Category Archives: Broadway musicals

Cycling Through Bliss

I’ve recently embarked on a new exercise program, and I’ve chosen a recumbent bike as one means to accomplish my goal.  It’s fairly boring to cycle in my current gym, a gray and sterile place, so I’ve taken to closing my eyes while I cycle and imagine blissful scenes I’ve cycled through in my past.

I focus on the scenes around my home of 30 years in the eastern section of Wilmette, a charming village on Chicago’s North Shore.  We bought our home in 1975 for less than $70,000, but during the three decades that we lived there, home values increased enormously, and by the time we sold it, its value had multiplied about 14 times.

During those years, east Wilmette became exceedingly desirable because of its location near Lake Michigan and its lakeside beach, harbor, and park—Gillson Park– along with excellent schools, a nearly invisible crime rate, a top-notch public library, a Spanish-influenced small shopping mall called Plaza del Lago, its 28-minute train ride to downtown Chicago, and other highly sought-after features.  Although we were not at the most affluent end of the spectrum in Wilmette, especially as the years went by, we reaped the benefits of living in a near-idyllic setting.

I set my second novel, a mystery titled Jealous Mistress, in this part of Wilmette, which I called East Winnette (blurring its name with that of another North Shore suburb, Winnetka.  [https://www.amazon.com/Jealous-Mistress-Susan-Alexander/dp/1463503652]

I’ve loved cycling ever since my parents gave me my first Schwinn during my growing-up years on Chicago’s Far North Side.  I continued to pursue cycling throughout my high school and college years.  And even when I was a law student at Harvard, I purchased a second-hand bike from a graduating 3L and delightedly rode it through the beautiful Cambridge streets until I myself graduated and passed it on.

While working as a lawyer in Chicago before I married, I bought an inexpensive bike at Sears and loved riding it through Lincoln Park, along Lake Shore Drive, and elsewhere along the lake, near where I’d rented a small studio apartment.

After I moved to LA in 1970, I bought a second-hand bike and hoped to ride it near my apartment in Westwood. But the neighborhood was too hilly for me, and I soon abandoned cycling there.

Landing in Wilmette in 1975, I was determined to once again be a cyclist.  With the bike I moved from LA to Ann Arbor then moved to Wilmette, and the bike my husband acquired in Ann Arbor so he could ride with me there, we set out on our bikes as soon as we could.  Having two daughters complicated things, but as soon as we could somehow attach them to us or to our bikes, or they were old enough to ride bikes themselves, off we went.  Both daughters became avid cyclists, often biking to school during their high school years.

Here’s one of the blissful North Shore routes our family shared, one I remember with special and heartfelt fondness:

Our family of four would cycle out of the detached garage behind our house and set out on our bikes, riding a short way to 10th Street, a sometimes busy through street.  We’d then ride three blocks down 10th Street (carefully, to avoid traffic, which was usually fairly light) to a delightful route down Chestnut Avenue.  This route enabled us to ride for about six blocks without interruption by any curbs or cross-streets because we took the sidewalk on the eastern side of Chestnut, and it had no breaks of any kind.

I always loved our rides down Chestnut Avenue.  Chestnut features huge homes and extensive front lawns, and I memorialized it as Oak Avenue in my novel Jealous Mistress.  In this story, set in 1981, the protagonist-narrator is planning to visit a house on that street:

 

“It was only a few blocks from my house, but those blocks made all the difference in the world.  The houses on my block ran the gamut from ordinary and somewhat cramped (mine) to large and fairly impressive (the one next door…).

But the houses on [Chestnut Avenue] were borderline mansions.  One of them always reminded me of an art museum I once saw in Williamstown, Massachusetts (on a slightly smaller scale, of course).”

My protagonist-narrator hopes that the house she’s visiting “would turn out to be the museum lookalike, but it wasn’t.  It just looked like one of the houses in a Cadillac ad in the latest issue of LIFE magazine.”

 

As our family cycled alongside the magnificent homes on Chestnut Avenue, we savored the uninterrupted ride that led us to where Chestnut ended and flowed into the adjoining suburb of Kenilworth.

