Category Archives: music

Another love story

Part II

Watching “Love Story” again, 50 years later, I found it terribly disappointing.

The film was an enormous hit at the box office, earning $130 million—the equivalent of $1 billion today.

It was a box-office phenomenon, a tearjerker that offered its audience a classic love story filled with amorous scenes and, ultimately, tragedy.

But….

Fifty years later, I found the two leads far less appealing than I remembered.  Ryan O’Neal, who plays highly-privileged Oliver Barrett IV, and Ali MacGraw, who plays Jenny, a super-smart girl from the wrong side of the tracks, encounter each other on the Harvard campus as undergrads.  After some sparring, they quickly fall into each other’s arms.  But I didn’t find either them or their relationship overwhelmingly endearing.

Ali MacGraw’s character, Jenny, strikes me now as borderline obnoxious.  She’s constantly smirking, overly impressed with her brain-power and witty repartee. 

Even Oliver, who falls madly in love with her, calls her “the supreme Radcliffe smart-ass” and a “conceited Radcliffe bitch.”  (As you probably know, Radcliffe was the women’s college affiliated with Harvard before Harvard College itself admitted women.)

Jenny would repeatedly retaliate, ridiculing Oliver by calling him “preppie,” a term used at the time by non-privileged students in an attempt to diminish the puffed-up opinion that privileged prep-school graduates had of themselves.

Jenny may have been Hollywood’s version of a sharp young college woman of her time, but 50 years later, I view her character as unrelatable and hard to take.

I received my own degrees at a rigorous college, a demanding grad school, and a world-renowned law school.  My classmates included some of the smartest women I’ve ever known.  But I don’t recall ever encountering any bright young women who exemplified the kind of “smart-ass” behavior Jenny displays.  If they existed, they clearly stayed out of my world.

The film has other flaws.  In one scene, filmed near a doorway to Langdell Hall (the still-imposing law school building that houses its vast law library), Jenny bicycles to where Oliver is perched and proceeds to make him a peanut butter sandwich while he is so engrossed in his recognizably red Little Brown casebook that he barely notices her presence. This scene is ludicrous.  Law students are traditionally super-focused on their studies.  Well, at least some of them are.  But Oliver’s ignoring a beloved spouse who’s gone out of her way to please him in this way is offensive and totally contrary to the “loving” tone in the rest of the film.  In short, ludicrous.

The movie also became famous for its often quoted line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  The absurdity of that line struck me back in 1970 and has stayed with me ever since.  I’ve never understood why it garnered so much attention.  Don’t we all say “I’m sorry” when we’ve done something hurtful?  Especially to someone we love?

Interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz in March 2021 (on CBS Sunday Morning), both Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal (still vibrant and still in touch with each other) confessed that they never understood the line either.  “What does it mean?” Mankiewicz asked.  MacGraw’s response:  “I don’t know.” 

One more thing about that famous line:  If you watch the hilarious 1972 screwball comedy “What’s Up, Doc?” you’ll probably get a kick out of a scene at the very end.  Barbra Streisand cleverly mocks the “Love means never…” line while traveling on a plane with her co-star (and “Love Story” lead) Ryan O’Neal.

Another line in the film, this one spoken by Oliver’s father, struck me as remarkable as I listened to it 50 years after the film first appeared.  When his father, played by veteran actor Ray Milland, learns that Oliver has been admitted to Harvard Law School, he tells Oliver that he’ll probably be “the first Barrett on the Supreme Court.”  Just think about this line.  Who could have predicted in 1970 that someone named Barrett would actually be appointed to the Supreme Court in 2020? (My opinion of that appointment?  No comment.)

One more thing about Jenny:  Yes, women used to give up great opportunities in order to marry Mr. Right, and many probably still do. But I was heartily disappointed that Jenny so casually gave up a scholarship to study music in Paris with Nadia Boulanger so she could stay in Cambridge while Oliver finished his law degree.

What’s worse, instead of insisting that she seize that opportunity, Oliver selfishly thought of himself first, begging her not to leave him.  Jenny winds up teaching at a children’s school instead of pursuing her undeniable musical talent.

I like to think that today (at least before the pandemic changed things) a smart young Jenny would tell Oliver, “I’m sorry, darling, but I really don’t want to give up this fabulous opportunity.  Why don’t you meet me in Paris?  Or wait for me here in Cambridge for a year or two?  We can then pick up where we left off.” 

But I’m probably being unfair to most of the young women of that era.  I’m certainly aware that the prevailing culture in 1970 did not encourage that sort of decision.

When I decided to marry Marv in 1971 and leave my job at UCLA to move with him to Ann Arbor, Michigan, I wasn’t giving up anything like Paris and Nadia Boulanger.  For one thing, I had had a perilous experience in LA with a major earthquake and its aftershocks.  [Please see my post, “I Felt the Earth Move under My Feet,” July 17, 2019.]  I was also aware of other negative features of life in LA.

And shortly after Marv asked me to marry him, we set off on an eight-day road trip from LA to San Francisco, via Route 1, along the spectacular California coast.  Spending every minute of those eight days together convinced me that Marv and I were truly meant to be together. (On one memorable occasion, while dining at The French Poodle restaurant in Carmel, Marv insisted that the server let me, not him, taste our wine before accepting it for our dinner. In 1971, this was absolutely stunning.) 

