Julius, O Julius, Wherefore Art Thou Julius?

Shakespeare in the Park is irresistible because. . . Central Park (photo by Joan Marcus).

The main problem with the Public Theatre’s production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, now playing at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, is that its frame is warped. Director Oskar Eustis has set the tale first in New York City then in Washington, D.C., in the time of our current great distress. He has dressed his Julius Caesar as a lean and hungry Trump, who struts and frets his overlong hour upon the stage as a great buffoon. This Caesar plunges stupidly into the senators’ trap, dying ignominiously in a moment closer to commedia dell’arte than tragic drama. His death is a relief to us all. The mayhem that ensues seems unmotivated.

It’s a silly notion from the get-go likening the Carrot-in-Chief to the second noblest Roman of them all. It is akin to Dan Quayle’s self-comparison to JFK. We’ve studied Caesar in history, in literature. Anyone who took Latin read of Caesar’s exploits in his own words. We know Julius Caesar. That guy in the White House is no Julius Caesar.

The fault is not in the stars but in our President. The players have a firm grasp on their characters, but #45 is anything but the brilliant tactician, valiant soldier, and learned scholar Julius Caesar was. In his will, the real Caesar named the people of Rome among his heirs, and much of his property was turned over to the city. He was, in theory at least, a proponent of human rights. In Shakespeare’s version of the tale, he is a true patriot, whose vaulting ambition undermines his love of country. As trusted as a politician might be, that Caesar is an upholder of the Republic, a servant of the people.

The current American POTUS believes in nothing and in no one but himself. His ambition may sometimes pose as patriotism, but he abhors the body politic and disdains his fellow citizens. He is a narcissist, a pompous blowhard, whose rise to power is entirely the folly of the rabble that Marullus addresses at the top of the play as, “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!” These modern day “hard hearts of Rome” have raised up a feeble prince as their savior, and it is his inadequacy that destroys the current production at its core.

Theoretically, this play is an apt mirror unto our times. It’s about the corruption of power, about the way in which the fickle masses aggrandize false prophets, the way we easily relinquish our power to undeserving leaders. And what is art if not the means by which we see ourselves? As Brutus tells Cassius, “ . . . the eye sees not itself/ But by reflection.” If the play were the thing wherein to catch the conscience of a despot, then the slings and arrows of post-Pompey Rome should be the perfect foil for our present morass.

But Shakespeare’s play is lost in a jumble of ill-fitting implications. Having chosen to contemporize the play, Eustis could have preserved it and made it work in the way that some of our best popular entertainment works. Julius Caesar is as much Frank Underwood (House of Cards) or Don Draper (Mad Men) as he is the self-proclaimed Roman god. If Eustis had cast a Trump-ish leader without the multiple specifics that make this one exclusively Donald Trump, the play might have prevailed. It might have been set anywhere in the US, the title character played as any generic American politician. The satire would be obvious. The audience would extrapolate the underlying meaning without graphic detail. The writing is strong enough to work without the cartoonishly overblown visual references this director supplies. But Eustis doesn’t trust us.

His Julius Caesar is more about itself than it is about anything verging on what Shakespeare created. This JC strides the earth like a Donald-cloned Colossus, replete with the long red tie and the bright yellow pompadour. His Calpurnia (Tina Benko) walks with a sneer and speaks with an exaggerated Slovenian accent. There is no doubt who these two are. Eustis is so afraid we won’t get it, he even adds words to Caesar’s opening statements, having him directly address the good people of New York, telling them he is the greatest, that he will please them bigly. Then, just to be sure we haven’t missed it, he sets the scene preceding the murder in a bathtub full of steaming water. Calpurnia, rolling all her Rs and jumbling her sentence structure, almost succeeds in seducing him into staying at home on this dangerous Ides of March. But when the conspirators arrive and convince him he must to the Senate and receive his just rewards, this Orange Julius stands so that everyone can see his shriveled little appendage. Thanks, Mr. Eustis.

Calpurnia (Tina Benko) uses body language to dissuade her Caesar (Gregg Henry) from leaving his home on his fateful day. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The production definitely improved after Caesar’s death. But even then, it reminded me more of a high school theater’s attempt at satire. The addition of crowds chanting “We rise” and “Resist” and other all-too-recognizable standards was cheap, amateurish. The hand was so overplayed that the overall experience was numbing.

Which was too bad on many levels.

Brutus (Corey Stoll) and Cassius (John Douglas Thompson) seal their deal. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Some wonderful acting got lost in the melee. Corey Stoll’s brooding Brutus is a thoughtful intellectual. But played in the light of the stunningly farcical Caesar, he seems more like the supercilious guy from the SNL “Deep Thoughts” routine of years ago. John Douglas Thompson is a powerful Cassius, whose ardor and sincerity work well when he is in scenes with Stoll’s Brutus but look ridiculous when he’s anywhere near the other characters and the absurdity of the staging. Stoll and Thompson are in a play of their own. Whenever they must interact with the rest of the company, they are like characters from a Pirandello scenario experimenting with interpretations. Especially when they are playing scenes opposite this feeble Julius Caesar. Or Marc Anthony.