Kenilworth was and still is an upscale, somewhat snooty, suburb just north of Wilmette.  Like some areas of east Wilmette, this section of Kenilworth, east of Green Bay Road and close to Sheridan Road, also features huge homes, tall trees, and extensive front lawns.  My older daughter remembers these areas as “park-like.”

Kenilworth’s streets had very little car traffic—a definite plus—but the best thing about them was that they were all paved with asphalt.  In our part of Wilmette, later called the CAGE because of the four streets that bordered it (one of them was ours), the streets were still paved with red bricks.  The vintage bricks (expensive to replace when they broke) lent a certain cache to the streets, and we loved them, but they were so bumpy that they were truly awful for bike-riding.  So whenever we could ride our bikes on the streets of Kenilworth, we knew we’d have smooth sailing for that part of our ride.

When I close my eyes at the gym, I often picture the sights along this route.  During the six months of the year (May through October) when cycling was more-than-pleasant on the North Shore, we’d relish the cool breezes from Lake Michigan and the delightful sounds of birdsong that surrounded us.

But another route was equally blissful.  On this one, we’d head east, tolerating Wilmette’s bumpy brick streets as far as Sheridan Road, where we were able to ride down smooth sidewalks and streets leading to the stunning lakeside gem called Gillson Park.  Riding into Gillson gave us a couple of options:  We could head all the way to the sandy beach, riding alongside Lake Michigan, or we could cycle along Michigan Avenue, the posh residential street just east of busy Sheridan Road.

Gillson was, and still is, a gem for a host of reasons.  One is the accessible beach and harbor, where sunning, swimming, and sailing were happily available in good weather.  Another is the abundance of tall trees and green grassy lawns, where countless barbeques cropped up every summer.  Still another is the marvelous Wallace Bowl, where Wilmette offered free concerts (and Broadway musicals) every summer, and where a concert of patriotic music, followed by fireworks at the beach, was an annual tradition on the Fourth of July that attracted people from all over the Chicago area.

So we would enthusiastically ride into and through Gillson, sometimes stopping to look at the lake, sometimes zooming past Michigan Avenue mansions, always having a glorious time on a breezy, sunshiny day.

Gillson Park turned up as Sheridan Park in a scene in Jealous Mistress.  I couldn’t resist setting a scene in a secluded spot along the water where my protagonist-narrator could meet up with someone who turned out to reveal important secrets.

 

Update to today:  If you’ve read my blog before, you know I live in San Francisco, one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  So you may be wondering why I don’t envision cycling on routes through my new neighborhood rather than the routes stored in my memory bank.

The truth is that although I moved a two-year-old bike from Wilmette to my new home in San Francisco, I’ve sadly never used it.  Why?

The apartment building I chose is perched in a very hilly part of SF, and I soon realized that cycling on these hills would be much too arduous.  Hence I ride the recumbent bike at the gym while my own bike still leans against a wall in my building’s garage.

Instead of cycling, I walk almost everywhere I can in San Francisco.

But cycling still beckons.  I plan to abandon my boring gym and acquire a new recumbent bike of my own, a stationary one that will reside in my apartment, to be ridden whenever and for however long I wish.

I can hardly wait.

I Felt the Earth Move Under My Feet

I was lying in bed, actually.  It was 6 a.m. on February 9, 1971, and I was fast asleep when I awoke to feel my bed gently rocking.  I didn’t know a thing about earthquakes, but it seemed pretty clear that that was exactly what was happening.

The recent earthquake in Ridgecrest, California, has opened up a cache of my memories of that quake.

I was a happy transplant from Chicago (where, in February, it was almost certainly bitter cold) to sunny Los Angeles, where I’d begun a job six months earlier in a do-good law office at UCLA Law School.

Just before beginning work in September, I hunted for an apartment near the UCLA campus and wound up renting a furnished apartment in a Southern California-style apartment just across Gayley Avenue from the campus.  I wanted a (cheaper) studio apartment, the kind I’d just left in Chicago, but the building manager told me the last studio had been rented moments before.  I decided to take a hit budget-wise and stretch my finances, renting a one-bedroom apartment instead.

