All Power to the People

“Get down on your knees to remember what it’s like when the people
with power
literally loom over you.” 
Roald Dahl

The suggestion that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Price, now playing on Broadway, are comparable might leave the impression that I am delusional. Or painfully simplistic. And I hardly expect that anyone will run out to see the two back-to-back as I did last week. But I did, and I am compelled to point out the commonalities. And I’m not stretching.

Obviously, the plays represent vastly differing worlds. Charlie is a musical based on a children’s book by Roald Dahl. It takes place on the streets of London and in a fantastical candy factory. The Price is a drama, written by the iconic American tragedian Arthur Miller. This one is set in a prewar New York apartment, about to be torn down. But they were written by left-leaning writers deep in the throes disillusionment. Each features a protagonist who has been victimized by the vagaries of economics. Both reflect a kind of nostalgia for a humanity that is all too rare in our greed-driven society.

Arthur Miller’s The Price, on Broadway, starring (l to r) Jessica Hecht, Mark Ruffalo, Tony Shalhoub, and Danny DeVito.  Photo courtesy of The Roundabout Theatr.

What began my thinking process was the set of the current production of The Price, directed by Terry Kinney. In this iteration, designer Derek McLane has taken Miller’s hyper-real descriptions and created a surreal environment. The regal old world furniture of the bygone era of the family’s fortune flies suspended like memory over the action of the play. Memory is addled by time and perspective. We cannot trust it. But it dangles insistently, sometimes as a comfort but more often as a Damocles sword.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is entirely surreal. The play, with music and lyrics by Mark Shaiman and book by David Grieg, is set in the realm of the imagination. Memories mesh with wishes and become a kind of armor. Director Jack O’Brien and Designer Mark Thompson have kept the stage starkly simple.  The audience must suspend disbelief and accept this world as a real possibility.  Otherwise they miss the play’s fundamental truth.  Without his fancy, Charlie Bucket (Ryan Sell on the day I attended), might never see what life has to offer. Along with Charlie, we must reach out to worlds “not yet conceived, worlds that must be believed to be seen.”

Charlie is a member of a family so poor they eat rotten Brussels sprouts and make soup from moldy cabbage. His mother Mrs. Bucket (Emily Padgett), a widow, is responsible to feed an absurdly large number of mouths. She has no time or patience for the world of imagination that holds her son in its thrall. She wishes she were free to dream, but she’s been crushed by circumstance. Charlie’s four grandparents live in a single bed in the loft above the kitchen of their little flat. At first, none of them is able to leave that bed. The entire contingent seems cynical, resigned to their predicament, willing to remain prisoners of their poverty.

Grandpa Joe (John Rubenstein), Charlie’s paternal grandfather, is 96 and a half, “about as old as a man can be.” He worked for Willy Wonka when Wonka had nothing but a candy store and then became a security guard at the factory. But spies infiltrated the chocolate world and stole the recipes, forcing Wonka to fire everyone, including Mr. Bucket. Mr. Bucket is not bitter. He understands that his firing was a symptom of the company’s overall failure. And the company’s failure as a sign of the times.

As the story commences, Wonka (Christian Borle) has only just begun to recommence production of his most famous chocolate bar. The Golden Tickets he has hidden in the candy bars serve two purposes. They offer incentives for customers to try the candy and become fans. And they provide Wonka with an opportunity to seek out an honest person to inherit his legacy. He seems to be a man who will cheat even so sweet a boy as Charlie just to make a buck. But things are not as they seem.

In the current production, directed by Jack O’Brien, Charlie is a blithe spirit. He breezes through his troubles without resentment and greets his dismally accoutered world with unerring optimism. When he meets Willy Wonka disguised as a local candy store proprietor, he perceives a chance to be useful and subjugates his own burning desire for the Golden Ticket to the older man’s need for an assistant. He is not paid for his labor, and he never complains, even when a paycheck might enable him and his surreal coterie of bedridden forebears a decent meal. Wonka is a devious guy, squirrely, avaricious. But by the end of the play our suspicions about him are proved true: he’s a sensitive despot, a kind master. He manipulates fate a bit so that Charlie’s wishes can come true.

When Charlie finally finds a ticket after several unsuccessful attempts, he stands out among the winners as the only respectful, grateful presence in the group. Wonka has met him but in disguise and knows what to expect from Charlie, and Charlie does not disappoint. He is unfailingly concerned for the well-being of the others, and he is scrupulously honest and forthright. Charlie is the only contestant, whose eyes are not blinded by the grand prize.

