Kol Nidrei

theamom

To Thea

I feel you in the music of the clouds

When the rain keeps rhythm in my heart,

Or when my soul can’t breathe. You left me, sister,

Here under mother’s rueful gaze, her pain

A poison I no longer fear, now loathe.

Remember? You mocked me when I called you

Foe, your frailty my rival. I prayed

For illness, sought to suffer like you did

Knowing mother loved your infirmity

Resented my health, my robust, boy-like

Strength. I wanted all you had and were.

While mother wanted nothing more than you

And a son, the treasured son I cannot be.

You alone said, “Nonsense. You’ll be brilliant.

Just find a concerto of your own.”

Now you’re gone, and who will help me string my

Bow? Who will turn my pages, make me smile

Through Dvorak, Schumann, and the rest? No one.

My cello is buried here. My music was you.

charlottecello

Charlotte With Cello, by Borislav Bogdanovich (http://www.bogdanovichcollection.com/biography/)

The Golden Playwright – a conversation with David Henry Hwang

Reprinted from The Columbia Journal online.

 

 

dhw1David Henry Hwang (Columbia Univerity School of the Arts Website)

I am on the phone with David Henry Hwang, the Concentration Head of the Playwriting program in the Drama Division of Columbia University’s School of the Arts, and I’ll admit it:  I’m a nervous wreck.  David’s affable manner, his warmth, his easy conversational tone should put me at ease, but omigod I’m talking to David Henry Hwang, the author of more great plays than most of us will see in a lifetime as well as screenplays, opera and musical theater libretti . . . he has even scripted Disney cartoon features and supervised the transition to a web mini-series of his play Yellowface. Nominated for three Tonys, he has won one, and he has  twice been a finalist for a Pulitzer in drama and is the recipient of three OBIEs.

Awe has struck me.

There is a history here. Back in 2001, as I searched for the perfect musical for the spring production I had been hired to direct in a suburban Connecticut school, I read in Variety that Hwang had rehabilitated the book of Rogers and Hammerstein’s The Flower Drum Song.  The article, by Steven Oxman, explained that Hwang had transformed the embarrassingly stereotyped Asian-Americans depicted in the book Hammerstein wrote with Joseph Fields and had reimagined and adapted the story. Hwang re-set the play in both China and San Francisco, gave it a political context, and eliminated the arranged marriage on which the premise of the original script depended.  “Hwang manages to have it both ways,” Oxman wrote, “commenting on the entertainment while still delivering it.”  I found myself nodding.

What made me love M Butterfly and F.O.B. (it stands for Fresh Off boat) andThe Golden Child were David Henry Hwang’s astute commentary on and delivery of the entertainment  along with his sharply honed satirical observations. This Flower Drum Song had to be good, a great learning experience for the students in the production I was to direct.

Besides, my kids would be just as impressed as I was. Hwang is no mere playwright.  He is the idol of rock stars.  No kidding.  PRINCE was a fan. Interviewed by Broadway World Magazine in 2016, Hwang effused, “So imagine my groupie heart in 1989, when I opened PEOPLE Magazine to find a picture of Prince, coming out of M. BUTTERFLY, my Broadway show! Prince goes to Broadway? Who knew? He saw my play!”

Apparently, Prince was considering adding a Broadway musical to his credits, and he summoned the playwright to his hotel suite to confer on the prospect of collaboration.  That project never materialized, but Hwang did pen the lyics to Solo, which appears on the album Come and is the B side of the single Let it Go.

No question about it.  The kids would beg me to find a way to get David Henry Hwang to come to Connecticut to see the definitive youth production of his version of The Flower Drum Song.

It wasn’t until after I’d read the perusal (from the R & H Library, which handles permissions for the entire canon) that reality hit me.

It was 2002.  Suburban Connecticut.  There were not nearly enough Asians in the school to cast eight Asian leads and a full chorus of singing/dancing Asian kids. And there was no way I would cast the play with white kids.  I had seen enough interviews, read enough of Hwang’s essays to know that yellow facing – a practice that casts non-Asians in Asian roles –  is one of his most fervent oppositions.  It’s even the subject of one my favorite Hwang plays calledYellowface, which was adapted for the  YOMYOMF network in two parts.

Mounting such a production would offend my sensibilities as much as doingCarousel, which features a woman singing “He’s yer feller and you love him, that’s all there is to that” about a man who has just assaulted her.  No way.