I loved living at this apartment on Kelton Avenue, a short walk from the campus.  Strolling down the path that led to the law school building, I often passed a young man who began to look familiar.  He was handsome, resembling a good-looking lawyer I’d known in Chicago, and he always looked deep in thought, sometimes puffing on a pipe as he walked.  One Saturday, I spied the same fellow approaching the small outdoor pool on the ground floor of our building, plunging in, but leaving fairly soon instead of chatting with any of the other residents.

There was also a dark green Nash Rambler parked in our building’s small outdoor lot.  This car was located directly below my apartment’s terrace.  (Another story for another day.)  It had a Berkeley car dealer’s name surrounding Michigan license plates, but it also had a parking sticker from UCLA.  Interesting!

I later realized who this intriguing fellow was (I’ll call him Marv) when we were introduced at an outdoor reception sponsored by the UCLA Chancellor in October.  (Everything in LA seemed to take place outdoors.)  I was perusing the cookies on the “cookie table” when a charming woman approached me.  “Are you here because you want to be, or would you like to meet some other people?” she asked.

I jumped at the chance to meet others and happily followed her to a group of men standing nearby.  She introduced me to her husband, a UCLA math professor, who asked me what I was doing there.  When I explained that I was a lawyer working at the law school, he asked where I’d gone to law school.  I had to admit that I’d gone to Harvard, and he immediately turned to one of the young men in the group and said “Marv went to Harvard, too.”

I took a good look at Marv, one of several young men standing beside the professor, and he was the handsome fellow I’d seen around my building and on the path between our building and the campus.

Marv called me the next day, and we began dating.  It turned out that he was the person who’d rented the last studio apartment in my apartment building, and it was his Nash Rambler that I’d spied in the parking lot.

By February we were still dating and inching toward a more serious arrangement.

As I lay in my bed that shaky morning of February 9th, I suddenly heard someone banging on my door.  It was Marv, who had run out of his apartment down the hall and come to rescue me.

I hurried to get dressed and left the apartment post-haste with Marv, who drove off to a coffee shop then located at the intersection of Wilshire and Westwood Boulevards.  As we ordered breakfast, I glanced out of a big plate-glass window and stared at a high-rise building looming just across the intersection. I quickly realized that I was terrified, afraid that the building might come crashing down, killing both of us and everyone else in the coffee shop.

Marv tried to reassure me.  He’d lived through earthquakes during his five years as a grad student in Berkeley, and he didn’t think a disaster of that kind was likely.  He’d simply wanted to leave our apartments on the off chance that our small building might have been damaged.  (I later learned that it did suffer some minor damage.)

We left the coffee shop and began driving around Westwood, noticing some shattered windows in a supermarket on Westwood Boulevard but not much else.  It turned out that we’d lived through a pretty significant quake, measuring about 6.9.  It became known as the Sylmar Quake because its epicenter was about 21 miles north of LA in the town of Sylmar.

The Sylmar Quake caused a lot of damage near its epicenter, but we’d been largely spared in Westwood and most of LA itself.  The worst physical damage I observed at UCLA was at the law library, where a great many books had spilled off their shelves onto the floor.

But the quake had a powerful impact on me nevertheless.  Most devastating was uneasiness caused by the countless aftershocks that followed the quake itself.  Recently, residents of Ridgecrest have reported a similar experience.

I felt the earth move under my feet.  It was a rocking motion like that you might feel on a ship at sea.  For weeks I continued to feel the earth move, creating a shaky feeling I couldn’t escape.

When Marv proposed marriage a short time later (still another story for still another day), marrying him meant leaving LA and moving to Ann Arbor, where he was on the faculty at the University of Michigan.  (His stay at UCLA was for a one-year project only.)

Overall, I had loved the blissful months I’d spent in LA., but I was almost happy about leaving.  I adored Marv and wanted to be with him, so that made the move an obvious choice.  Plus, a move to leafy-green Ann Arbor sounded like a good way to escape the undulating earth under my feet.