He navigates every moment, present and cognizant of what is around him. He sincerely seeks to learn all there is to know about making chocolate, inventing new treats. He may be poor, but he has real soul. He has drive, but he is not driven to thwart others in his pursuit of his goals. He is a mensch. And this, we come to learn, is what Willie Wonka had hoped he would be. The meek shall inherit after all.

The Price protagonist Victor Franz (Mark Ruffalo) is walking collateral damage. His father lost everything in the Great Crash of 1929, and Victor’s future was compromised. He missed his chance to go to MIT and “be somebody.”   But Victor never questioned his responsibility. He moved in with Dad, took care of him when he was incapacitated, and sacrificed his will to the needs of the older man. He may not be as jovial as Charlie, but he is no less circumspect. He understands what his choices were, and he has no regrets. He has served as a policeman, has raised a fine son, has never stopped loving his cynical, needy wife (Jessica Hecht).

Victor’s wife is endlessly dissatisfied with everything except her husband, to whom she is unerringly loyal. But she wants more than he has to offer. She begs him to sell the contents of his father’s house at an inflated price. She wishes to buy her way into a life she deems more suitable than that of a policeman’s wife. Knowing the antiques appraiser is on his way, she encourages Victor to embellish the worth of his father’s belongings, to lie about their provenance.

Victor’s older brother Walter (Tony Shalhoub) also encourages the younger man to sell out to the highest bidder. Victor sees the inherent worth in the memories imbedded in his father’s furniture. Walter sees only the dollar value. He wants Victor to find a cutthroat appraiser/salesman, one who will fetch the highest price. There is no honor in memory, he insists. Only in wealth.

Mark Ruffalo, as Vincent Franz, and Danny Devito as Gregory Solomon in Arthur Miller’s The Price . (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The appraiser Gregory Solomon (Danny DeVito). is a possible agent of change not unlike Willy Wonka . Solomon, like Willy, is a purveyor of goods and seems to be out to take advantage of the honest man. But, like Wonka, Solomon appreciates the younger man’s honesty and his integrity. In the end, he enables Victor to keep his integrity, to remain faithful to his way of life. Victor will retain his Name. In an Arthur Miller play, the name is all.

It would be tempting to liken the productions on other levels. Danny DeVito,for example, making his Broadway debut, seems to have taken a few moves from Christian Borle’s play book. His Solomon is a Vaudeville version of Borle’s Commedia-based Wonka; both milk physical presence to augment the humorous irony of their characters. But that’s not the point.

We live in an era when most of us feel like Dahl’s intended audience. We are all “on their knees,” looking up at the giant fist of oligarchic power. Too many of us know what it is to be derided, as Victor is, for being satisfied with remaining in the economic middle class. We’ve felt the ridicule that Charlie endures for being poor. What makes both The Price and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory so satisfying is that their heroes stand in and up for us.  They show the world that right is might in all the ways that matter.

Christian Borle as Willy Wonka, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, now playing on Broadway (photo Courtesy of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre).

Best of all, neither Victor nor Charlie has lost his way. Neither has given in to the pressure to embrace the attitudes of those who perceive the un-rich as “losers.” Both have retained an innocence and a positivity that enables them to revel in their successes. By being good, honest people, they believed they would prevail. And despite encountering others whose greed and pride could undermine them, they do.

 

 

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My Pledge of Allegiance We’re Still Here

“The white tape works for roommates but not for patriots.  America needs us now more than ever.  Don’t ever let them forget WE’RE STILL HERE. ” Bill Maher 11 Nov 2011

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All over Facebook I see people writing things like, “This will help” as introduction to a posting about how the “real” Donald Trump won’t do any of the things he threatened during the campaign. “He was just campaigning,” they say. “The REAL Trump is not that guy. It’s okay. We’ll be fine.”

It doesn’t help. At all.

In fact, it just makes things worse to know that in order to gain power, Trump fed a hunger for hatred and encouraged the ingestion of bigotry that caused the great belly of this country to spew forth a mandate that normalizes misogyny, sexual assault, anti-LGBTQ behavior, racism, and exclusion.

It is NOT okay, and it’s not going to be okay if we accept the soporific that the “real Donald” is a better man than that.

