the day that I finally finish doing the laundry. Forever.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Time Travel

I need a time machine.

I know I'm not the only one who feels this way. I have plenty of friends who, like me, would love to take a trip back to the past. I'm guessing there are many many more people out there who share this desire.

I want to see all kinds of things: Early landscapes, family members and ancestors, lost peoples, the construction of Stonehenge, the Sphynx, the Acropolis, the Great Wall, and any number of great and ordinary men and women whose words, thoughts, deeds and inventions touch us today. We want to know not only what they did, but how they did it, and why. Who hasn't looked at a tapestry, or an arrowhead, and wished they could sit in the firelight with its creator and ask them about their lives.

I'm sure the subjects of our musings would find our curiosity a bit odd. I imagine people's attitudes towards day-to-day life hasn't changed. Everyone thinks their life is...well, ordinary. Even a little bit boring, I'm guessing. Martin Luther King Jr. would probably find it astonishing that his birthday is a national holiday, and I doubt he'd believe me if I told him there are streets named after him in every major city in America, today. As a writer, myself, I'd like to think my books will be around for generations, even millenia, after my death, but I'm not sure I'd want my journal preserved. I know I'm no Anne Frank. I suspect even royals and statesmen, artists and inventors who would hope their work would change the world forever, would not want every little detail of their lives preserved for posterity.

All of which does not stop me from wanting to go back in time to see...the little details. Shakespeare at work. Sculptors, scientists, scenery. I'd like to explore the wilderness of Manhattan Island in 10,000 B.C. (preferably on a temperate weekend in the spring or fall). I wish I could meet my mother and father when they were young; also Thurgood Marshall, Henry James, Aphra Behn and Xanthippe among others. I think I'd enjoy meeting people all over the world in all different times. I'd like to thank Martin Luther King, Jr. Maybe tell him not to go to the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, or at least not to stand out on the balcony that evening.

I'm enough of a science fiction buff to believe that if we went back and met the people we admire, or even just the people we imagine (the 16th century housewife, the mammoth hunter, the tribal medicine woman) we couldn't tell them anything about the future without changing that future somehow. Even if I could convince people I met that I was from the future and therefore they believed my stories of flying machines, computers, and atomic power plants, would that be harmful or helpful? If we told Van Gogh how popular his work is today, would that change the nature or even the quality of his work? If he painted a great masterwork out of newfound confidence in his ability, would that have a ripple effect that would change the lives of all of the people who were affected by his work? And all of the people affected by those people? Might it change the paths of nations? What if I taught Euripides English? Or read a book aloud at an Anasazi campfire?

Could I stop the assassinations of Gandhi or King, Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, Marie Antoinette? Should I even try? Would I be able to resist?

I still want a time machine. Even if there is a ripple effect, I'm guessing any effect I created would be pretty minor. After all, it's not like I could build a printing press, or an airplane, or explain how computers work or anything. All I could do would be to tell stories, and maybe teach people to read. And even if, because of something I said to him, MLK Jr. lived out his normal life span, and even if he was elected the 39th or 40th President of the United States, would that be such a bad thing?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Theater review

The 39 Steps.

In 1935, Alfred Hitchcock adapted John Buchan's 1915 spy novel, The 39 Steps into a film with the same name. It has been remade four times, in 1959, 1978, and twice as a BBC television movie, in the late eighties and in 2008. All of which demonstrates that this is a story that catches the imagination. In 2007, the film was adapted into an award-winning four man play written by Patrick Barlow based on an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon and directed by Maria Aiken. The play continues to run in London, and 13 other countries. It closed earlier this month, after a successful seven year run on and off Broadway.

The plot of The 39 Steps is classic Hitchcock, and contained a theme we fans are very familiar with; the innocent man on the run. The subtle humor of Hitchcock's film, however, has been expanded here. The mystery has morphed into a comedy. Luckily, Patrick Barlow, who adapted the film, has stayed true to the story, written by Charles Bennett, Ian Hay, and Alma Reville (aka Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock). I like to think Al would appreciate it's self-effacing humor and especially the clever staging.

Modern audiences will have no trouble relating to the lead character, Richard Hannay, played by John Behlmann, who involves the audience members in the action by speaking directly to them. From his monologue in the opening scene to the moment when he's confronted by his first dead body, his timing is flawless. Whether he's opening a door against a strong Scottish wind, or falling, in slow motion, from a bridge, he handles the physicality of the role with deceptive ease. Kate MacCluggage played all three of the stereotypical female leads charmingly: the melodramatic spy, the shy country maiden, and Hitchcock's favorite romantic interest: the icy blonde. The other two actors play dozens of other characters: policemen, spies, double agents, villains, henchmen, local politicians, both train conductors and passengers, and players in the play within a play, to name but ten. Mr. Jamie Jackson and Mr. Cameron Folmar are fantastic, becoming characters in the blink of an eye, and then switching identities even more quickly, or becoming furniture, props, or whatever else is necessary.