Full disclosure here –Paul Muni, the Polish Jewish actor who played Wang, the farmer, in The Good Earth, was my grandfather’s first cousin.

 

dhw2The Good Earth – MGM Trailer Still

This is a fact that makes me squirm, especially because, like Hwang, I am the of the first generation of children born in America, and I was always troubled by Hollywood’s habitual casting of actors such as Sal Mineo or Robert DeNiro or Charlton Heston to play Jewish characters.  Those were roles that should have gone to any of the myriad Jewish actors in Hollywood and New York, who instead changed their names and lightened their hair and skin so they could play WASPS . . . or who altered their appearances to play the less desirable ethnic roles.  Most offensive to me was the practice, illustrated by Muni’s Wang, of painting eye slants and yellow skin tones, hence the term yellow facing .

On the phone with David Henry Hwang, there’s a bit of a silence between us for a moment, but I swear I can hear his eyes crinkle into a smile as I describe my relationship to Muni. It was a good place to start.  I was trying to get my breath back, to relax into this. I’ve interviewed people I admire before, but, again, this is David Henry Hwang!

It’s going to be okay.  This guy’s a mensch.  I had asked him earlier if he liked being at Columbia, and he said he loves being a professor and a mentor, guiding new talent.  It shows in his demeanor, the gentle encouragement that easily finds its way to my ear.

This is not actually the first time we’ve “talked.”  David Hwang and I have “met”a few times. . . on Twitter, of all places.  In October, after I attended a panel he was on called Convergence/Divergence, I tweeted: The gr8 David Henry Hwang says, ‘Hamilton the musical play of my generation.  Perhaps the musical of the millennium.”  And to my delighted surprise, he replied, “Anyone who can rhyme Rochambeau with ‘go man go’ is genius in my book.”

I was not surprised that what struck him most about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant musical built around linguistic gymnastics was the language itself.  The things I always notice when I read Hwang’s work, echoed now in his voice, are his remarkable economy with language, reinforced by his genius for juxtaposition of sound and usage.  His voice is animated and engaged.  Language is an instrument he clearly loves to play.

I ask him to talk about translation.  One of Hwang’s more notable credits is an adaptation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt though he doesn’t speak Norwegian.  This version updates and Anglifies the metaphors, relies heavily on contemporary American references to re-tell Ibsen’s version of the Norwegian Everyman. In literary translation, fluency in the original language is far less important than fluidity in the language of the translation.

He tells me that the actual translation, the literal transfer from Norwegian to English, was executed by Director Stephan Muller.

“What I did was craft the language.”  Here he stops to measure his words.  “The trickiest thing is understanding the role of idiom and cultural context.  What do the people do and say in the language or in the culture in which the play is written, and how is that translated into the language and the culture in which the play is being performed.  Then its about the economy of the performance language .  That’s the critical piece. “

“You see that exemplified in translations of musicals or opera.  When I’ve had musicals translated into languages, that’s been interesting, especially at Disney.  Disney was very controlling about the translation.  They had strict guidelines.  They’d contract a literary translation but at the same time hire someone to do a literal back translation, which, theoretically, should be more accurate and provide for authentication.  But it doesn’t come close.  Because in that case all the idioms go away.  Idioms are uninterpretable.”

Translators must consider how each language uses metaphors and idioms differently for even the most trivial of matters. It may make sense, for example, to the Chinese mind, to refer to undisturbed grass as “sleeping,” but the phrase won’t work in English.  By the same token, English phrases like nest egg and bad egg have no correlative in Chinese, and the literal translations can have ridiculous, humorous, even disastrous effect.

 

dhw3

Which is the central preoccupation of Hwang’s play Chinglish, which I saw at the Longacre Theatre in 2011.  Directed by Leigh Silverman, the slapstick linguistics dramatize the way people communicate and fail to communicate across cultural expanses, the way humans are desperate to be understood but fail to understand. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PpP2UIH8U1Y)

The play, delivered in both English and Mandarin, features super-titling that lets the audience in on the super-joke: every time a statement emerges, it is intercepted by a mutilating misinterpretation.  It’s the manifestation of the experience of knowing the language of a foreign film or an opera and reading the subtitles only to find that the audience is being thoroughly misled.  Classic David Henry Hwang virtuosity. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEaLxLdVhv4)

It strikes me as we are talking that several of Hwang’s plays, including Golden Child, Kung Fu (an homage to Bruce Lee), Yellow Face and Chinglish, have been directed by Leigh Silverman, one of the too few women breaking through the glass ceiling in New York theater (Silverman and Hwang).