So I decided, on balance, that moving with Marv to Ann Arbor would mean moving to a tranquil, leafy-green, and non-shaky place where I could live with the man I adored.  The man who clearly adored me, too.

I was certain that I would find interesting and meaningful work to do, and I did.  

Both of us hoped to return to California after a few years in Ann Arbor, where Marv was a tenured member of the University of Michigan math faculty.  (He’d been at UCLA in a special one-year program and had to return to Ann Arbor in 1971.) 

But when that didn’t work out, and we jointly decided to leave Ann Arbor, we settled elsewhere—happily–because it meant that we could stay together.

I’ve made many unwise choices during my life.  The list is a long one.  But choosing to marry Marv, leave LA, and live with him for the rest of our gloriously happy married life was not one of them. 

The unwise choices were my own, and loving Marv was never the reason why I made any of them. 

On the contrary, life with Marv was in many ways the magical life I envisioned when we shared dinner for the first time at Le Cellier in Santa Monica in October 1970.

It was, in the end, and forever, another love story.

Postscript:  If Marv were still here, we’d be celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary this month.

Another love story

December 2020 marked 50 years since the release of the film “Love Story” in December 1970.  This film played a role in the burgeoning romance between me and the astonishing man who became my husband a few months later.  I’ll call him Marv.

Part I

We waited in a long line outside the theater in chilly Westwood.  The air was nothing like the frigid nighttime air that would have enveloped us in Chicago, or Boston, or Cleveland. But we were in LA, and for LA it was a chilly December night.

We didn’t mind waiting. We were too enthralled with each other, with Westwood, and with the prospect of seeing “Love Story” on the big screen. 

I’d met Marv two months earlier at the Chancellor’s Reception on the UCLA campus. The reception was intended for faculty only, but the director of my legal-services support program at the law school was a member of the faculty, and he circulated his invitation to all of us working in the program.

I’d moved from Chicago in late August and was eager to meet new people in LA. The reception was taking place on a Sunday afternoon in October, and I decided to show up.  I purposely wore my incredibly fetching black sleeveless miniskirt dress with bright red pockets and made my way to the campus under a radiant California sun.

I looked around.  I didn’t know anyone there—I’d been in LA for only six weeks.  I wandered over to the “cookie table” and was pondering which cookies to sample when a woman approached me.  “Are you by yourself because you want to be, or would you like to meet some other people?” she asked.

I immediately responded that I’d like to meet other people, and she led me to a group of four men. She began by introducing her husband, a bearded middle-aged math professor, who was accompanied by three much younger men. As I glanced at the younger men, I instantly recognized one of them–a good-looking guy I’d seen around my apartment building near the campus.

The professor explained that these young men were there because they were new math faculty, and he asked me why I was there. I told him I was working at the law school.  He then asked where I’d gone to law school. When I said Harvard, he turned to the good-looking guy and said, “Marv went to Harvard, too.”

Thus began my bond with Marv.  We had Harvard in common.

I’d noticed Marv around our building but, as it turned out, he’d never noticed me. I’d seen him—alone—diving into the building’s small pool, and I’d seen him walking back and forth along a pathway that connected our apartment building (near the corner of Kelton and Gayley) to the campus.  Sometimes he’d been smoking a pipe as he walked.

I sometimes wondered: How could he help noticing an adorable redhead like me?  But I later decided it was just fine that he never noticed me because that meant he wasn’t noticing any other young women either.

Even later, I figured out why he’d been totally unaware of me.  Whenever he was by himself–in this case, walking to and from campus by himself–he was thinking about math.  Marv was a brilliant mathematician who almost never stopped thinking about math.

When we began talking at the Chancellor’s Reception, Marv discovered what I already knew—we lived in the same apartment building.  He smiled a lot and let me know that he wanted to see me sometime.

Did I give him my phone number?  I must have because a day or two later he called and asked me to go to dinner.

We agreed that I would meet him at his apartment and make our dinner plans there.  So on Saturday night I walked a short distance from my apartment to his apartment on the same floor. 

Marv and I had both searched for a studio apartment in Westwood at the same time. At the end of my search, I decided that I preferred the building on Kelton.  Hoping to rent a relatively inexpensive studio there, I returned and learned that the last studio had just been rented.  It turned out that the renter was Marv. 

So, because someone (namely Marv) had just rented the last available studio in that building, I had to decide whether to rent a one-bedroom I could barely afford.  It was a stretch for me, financially.  But I decided to go ahead and rent it. 

Destiny? 

When he answered his door, Marv welcomed me and handed me a copy of a paperback book, “101 Nights in California.”  We sat together on his sofa, looking through the book’s list of restaurants, along with their menus.  “You pick wherever you want to go,” he said.

My jaw nearly dropped.  It was 1970, and it was almost unimaginable that a man would say that to a brand new date, allowing her to choose the restaurant where they’d dine that night.  I knew immediately that Marv just might be the right man for me.  He was certainly unlike anyone I’d ever dated before.

I’d already dated some pretty good guys.  But when men met me during my years at law school, or later learned that I was a lawyer, only the few who were immensely secure chose to date me.  Others fell by the wayside.

Marv was completely secure and non-threatened by someone like me.  He actually relished having a smart woman in his life.  And that never changed.