All the disclaimer proves once again is that Trump is a con man, a demagogue, an inveterate opportunist, and he will continue to sell his snake oil, to poison the atmosphere with lies and empty promises until his supporters, his soldiers and slaves, awake and see him for what he is: stark, raving naked. But that will take time because having drunk the Kool-Aid, the minions of deplorables, who voted this man in, are infected with the absolute conviction that they are now in command, that their man will make them great, that they will defeat the insidious factions that seek to destroy them, and it will be a good long while before they realize that they, in fact, are their own worst enemies.

Trump is not a new phenomenon. Nor is he a surprise. Plato warned us of him in The Republic, Book VIII. No fan of the common man – he referred to the populace as a great beast – Plato argued that Democracy instills a lust for absolute freedom, a concept most are not equipped to understand. The people, he suggested, will inevitably assume that the democracy entitles every man to expect to get exactly what he wants, in material goods and individual rights. But the reality is that there will be inequities, and those inequities will increase as the rich get richer , and the poor are disempowered; the democrats will seek to placate the masses by stealing from the rich, and the poor will grow impatient, feeling increasingly disenfranchised as their dreams become ever more elusive. Then, says Pluto, the great beast will elect “a violent and popular leader,” whose power will grow as he fans his people’s fears by making them distrust one another, fueling suspicions of iconoclasts of any kind. He will tax the citizenry to fund his substantial army and his schemes for world domination, and he will trust no one while relying on criminals to do his bidding. Those henchmen will collude with him to enact crimes against the democrats who elected him. It is, then, the responsibility of the thinkers, the compassionate, the artists in a society to hold the mirror up to the nature of the state they are in and engender revolution.

Of course, it doesn’t help to know that Plato predicted this anymore than that Trump may not have meant what he expounded. Naturally, he was playing a character for the purpose of rallying the people, and Plato simply gives us a historical perspective. But it sure isn’t reassuring to realize that Trump has successfully painted himself into a corner where he must make good his campaign promises.

What does help is to know that there are armies of sentient sensate people out there, who will make sure we do not go gently into that dread night of total darkness that history warns is possible. We have a window of opportunity to avert the worst, and I know for a fact that there are more who disdain what has happened than those who rejoice, and in our numbers is the strength to prevail.

So, it’s not okay, but it could be. Eventually.

I have, over the years, kept in touch with scores of my students, many of whom are now approaching or are well into their forties. They are bringing up their children with deeply humanistic values, are setting an example for the millennials to follow. In their multivarious roles, they are provoking thought, are reconstituting our intellectual infrastructures, making differences.

When I returned to earn a second Master’s Degree in Fine Arts, I sat at tables with some of the finest writers and poets and playwrights and actors and visual artists I will ever have the honor to meet, and I heard them speak, read their words, experienced their work. I have faith in these young people, most of them millennials, and I know they will carry on, will pledge their talents to keeping the country awake, to reminding us all that we must not be silent, must eschew complacency, must be unafraid to remain committed to the fight that only began in the awful campaign of 2016.

Now, in fact, the fight has escalated. Truth is, we are again engaged in a great Civil War, testing and being tested. If we are to endure, we must choose to stand up and take a side, must commit to preventing the miasma from enveloping us, from defeating us, from suffocating us.

Like so many others, I have of late been stultified by the cataclysm I awoke to on November 9. But I need to reanimate. As a woman and as a woman who has experienced sexual assault and harassment, as a first generation American, as a Jew, as the sister of a beloved man who loves men, as a teacher in the CUNY system where most of my students are considered “others,” as friend to so many iconoclasts of all shapes and sorts, as the mother and grandmother of powerful, brilliant women, I am appalled.

But it’s not over till the diva sings her last, and I hear no America singing the heroine’s dying declarations. Rather, I hear bells ringing nationwide, and they are tolling for me and for thee.

It’s not okay.

But wall is not yet lost. We can still win by working to make sure that within the next four years the siege of terror comes to a halt. We can still win by acting in a way that proves that MOST Americans welcome others into our midst and value all contributions, by standing up to bullies. We can reject the notion that only losers need help and reach out to bring comfort to the hungry and the sick. We can lobby for better health care and universal insurance, for the environment; we can educate the masses about carbon footprints, about the ethical, responsible treatment of our earth and all its creatures, including our fellow man. Et cetera. There is no end to what we can and must do, what we must do together.

Together, most importantly, we must insulate ourselves from hatred by refusing to abhor the representatives of evil that seek to subjugate us; they must be shown that they cannot own us. By being unafraid, by insisting on turning our other cheek, not in submission but in defiance, we retain our power over ourselves, and we win.