Events during the next few months helped to persuade me.  Concerts at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus made me feel uneasy.  So did seeing “Company” with George Chakiris and “Knickerbocker Holiday” with Burt Lancaster at theaters in downtown LA.  If we were seated in the balcony, I wondered whether it would suddenly collapse.  If we were seated on the ground floor, I wondered whether the balcony was going to crash down on top of us.

These unsettling feelings would soon be a part of my past.  I married Marv in May, and by the end of July we were driving to Michigan.  But our arrival at Ann Arbor was sadly disheartening.  I didn’t encounter a leafy-green setting, just a somewhat desolate campus whose abundance of elm trees had all vanished (thanks to Dutch Elm disease), and a town more focused on Saturday-afternoon football games than the heady academic atmosphere I expected.

We needed to find a place to live, and in the midst of hurried apartment-hunting, we pulled in somewhere to escape the heat and humidity of August in Ann Arbor.  Inside a sterile Dog ‘n’ Suds, I sobbed, pouring out my disappointment in our new home.

Having stability underfoot just wasn’t worth it. 

Marv agreed.  We resolved to find another location that would suit both of us.  In California, if that was possible.  Another college town if need be.  Four years later, after a one-year-respite in La Jolla, we finally departed Ann Arbor and set up home elsewhere.

Now, back in California, on my own after Marv’s death, I’ve lived with the prospect of another major earthquake ever since I moved to San Francisco.  So far I’ve managed to elude another quake, but that could change at any time, and all of us who have made our homes here know it.

I could live through another Sylmar Quake.  Or not live through it at all.

In the meantime, I relish my return to sun-drenched California, and I try to squeeze out every drop of happiness I can, each and every shiny and non-shaky day.

 

 

 

Punting on the Cam

The keys to my front door reside on a key ring I bought in Cambridge, England, on a magical day in September 1986.  It’s one of the souvenir key rings you used to find in Britain (and maybe still can, though I didn’t see any during a visit in 2012).  They were fashioned in leather and emblazoned in gold leaf with the name and design of a notable site.

During trips to London and elsewhere in Britain during the 1980s and ‘90s, I acquired a host of these key rings. One of my favorites was a bright red one purchased at Cardiff Castle in Wales in 1995.  I would carry one of them in my purse until the gold design wore off and the leather became so worn that it began to fall apart.

Until recently, I thought I had used every one of these leather key rings.  But recently, in a bag filled with souvenir key rings, I came across the one I bought in Cambridge in 1986.  There it was, in all of its splendor:  Black leather emblazoned with the gold-leaf crest of King’s College, Cambridge.

I began using it right away, and the gold design is already fading.  But my memories of that day in Cambridge will never fade.

My husband Herb had gone off to Germany to attend a math conference while I remained at home with our two young daughters.  But we excitedly planned to rendezvous in London, one of our favorite cities, when his conference was over.

Happily for us, Grandma agreed to stay with our daughters while I traveled to meet Herb, and on a rainy September morning I arrived in London and checked into our Bloomsbury hotel.  Soon I set off in the rain to find theater tickets for that evening, and in Leicester Square I bought half-price tickets for a comedy I knew nothing about, “Lend Me a Tenor.”  Stopping afterwards for tea at Fortnum and Mason’s eased the pain of trekking through the rain.

When Herb and I finally met up, we dined at an Italian restaurant and headed for the theater. “Lend Me a Tenor” was hilarious and set the tone for a wonderful week together.

We covered a lot of ground in London that week, including a visit to Carlyle’s house in Chelsea, a sunny boat trip to Greenwich, viewing notable Brits on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, tramping around Bloomsbury and Hampstead, and lunching with a British lawyer (a law-school friend) at The Temple, an Inn of Court made famous by our favorite TV barrister, Rumpole (of the Bailey), whose chambers were allegedly in The Temple.