One doesn't need to be a fan of Hitchcock or the film The 39 Steps to appreciate the play, but I think familiarity with the film's creator adds a level of pleasure to this theatrical version. There are many visual and verbal references not only to Hitchcock's 39 Steps, but his other films, whose titles were included in the fast-paced dialogue with a wink and a nod to the audience, including Rear Window, North by Northwest, and Strangers on a Train. Barrow even managed, during a brief shadow-puppet scene, to include Hitchcock's silhouette, a bow to the director's signature move of making a cameo appearance in each of his films.

More importantly, Barrow echoed Hitchcock's dry wit and biting sarcasm as well as the clever irony that informed Hitchcock's characters' development. The play lacked Hitchcock's subtlety, such as the hints of improprieties that the director included in his films, including in The 39 Steps itself, that were forbidden by Hollywood's Production Code until the mid-1960s. The play is so true to the movie, though, that Hitchcock's creation is still clearly the heart and soul of the piece.

For those who can't see the stage production, the film it is based on is available for rent and for sale, and, of course, there are all of the director's other movies. I firmly believe there's a Hitchcock film for everyone, from fussy old ladies to jaded teenagers. From Hitchcock's favorite Shadow of a Doubt, to psychological suspense such as Spellbound and Vertigo, to human dramas such as Life Boat, somewhere in the fifty (Yes, Fifty!) films he made during his career, you should be able to find your own favorite.

Post Script. Why I wrote this review.

I really enjoyed the play. And even though it's closed here in New York City, it's still out there, in other towns, in other countries. I hope if you get a chance you'll go see it. Additionally I'm just a huge fan of Hitchcock's genius.

Alfred Hitchcock was born in 1899, the same year as my mother's mother, the woman I'm named after. Roberta Primm and Alfred Hitchcock shared a birth year, and absolutely nothing else. He was a white man born into a middle class family in the heart of the British Empire at it's height, she was a young black woman born to an ex-slave in the rural American south. They were born not only oceans, but worlds apart.

I never met my grandmother, but I know from my mother she was a very 19th century character -- plucking chickens and baking her bread each day, sewing all of my mother's clothes. She attempted to go to nursing school, but didn't manage to graduate. Hitchcock studied to be an engineer. In my mind, I connect them because I think of them both as producing remarkable 20th century innovations. My grandmother raised my aunt and my mother, who became a doctor and a lawyer respectively, and became two of the earliest examples of modern professional black women. Alfred Hitchcock invented techniques for filming movies.

My aunt and my mother didn't influence a lot of people that I know of besides my sister, and myself, while Hitchcock created a directorial style that influenced modern filmmaking. But, however indirectly, my grandmother was an influence in my life, and so was he. I know that it's a stretch to conflate the achievements of these two very different individuals, but like anyone in love, I started wondering what I and the object of my devotion might have in common. When I found out he was born in 1899, I thought, "There! That's it!" Hitchcock and Grandma.

Monday, August 9, 2010

First Blog Entry Ever!

August 1, 2010

How do I introduce myself?   

I'm tempted to say, first, I am a writer.  That's probably the New Yorker in me, defining myself by my profession and my avocation.  But that's the most comfortable way for me to introduce myself, so I'll stick with that choice.  I don't know what this introduction says about me.  I leave that to you to decide.

To continue:

I am a daughter.  I am a sister.  I am an aunt.  As you can guess from those last three, I am a woman.   
I am a feminist and a humanist.  I am a mulatta.  I am a polytheist.  (I created my own religion, but I'm not particularly religious.)
I am a progressive (which is more left wing than a liberal, but less leftist than a radical). 
I am a lover of books and stories in general.  (I keep reversing those last two bullet points.  I can't decide which is more me, or which says more about me.) 
I am a talker.  I talk and talk and talk.  I love to talk.  To anyone.  And I love to write.  Writing is a lot like talking.

That seems to me to be a full circle - starting with writer and ending with writing.  This is a brief description of who I am.  There is more to me.  There are so many things that make up the fabric of my life: my family, my work, my friends, my home, my hobbies, my responsibilities, my dreams.  I can expand on that list, but I can't seem to boil it down any further.  Perhaps I could just say, family, books, work.  It is clear from the list above, I consider them essential to who I am.  But I consider my political perspective extremely important in introducing myself to new people and so I have to include the descriptor progressive.

Note:  I hate the word hobbies.  I was tempted to write "my loves," "likes," and/or "activities," but hobbies seemed slightly more specific.  I like to think the connotations of that one word include the core meanings of the other three. I have  a lot of hobbies.  Reading and writing are first among these, but I am also a lover of theater and movies.  I enjoy camping, swimming, skiing, and -- when my bad knee allows, hiking.  I am an avid photographer -- of the people and places I find beautiful.  Telling you my hobbies are important is another way of telling you know who I am.  The relative importance to me of these activities, as well as the degree to which I find each satisfying, varies widely.  Eg. I like to knit, crochet, macrame, but not to any great degree and therefore I rarely knit, crochet, or macrame.  However, I prefer all three activities to cooking, which is a chore I am required to do almost every day.  When I say hobbies make up much of the fabric of my life, I have this graduated scale in my mind.  Am I a cook?  Of course.  It's a necessity.  But is that part of how I see myself, or how I want others to see me?  Not particularly. 

By claiming ownership of a trait, an ability, a like or dislike, or even pleasure in an activity, I define myself.  How would you introduce yourself?