They will go low. That’s a given, but that’s okay.   Because we will go high.

 

 

 

 

Eagles and Falcons and Hawks . . . oh My!

It was breathtaking. There I was, sitting on a bench at the top of Riverside Park conversing with a colleague, when the sky darkened , and a great swoosh of wings swept up a swirl of dust and leaves, and suddenly, we were in a scene from Jurassic Park. Or perhaps it was a post apocalyptic angel-of-death moment. Anyway, my heart stopped.  Any minute now, I thought, I’ll be grabbed by giant talons, carried away and gone in an instant.

I gathered my courage, looked up, and sure enough, there they were, directly overhead: two giant birds – great red-tail hawks – the larger in the lead, her wings stretching over four feet from tip to tip, her sharp claws pointing downward.

“Wow,” was all either of us could say as the birds flew away.

After a moment, when the wind had settled, and the sun had regained its prominence in the sky, was once more dappling the sidewalk through the leafy gobos, my friend sighed and said, “They’re all over the place all of a sudden. It’s amazing.”

I nodded. “It always surprises me that we are surprised. After all, reclamation is what nature does best.”

“But it feels like it’s happening all of a sudden. I mean, they’re taking over the parks. They didn’t used to be so commonplace, did then? Remember when everyone got excited about Pale Male and Lola, back in the late nineties?”

She was referring to a lone pair of hawks who famously chose a controversial nesting spot in a decorative neo-classical sculpture niche high atop a tony Fifth Avenue apartment house. Today Lola is long since dead, and Pale Male is twenty-four years old, a stalwart survivor, who has outlived at least eleven post-Lola mates, and he is no longer unique in the City. Which leaves city dwellers continually scratching their heads in wonder.

Or quaking in fear.

My daughter has an adopted apple head Chihuahua named Madhu. Though he is just simple enough to greet a falcon diving at him as a welcome invitation to play, he wouldn’t last long, as he weighs less than six pounds and would be easily transported to an urban aerie. My daughter, like her fellow small dog parents, will readily recount a tale, which may or may not be true, about a woman who was picnicking in a park near 125th Street when she looked up and saw a hawk carrying off a wailing, terrified Chihuahua. No protective screaming or rock throwing or batting away at the bird by the horrified pet’s family loosed the predator’s grip. They watched along with that woman and horrified onlookers as the great wings flapped, and the little dog’s pink leash, dangling from its already limp body, trailed off out of sight.

dog in the talons

Story from Out Walking the Dog, illustration by Charlotte Hildebrand

The woman is reported to have famously said, “I hate those birds, all birds of prey. If I had a rifle, I’d shoot them whenever I see them.”

Small pet people share this story with one another wherever they gather, warning one another to stay away from Riverside Park and Central Park and St. Nicholas Park and all the other parks in the city and to keep their guard up even on busy sidewalks – a small dog was nearly snatched from the sidewalk in midtown last week.  “What do you do if one attacks?” They ask each other, never sure there is a right answer.

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Madhu

Just yesterday, while walking with Madhu on our residential street, near the local elementary school, my daughter looked up in a tree and saw two hawks peering down. “I swear they were going to attack,” she averred. “I felt them staring.” She scooped Madhu into her arms and scurried home, grateful she had seen them in time.

Madhu notwithstanding, the birds are a miracle. Back in the 1980s, when populations of rats, pigeons and squirrels threatened to force humanity out of the city, poisons became ineffective in keeping populations down because the rapid evolution of the species enabled even more rapid mutations that rendered the rodents and pigeons impervious to the formulae. Birds of prey were introduced, but it was touch and go for a long time. Their sensitive systems were vulnerable to the potions their meals were ingesting, and because the poisons affected their abilities to reproduce, the birds’ evolution was slow.

Today the hunters are beginning to thrive. Not just hawks but also peregrine falcons, eagles, and other birds of prey. They are taking back the treetops, much the way coyotes and raccoons are taking back the bushes. Nature is reminding us she never went away, and we have to learn to live with all her creatures.

But being human, we don’t believe it. Or we choose to deny it. We expect, as we always have with all indigenous beings that we can tame them, bend them to our will,  round them up and put them in zoos and make them stay in their place. If they don’t, we can kill them. After all, we carry guns, and that gives us license to eliminate those we perceive as intruders.