Other highlights were our evenings at the theater. Thanks to advice from my sister, who’d just been in London, we ordered tickets before leaving home for the new smash musical, “Les Miserables” (which hadn’t yet hit Broadway). It was worth every penny of the $75 we paid per ticket (a pricey sum in 1986) to see Colm Wilkinson portray Jean Valjean on the stage of the Palace Theatre.  We also loved seeing a fresh interpretation of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at the Barbican and Alan Ayckbourn’s poignant comedy “A Chorus of Disapproval” at the Lyric.  Although “Mutiny!”–a musical based on “Mutiny on the Bounty”–was disappointing, we relished a concert at South Bank’s Royal Festival Hall, where I kept expecting the Queen to enter and unceremoniously plop herself down in one of the hall’s many boxes.

But it was our day trip to Cambridge that was the centerpiece of our week.  On Friday, September 19th, we set out by train from King’s Cross Station and arrived at Cambridge in just over an hour.  We immediately reveled in the array of beautiful sites leaping out at us on the university campus nestled along the Cam River.  Our first stop was Queens’ College and its remarkable Mathematical Bridge.  The college spans both sides of the river (students jokingly refer to the newer half as the “light side” and the older half as the “dark side”), and the world-famous bridge connects the two.  The legend goes that the bridge was designed and built by Cambridge scholar Sir Isaac Newton without the use of nuts or bolts. But in fact it was built with nuts and bolts in 1749, 22 years after Newton died, and rebuilt in 1905.

Our next must-see site was King’s College.  During my college years at Washington University in St. Louis, I learned that Graham Chapel, our strikingly beautiful chapel–built in 1909 and the site of many exhilarating lectures and concerts (in which I often sang)–shared its design with that of King’s College, Cambridge.  So we headed right for it.  (Graham Chapel’s architect never maintained that it was an exact copy but was only partly modeled after King’s College Chapel, which is far larger.)

Entering the huge and impressive Cambridge version, we were suitably awed by its magnificence.  Begun by King Henry VI in 1446, it features the largest “fan vault” in the world and astonishingly beautiful medieval stained glass.  (A fan vault? It’s a Gothic vault in which the ribs are all curved the same and spaced evenly, resembling a fan.)

As we left the chapel, still reeling from all the stunning places we’d just seen, we noticed signs pointing us in the direction of punts available for a ride on the Cam.  The idea of “punting on the Cam”—riding down the river on one of the flat-bottomed boats that have been around since 1902–sounded wonderful.  We didn’t hesitate to pay the fare and immediately seated ourselves in one of the boats.

The river was serene, with only a few other boats floating nearby, and our punter, a charming young man in a straw boater hat, provided intelligent narration as we floated past the campus buildings stretched out along the river.  He propelled the boat by pushing against the river bed with a long pole.  His charm and good looks enhanced our ride enormously.

The boat wasn’t crowded.  An older British couple sat directly across from us, and we chatted amiably about Britain and the United States, finding commonality where we could.

The sun was shining, and the 70-degree temperature was perfect.  Beautiful old trees dotted the riverbanks, providing shade as we floated by, admiring the exquisite college buildings.

What’s punting like?  Ideally, it’s a calm, soothing boat ride on a river like the Cam.  Something like riding in a gondola in Venice, except that gondolas are propelled by oars instead of poles. (I rush to add that the gondola I rode in Venice had a much less attractive and charming oarsman.)

An article in the Wall Street Journal in November described recent problems caused by punting’s growing popularity.  Increased congestion in the Cam has led to safety rules and regulations never needed in the past.  According to the Journal, “punt wars” have divided the city of Cambridge, with traditional boats required to follow the new rules while upstart self-hire boats, which have created most of the problems, are not.

But luckily for Herb and me, problems like those didn’t exist in 1986.  Not at all.  Back then, floating along the river with my adored husband by my side was an idyllic experience that has a special place in my memory.

I don’t recall where I bought my leather key ring.  Perhaps in a small shop somewhere in Cambridge.  But no matter where I bought it, it remains a happy reminder of a truly extraordinary day.

 

Hamilton, Hamilton…Who Was He Anyway?

Broadway megahit “Hamilton” has brought the Founding Parent (okay, Founding Father) into a spotlight unknown since his own era.