Elizabeth Marvel’s Anthony, with an on-again-off-again Southern accent, is as much a cartoon as the slain hero she mourns. She reminded me more of the television version of Wonder Woman than of anyone cunning enough to have led the retaliation forces that shape the play’s action. I love that a woman is entrusted with this role. I wish the actor, who has played so many powerful, strong-willed, charismatic leaders in her past, had had license to embody a soldier I might have believed.

Nor is Gregg Henry culpable. He plays Julius Caesar exactly as the production demands. Which makes for an overlong SNL skit – where he’d give Alex Baldwin some real competition – rather than anything close to real dramatic art. If this were a sketch by the Uptown Citizens’ Brigade, I’d give him a standing ovation. Alas, it’s Shakespeare in the Park.

And something I’m a bit unclear about here. When Julius Caesar is assassinated, there is no question that the man with the tight suit and the impervious swagger is the present POTUS. Which means that in essence, it is #45 who is stabbed in effigy. How is that not treason? How does this not cross the line? And when the line is crossed, how is the satirist any less officious and self-important than his subject?

It’s all well and good to time bend, gender bend, and story bend in Shakespeare. Two Verona gentlemen dancing blithely in ‘70s hip-hop psychedilia, a midsummer night’s dream transpiring in a floating phantasm of umbrellas, and Coriolanus as a Nazi general are easily acceptable. Each is a fitting transformation. Shakespeare wrote characters and stories that breathe universally over time and across any era. But in order for the re-juxtaposing to work, the basic assumption must be appropriate.

In the end, Julius Caesar is not a comedy of errors, and it doesn’t play well as one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How Can We Not Resist? (reprinted from Medium.com)

Photo by Aylan Kurdi

Photo by Aylan Kurdi

That photo. The Syrian baby lying face down in the water.

I can’t bear to look at it, yet I cannot look away. That beautiful child, so like children I have loved, so very like my own grandchild now living in a faraway land, who will never feel welcome in her parent’s homeland.

As the child of immigrants, who would not exist had my family not figured out how to circumvent the ban on refugees in 1939 that deemed Poles too dark, too swarthy to be admitted, especially if they were Jews, how can I not abhor the implications of that photo? How can I not scream murder, now that the Predator-in-Chief has exercised his Executive Privilege and has broken the law by banning refugees from seven countries, including Syria, whose people are being massacred and cannot stay where they are.

In school, the lessons we learned in Civics classes taught us that America was not only the land of the free and home of the brave but also the land of Checks and Balances. We have three branches of government so that no one branch becomes too powerful. Why is the judiciary allowing this flagrant law breaking to happen? Why is the Legislature not standing up for the laws they have enacted?

It is clear that it is up to us, The People to demand that our Union be treated with respect. We cannot accept the abuse, cannot allow the current state of affairs to become normalized. We must defy this executive order that, like the other 44 that have been ramrodded through in the past ten days, defies understanding. And this executive order is the one that is the most indefensible thus far.

Because this order sets a precedent. It paves the way for more heinous implications. It puts every one of us in jeopardy though it is being advertised as a measure to protect us from interlopers. In truth, it is a measure to divide us, to terrify us, to make us look for bogeymen in our closets, under our beds, next door, in our communities.

And in time, it will allow each of us to be banned in our turn.

The bare truth is that not one American has ever been killed by anyone from any of the seven banned countries. Even 9/11, which was one of the few acts of violence enacted on American soil by outsiders, was not perpetrated by anyone from any country on the banned list. It was orchestrated almost openly, defiantly, by Jihadists in Saudi Arabia, a country with whom the Bushes were accused of colluding, a country with whom the Trump Koch oligarchs who want to strangle America have deep financial ties, a country saliently not included on the ignominious list. The countries listed are homes to some of the poorest, neediest, most endangered souls on this earth.

There is a pattern here, part of the pattern being woven domestically. The Oligarchy is moving toward hording all our resources. It will eliminate the poor and the working poor and the middle class by putting health care and assistance and ample education out of our reach. And it will circle the wagons to keep the poor out and let only the wealthy in

Yet Americans buy the Kool-Aid, drink it willingly, feel grateful that they are being protected from some encroaching danger that is aiming its slings and arrows at the core of our existences. It’s easy to stick the Muslims out. So many of us don’t comprehend who they are, what they represent, what they believe. Propoganda is powerfully effective, the sugar that sweetens our sadder realities.

Terrorism by Muslims makes up less than one-third of one percent of all murders in this country. A far greater percentage are the result of domestic violence, violence that this administration would like to decriminalize.

This same administration will make it increasingly impossible for gun safety laws to be enacted. Your neighbor’s middle-aged aunt in Somalia who needs a heart transplant may be blocked from entry to our country, but guns being transported from illegal points of distribution worldwide are under no such scrutiny. Any angry husband almost anywhere in America can find a way to get a gun to kill his family.