That evening, I chose a French restaurant in Santa Monica called Le Cellier.  How was our dinner there?  In short, it was magical.  We not only had a splendid French meal, but we also used our time together to learn a lot about each other.  My hunch that Marv was possibly the perfect man for me was proving to be correct.

We proceeded to have one promising date after another.  Dinner at Mario’s, a small Italian restaurant in Westwood.  A Halloween party at a colleague’s home in Pacific Palisades.  Viewing the startling film “Joe,” starring Peter Boyle.  (We later ran into Boyle when we ate at a health-food restaurant in LA.)

By December we were hovering on the precipice of falling in love.  We’d heard the buzz about “Love Story,” and both of us were eager to see it.  So there we were, waiting in a long line of moviegoers at the Westwood Village Theater that chilly night.

The plot of “Love Story” wasn’t totally unknown to me.  I’d already read Erich Segal’s story shortly before I’d moved to LA from Chicago.  I was casually leafing through a magazine when I came across the story.

It grabbed me right away.  It was set, after all, in Cambridge, and its leading characters were students at Harvard.  I’d spent three years there getting my law degree, and I’d finished just a few years earlier.

The story was sappy and had a terribly sad ending.  But I relished the Harvard setting, and I couldn’t wait to see the film based on it.  When Marv learned a little bit about it, he wanted to see it too.

We soon found ourselves inside the theater, every seat filled with excited patrons like us, and began watching Hollywood’s “Love Story,” our eyes glued to the screen.

What did we think of the movie that night?  I truthfully don’t remember, and Marv is no longer here to recall it with me.  So I recently decided to re-watch the film—twice–to reflect on it and what it may have meant to us at the time.

In 1970, enamored with my companion, I most likely loved the film and its countless depictions of student life at Harvard.  Marv had graduated from the college in 1963, and I’d finished at the law school in 1967, so we’d attended Harvard at about the same time as author Segal (Harvard class of ‘58, Ph.D. ‘65). 

The two lead actors, Ryan O’Neal (playing Oliver) and Ali MacGraw (playing Jenny), were also contemporaries of ours who could have been Harvard students at about the same time.  Let’s add Tommy Lee Jones, whose first film role is one of Oliver’s roommates.  He was himself a Harvard grad, class of ‘69.  (Segal reportedly based Oliver on two of his friends:  Harvard roommates Tommy Lee Jones and Al Gore.)  By the way, Tommy’s name in the credits is Tom Lee Jones.

Marv and I certainly relished the scenes set in a variety of Harvard locations, including the hockey arena where Oliver stars on the school’s hockey team and where I had skated (badly) with a date from the business school. In another scene, the two leads ecstatically make snow angels on the snow-covered campus. 

And I loved watching Oliver searching for Jenny in the Music Building, a building located very close to the law school, where I occasionally escaped from my studies by listening to old 78 LP records in a soundproof booth.

Overall, Marv and I probably found most of the film a lightweight take on life as a Harvard student (although darker days followed as the story moved toward its tragic end).  I’m sure we were also moved by the haunting music composed by Francis Lai, an unquestionably brilliant addition to the film that earned its only Oscar (out of seven nominations). 

Seeing “Love Story” together that chilly night must have been wonderful. 

But watching the film again, 50 years later?  I have to be honest:  I found it disappointing.

                                       To be continued

Two Words

Do you remember this scene in the 1967 film “The Graduate”?

New college graduate Benjamin encounters a friend of his father’s at a party.  The friend pulls him aside and says, “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.  Plastics.”

That advice may have helped college grads in ‘67, but the world we face today is very different.

In light of the raging global pandemic, and the stress it’s placed on all of us, I now have two words for you.  Elastic waists.

Many of us have recently begun wearing clothes with elastic waists.

On June 26, The Wall Street Journal noted:  “The Covid 15 Have Made Our Clothes Too Tight.”  Reporter Suzanne Kapner clearly outlined the problem.  “People spent the spring sheltering at home in sweatpants, perfecting banana-bread recipes and indulging in pandemic-induced stress-eating.”  And while most of us have escaped Covid-19, we haven’t escaped the “Covid 15”—the weight-gain pushing Americans into “roomier wardrobes.”

Hence the widespread adoption of elastic waists.

Many shoppers have jumped on the scale, been horrified, and concluded that they needed to buy new clothes to fit their new shapes.  One woman, unable to zip up her pants, got on her scale.  “Holy moly,” she told Kapner, “I gained 11 pounds in three weeks.”

Kapner cited more evidence:  First, Google-searches for “elastic waist” have spiked. Further, body-measuring apps have reported a jump in people choosing looser fits to accommodate their new profiles.  As the CEO of one such app observed, people are “sizing up” because they’ve gained weight.  Less active and more confined, they’re “eating more, either out of stress or boredom.”

In light of this phenomenon, some retailers are increasing orders of clothes in bigger sizes.  They’re also painfully aware of something else:  the rise in returns because of size-changes.  Returns have probably doubled in the past three months, according to a software company that processes returns for over 200 brands. And when customers order a clothing item (in their former size), and it needs to be exchanged for a larger size, those retailers who offer free shipping and free returns find that all of these additional returns are eating into their profits.

This move into larger sizes and elastic waists doesn’t surprise me.  I long ago adopted wearing pants with elastic waists.  Not all of my pants, to be sure.  But many of them.