Let’s face it.  The Ron Chernow biography, turned into a smash Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, has made Alexander Hamilton into the icon he hasn’t been–or maybe never was–in a century or two. Just this week, the hip-hop musical “Hamilton” received a record-breaking 16 Tony Award nominations.

His new-found celebrity has even influenced his modern-day successor, current Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, leading Lew to reverse his earlier plan to remove Hamilton from the $10 bill and replace him with the image of an American woman.

Instead, Hamilton will remain on the front of that bill, with a group representing suffragette leaders in 1913 appearing on the back, while Harriet Tubman will replace no-longer-revered and now-reviled President Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill.  We’ll see other changes to our paper currency during the next five years.

But an intriguing question remains:  How many Americans—putting aside those caught up in the frenzy on Broadway, where theatergoers are forking over $300 and $400 to see “Hamilton” on stage—know who Hamilton really was?

A recent study done by memory researchers at Washington University in St. Louis has confirmed that most Americans are confident that Hamilton was once president of the United States.

According to Henry L. Roediger III, a human memory expert at Wash U, “Our findings from a recent survey suggest that about 71 percent of Americans are fairly certain that [Hamilton] is among our nation’s past presidents.  I had predicted that Benjamin Franklin would be the person most falsely recognized as a president, but Hamilton beat him by a mile.”

Roediger (whose official academic title is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor in Arts & Sciences) has been testing undergrad college students since 1973, when he first administered a test while he was himself a psychology grad student at Yale. His 2014 study, published in the journal Science, suggested that we as a nation do fairly well at naming the first few and the last few presidents.  But less than 20 percent can remember more than the last 8 or 9 presidents in order.

Roediger’s more recent study is a bit different because its goal was to gauge how well Americans simply recognize the names of past presidents.  Name-recognition should be much less difficult than recalling names from memory and listing them on a blank sheet of paper, which was the challenge in 2014.

The 2016 study, published in February in the journal Psychological Science, asked participants to identify past presidents, using a list of names that included actual presidents as well as famous non-presidents like Hamilton and Franklin.  Other familiar names from U.S. history, and non-famous but common names, were also included.

Participants were asked to indicate their level of certainty on a scale from zero to 100, where 100 was absolutely certain.

What happened?  The rate for correctly recognizing the names of past presidents was 88 percent overall, although laggards Franklin Pierce and Chester Arthur rated less than 60 percent.

Hamilton was more frequently identified as president (with 71 percent thinking that he was) than several actual presidents, and people were very confident (83 on the 100-point scale) that he had been president.

More than a quarter of the participants incorrectly recognized others, notably Franklin, Hubert Humphrey, and John Calhoun, as past presidents.  Roediger thinks that probably happened because people are aware that these were important figures in American history without really knowing what their actual roles were.

Roediger and his co-author, K. Andrew DeSoto, suggest that our ability to recognize the names of famous people hinges on their names appearing in a context related to the source of their fame.  “Elvis Presley was famous, but he would never be recognized as a past president,” Roediger says.   It’s not enough to have a familiar name.  It must be “a familiar name in the right context.”

This study is part of an emerging line of research focusing on how people remember history.  The recent studies reveal that the ability to remember the names of presidents follows consistent and reliable patterns.  “No matter how we test it—in the same experiment, with different people, across generations, in the laboratory, with online studies, with different types of tests—there are clear patterns in how the presidents are remembered and how they are forgotten,” DeSoto says.

While decades-old theories about memory can explain the results to some extent, these findings are sparking new ideas about fame and just how human memory-function treats those who achieve it.

As Roediger notes, “knowledge of American presidents is imperfect….”  False fame can arise from “contextual familiarity.”  And “even the most famous person in America may be forgotten in as short a time as 50 years.”

So…how will Alexander Hamilton’s new-found celebrity hold up?  Judging from the astounding success of the hip-hop musical focusing on him and his cohorts, one can predict with some confidence that his memory will endure far longer than it otherwise might have.

This time, he may even be remembered as our first Secretary of the Treasury, not as the president he never was.