But nature’s not lying down for us, and her minions are not waiting around to be eradicated. They are, like the restless people who are tired of being colonized, putting up a fight. They’re pushing back in small ways now, and perhaps they’ll lose in the short term. But in the long run, we lose by insisting on claiming superiority. Nature has a way of winning. Eventually.

If we kill off the birds here in New York City, we’ll be at the mercy of the disease and filth spread by the unchecked rodent and pigeon populations. We can kill them too, but they’re adaptable, and they will prevail; we stand to lose this island as we stand to lose the planet we have abused too long.

Ultimately, we are here at the mercy of the creatures who naturally inhabit this island. They have been erased before, and they have always found their way back. The alligator in Disney World was no accidental happenstance; one wonders how Disney could have been so blindsided, given their layered history with Captain Hook.  imgresOkay, it was a crocodile, but the point remains.  The swamps that were Florida before the marauding white man decided to tame them belonged first to the alligators. The Disney folk can kill them, but for every one they kill, a dozen will come to the funeral, and unless the humans figure out a way to co-exist peacefully and safely, the gators will be victorious.

The meek do not inherit the earth. The fittest do. Those who can survive on garbage and mud and each other, like gators and rats and pigeons and squirrels and bugs, will long live after us. They don’t need us any more than they need the sunlight or the clean air that we can’t live without.  The creatures will be more than happy to take what we leave behind. And then nature will regenerate, and evolution will replace us with new “higher” organisms.  But we won’t be here to greet them or study them or abuse for our pleasure.

We have to choose. Are we with ‘em?  If we’re not, they’ll most assuredly be against us.

 

 

 

 

A Note from Over Ground

Most New Yorkers never look up. Want proof? Note how, in their groping efforts to create something resembling a news story, reporters overlook an entire class of people, whose lives are ruled by the weather.

The CitySights bus travels through Times Square.  Photo by Hal Wiener, from A View From the Bus, A Tour Guide Takes Manhattan,  by Carla Stockton, Felicia Brings and Hal Wiener.

Next time a double-decker tour bus wends its way into your line of vision, look up at the sightseeing guide, the uniformed person holding a microphone, commenting on what the seated tourists are seeing. Try to envision what it’s like to be doing what she is doing – standing or sitting in the wind, talking over the noise of the city, being tussled about by the movement of the bus. In the summer, there is no relief from the heat, the sun, the exhaust, nothing to protect the skin from burning, the lungs from choking; in the winter, there are no coats warm enough, no gloves thick enough, no boots repellent enough to prevent frostbite or worse.

carla tourguideOnce upon a time not so very long ago, I was a guide on a big blue bus, and my winter initiation happened during my first week, on a late afternoon in early March.

Somewhere between Madison Square and 14th Street, the temperatures had dipped dramatically, but because the day had begun quite temperately, no one – myself included – had dressed for cold. As the air turned frigid, passengers on the bus huddled together, nuzzling for warmth; the young blonde in the very back of the bus took an oversized poncho out of her bag and drew it over her head. Her dark-skinned companion burrowed under the poncho and brought her head up thru the top, so that the two heads bobbed with the motion of the bus, giving the women the look of a souvenir from some cheap carnival side show act.

The bus swayed in the blustering wind, my voice cracked with the cold, and I could see my passengers were far more interested in breathing warmth on one another, on rubbing their hands together for warmth, stomping their feet. I kept talking, of course, it was my job, but my voice was strained, and the stories I customarily told froze uncomfortably on my tongue. Now a light, wintry rain was beginning to fall.

We got to Battery Park, and I sighed my relief. A coach was parked in front of us, and my passengers now had the option to disembark from the open-top bus and cocoon themselves in the closed vehicle’s dry warmth.  Gratefully, all but the conjoined twins clomped down the stairs and hurried to the waiting vehicle. I approached the young women and encouraged them to join their co-travelers.

The looked at each other for a moment, then they looked up at me, standing over them.

“Please,” the blonde one stammered.   “Not to get off.”

“But it’s cold up here, the rain is coming and. . . “

The young woman flustered for a moment, clearly assembling a few words in this foreign language she had fought so hard to learn in time to make this trip.

“I begging pardon. Ehh. I wish be riding. Ehh. No. WE wish to look New York. Is storm city.”

The bus pulled away from the stop, and I wrapped myself in my jackets, drew a plastic raincoat over my head recommencing my talk about the tenaciousness of the immigrants who built this city.

It was my job.