“Your women,” I venture, “are so well developed, so fully realized.  They’re witty, clever, creative, real.  And you often work with female directors, producers.  Clearly, your collaborations have been successful.  So to what do you attribute the underrepresentation of women in theater and film?”

He takes his time answering.  “You know, it’s part of that other conversation, the bigger discussion about the underrepresentation of ethnicities, the way yellow facing was a way of keeping theater white. We need to make a theater that looks more like America, one that is more about inclusion, which is just as much about gender as it is about race. In the same way that we need more racially true characters and creators, we need more and better women characters, women creators.

“Here’s the problem, and it comes down to money.  Perhaps the greatest impediment to diversity – and this is true in ANY industry – is that bosses and administrators, the people in charge, tend to hire people who look like them.  In theater, they haven’t begun to hire people who look like the audience. The audience has not demanded it yet.  People continue to buy tickets even though they are not seeing themselves represented onstage or in the credits.

“I appreciate that you like my female characters, but I don’t really help things.  My creating good female characters is not the same as having more female writers doing that.  What sets women apart from other minorities is that women are already the majority of theater audiences.  They need to stop buying tickets until they see better female representation.  There is no shortage of talent among the women out there.  Women need to demand to see more of them.  That’s how they affect the change.  It’s up to them.”

We agree that television is leading the charge in this area, and that reminds me that Hwang has recently become involved in writing for television, a medium serious writers used to shy away from.  I wonder what kind of writing he prefers.

So  I ask, “ Which medium do you prefer to work in?”

This time, he doesn’t even take a breath before answering.

“All mediums are divergent and each has advantages and disadvantages, but

theater is my favorite form.  It’s the most personal, has the fewest restrictions to self-expression, and I have the most control or at least the most sense of control as the primary artist, the primary vision, the primary source of the product.

“Then again, I have found that I can take joy in someone else’s project, and I can be very comfortable in collaboration, and this is true for everything from Glass operas to Disney films to The Affair.”

I keep to myself that I blame the presence of his name on The Affair credits for my having discovered it, which has led me into an addiction that has left me hungry for Season 3.

“ I had never worked on a TV show before,” he goes on.  “ I find that I am loving being in the writers’ room at The Affair. . . . I came into it because I was trying to create my own show, and Sarah Treem was a former mentee who had become a dear friend, and she suggested I come work for her and learn fromThe Affair what makes a television show.  So my mentee became my boss, and I am glad to say I am back on for Season 3.”

Be still my heart.

Technically, I have run out of time now, but my generous subject says we have time for a few more questions.

“Back in October, at the Convergence/Divergence Panel, someone asked if the theater is dead, and after a complicated but very wise reply, you said that the infusion of electronic media would breathe new life into the theater, that that is where the future of theater is.  Can you explain what you meant?”

“You know . . . I’m not exactly sure what I meant then.  I do know that theater has greatly benefitted from the digital age whereas some electronic modes, like music, have suffered from it.  Live entertainment flourishes because digital performances are easily pirated while live performance  is unreproduceable.  That makes live shows more valuable than ever. You can’t experience being at a rock concert without being there, and you can’t experience being at a live play without being there.  That increases the value.  Prince figured that out years ago when he gave away CDs at his concerts.  He knew that the CDs would be the best enticement to bring people into the venues for his concerts.

“Also, the presence of the electronic media heightens reality, makes what is live more alive.  We need to find ways to make the live experience more interactive, and electronic media enables that.

“Sports events are finding the same thing.  There is no more need to black out events the way they used to.  The televised version enhances live sales and vice versa. They help each other.”

He stops and breathes.  “Go ahead,” he encourages.  “Ask me more.  This is fun.”

“I do have two more questions if you don’t mind.”

“Shoot.”

“If you could change one thing about the theater – “

“Nope.  I can’t choose one thing.  I’d have to have two at minimum.”

“Okay.  Two then.  What are they?”

“Okay. First –  Ticket prices – How can we make theater accessible to a larger number of people if we allow the ticket prices to be so high?  The business model is the problem.  That needs to change.

“ And also the inclusion thing. We must create an American theater that looks more like America.  Like I said it’s not an issue that’s specific to theater.  By 2040, minorities – particularly Asian – will be the plurality, no longer a minority.  This also speaks to accessibility, don’t you think? Theater is less accessible to those who are excluded.  What’s the other one?”