It probably started when I was pregnant with my first child.  As my abdominal area began to expand, I searched my closet and came across some skirts and pants with elastic waistbands.  I discovered that I could wear these throughout my pregnancy, adding extra elastic as needed.  I bought some maternity clothes as well, but the pants with those stretchy elastic waistbands allowed me to avoid buying a lot of new items.

Over the years, I’ve continued to wear elastic-waist pants, enjoying the comfort they afford.  (Yes, I also wear pants and jeans with stitched-down waistbands that fit me.)

I can understand why there’s a new emphasis on buying elastic waists in lieu of bigger sizes.  A bigger size might be OK for right now, but you probably hope to return to your former size sometime.  Elastic waists are exactly what they claim to be:  elastic.  That means they can expand, but they can also contract.

Both women and men can benefit from wearing elastic waists, at least until they’ve shed the additional pounds they’ve recently acquired.

Many women have traditionally turned to elastic waists because they don’t have the typical “hourglass” shape women are expected to sport.  They have what’s been called an “apple” shape, with a somewhat larger waist measurement than most women have.  In the past, they might have purchased clothes with a tight waistband and then had a tailor make the waistband bigger.

But right now, tailoring clothes is almost impossible. Who’s leaving the safety of home simply to find a tailor to alter a waistband?  The pandemic has put such tailoring out of reach for most of us.  And if an elastic waist makes it unnecessary, it’s saving you the trouble and expense of seeking out a tailor.

Men with expanding waists have also benefited from elastic waists.  The popularity of sweatpants and other casual wear with elastic waists for men are proof of that.

I recognize the role stress is playing in our lives right now, and it’s pretty obvious that we can attribute some weight-gain to the increased level of stress.  So, to avoid buying more and more elastic waists and/or bigger sizes, we need to reduce stress as much as we can.

The advice we’ve all heard for a long time still holds, and it probably applies now more than ever.  At the risk of sounding preachy, I’m adding a few new tips to the tried-and-true list.  (Feel free to skip it if you think you’ve heard it all before.)

  • Be more physically active. Please remember:  You don’t need to go to a gym or even do vigorous workouts at home.  Simply taking a fairly fast-paced stroll in your neighborhood is good enough.
  • Avoid fixating on TV news, especially the bad stuff.
  • Watch distracting TV programing instead (this includes reliably funny films like “Some Like It Hot” and “What’s Up, Doc?” if you can find them).
  • Play music that makes you happy.
  • Connect with friends and family by phone, email, or text (or by writing actual letters).
  • Give meditation a try, just in case it may help you.
  • Try to follow a diet focused on fresh fruit, veggies, high-fiber carbs, and lean protein.
  • Curl up with a good book. (Forgive me for plugging my three novels,* but each one is a fast read and can take you to a different time and place, a definitely helpful distraction.)

Although I admit that I’m still wearing the elastic waists I already own, I’ve so far been able to avoid the “Covid 15” that might require buying new ones.  What’s helped me?

First, briskly walking in my neighborhood for 30 minutes every day.  Second, resisting the lure of chocolate as much I can.  Instead, I’ve been relying on heaps of fruits, veggies, popcorn, pretzels, and sugarless gum.  (My chief indulgences are peanut butter and fig bars.)  It’s as simple as that.

Maybe you can avoid it, too.  Good luck!

 

*A Quicker Blood, Jealous Mistress, and Red Diana are all available as paperbacks and e-books on Amazon.com.

 

 

 

Hooray for Hollywood! Part I

As a lifelong film buff (OK, since I was about 4), I have great fondness for much that Hollywood (and foreign cinema) has produced.  Each year I try to see a number of new films and re-watch some of the old ones.

During the past year, I never got around to seeing most of the blockbusters that dominated the box office. According to the online publication The Verge, Disney produced an unprecedented 80 percent of the top box-office hits in 2019.

Thanks to its purchase during the last decade of Marvel Entertainment (2009) and Lucasfilm (2012), Disney films have included franchises like Star Wars and the Marvel hits, in addition to popular animated films like Frozen and Frozen 2.  The result:  Disney films have surpassed many other films at the box office.

But I don’t pay a lot of attention to box-office success.  I’m far more focused on seeing films that have something to say to me. This year my clear favorite was Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.

Once Upon a Time, a Quentin Tarantino film, is not only a fabulous depiction of Hollywood in 1969, but it also related to me and my life in a number of ways.

Spoiler alert:  If you haven’t yet seen this film, DO NOT read the ending of this blog post, where I write about the Manson murders.

First, about the film itself:  It’s been called a “buddy picture,” and in many ways it is.  In two stellar performances, Leonardo DiCaprio (playing the fictional Rick Dalton) and Brad Pitt (playing fictional Cliff Booth), are indeed buddies.  Rick is a fading former star of a Western TV series, trying to make a comeback in Hollywood, while Cliff is his longtime stunt double.  By 1969, with Rick’s star on the wane, Cliff spends much of his time driving Rick from place to place.  Both are struggling to survive in a Hollywood that has changed from the one they knew.

Weaving fiction and fact throughout the film, Tarantino uses both humor and violence to depict the end of an era.  In this love letter to 1960s Hollywood (which has earned positive reviews by most top critics on Rotten Tomatoes and garnered numerous awards and nominations), he embeds specifics of popular culture and real places in 1969 LA into the film.