The current nominee for Secretary of Education suggests we need guns in schools to protect our children from grizzly bears though she cannot have possibly missed the fact that not one single child has been massacred in a grizzly bear attack. Many have, however, been cut down in far more grizzly attacks by disgruntled white teenagers or white supremacists or locally disenfranchised misfits, for whom assault weapons are easier to obtain than Twizzlers.

No single school at any level in any community of any part of this country has been attacked by terrorists from anywhere abroad. But since a heavily armed, sociopathic teen gunned down twenty six- and seven-year-olds plus six of their care givers and teachers, gun violence in schools continues its steady rise.

Somehow, it has become okay for white psychopaths to terrorize our families, but it’s not okay for the huddled masses to seek refuge in the arms of Lady Liberty.

Most shocking to me is that there is a faction of pseudo-religious zealots, who call themselves pro-lifers cheering for these Draconian measures, trumpeting their approval, insisting that our resistance should be put down. They claim to advocate for the unborn children who deserve to live.

How can this photo not move them to rise up against such blatant hypocrisy?

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photo by Aylan Kurdi

 

 

 

 

 

Border Wars on the Mind

I perceive Gaza these days through a Texas-tempered lens.  Watching the hateful  citizenry of the wealthiest country in the world scream obscenities at indigent waifs displaced by violence and poverty, instructing them to go back to where they come from, I am reminded of stories my mother told about her arrival in Kingston just before WWII.  My mother was no waif, and poverty was not the impetus for her flight to the Land of Opportunity, but her stories inevitably lead me all the way to Gaza.

Mom’s family arrived without their patriarch in April, 1939, toward the end of what proved to be her junior year in high school.   She surprised herself by passing the English regents exam in May and so began the process of applying to college.  Her senior year felt friendless to her; classmates jeered her, mocked her accent.  Girls in the lunch room turned chairs over so she could not sit with them, and in gym class, they threw dirty socks and wet towels at her.  Teachers derided her, telling her they were unable to understand her when she spoke, deliberately refusing to call on her in class. The entire community – especially the entrenched first-and-second generation descendants of immigrants– treated her and her siblings as interlopers, avoiding them all at synagogue and football games alike, attempting to rebuff her brother’s attempts to join the Boy Scouts, even suggesting on numerous occasions that the lot of them return to their “own country.”

Fresh off the boat, Charlotte Robinson, my mother,  was 16 in 1939.

Fresh off the boat, Charlotte Robinson, my mother, turned 16 in 1939.

Of course, they owned no country any more than those homeless children seeking asylum at our Southwest borders do today.  Born in Austria during a time when Jews were highly respected, my mother reached her teens at precisely the time when Jews were successfully relegated to the status of lice.  Her passport, any European’s primary form of identification, was stamped Israelische, marking her as an outsider, a member of the tribe of Israel.  She was not Austrian.

Which was initially why she joined the Jabotinsky youth, planned to leave the vitriolic land of her birth to claim her rightful home in Eretz Isroel.

My grandfather put a stop to that.  “You think I’ll let you leave the Nazis only to throw yourself into the hands of the Arabs who want you dead?  Besides,” he told her, “the Jews cannot own the ‘promised land because the Europeans will never let it go.  You will come with us to America.’”

She was only 15; she acquiesced.  Ironically, she emigrated without her father.  In a move that may have helped to seal the fate of the Middle East, the United States closed its borders to Jews like my grandfather, who were born in countries that seemed somehow un-Caucasian, such as Poland, and were frantically seeking refuge under Lady Liberty’s lamp.  While my mother endured the slurs of her classmates, her father lived in Havana, working to become a Cuban citizen who might then be allowed to enter the United States.

America has never really welcomed the huddled masses.  At the end of WWII, American money –much of it from second and third generation Americans protecting their American territory from newcomers to these shores – veritably gushed in support of the partition of Israel, over the protestations of the local Palestinians.  It was more expedient to force the displacement of the Palestinians, to fuel the hatred of neighboring Arab countries, who wanted nothing to do with either Palestinians or Jews, than to profer better solutions to a problem to which they had been catalysts in the first place.

Over the arc of time, the European imperialists and Americans had imposed arbitrary boundaries across the Middle East, comporting themselves like puppet masters overseeing a bloody marionette show for their own entertainment.  In much the same way the British and the French turned Iroquois against Algonquin in the so-called French and Indian War by arming the natives and rewarding their aggression, the Western world played the locals off against one another, all over the Middle East.  Today the forces seem to have raised the stakes,  and they produce animatronic battles between Palestinian and Israelis (and between Suni And Shiite Muslims elsewhere), doling out money to each side so that the show runners can sit back and watch both sides exchange bombardments.   In the present Gaza conflagration, the U.S. has steadfastly encouraged the warring factions to go at one another, financing a bloodier extension of the age-old Jacob vs Esau, Isaac vs Ishmael rivalries.  They have sent millions of dollars to Hamas for the building of missile tunnels; and they have sent more millions of dollars to Israel for the building of The Dome.  The combatants in Gaza are egged on, like contestants in an obscene reality television show, while the odds are alternately stacked for one side or the other.