“Do you have a favorite work?”

He laughs again.  “Look. I’m a father.  I’ll use the kids analogy.  I have three kids, and I love them all equally.  With each, however, I have a particular relationship, just like I do with everything I write. F.O.B. was my first play, before I even knew how to read plays or write them.  It will always be my first.  Some of my plays are overachievers, others are misunderstood.  I love them all. “

After I hang up, I imagine shaking his hand and thinking, “I’ll never wash that hand again.”

 

 

A Little Bit of Sycophancy

Before you read my review of All the Ways to Say I Love You, I would like to say a word about Judith Light.

When I was about to meet the actress in 2003, the prospect did not thrill me at all.

My writing and producing partner Daniel Fine had been invited by the Directors View Film Festival’s Executive Director Robert Kesten to create a tribute event for Arthur Penn, who was that year’s winner of the festival’s Joseph L. Mankiewicz Excellence in Filmmaking Award.imgres-2

Dan and I read and watched Arthur’s vast body of films and fashioned a script from scenes we’d cobbled together for Daniel to direct as a tribute reading. We then invited actors, who had worked with the director onstage as well as in his films, to participate, and though we had no budget to pay the actors or to transport them from any further than New York City, we were able to come up with a formidable company of very talented, willing professionals. When I sent the list to Mr. Penn, he shot back that he was disappointed not to find Judith Light; we hadn’t called her because she was not named as anyone he had previously worked with. “She’s brilliant,” he said, “and I would love to see her. I know she’s back in NY. Why not get in touch? She should read the Gibson stuff,” he said, referring to the pieces from the plays he’d directed by William Gibson. “It’s all written for a tough, smart woman. That’s Judith Light.”

I was skeptical. I mean, all I knew of her was an electronic face I had seen at intervals when passing through the family room, attempting to get my children to turn off that ‘80s television sitcom, predominated by what seemed to me an automaton blonde. But Arthur Penn wanted her in, and who was I to doubt Arthur Penn?whos-boss

Well, Judith Light showed me how wrong I was about her.

She got the script a few hours before the reading, and we had one rehearsal.  But by the time the introductions were made, and the reading began, she had somehow managed to learn several lengthy monologues from the dense Gibson material she was assigned, and she easily swung from making Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s mother (The Miracle Worker and Monday After the Miracle) and Golda Meir (Golda), come alive. They were flawlessly believable. She disappeared first into the subtly Irish Sullivan, then into the patrician Southern gentlewoman and the Russian immigrant American Israeli Prime Minister with polished ease, as though she had been studying the roles her whole life, as though she had rehearsed them forever. imgres-1imgres

I became a fan and have since seen almost everything she has done on stage(she’s since won two Tonys and a host of other accolades) and on streaming video (Amazon’s Transparent, for which she won an Emmy); I am a grateful admirer of the nuanced older women she animates.light-in-transparent

Her Shel Pfefferman has taken her place alongside Grace Hanson and Frankie Bergstein (Grace and Frankie), my much-revered imaginary alter egos.

Which is why I knew she’d be great in All the Ways to Say I Love You.  (My review follows.)

What She Did For Love

Theater Review: All the Ways to Say I Love You
written by Neil Labute, directed by Leigh Silverman, starring Judith Light

As the house fades to darkness in the Lucille Lortel Theatre, Judith Light seems to bring up the stage lights as she makes her entrance. She crosses down center and stands absolutely still for a moment. She is pensive, oblivious to the applause from the audience who, having not yet met the character, cheer for the star they recognize. She waits for a beat before she walks to Stage Left and slowly crosses back to Stage Right, each time stopping to scrutinize the first few rows of the audience, clearly looking for “someone” to talk to.  Judith Light disappears, and her character Mrs. Johnson launches  into the monolog that is All the Ways to Say I Love You.  The result is a 90-minute stream-of-consciousness outpouring, the unpacking of personal history and emotion by Mrs. Johnson, a woman who has lost herself in the jumbled morass of others’ expectations and her own passions.  