 

The story takes place during two days in February and one day in August of 1969.  Notably, Rick Dalton’s home is right next door to the home of minor film star Sharon Tate (married to director Roman Polanski) in a posh section of western LA, Benedict Canyon.

In this film, Tarantino also skillfully blends in the ugly story of the Charles Manson “family.”

Re-creating in many ways the world that I lived in at about the same time, even if he himself did not, Tarantino provoked a cascade of intensely vivid memories for me.  Here’s why:

 

 

I left Chicago in August 1970 and moved to the Westwood neighborhood on the west side of LA, where I rented a cheerful furnished apartment within walking distance of UCLA.

I had moved my “Reggie Fellowship” from the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau to a health-law related Legal Services office that was located at UCLA Law School.  Reggies were predominantly young lawyers who opted to work on behalf of the poor rather than toil in a corporate law firm.  (Please see my more detailed description of the Reggie program in an earlier post, “The Summer of ’69,” published on August 7. 2015.)

Westwood and Westwood Village (the commercial area in Westwood, adjacent to UCLA), loom large in my memory.  I met my husband-to-be (I’ll call him Marv) on the UCLA campus in October 1970, six weeks after I arrived.  Before we met, we had both rented separate apartments in the same apartment building located on the fringe of the campus. We soon began dating, and my memory bank is filled with countless memories related to our courtship and marriage that year.

My new location was very close to much of what happens in the Tarantino film only one year earlier.  So when he replicates things from that time, I recall seeing and hearing a lot of what looked like them myself.

Examples:  Street signs, ads painted on bus-stop benches, movie posters, commercials, and music. (Some of these are Tarantino’s own inventions.)

Probably the best example:  Sharon Tate goes to see herself in a film at a movie theater in Westwood Village.  During the year that I lived in Westwood, I saw many films at the movie theaters in Westwood Village.  (Seeing “Love Story” with Marv in one of them in December 1970 was especially memorable, and I plan to write about it in a future blog post.)

Another example:  A scene in the movie is set at the famous LA restaurant called Musso & Frank Grill.  Marv and I were both aware of its fame, and during that year we sought it out and dined there one special night.

One more thing:  The stunning area where Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski lived next door to the fictional Rick Dalton (Benedict Canyon) is in western LA, not far from Westwood and very close to BelAir.  Marv and I not only lived in Westwood, but we also celebrated our wedding luncheon at the charming BelAir Hotel.

Then there’s the Manson family storyline in the movie.  I learned about the Manson murders during a weekend in New York City.  I was spending part of the summer of 1969 at the Reggie training program at Haverford College, near Philadelphia, and I traveled from Philly to NYC one weekend in August

During trips to NYC, I often stayed with a close friend and a law-school classmate (I’ll call her Arlene).  Although Arlene was planning to be out of town that weekend, she invited me to stay in her 86th Street apartment on the East Side of Manhattan without her.  It was a great opportunity to live by myself as a quasi-New Yorker, and I decided to do it.

Returning to her apartment on Saturday evening, I picked up the Sunday New York Times and was shocked by a headline spelling out the startling discovery of the Manson murders.

At that time, I was still living in Chicago, but I had briefly lived in LA when I was 12 and always liked to follow any news arising there.  So I was riveted by the Manson story and read the paper from cover to cover.

When Tarantino decided to weave this story into the rest of his film, he did what he’d done in Inglourious Basterds and changed the real ending to a much different one.

Watching Once Upon a Time, I was terribly nervous as the film approached its ending.  I knew how the real story turned out, and I didn’t know exactly how this film would portray it.  But what a departure from reality Tarantino created!  The shocking ending to the film includes imaginative violence that is so over-the-top that it’s almost humorous.  Overall, the ending is a clever re-imagining of the fate of the Manson family and a much happier resolution of what happened to their victims.

Although the new ending was violent in its own way, creating an exciting piece of filmmaking, I left the theater in a much sunnier frame of mind than I would have if Tarantino had re-created the actual massacre that took place in 1969.

 

In sum, Once Upon a Time is, to my mind, an absorbing and a fascinating film.  For me, it was one of the best films of 2019.

 

I plan to write again about Hollywood films that have been relevant to my own life.  Part II will begin to explore classic films that have done just that.

 

 

They’re My Blue Jeans, and I’ll Wear Them If I Want To

What?  I’m supposed to give up wearing jeans because I’m over 52?

I recently came across a preposterous study conducted by CollectPlus, a UK parcel-delivery service, which asked 2,000 Brits this question:  When should people stop wearing jeans?

Answer:  Age 53.

Even the marketing director at CollectPlus was baffled by the results.  Catherine Wolfe told the Daily Mail, “Denim is such a universal material and, with so many different styles available, it’s a timeless look that people of all ages can pull off.”

The newspaper didn’t disclose such relevant details as the age of the participants in the survey.  Who were these people?  How old were they?  Where in the UK did they live?  To make any sense out of this study, we should know details like these.

What did the participants reveal?  Almost a quarter of them admitted they haven’t yet found their perfect pair, another 29 percent have given up the quest for that perfect pair, and six percent admitted that they’ve been reduced to tears in the search for it.

Once they’ve found their ideal jeans, however, they hold on to them, and 33 percent say they’ll wear them practically anywhere, including the theater or a dinner party.