Unfortunately, each side is fueled by the deeply religious conviction that that side has a God-given right to the land, was placed there by divine ordinance.  Religion is an immovable feast.

But even were the religious obstinacy absent, neither side has anywhere else to go. The two peoples are caught in a battle for survival, and until one side finally trusts the other enough to make concessions, they’ll be unable to settle things.  So long as Hamas promises to eradicate the Land of Israel by any means possible, Israel cannot trust them to honor boundaries; so long as Israel won’t concede the West Bank, which Israel considers essential to guarding against eradication, Hamas won’t accept compromise.

Which leaves them both unable to stop fighting.  If there were another place to create a homeland; if, for example, the US offered a chunk of Arizona or Utah – where vast open areas of desert beg to be developed – as an alternate place to establish Israel or Palestine, would one group exit and start over?  We’ll never know.  Because both groups are as unwelcome in their diaspora as the children being sent back to South and Central America are in theirs.  So neither side is able to let go of their claim to the land of Abraham, their common ancestor.  They’re orphans, hated universally, shunned by all.

Somewhere I imagine closed circuit television cameras recording the action, playing back the videos in some perverse gambling casino, where bets are flying, emirs and pashas and captains of industry and Wall Street moguls and all kinds of professional gamblers are getting rich placing bets on how many Palestinian children will die in how much time and how many weeks Israeli children can hold out in their giant dome before it’s their turn to be destroyed.

It’s a vicious storm, from which nobody is safe.

My Writing Process Blog Tour

I herewith enter my work into a blog post relay, invited to do so by a wonderfully talented and generous blogger by the name of Thelma Adams. You can see Thelma pictured here, in a photo I pilfered from her FB post, showing her with MoMA film curator Rajenda Roy at the Provincetown Film FEstival. thelmaandroy

You can read her blog here: http://www.thelmadams.com. The first part of the process is to answer a few questions about my process.

To whit:
1. What am I working on now? Oh, dear, that is a convoluted question. Is it ever not a convoluted question for writers? It looks like we’re doing nothing but staying home and grazing, avoiding the telephone, shunning family and friends, being insular. But in fact, we have several projects at work in various stages, and everything out there is a distraction, every loved one an unwitting saboteur. Okay. So I’ll attempt to answer the question. I am at present accumulating research notes on life in Vienna and Zagreb between world wars, especially in the assimilated Jewish community, for a book I am writing about my mother’s generation, the losses they endured, and the devastating effect of that loss on my generation. At the same time, I am interviewing people, visiting sites in NYC for my column in Catch & Release, the Columbia Journal online (http://catchandrelease.columbiajournal.org/2014/06/12/get-real-robert-schenkkan-helps-unpack-the-paradox-of-all-the-way/), which I file every other Thursday. So far, I have posted stories about Hilton Als, Robert Schenkkan; a look at the Leslie-Lohman Museum will debut Thursday, and I am working on my post for the week of the 10th of July. Stay tuned. When it comes to my blog, I try to write my own observations. Sometimes I review film or theater or literature, sometimes I’ll describe a character or characters, other times I’ll comment on a social condition. Often, I reprint articles that I have published elsewhere.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre? Like most skillful writers, I have a distinct voice, a specific point of view. I am a story teller, and I try to infuse some of my sense of irony, even my dark humor, but I am not a comic writer; I tell stories with pathos, but I am not a dark dramatist. I let the story mirror its own emotion, keep it as non-manipulative as the story allows me to be. I am more interested in the people I write about than the plot of their story, so there will always be more detail about the life my characters live than the blow-by-blow of the storyline.

3. Why do I write what I do? I am compelled to write about moments I believe will shine a light on other people’s circumstances. I hope that there is a universal nugget in every story I tell, a portal to understanding some aspect of the human existence that had been hiding under a different point of view. I am especially interested in why and how people survive, what survival costs and what it earns, how survival redirects lives. I am less interested in heroics than I am in the more difficult task of surviving in the face of powerlessness. There is more acknowledgement for the survivor who rails against fate and wrestles it to the death than there is for the survivor who flees. Sometimes escape takes more courage, more strength than any kind of pushback, and I want to tell stories of people who endured, carried on, lived with the knowledge that they did not turn things around.

4. How does my writing process work? As you can plainly see from my first reply here, I am an inveterate procrastinator, but that procrastination is integral to my process. I must take walks, wander my apartment investigating the contents of my cupboards and refrigerator, flip tv channels, crunch chips or cucumbers or cauliflower, play a few rounds of Scrabble while my thoughts gel, and then I can begin to formulate the words on a page. I am a good excuse fabricator, but in the final analysis, I can get down to business pretty efficiently, especially if I know I have a deadlines,  to which I am very responsive. (One reason I returned to school last year was to impose stricter deadlines on myself.)  Mostly, I think the hardest thing I have to accomplish is giving myself permission to write. I grew up being trained to see my duty to family, house and community as far more important than the simple accumulation of words, and I a constantly reminding myself that writing is my work now, writing is my obligation, writing is my reason for being.