 

So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright

There is nothing new to be said about Robin Williams and his death, and it’s a good thing. I cannot find words to describe how I feel. I mourn for his wife and especially his children, I mourn for a world that will have one less astute observer to provide gleeful yet sobering reality checks, and I mourn for the man whose inner voices gave him so little peace.

A friend pointed out as I moped through the first day of life without Williams on the planet that “At least he wasn’t a family member or a close friend. . . “ Agreed. But I can’t help feeling like he belonged to me. To my family. He was a glue for us; many Saturday nights when other teenagers were out driving aimlessly in cars, ours were home sharing a Robin Williams video with their (gulp) parents. We loved him equally, and he seemed to speak for us as well as to us. He got us the way we got him, and he made us feel like we belonged together.

An iconoclast who married an iconoclast, I shared a love for Robin with my husband, and with him we completely intersected. It would be difficult to ascribe too much credit to Williams for keeping us together for 33 years; there were so few things we truly, honestly enjoyed in common. Laughing with Williams, I felt like I could endure whatever did not bind us together because the laughter and the tears his performances wrought were delicious enough to make up for all the things that drove us apart.  Better still, our kids loved him equally, and we laughed aloud, in unison, in perfect harmony at his jokes and ahhed as one at the deeply human characters he brought us in his films.

Williams spoke to me from somewhere inside me, often observing things in a way I was hesitant to admit, and he gave me courage to see them my own way. My parents died, and my siblings wandered far afield of me, but Robin was always there as a surrogate brother, reminding me that I may be weird, but there are weirder ones on the planet, and weirdness can make joy . . . as well as pain. I learned to savor the joy and swallow the pain.

I imagine the pain Robin Williams swallowed finally choked him. But I can’t judge, can’t know what was in his heart or his stomach. I loved him, I identified with him, but I was never he. In the end, I can only think how lucky we were to have had him with us for his time.

I think about the Apple ad that asked, in Williams’ unmistakable (“Captain”‘s) voice, what our verse would be. He was exactly the right person to ask because he knew about verses — he left us so many, and they were well crafted, eminently memorable. We’ll always have those.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiyIcz7wUH0

Carla and the King of Siam

 

 

When I stepped off the plane in Bangkok, after 28 hours of transit time, I felt as though I’d stepped back in time. Placing my feet on the tarmac transported me, in a way, back to a simpler era, at least where travel is concerned. As I descended walked into the steamy evening and waked across the tarmac to the bus that would take us passengers to the terminal, I was reminded of arriving in Albuquerque in 1957, after a nearly-as-long flight from NYC. Then something thoroughly unexpected happened; I reverted to my then age.

Travel, especially over long distances through various time zones, can be like a drug. Sights, sounds, the very touchstones of reality can be altered so that the traveler walks in a kind of quasi-hallucinatory state, seeing, smelling, hearing, touching, tasting what may or may not be present. Entering the terminal, in my mind’s ear, a philharmonic orchestration of the Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King and I Overture rolled over me in flowing and ebbing waves emanating from the loudspeakers. Everywhere I looked were the multitudinous children of wise King Mongkut, and just to confirm that I had entered the realm of the play, I was sure that, right in front of me, standing next to the lifesize poster of Mongkut’s descendent, the current King of Siam, stood a prim but visibly amused woman, pursing her terribly British mouth and trying not to laugh at the antics of the children.

I hadn’t thought about the King and I — or even of the lovely pre-musical version Anna and the King of Siam — in many years, although as a youngster, I was moved to desire the life of a musical actress because of it. But I realized, once I had had a bit of sleep and had recovered some of my senses, that there was a logical reason why the images had so starkly assaulted me upon my arrival.

Like so many people in my generation, my first impression of the people of Thailand, formerly Siam, was created in the lush panorama of the movies. I took in the king’s exhortation to Anna that she learn to kowtow, in order to be a proper woman, and I believed that, however toothsome these people — of course, played in 1956 by beautiful but decidedly un-Thai actors — might be, theirs was a sycophantic, toady society, and they lived to serve their betters; women, moreover, were an underclass in a society of repressed people.

Further, like so many girls in the 1950’s, I believed that Lady Thiang’s plea to Anna to give in to the King, to beg for his approval, was exactly as Anna saw it, a paen to a kind of obeisance that a self-respecting Western woman must eschew. Boy was I wrong about the Thai. In its Western bias, the film actually fails to capture the spirit of the people in some extraordinarily insensitive ways.