Do these devoted jeans-wearers really expect to give up their beloved jeans when they turn 53?  I doubt it.

Although my own go-to pants are slim black fabric-blends, my wardrobe also includes some skinny jeans.  I sported a pair last week during a visit to Yosemite National Park. My semi-washed-out jeans were clearly the best choice for Yosemite.  They protected me from insect bites, spilled food and drink, and potentially hazardous falls onto jagged rocks and other obstacles confronting me during my hikes.  (Luckily, I avoided any mishaps.)  When I hiked alongside Yosemite Falls, one of the park’s spectacular waterfalls, its watery mist hit my clothes, but my jeans’ cotton fabric dried quickly in the mountain air.  And I had pockets galore in which to stash any small items I needed en route.

In short, they were perfect.  Why would I ever want to abandon them?

Here in San Francisco, we treasure the legacy of blue jeans, thanks to Levi Strauss and the jeans empire he and his partner created in 1871 (they patented their design in 1873).  The Levis Strauss Company is still a big presence in the city, and Levi’s descendants are among the Bay Area’s most prominent philanthropists and civic leaders.

You may be surprised to learn that the Levi’s company maintains a vast collection of historic jeans in its San Francisco archives. And to celebrate the 144th birthday of blue jeans this year, Levi’s hosted a bunch of special events around town, including the launch of their first-ever skinny 501s for men and women.

Give up my skinny jeans?  Never.  And I think at least a few other over-50s agree.  Last week, I watched singer-songwriter Paul Simon perform on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.  Simon, who’s 75, was wearing a pair of skinny jeans that looked a lot like mine.

Bravo, Paul!  It’s great to see you still singing, still writing new songs to sing, and still wearing skinny jeans.  “Hello darkness, my old friend?”  Well, maybe.  If they’re dark blue skinny jeans, that is.

 

 

Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas!  That’s what the Brits say, right?  I’m thinking in Brit-speak right now, thanks to recently immersing myself in the world of Victorian London, and I haven’t shaken it off just yet.

The occasion? I showed up at this year’s Great Dickens Christmas Fair & Victorian Holiday Party, held every year at San Francisco’s Cow Palace.

I’ve always associated the Cow Palace with the Republican convention held there in 1964.  The one where Barry Goldwater gave his famous acceptance speech, including the memorable line, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”  I remember watching him say those words on TV while I was at home with a high fever.  The whole experience seemed like a feverish nightmare.  A candidate for the presidency of the United States saying those words!  To a Democratically-inclined young person in 1964, Goldwater’s words were shocking.  (Fast forward to 2016, when much more inflammatory speech was hurled at the nation almost every day by another candidate for the presidency.  One, unlike Goldwater, who got himself elected.)

Back to the Cow Palace.  It’s an indoor arena known as a venue for dog shows, sporting events, rodeos, and gun shows.  The Beatles appeared there twice in the ‘60s (and U2 at a special event in October 2016).  I’d never been there before.  But there I was, along with my two daughters and two granddaughters, entering the world of Dickens’s London.

Dickens was an early favorite of mine.  During my teen years, I read David Copperfield and Oliver Twist and became totally enamored of the characters and plot development in both.  (I also read, or tried to read, A Tale of Two Cities, during sophomore year, thanks to Mr. Hurley.  Every girl in our class, including me, had a major crush on him, the only good-looking under-40 male teacher at our high school.  But the book was a poor choice, even for the best readers among us, because it demanded a knowledge of history we hadn’t yet acquired.  When I returned to it years later, knowing something about the history of that time, I found it quite wonderful.  Still, it was and is very different from any of Dickens’s other works.)

Later I moved on to reading more and more Dickens. Bleak House, an indictment of the law as practiced in Dickens’s London, was a favorite.  I saw Oliver performed on stage and in the movies and saw countless dramatizations of his other stories, including the perennial A Christmas Carol.  The 1982 BBC mini-series of Nicholas Nickleby, starring Roger Rees, was especially memorable.

In short, I was—and am—a Dickens fan.

So off I went to the Great Dickens Christmas Fair, not quite sure what to expect.

What I discovered was a whole world of people who turned out to enjoy dancing, music, and theatrical performances inspired by Dickens and the culture of his time.  At least half, possibly more, were dressed in the Victorian fashions they would have worn when meeting Dickens himself.  Perhaps many of these fair-goers like the theatricality of dressing up this way, pretending to be in a different time and place, no doubt escaping the reality of their everyday lives.

A host of vendors offered Victorian-style clothing and hats; many Victorian-clad fair-goers may have purchased theirs at earlier fairs.  Vendors also sold things like second-hand books (some by Dickens), jewelry, vintage photos, and scented items, along with food and drink.  My granddaughters were taken with the stunning dresses, and their mother bought one for each of them on the condition that they wear them as often as possible.

We headed for a few of the performances, including a charming version of traditional Christmas carols (yes, the singers were in Victorian garb), Irish and Scottish dancing, and a typically-British “music hall” comedy.  An over-18 version began after ours and attracted a lot of people waiting in line outside the music hall as we departed (we had two under-18 girls among us).  Finally, we were treated to Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball, where fair-goers could themselves get on the dance floor and twirl to the music of Victorian London.  Just before we left, a beautifully-costumed Queen Victoria showed up, along with her retinue, to wish us all a Happy Christmas and a Good New Year.