I have invited three writers to join me on this tour, and I am awaiting confirmation from two. But fortunately for everyone, Caroline Gerardo, the author of several novels, including Toxic Assets and The Lucky Boy, has agreed to join. Besides being a novelist, Caroline is a performance poet, a photographer a blogger (http://carolinegerardo.blogspot.com ). Caroline lives in California and Wyoming with her children, and you can learn more about her here: http://carolinegerardo.com/home. I am posting today, and she will post her tour blog next week. Coming in the next day or two, the names and bios of my second and third partners in this venture.

My newest blog post, entitled LA MISERABLE, will appear here tomorrow at 8 a.m.

Counting Culture

In 1993, my daughter was a sophomore in high school, and, having swum competitively since she was a 6-and-under, she was in an elite championship meet at Hamden High School.  I was lucky.  Swimming was a pastime for this child; she was more committed to her drama program and, while she was a talented athlete, she put very little expectation or effort into the sport.  But because I have two other children, far more invested in sports than she was, I understood what the parents around me were going through, and I recorded my observations.  Elite sports are costly endeavors, and cost is not merely a matter of money.

2/24/1993

The stands are hot.  Clammy.  Outside the temperatures are in the 50’s — we’re having a February thaw — but heat’s being pumped in here as if the winter chill were permeating the natatorium.

I’m up at the top of the bleachers, having staked out a little piece of real estate where I can write while I watch, where I can be involved and yet keep a modicum of distance.  I’m here to support my kid, but luckily for me, she’s not terribly nervous about any of it; she’s here to have fun.  What a thought.

The many mothers and several fathers in attendance have shed their sweatshirts; experience has taught them well, and they dress in layers.  The blue jeans will soon come off as well; rarely do parents attend swim meets clad in more than shorts and tees.

“I’m a wreck,” says Sue as she places her multitudinous bags near me to my left and begins to lay out the day’s food and towel rations.  She’s a trim, agile, 40-something mom, here with her youngest child, a Division One college swim team hopeful.  “This meet means so much to Emily.  See that young man standing with her coach?  He’s the Assistant Coach from the U of A — he’s here to see her.”  I nod appreciatively.

The woman who has settled in to my right sighs as she sheds a layer of clothing. “I sure am glad I knew enough to wear my summer things today.”  Her daughter approaches during a break in the warm-up, and Sue and I no cease to exist for her.  “How you doing, Sweetie?  You looked like you were draggin’ out there?”

“No, Ma.  I’m okay!”

“You sure?  You want me to get you some food?”

“No.  I told’ja I’m okay.  I just ate before warm-up.  I’m fine.  Leave me alone.”

“You need to swim fast, Baby.  Only one more chance after today to make nationals.”

“Yeah.  Like I didn’t know that.  Geeze.  I gotta go.”

“Wait.  I. . . .” Mom is interrupted by the sound of the announcer’s voice echoing from the pool deck; the mic sounds hollow, and the spectators strain to hear if he is saying something important.

“This is the last call for timers, Ladies and Gentlemen.  If your team is not sufficiently represented, your swimmers will be disqualified.  Any questions about that should be directed to the meet director. . . .”  His voice is lost in the sound of coaches calling sprint warm-up instructions.

Ready. . . hup.”  Sound of feet beating on the water, hands flailing splashes upward.  “Ready . . . hup.”  Beat.  Beat.  Beat.  “Ready . . .hup.”

Sue shifts her weight and sighs audibly.  “This has got to be the hottest pool in the State of Connecticut.  Why are we having this meet here of all places?”

“Just be grateful this isn’t the Dragon Classic.  That meet is so over-enrolled.  They pack ’em in here like coals in a hibachi.  Yuck.  I hate that meet.”

“Carla, what do you suppose they’re talking about?”  Sue is staring helplessly at the coaches in mid-discussion; the officials clear the pool.  There is last-minute adjustment of equipment, and the meet is about to begin.”

“Dinner, Sue.  What else could they be talking about?  No one’s swimming yet.  It’s too. . . ”

I break off.  The Darien team is beginning their ritual cheering.  Acoustics of the pool intensify the shouting.  It reverberates from the concrete walls to the concrete floor, bounces off the steel beam rafters and resounds on the naked ear.  No one’s throat is strong enough to succeed in conversing over the cacophony of cheering that ascends the bleachers.  A whistle blows.  Cheering stills.  Absolute silence for a moment as the assembly holds its collective breath.  Swimmers congregate behind the blocks.  The official commands, “Backstrokers in the water.”  A new chorus of cheering.

The pre-meet party atmosphere dissolves.  The girls assembled in neat little groups of four behind each block stop chewing on their goggles.  They pull at the bottoms of their suits, adjust their caps. Goggles are strapped on; backstrokers enter the water.

This is the 200-yard Medley Relay.  Take your mark. . . .” The starter horn beeps, and the race begins.  Waiting swimmers watch intently, straining, calling to temammates to move faster.  The first heat is small — only two swimmers in the water.  From somewhere on the deck, a coach’s whistle bleats out the rhythm for the breaststroke leg.  Teammates yell.  “GOPHYLLISGOGERIGOSTEFANIEGO.”