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Judith Light as Mrs. Johnson, in The MCC Theater Production of Neil LaBute’s All the Ways to Say I Love You, directed by Leigh Silverman, now playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 141 Christopher Street, NYC. (Photo by @JoanMarcus)

The experience of following the Mrs. Johnson’s narrative, deftly written by Neil LaBute,  is something like being on multiple amusements at a fun park, riding them in such quick succession that there is no way to regain composure.  Mrs. Johnson recounts her life, breathlessly purging herself in chilling, even sometimes disgustingly vivid detail, leaving the audience as winded as she is.  Even the silences, the long pregnant silences, don’t enable her to breathe.  She is thinking, feeling, processing, and the effort of it exhausts us as it seems to deplete her.  But then she rallies, and her energy seems boundless, as she drags us into yet another corner of Mrs. Johnson’s past.

Light’s commitment to her character is absolute, unflinching.  She introduces herself at the top of the play as a high school English and drama teacher doubling occasionally as a guidance counselor, who has perhaps given her life to her profession while withholding too much from her marriage.  Allowing herself some self-deprecation, she amuses herself with her witticisms, even as she reveals, in the first few moments, that this will be the story of her relationship to a whopper of a falsehood.

“What is the weight of a lie?” she says a student once asked her, and though she goes on to say that she was unable to answer the question then, there is no doubt that the play is about to provide one.  Over the next 90 minutes, in fact, she peels back the layers of linen that shroud her lie, laying all its harrowing consequences bare and judging herself guilty. She has sentenced herself to a life of misery.

LaBute’s writing draws the audience into the judgmentalism of the moment, so much so that they are left with a sense of a larger crime even than the one to which Mrs. Johnson admits.

“She’s a pedophile,” I heard a woman scoff as she jumped to her feet to join the standing ovation at play’s end.  “I don’t understand why I am so enthusiastic.  I’m applauding a blood-sucking pedophile.”

In truth, it’s a trap LaBute has set most effectively. From the start, Mrs. Johnson makes it clear that she has indeed broken the laws of all that is holy to any sentient being and has had a prolonged affair with a student, but she has repeatedly mitigated that pronouncement by emphasizing that she did so with “a second year senior,” meaning a 19- or 20-year-old, clearly someone past the age of consent.  There is no pedophilia.

“He’s a rapist,” says the woman’s companion.  “I should hate her.  Why don’t I?”  Perhaps, I think, because there is no rape.  Again, LaBute has muddied the waters with a shadow of doubt; Mrs. Johnson clearly states that it was the boy who made the first moves, that it was he who insinuated himself into her life before she chose to allow him access.  It’s a subtle nuance but critical to the character because her little loopholes are the devices that enable her to maintain a modicum of self-respect, and allow her to believe herself a good teacher, a wise counselor, a loving parent with less delusion.

I felt close to this character.  She has, like so many women in my generations, tried to shrink herself to fit the prefab molds she’s been required to fill.  She has sublimated herself to the work that now defines her, but she has received no rewards for her efforts.  And she has fallen into an abyss most sentient adults would have avoided at all cost, has lost herself to the delusion that, having given so much, she deserves to take something for herself.  It’s not entirely her fault, but we will blame her nonetheless. Her Fifteen years in the classroom, teaching English and directing the drama club like Mrs. Johnson, her story resonates in me.  I knew my share of bold boys, those who envisioned themselves men enough to seduce the teacher.  And I knew how tempting some of them could be.  Male entitlement has the potential to beguile and can be a powerful aphrodisiac.  Most of us realize that to give in is idiotic folly, and we never do, but for Mrs. Johnson, the stakes are complicated.

Her husband, a mixed race man, has suffered many hardships for standing out as different in their small town community.  Over and over, she tells us she loves him, she will do anything to save her marriage. He wants children. Desperately, she says.  But no matter how hard they try, they remain childless.  She wants him to excite her, and she longs for him to find her attractive; but as they try more arduously to make a baby, they lose interest in one another, all of which renders her as vulnerable as a woman can be.  That boy is insistent, and he has a hunger for her that is irresistible.

That hers is a terrible mistake, one predicated on a huge fabrication, is undeniable, and she will be punished. Endlessly.  Which, I suppose, is how the women were mollified and convinced not to lynch the actor at the end of the play.

Even as I found Mrs. Johnson a reliable narrator of her tale, I couldn’t help wondering how much of the story lives in the character’s head, how much is the dramatic story she fed herself during times when teaching was, as teaching can be, stultifying, when she felt her creativity drained, and all her efforts were on her students’ or her husband’s or her lover’s behalf.

The silences on stage enhanced my sense of the character inventing herself as she went along.  Long, pregnant silences orchestrate transitions of story, mood, tone; they are silences most actors and directors fear.  Light and Silverman plumb their depths, and in their deafening stillness, we see a woman growing older, fighting the urge to enlarge the truth while persistently diminishing realities. 