From the moment I entered Bangkok, I was aware aware of the presence of lovely young models, male and female, wearing their prim, closely-tailored, white-gloved suits — costumes that misleadingly evoke a sense of a colonial Siam — posed welcomingly around the city. There is an ambience here that suggests the gentle sweetness of the people that both films were able to capture, and at every opportunity, they display a somehow disarming array of deference that belies the resolutely independent spirit of the Thai people.

Thai deference should never be confused with obsequiousness. Neither its women nor its well-oiled tourism machine and its well-trained personnel are in any way obsequious. I will talk more about the women in a later entry, but for now suffice it to say that whatever preconception I brought with me was shattered very quickly. There is a genuine respect underlying the deep nods that accompany the multi-meaninged prayer-hand greeting (called a wai) and the warm word of welcome, “Sawatdee-ka.”

These are a people who, unlike some of their more agoraphobic neighbors, take pride in sharing their culture with outsiders. They have nurtured and perfected a tourism industry that caters to pampering their visitors. In this endeavor, they know they’re good, and they don’t seem under any pressure to prove it to anyone.  They simply acknowledge that their guests are worthy of respect, as they themselves are. But they are not needy, not cloying, and they are unlikely to compromise their sense of propriety in the pursuit of pleasing their customers.

Surrounded by countries that have desired to dominate them — to greater and lesser degrees of success — and thereby to subvert the local character, Thailand has managed to ward off all conquerors. They alone among their immediate neighbors have never been colonies of European conquerors, have never been subservient to a western master. Except perhaps to the Western ideals of Capitalism. But who in the world is not?

The spirit of the local service staff can be seen in the style of their deference. They do not kowtow, they do not hesitate to look a stranger in the eye. They never hover, seeking to catch whatever crumbs of gratitude might fall from their guest’s wallet; they simply stand at the ready, willing to meet their customers’ needs but finding no necessity to go any further than requested. Among the myriad service industry folk who populate Bangkok, good morning or Sawatdee-ka and the joining of hands is not a display of supplication to the person being addressed; it is the simply a point of view. The hosts genuinely want their guests to know that their presence is appreciated. The visitor will never feel unfulfilled, but nor will the willing servant ever accept any level of deprecation. It’s a fine balance, intricate in its execution.

The second day I was in the city, at the Paragon Shopping Mall, was again reminded of King Mongkut and his progeny. Touring the river earlier that day, we had passed the King’s nephew’s palace — the king’s home was closed off for a celebration and procession, so we didn’t get to see it — a domicile that could have been the prototype for both films’ sets. Opulent, colorful, heavily guarded by sunny-dispositioned, smiling soldiers wearing their terribly British-affected uniforms, the palace stands colorfully among a varying population of river-front properties. It would be easy to assume, in the bias of a Western-trained eye , that all of this disparity is yet another example of the 99% being exploited and abused by the 1%. There is, obviously, plenty of that in every country, but along the river, people live in a manner they choose, a manner they have struggled to maintain, a manner they support would never willingly forfeit. And to even consider that every owner of a Riverside shack is too poor and too complacent to replace is an injustice to the people.

Later, when at an IMAX movie theater before a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, I was fortunate enough to witness the people’s devotion to their monarch first hand. Before the previews began, the houselights came up. An introductory strain of music played over the loudspeaker, and everyone stood, proudly, at attention. No one was monitoring the actions of the audience, and no one looked around to see if s/he was being watched. They simply, naturally stood in unison. The National Anthem played, and some of the people there sang. A pair of Russian tourists in the back of the house giggled nervously, not sure what to make of any of it. But the locals simply, gratefully, matter-of-factly sang a pledge of allegiance to their king. As soon as the music stopped, everyone sat down as a single entity and went back to munching on popcorn or twizzlers, but the moment was no less moving than the hats-off-no-kidding-around show of allegiance that precedes the beer drinking extravaganza at a football game.

It was all I could do to sit back down.  I felt like someone had just invited me to dance.

A Trifle of a Trip

I am about to embark on an adventure.  Thanks to thoughtful planning and uncommon generosity on the part of my youngest child, I will soon fly to Thailand by way of Tokyo and then home by way of Seoul three weeks later.  Each way I’ll be in transit for over 24 hours, and I will cover nearly 9,000 miles. I’ve never been to Asia before, but I have been on an air trip that took nearly that long, and I realized as I awoke this morning that I feel something like the same sense of awkward anticipation, nervous tension and absolute thrill of adventure I felt in that long-ago moment, as I was about to embark on that first trek.