The yelling on the deck is wild. This is a close race.  In the stands, the intermittent “Gobaby” “GoJody” “Harder, Susan” are replaced by a frenzy of yelling.  Everyone’s baby is commanded to “Pickitup,” to “Dig, baby, dig,” and “Getherpassher.” Lanes three and four are neck and neck.  On the last leg of the freestyle — “C’mon Melanie.” “GoKatie.” “FlyJessica!” – a girl from the Wilton team pulls ahead.  Excitement explodes.

“Excuse me,” a fit older woman taps me on the shoulder.  “Is there a bookstore nearby?  My daughter isn’t swimming for at least an hour yet, and she needs a book for an English assignment.”  I give her directions.  As she prepares to leave, she moans, “God this place is miserable.  We’ll be here till 6:30 at least.”  I nod, understanding her frustration; we have been assembled since before noon.  “I wish,” she goes on; “that Y meets were governed by the same 4-hour time rule they imposed on USS meets.”  I agree with her, but she has already left to seek out the Walden Bookstore across the street.

I watch her climbing down the bleachers and think about the amount of time we spend here together, these other parents and I.  And how many more hours we spend driving children to practice, to meets, to the gym for training.  And how very hard our children work, developing their sport, participating in other activities at school, studying for high grades, attempting to juggle a social life.   What is the ultimate goal?  Do we know?

“Oh God, Carla.”  Sue tugs on my arm.  The last heat of the 200-yard freestyle is up.  “Emily is swimming.  Oh God.  Oh God.”  She rubs her hands together, clutching her stopwatch, and moves closer to the railing, bracing herself as she prepares to record Emily’s time.

The referee’s whistle shrieks.  Sue sucks in her breath.  “This is the final heat of the 15 and older girls 200-yard freestyle.  Take your marks. . . BEEP.”

A crashing splash resounds as six bodies hit the water in nearly perfect unison.

Emily takes the immediate lead.

From the snack bar downstairs,  the smell of popcorn wafts into our awareness.  “GOTIPPIGO.”  “GOEMILEEEEEE.”  The popcorn smell seems to add to the warmth.  Sweat beads have gathered on Sue’s brow and upper lip.  She presses her bottom lip over her upper one and sucks away the moisture.  She fans herself.  Emily heads into the turn after the 125.

“She’s off her time.  Ohgodohgodohgod.  She’s way off.  Nearly a second at the 100, and she’s not making it up.  He’ll think she’s clutching.”

“He’s no fool, Sue.”  I reassure her.  “He knows about training schedules.  Emily’s in double workouts, weights and. . . ” Emily is coming in for the finish.  She’s a full length ahead of the competition, and her time is 85/one-hundreths of a second slow.  Sue rocks in place, tapping her forehead on the railing in front of her, blinking furiously.  We are joined by Emily’s coach and a handsome young man in a suit, carrying a swim bag proclaiming ARIZONA SWIMMING and bearing University of Arizona colors.

“Sue Smith, this is Jim Lutz,” offers the Cheshire coach.

Sue wipes the sweat from her palms and offers a weak right-handed clasp.  The Arizona coach smiles deeply.  “Emily’s swim was lovely.  I can see the training strain in her stroke.  She’ll be awesome at seniors when she’s tapered.”

I can almost feel Sue’s body relax.  She smiles now.  The Arizona coach takes his next cue from her grin.  “You easterners think Arizona is hot?  This pool is ridiculous.  Whew.”  He blots his forehead, pulls at his collar and stretches his neck.  “Let’s go outside where we can talk in peace. . . and cool.”

The third heat of boys’ breaststroke is in the water, and the parents around us are screaming “GOJEREMY” “GOMIKEY” “GOJASON” in discordant unison.  A woman I have never seen slips into the seat next to me.  “I went out in my shirt sleeves to get cold and came back in to warm up,” she admits.  “I’ll probably get pneumonia,” she suggests.

“No,” I disagree.  “God protects the innocent . . . and swim parents.”  She laughs feebly and looks around for her place in the bleachers.  It wasn’t a funny joke, but it released a bit of tension.

The Cheshire coach takes the seat that Sue just vacated.  “Oh boy, why do they have the heat on in here, will you tell me?”  I’m not sure if the question’s rhetorical, but he’s looking at me, so I shrug.  He takes that as a signal to go on.

“Emily’s got some big decisions to make.”  The referee calls the girls’ 50-yard freestyle to the blocks.  A mother behind me stands up and screams.  The starter beeps the horn.  Now she is jumping up and down.  “Look at her go.”  Her daughter wins the race.  “Another two years of this, and the colleges will be knocking down our doors to get him. ”

The next heat is up.  A mid-thirty-ish mother — she seems so very young in this context — in running shorts and a tank top sitting in front of me holds her arms tightly at her chest and breathes through clenched teeth.  Her child will be up in the heat after this one, she tells her companion.  “At least I know that my mother is making pot roast and mashed potatoes for our Sunday dinner tonight.  So, no matter what happens here, I have something good to look forward to.”  She giggles a little, self-conscious but unabashed.