So, I am still not sure how much of what Mrs. Johnson remembers is the babbling of a woman descending into old age, seeking comfort in believing that once, even when it was totally inappropriate, she sacrificed herself to love.

I See Old People!

Grace and Frankie, a Netflix Original Series, Starring Martin Sheen, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Sam Waterston.

Grace and Frankie, a Netflix Original Series, Starring Martin Sheen, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Sam Waterston. (Netflix photo)

Sometimes the things that frighten us most when we are young turn out to be the very things that save us when we are old.

I know this because when I was newly married, I was terrified that I would wake up one morning and realize that oh shit my husband didn’t really love me. I used to have nightmares where he would come to where I was eating a salad or shaving my legs, and he would say, “You know I don’t love you. I never did.” And I would wake up screaming, “Please no. Don’t say that. Noooo.”

But by the time I had been married for twenty-five or so years, I began to see that I could do very well without him, that my fear had set me up to allow myself to be taken for granted, and worse, to be emotionally and verbally abused.

In the end, I was the one who left.

Looking back, realizing that my fears were, in fact, grounded, that we really didn’t love each other enough, that he failed to love me in the way I deserved to be loved, fueled my decision to move out. Ten years later, I have to say, I want to call him up and thank him for all the times he called me names or refused to buy something I needed or threw something at me in a rage. If he had been more loving, I might still be with him, and all my energy would be suffocated out of me instead of channeled into rebuilding my Self. I’m better off.

My experience was not unique. Many women, especially in our blooming boomer days, when being married, being loved were a woman’s salvation, when her route to a credit card or even a bank account was closed off unless she had a man or was fabulously well off, accepted – settled for – less than we actually wanted because we believed we had no choice. Most of us stayed put, and many of those who left were pushed out by that long-feared, oft-dreaded blow. “I just don’t love you anymore.”

Which is the premise on which Grace and Frankie, the Netflix original series, starring Jane Fonda as Grace and Lily Tomlin as Frankie, is based. They are jilted wives set adrift by their husbands Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston), only to discover that being discarded is the greatest gift either husband ever gave them.

Grace and Frankie: the great divide. (photo from Netflix)

Grace and Frankie: the great divide. (Netflix photo)”The men are never demonized, are heroic in their way.”

At the beginning of Season One, Robert and Sol disclose to Grace and Frankie, women who’ve entered their 70s believing they were in rock-solid marriages, that both marriages are over. For twenty of the forty years they have been together, both men, who shared a law practice and were apparently devoted to their wives and families, have been carrying on a secret love affair. It’s time, they tell the women, that they came out once and for all; they are getting married, and nothing the women can say or do will change their minds.

The women are devastated. How will they ever live without these men, who have been the center of their lives for most of their adulthood? Over the course of the initial thirteen episodes, however, they learn to adjust; in the end both realize from individual epiphanies that they were never fully themselves as married women, that each has compromised herself and has lost sight of who she was to begin with.

perfect and hippie

Too perfect, too hippiedippiedoo (Netflix)

In Season Two, Grace and Frankie have accepted the rearrangement of their lives. They have learned to like each other enough to actually enjoy sharing the beach house to which they have been summarily exiled by their ex-husbands; it is a house the men jointly bought for the two families, and in the past, the women had gone out of their way to avoid getting to know one another intimately. Grace is too body-obsessed, too protocol-conscious, too money-hungry for Frankie’s taste, and as far as Grace is concerned, Frankie is too weird, too hippiedippiedoo, too 60s-leaning addled.But lo and behold, they find that the women buried in the personae they’ve become have more in common than they ever imagined, and together they set about figuring out who they might be under the camouflage.

I do not mean to suggest that Grace and Frankie represent the majority of my sisters. Nor have I stopped believing in happy marriages; I know that those do exist, and Grace and Frankie are by no means the “normal,” which I believe there is such a thing. But I identify with them. They resonate for me in ways female characters of my own generation rarely do. They are fleshy women who transcend the caricatures of older women we are usually presented with: dotty bats or bitchy, lonely success icons. Except that they are too rich and live a life too rife with options, they are real. . . and flawed.