The Dickens Fair was tremendous fun.  And it had a bonus:  it reminded me of two special times in my past.  When my husband-to-be Herb and I first began dating, we discovered that we not only lived in the same apartment building near UCLA (where we were working) but we both were also great fans of Charles Dickens.  (In London years later, Herb and I made a beeline for the only house still standing where Dickens lived and wrote.)

Herb somehow garnered tickets for a live performance at UCLA by the British (specifically Welsh) writer and actor Emlyn Williams.  Best known for his plays Night Must Fall and The Corn is Green (both frequently revived on stage and made into notable films), Williams also worked on screenplays for directors like Alfred Hitchcock and acted himself in a number of films.

When we encountered Williams in early 1971, he was touring with his one-man show, in which he portrayed Charles Dickens, bearded and outfitted in Victorian attire, reading excerpts from his famous novels.  (Some say he began the whole genre of one-man and one-woman performances. He appeared in New York as early as 1953 and no doubt appeared in London even earlier. Probably best-known to Americans is Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain.)  Herb and I were entranced by Williams’s stellar performance, and I followed it up by giving Herb a new biography of Dickens as his Valentine’s Day gift.  (Not very romantic, but Herb loved it.)

Ten years later, we learned that Williams-as-Dickens would be performing close to our then-home on the North Shore of Chicago.  At the Northlight Theatre production in Evanston, Illinois, we reveled once again in his zestful reading of Dickens’s writing.

The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is perhaps Dickens’s most memorable character.  Let’s remember what Dickens wrote toward the end of A Christmas Carol.  When Scrooge discovered the joy of helping others, “His own heart laughed.”

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, I send you this wish:  May you have a laughing heart today, and every day to come.

 

 

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.

Crawling Through Literature in the Pubs of Dublin, Ireland

We gathered on a chilly October evening in the venerable Duke pub at 9 Duke Street in the heart of Dublin, not quite certain what to expect.  We’d come across praise for the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl in at least two of our guidebooks, Lonely Planet’s (which called it “excellent and highly recommended…great fun and…a fine introduction to Dublin pubs and Irish literary history”), as well as the Ireland guide by the always-dependable travel writer Rick Steves.

The night before, we’d relished the wonderful Dublin Musical Pub Crawl that began at Oliver St. John Gogarty’s Pub on Temple Bar.

How could we pass up this one?   As fans of literary fiction, including that of the great Irish writers, we simply couldn’t.

To ensure that we wouldn’t be turned away, we walked from Grafton Street to Duke Street early enough to have a pleasant dinner at The Duke pub before positioning ourselves at the front of the ticket line.  We had no regrets about arriving early:  a large group assembled, eager to begin the crawl at 7:30 pm, and latecomers may indeed have been turned away.

To begin, two actors (both probably fifty-plus) stood in front of the group and launched into a scene from “Waiting for Godot.” They very clearly pronounced the name as “God-oh,” with emphasis on “God.”

Ever since my first encounter with the Samuel Beckett play when I was 22, I’d heard it pronounced “Gah-doh,” with emphasis on “doh.”  But here we were in Ireland, where Beckett began his writing career.  Which pronunciation was right?  According to one source, the name is pronounced with emphasis on the first syllable in Britain and Ireland, while the norm in North America is to emphasize the second syllable.  But what about Beckett himself?  He settled in Paris in 1938 and wrote the play there in 1948-49.  And apparently both he and his French literary agent always pronounced it in “the French manner,” with equal emphasis on both syllables.

Pronunciations aside, the scene the actors chose from “Waiting for Godot” was brilliant and performed with the precise amount of irony and absurdist humor it demanded.

The actors then led us to three other notable pubs, where they spoke/performed either inside the pub or outside on a street near the pub.  I later learned the actors’ names:  Colm Quilligan (could it be more Irish?) and his colleague Derek (whose last name I failed to catch).

The first of the three pubs was O’Neill’s, on a corner at 2 Suffolk Street, with a remarkably pretty exterior featuring four tall windows that rise above its name.  Near the campus of Trinity College, it’s famous for a diverse set of patrons, including many writers.

At one of the pubs, maybe O’Neill’s, we entered a good-sized “snug,” a quiet area in the pub set apart from the usual pub revelry.  On the snug’s walls were framed photographs of the four Irish writers who’d won the Nobel Prize in Literature.  (Do you remember who those four prizewinners were?)  The photos were helpful reminders of Ireland’s literary history as we continued our crawl, listening to excerpts from a variety of Irish poets and playwrights.

At one stop, Colm and Derek read a hilarious passage from Oscar Wilde’s reminiscence of his lecture tour in America, in particular his encounter with the miners of Leadville, Colorado.  Here’s a bit of it:  “I read them passages from…that great Florentine genius…Cellini, and he proved so popular that they asked…’why the hell I hadn’t brought him with me’. I explained that [he] had been dead for some years, which elicited the immediate demand: ’who shot him?’”

We moved on to The Old Stand, located at the corner of Exchequer Street and St. Andrew Street.  Its most famous patron was Michael Collins, whose efforts led to the creation of the Irish Free State.  He reportedly visited this pub to gather information about members of the British Secret Service.