The Cheshire coach leans closer to me.  “Age group parents are so naïve.  They think it’s so easy to sell your kid to a school.  They should ask you and Sue Smith.”  He walks away to pace across the aisle behind the back row of stands.  His back is wet with perspiration, and he fans himself absently with a program, then stops to adjust his stopwatch as one of his younger swimmers approaches the blocks to swim the 200 I.M.

Sue returns as the announcer — finally — reads the results of the 15-and-over Girls’ 200-yard freestyle race.  Emily’s name bounces tinily from the rafters.  Sue is smiling, and the perspiration begins to accumulate on her upper lip again.

The top heat of 13/14 girls’ fly is up.  The noise level reaches fever pitch — there’s a horse race in lanes three and four.  The parents of both swimmers are diagonally behind us, to our right.  As the cheering swells –shouts in perfect rhythm with the rotating arms hitting sharply the pale blue water — the racers’ moms scream first at the indifferent pool, then at each other.

At the finish, the winner touches 3/100 of a second before the opponent.  The mothers embrace.  Both kids have dropped time to qualify for the national meet they’ve prayed for all season long.

“My heart won’t stand too many more years of this,” says the winner’s parent.

“You say that every year, and we’ve been doing this for eight years already.”

“Yeah, but the time drops are less frequent now.  I get more nervous. What if he fails?  What if he messes up?  Then the colleges. . . ”  Her voice trails off as another top-seeded heat hits the water to the accompaniment of strained shouts, frantic yells.  Sue lifts her eyebrows and grins sardonically at me.  “Walk outside with me for a minute, will ya?”  My daughter won’t be swimming for another fifteen or twenty minutes again, so I gratefully accept the excuse to exit the sauna for a brief respite.

The silence bursts into my eardrums as painfully as the sunlight retracts my pupils.  The residue hum impedes my hearing at first, and I strain to see through the offending light.

“I can’t stand age group moms anymore.  Were we like that, Carla?  If they aren’t planning their trips to the Olympics, then they’re counting the big bucks the colleges are going to offer.  Is that what we got into this for?”

“I wasn’t aware I ever had a choice, Sue, to tell you the truth.”

Sue laughs.  “You’re right.  The really good ones can’t be pushed.”

“Only because they’re doing all the pushing.”

We talk about some of the kids we know who have left swimming, their parents’ disappointment, the feeling of wasted years.  They just couldn’t focus on this anymore.  I know my daughter is headed there and soon.

“They all thought those years of going hoarse in the stands, sweating out the races would pay off big time if they just kept pushing.  They saw cheap college, Olympic glory down the road.  But so few actually stick it out.  And then you get to where we are. . . .”

“So what’d Lutz say?”

“He wants her.”

“I knew he would.”

“I didn’t.”

“Will they pay?”

“Some.  Not all.  Maybe more the second year.  If she lives up to her potential.  She’s the best in Connecticut, but not so highly ranked nationwide.”

“Does she know what she’s getting into?  This is the big time.  Lots bigger than Clemson or Perdue.”

“I hope so.  I hope so.  Oh, it’s all so nerve-racking.  This might e the best money she’s offered, but . . . .”

“I guess it’s a decision she’ll have to make on her own.”

“Yeah.  I don’t know what to tell her.”

“Don’t’ look at me.  I’m no help.  I was in the same boat last year.  Should I encourage my kid to turn down Yale if he’s accepted and take the scholarship from TEXAS?  Do we fly to Arizona to look at their program, knowing full well that he’ll never have the choice to quit if he takes it?   Or do we grit our teeth and spend the rest of our lives treading water so he can . . . Well, you get the picture.  Only time will tell if he made the right choice.”

“It was so easy when they were little, and all we worried about was if they’d win the high point trophy they were drooling over at Age Groups. ”

“Amen to that.  Shit.  I have to go back in there.  It’s feeling good to shiver a little, but my little girl — who’m I kidding?  She’s no such thing anymore! — is going to swim the 100-free, and I need to be there.  Thank goodness she’s going to be applying to drama programs; swimming will be secondary.”

Sue laughs at me.  “Right,” she says.  “But then you’ve got number three!”

As I re-enter the stadium to watch my daughter swim her race, I feel a wave of familiar humidity tickle my nose.  A rush of cheering greets my ears, and I faintly hear Sue’s voice behind me.

“You fool.  You love this.  We all do.”

She’s right.

Hot Time, Summer in the City

Something I’ve observed this summer, worse than ever before, is that tourists are invading every corner of the city, making demands, being cranky, expecting to find Valhalla and finding instead the tricked out, dark underbelly of Oz.  They have bought into the Disney image of New York that Mayor Bloomberg and his 1%-ers have hyped to the hilt, and they blame New Yorkers for the fact that in real life, this city is still a dirty, noisy, hot, muggy, polluted, poorly air-conditioned and ridiculously expensive cesspool.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love New York.  I have never wanted to live anywhere else.  But when I am solvent enough to leave the city every summer, I shall.  Where will I go?  Anywhere but here.