Grace and Frankie are damaged goods. Grace can’t get through a day without excessive amounts of alcohol, and she rarely eats, slavishly catering to her nearly anorexic body, protecting the copious dollars she has expended in preserving her looks. Frankie needs mind alteration and seeks it out in peyote, in ganja, in muscle relaxers; she calls herself an artist but has been unfaithful to her art and has hidden herself in new age homilies and soporifics. Each of them experiences a crisis that leads to a shared epiphany: Frankie’s religious beliefs and spirituality are tested by the dying wish of an old friend, and Grace’s are challenged by the booze and a near affair with an old, still-married flame (Sam Eliot).

Grace and Frankie at the beach

Grace and Frankie at the beach (Netflix)

At the end of the second season, both women are forced to come to terms with the need to take hold of their lives, when Robert and Sol present yet another fâit-accomplit – they have put the house they have been living in on the market and are planning to move out. The house, which was where Robert and Grace raised their daughters, went to Robert in the divorce settlement, but the announcement that the men are divesting themselves of this vestige of their old lives sets off a firestorm of revelations.

Sol, seeking to clear his tortured conscience before he moves into the next phase of his new life, tells Frankie he fabricated a story of how, when they were very young, he had sold a piece of her art work off the wall of his law office to a famous client. The story has been Frankie’s life raft of self-confidence. She is devastated, protesting, “It’s the one thing that proved to me that I was really an artist!”

A few moments later, Robert gives Grace a carton filled with “thoughtfully” prepared gift boxes, each containing a pre-wrapped item of jewelry, pre-staged with an anticipatory card attached.

There’s a gold necklace: “Sorry you had a bad day.”

And a diamond bracelet: “To Grace. Thinking of you with love. Robert”

An emerald ring. “Happy anniversary to Grace from Robert with love.”

Another and another, each signed “Love, Robert.”

“Seriously?” Grace bellows. “They’re not personal. . . . It’s like a jar of treats for a dog. . . . . “ She stops, lost for words.

“I used to think,” she goes on, fighting the tears, “how nice! Robert went out and got me something because he knew I was sad. Or . . . Robert got me something special because he knew I was right, and he was wrong. But that wasn’t it at all. It wasn’t for me at all. It was for you, so you wouldn’t have to deal with me. So you didn’t even have to think about me. . . . We’d have a fight, and you’d give me a gift from your stash. I used to think you gave me gifts because, I don’t know, you weren’t a talker. But it was to keep me quiet, hunh? To manage me. To handle me. Never, not once was it because you loved me.

“I never understood our marriage until right now.”

All at once, with just the subtlest shift of her body and a gentle sigh, Grace is grateful that her marriage is over. To learn, a year after the divorce, that your husband never really loved you is the worst lie to own up to because it’s a lie you had to be telling yourself or it never would have flown.

Frankie, too, must come to terms with the great lie between her and Sol. She has built her trust on Sol, based on his assertion that he sold her painting so easily because he and the client were so impressed with the art. He thinks he did her a favor.

“I believed in you and wanted you to believe in you too,” he says. He’s sincere. Which makes it all the worse.

Because it is so entirely dismissive. He has robbed her of respect, has failed to trust that she could own her own need to develop her art; he perceived her to be such a child that he needed to candy coat a truth that might have engendered her professional growth.

Grace agrees and accuses Sol of belittling Frankie.

“I was not belittling her,” Sol declares. “I was not dismissing her. . . .”

“Oh really,” Frankie rejoins, “Because ‘her’ is still in the room, and it feels a little dismissive to ‘her’.”

Too pervasively, we women – especially women of the baby boom generation – are programmed to accept men’s condescension, to feel flattered when they humor us, when they patronize us, when they throw us bones. We all have learned to call ourselves happy when our men acquiesce to allowing us to live, even as we stifled our own breath.

Grace and Frankie cogently captures that dynamic, the underlying and agitating essence of what taints too many marriages. It makes the show a continual revelation, a source of satisfying binge watching for this older woman, who hardly expected to see herself represented on the small screen.

Grace and Frankie is not perfect. Although I’m grateful that the show doesn’t pander to the view of older women as finished products, I wish there were less emphasis on the women’s quest to find the right man. They are so much more complete when they don’t kowtow to the opposite sex. But the men they are interested in are far more interesting than the men who have thrown them to the curb, so there is a relief in that.

I also wish that the women’s substance abuse were a subject for more serious investigation. Perhaps it will be in Season 3, when they embark on their next adventure together. I don’t want to see them continue to get in their own way, to stifle their own ability to make themselves happy.