It was 1957, and I was a miserable child, more than generous with my pain. My mother hoped that spending the summer away from home might make me lose some weight and gain an appreciation for my parents.  Since my half-sister, who lived in Los Alamos,  was expecting her fourth child — her oldest was just 4 — and since I was already a skilled mother’s helper, being the first of (so far) five, Mom decided that the perfect solution for everyone’s ills was for me to travel to New Mexico and spend the summer there.

You don’t think about it nowadays.  Flying cross-country is so matter-of-fact and takes so little time. But I am talking about an era when air travel was still a novelty, and my sister’s home seemed like a very long way away from mine.  We had driven there a few times in my life, and I remembered the long days in the car, the endless sky and cloud formations, the bottomless font of hymns my father could sing to keep us from going absolutely stir crazy.  It took five days to get there .  And now they were telling me I would reach my destination in only one!

My mother bought me a brand new, pink dress from JC Penney, a matching pink sweater, pink socks and white patent-leather shoes and for my flight.  I felt downright regal when I tried it all on, though my bright red glasses kept sliding down my nose.

We drove to my grandmother’s in Queens, an 8-hour journey that was rendered delicious by my father’s recent discovery that the best way to travel by car with children was to do so at night, so we dreamed soundly all the way in the moving vehicle and arrived in the morning, giving me plenty of time and vigor with which to engage with my cousins, who were veteran flyers, having been already to Europe.  They filled me with stories about the terrible things that could happen, and I felt a growing dread that only made my excitement more thrilling.

Since they lived in Bayside, LaGuardia was near by.  The airline of choice — we didn’t have a lot of them — was TWA, whose hub was there.  We parked right by the airfield and went into a small waiting room, which was on ground level and had a wall of window that looked out onto the landing field.   When the plane was ready to board, the stewardess — sorry, that’s what we called them then — came into the room and took me by the hand.  “Are you ready to fly with me?” She fairly sang, as I put my gloved hand into hers.

My mother took a photograph of me walking out to the airplane, and I remember seeing it years later, long after I’d made transatlantic flights and become something of a seasoned flyer.  The plane looked so small, so fragile, and I looked so relieved to be climbing aboard; I do remember feeling like I had to duck to avoid hitting my head on the wing as we approached.  I also remember my heart was thumping, and I was wondering what I would possibly do with myself for 21 hours while we flew.  I had two books to read and stationery on which to write my thoughts for reporting back to Mommy, but 21 hours just seemed such a long time to just sit.

I needn’t have worried.  The flight crew was aware of me, and they entertained me lavishly.  There was the obligatory visit to the cockpit, I got to “help” with the food and beverage, which meant that I served the boxed lunches to each passenger, and I visited the lav pretty frequently.  At one point, like a scene out of Volunteers, one of the Stewards pulled out a guitar and began to sing folk songs to the section of the aircraft where I was seated; in those days, passengers sat facing one another like they might on a train today.

Besides, the flying time was not all that protracted.  We stopped in Chicago, Kansas, St. Louis, Oklahoma City and Amarillo, sitting on the ground long enough to refuel, load in more box lunches and board new passengers, before we got to Albuquerque.

I was sleepy but unable to sleep, and when we reached Amarillo, I thought I heard the pilot tell us we were in Albuquerque, so I deplaned. For a terrible few minutes, I was horrified to see no familiar faces in the assembled greeters at the runway.  Expecting, at very least, the tall, looming presence of my sister’s husband, I was dissolved to tears when no one in sight looked remotely related. But before I could lose myself in despair, my guardian angel stewardess had grabbed my shoulders and was steering me back on board. We landed in Albuquerque a very short time later, and all the family members were there to meet me.

It was an elegant beginning to a glorious summer.  My sister, resplendent with the empathy of young motherhood and free of the burden of shaping my womanhood, encouraged me to play.  So I did, cavorting gleefully with my niece and nephews.  She sent me to a summer program where, as happens in a summer camp setting, I made brief but brilliant friendships.  I ate ice cream without remorse, and I did lose some weight.  I read, I wrote, I even watched some television.  And when I returned home, I was no longer miserable.  I felt soothed, renewed.

What a lovely memory to find as I prepare for my Journey to the East.  No misery to lose, no pounds to shed, I am ready, simply,  to be filled with the wonder of it all.