Summer temperatures top 1000 at least in heat index for much of the summer.  While weather idiots on the tube regularly crow about the gloriously hot summer temps, they are safely ensconced in studios with average temperatures of 700F or lower, knowing they are about to get into hyper-cooled town cars that will whisk them back to whatever well A/C’d suburban lushness they left this morning. The rest of us are pouring schvitz, and no building we find ourselves stuck in is adequately cooled.

For most of us in New York — both native and visitor — there is no place to go for real relief.  The tourist who paid exorbitant prices to get here is not going to leave the city for a weekend spent floating in a not-nearly-as-icy-as-it-used-to-be glacial lake in the Adirondacks, which might be the only place left in the Northeast that isn’t miserable.  That tourist is probably wishing s/he had considered Alaska for this summer vacation.  Whatever possessed her to come here?

New Yorkers — well, those of us stuck down her here on the ground for the summer; remember, the 1% are out of town or in their refrigerated towers where weather is irrelevant — take the blame.  The tourists scream at us, push us out of their way, scowl at us when we try to help them.  And the way they treat service industry workers is appalling.

Last week, in a moment of exaggerated irony, I heard a woman yell at her husband, “Stop that.  You sound like a New Yorker.”  He was in mid-rant, flinging filthy epithets at a tour guide whose bus was full and could not take the couple onto her bus.  I was standing close by, a witness to the whole episode.  “I’m sorry for your trouble,” the guide had said consolingly.  “I’ve called the dispatcher to send an empty bus. You are not alone — we have . . .”  “You f-ing liar,” growled the man as the guide ran back onto the bus, pleading for the driver to close the doors behind her because the man was clearly about to lunge.  “You’ve made me stand here for two f-ing hours, you stupid bitch.  You think I believe for one minute that you got off your fat ass to. . .” The tour guide said less than nothing; she did look like she was close to tears.  If this guy was any example of the kind of customers she’d been taking on all day, she was probably frazzled.  And broke because no one was tipping.

Most Americans  — and foreigners these days, for that matter — turn their noses up at tipping, and many foreigners simply don’t understand our system because where they come from, tips are included in the price they pay for everything; no one ever has to ask.  Most tourists view service industry people’s asking for tips as akin to panhandling.  Yet the tip seekers are hard working, critical members of the labor force.  Nothing would run without them.  Yet their greedy, megalomaniacal bosses don’t pay them what they are worth;  they expect you to do it for them.

Consider the same tour bus, for example.  You have paid what feels to you like a king’s ransom for the pleasure of sitting on a steaming solarium, getting stuck in traffic long enough to have your skin sun roasted to the color of polished pomegranate seeds.  But in truth, you have actually paid very little for the service you are receiving.  Think about it.  On every bus, there is a driver and a guide who will answer all your questions, take all your abuse.  At every stop there is a dispatcher who keeps the buses rolling and protects you from one another when you fight over who’s first in line.  In the offices there are accountants who count and account for the money and bosses who tell each of the underlings what to do at every moment.  You use this service as a taxi, and in a day’s time, your handful of money has paid for some 500 people to keep the rig running.

Do you honestly believe those 500 people are paid what they are worth?  How could the employers’ profits soar as they do — these are figures Mayor Bloomberg loves to crow over — if all those foot soldiers were substantially paid?

Out-of-towners look down on service industry workers, consider them beneath contempt. They are, after all, the working class and deserve to be underpaid, undervalued, overworked, and maltreated because they didn’t pay their dues, get a good education, work their way up the corporate ladder.  In this age of Romney-ite philosophy, if you’re not rich, you are a loser.

Boy are you in the wrong city for that attitude!  I’m sure it’s like this elsewhere, but in New York, a surprising  — no, an ASTOUNDING — percentage of those working blue collar jobs are well-educated, well-read millions who were traind for jobs in industries that have failed in the past two years . . . like publishing and its fellows.

And here’s another insight.  Maybe where you come from your bosses talk to you like you deserve to be treated like a human being.  But in New York, particularly in the tourism industry, thugs are in key management positions.  That same tour guide who was being upbraided mercilessly by the unhappy customer will go back to her post and take another verbal beating for some infraction she executed unawares, and when she gets her paycheck, chances are it will be short by at least five of her exhausting hours’ work.

So, what’s my point? 

I hope you do come to New York — come soon, and come often.  We need your dollars for sure.  But try to remember that you need the service industry workers at least as much as they need you.  They go out of their way to make sure you are having a great day; they answer your questions, make lists, point to landmarks to guide you on your way, recommend places to pee, protect you from as much of the unpleasantness as is humanly possible.  They bring you your food, valet your car, carry your over-stuffed suitcase, call your cabs, drive your transports, clean the washrooms (yes, they do — people are slobs, remember?), ensure that you get safely to whatever floor you seek and, well, there is little you don’t take for granted that doesn’t require your thanking a service person.

Treat all New Yorkers with kindness and respect.  But treat all your servers with some extra consideration.  Leave a tip.

And for goodness sake, try to have a great time.  That’s what you came here for.