But it is refreshing that neither woman is willing to put up with the stream of put-downs we usually hear in sitcoms; nor is either reduced to silly one-liners that put their men in their places. This is no Everybody Loves Raymond battle of the sexes. It’s rich, convoluted, frustrating, confusing, terrifying, exhilarating real life.

And the men are never demonized. They are easily loveable, even heroic in their own way – after all they have come out to family, friends, colleagues, the world, and have married after 70. That’s courageous. Both former couples are fully fleshed characters, and the actors play them with remarkable aplomb. In a way, because they have clearly found a perfect niche, Sam Waterston steals the show from Sheen, as Jane Fonda does from Tomlin. Still, Tomlin and Sheen are wonderful; this is a full complement of entirely credible actors deftly playing deeply human roles.

I called this a sitcom. That’s not accurate. I guess one would call it a dramedy. I warn you, I cry at least twice in each episode. The stories cut close to the soul, and they can wring emotion I forgot I felt.

I do laugh. But mostly when it hurts.G & Frankie like each other

 

Cry the Beloved City

I didn’t sleep last night. For the fifth night in a row.

Since the end of June, my nights have been disrupted by neighbors whose disregard for others’ right to [quiet and to safety rule the streets. They are breaking the law, but no law blankets my neighborhood because the gated community that has become NYC sends its resources to patrol the blocks south of 96th, where the bulk of the tourists, who enable the ridiculous cost of membership, are cavorting. Up here even when you call the police, the eruptions go unchecked, and our nights go unquieted.

Those of us who are unfortunate enough to be captive in the city for the summer suffer this abuse through the month of July, but, for some reason, this Independence Day was more invasive, more intrusive, more unconscionable than ever before in the ten years I’ve lived here. The amateur blasting, the popping, the drunken shouting began before sundown and extended well into morning, waning only after the daylight had returned.

I admit that I’ve never much liked the July 4th rituals My idea of celebrating America is quieter; in an effort to refrain from becoming a statistic, I have typically stayed at home, where I have watched home movies of my family’s extensive cross-country explorations or documentaries about the bounties of natural beauty that define this amazing country.   Bombs bursting in air only fill me with dread, remind me that the country is populated by too many who worship weaponry, who perceive military might as right, who continue to craft an economy held hostage by the culture of war and its machinery.

But okay. I concede that fireworks can be lovely. And Macy’s foots the bill for the greatest show on earth. It’s free, and it’s close by, and I encourage all those who love the displays of color and light to seek them out. I heartily applaud my city for throwing such an elaborate, generous birthday bash.images

But the local ILLEGAL practices are a different story. It’s one thing if a group wants to throw a block party that provides a close-knit portion of the neighborhood to celebrate together. I can put up with noise for a few hours, and I am happy that people have a place to comingle. But to continue to make such noise that car alarms cannot be quieted, that keeps pets quaking and agitated, that robs us all of our right to our own preferred pursuit of happiness is no more than group solipsism, criminal entitlement. And it’s terrifying.

The awful disquiet went on throughout the night; the only sound missing was the sound of police cars or fire engines. The noises swelled, then subsided slightly, but they were never checked.

Sometime around 2 this morning, the sounds outside my window changed. Some of the changes were subtle, but they were apparent. The shouting was angrier, heightened a growing barrage of insults, name-calling, threats. The blasts sounded less like homemade duds and more like television violence. How can those of us who are subjected to the abuse discern the difference?

There will be no reports on the news – the news ignores us in Harlem until there is a great drug bust, and they can point to the confiscation of massive stashes to reassure the public that Harlem is under control. The news this morning reported fourteen shootings around the city, but not one was reported here in Harlem, where they happen all too often, where no one is really watching. I called 311 last night, and they told me I had to report my complaint to 911. The fireworks continued without interruption, the noise persisted unabated all through the night. The dispatcher was clearly amused by my report, but I was sure nothing would be done.

Why should there be? Who cares if some old and sick and very young Harlemites are kept awake by loud noises? Who really cares if some homes north of the tony Upper West Side are in danger of being burned, exploded, invaded in some way?

I have never felt so exposed as I did last night. I was as inconsolable as my daughter’s 6-pound Chihuahua, who seems, during this siege, perpetually on the verge of a stroke or worse. It feels like the demons out there, the ones the media won’t let us ignore or forget, are laughing themselves silly at how easy it must be to blend in up here, how simple it would be to hide their noise within the din that the city refuses to hear.

 

 

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.