The crawl ended in front of Davy Byrne’s, a pub back on Duke Street, near where the crawl began.  The actors pointed out a significant literary reference–a scene in James Joyce’s Ulysses is set there–and read an excerpt from it.  The pub is just one site that honors Joyce’s book during the Bloomsday celebration held in Dublin every year.  We learned that both Dubliners and literary tourists don “boaters” and read from the novel at Davy Byrne’s each Bloomsday.

As we stood in front of Davy Byrne’s (where the name reminded me of the beleaguered first—and so far only—woman mayor of Chicago, Jane Byrne), Colm and Derek asked our group a batch of questions based on things we’d heard and seen during the crawl.  One key question:  the names of the four Irish Nobel Prize winners.

When my daughter Leslie got all of them right, and also answered more of the other literary questions than anyone else in our group, she was awarded with a t-shirt!  The dark green shirt, emblazoned with “Dublin Literary Pub Crawl,” along with an image of stained glass at The Duke pub, will forever be a tangible reminder of our delightful evening crawling through Irish literature in Dublin’s pubs.

PS  The Nobel laureates (in case you don’t remember):  George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, Samuel Beckett, and poet Seamus Heaney.  Heaney, probably the least known of the four, is the most recent winner (in 1985).  For a long while he was a poet-in-residence at Harvard, and during her college years there, my daughter Meredith was fortunate to hear him recite his stunning poetry—from memory—several times.  She also helped entice him to give a memorable speech to students, like her, who wrote for its literary journal, The Advocate.

 

Laissez les bons temps rouler! (Let the good times roll in New Orleans!)

Let the good times roll! This joyous credo of New Orleans has inspired me to write about the city, now frequently called NOLA (for New Orleans, LA).

I’ll begin with the fabulous food.

Any visit to the Big Easy simply has to include eating at some of the city’s famed restaurants. During our recent trip, my companion and I reveled in the food offered at a handful of the best. Although some highly praised restaurants exist outside the French Quarter, most of the time we chose spots within the very colorful F.Q.

One of our first stops was Antoine’s, which claims to be the oldest continuously operating restaurant in NOLA. It traces its founding to Antoine Alciatore, who arrived from Marseilles, France, in 1840. Using the bounty of locally available seafood, he developed a cuisine featuring sauces never used before, creating such dishes as crawfish etouffeé and shrimp rémoulade. Today Antoine’s occupies several high-ceilinged dining rooms in which its servers treat you to astounding food. Much of it still features locally caught seafood. I chose the three-course $20.15 Fall Lunch Special, which included an appetizer (oysters, salad, or sweet potato bisque), an entrée of seafood or meat, and dessert. My companion chose a bowl of delicious crawfish bisque from the a la carte menu (and shared my ice-cream-sundae dessert). We both took advantage of the black-cherry martinis for a mere 25 cents each.

Another venerable NOLA restaurant is Galatoire’s, which has featured classic Creole cuisine for over 100 years. In its charming dining room on Bourbon Street, diners noisily celebrate birthdays and other happy occasions, creating a din that only slightly detracts from the excellent food and outstanding service. I savored my crawfish salad and shrimp etouffeé, while my companion enjoyed grilled redfish and a specialty, crabmeat Yvonne.

Somewhat uncertain, we dined at a restaurant on Decatur Street with the odd name of Tujague’s. We discovered that the name is pronounced “two-jacks,” and the place (the second oldest in NOLA) has a fascinating history. Guillaume and Marie Tujague arrived from France and opened their restaurant across from the French Market in 1856. It’s now famous for its own version of shrimp rémoulade and—surprisingly—a succulent beef brisket boiled with veggies in a creole sauce. We ordered blackened fish and had no regrets.

After a disappointing Sunday “jazz brunch” at a spot in the F.Q., we headed the next day for the Garden District. We loved taking the St. Charles streetcar, strolling around the neighborhood, and admiring its historic houses. But the real highlight of our visit was lunch at Commander’s Palace. The food, service, and ambiance were all spectacular. CP is rightly famous for its turtle soup (which my companion ordered), while I indulged in the 3-soup offering, which included not only turtle but also seafood gumbo and shrimp bisque, each of which was superb. My companion and I both had blackened fish—yum!–plus 25-cent cocktails (cosmopolitans and martinis). We ran out of room for dessert and gingerly walked our very full selves back to the St. Charles streetcar.

If you’re hankering for oysters, and the line in front of the Acme Oyster House is forbidding, try Felix’s just across the street. We arrived there near its closing time of 10 p.m., but we were graciously served great food despite the late hour. The shrimp po’boy was very good and the crawfish etouffeé excellent. Although the ambiance is bare-bones, the place is clean and well run, patronized by a wide range of colorful locals. We thoroughly enjoyed our late-night experience there.

Café du Monde is justly famous around the world. Perched on Decatur Street across from beautiful Jackson Square, it welcomes long lines of visitors seeking its beignets and café au lait every morning. We avoided the long lines and headed for the café after dinner one night. It was the perfect nightcap. The warm beignets, fresh from the oven and coated in powdered sugar, were just as wonderful as you’ve always heard, and the café au lait (regular or decaf) is terrific. By the way, the world-famed café now has a location outside the French Quarter. The large Hilton Riverside hotel is linked to an outlet mall called Riverwalk, and Café du Monde has established a small outpost there. The ambiance isn’t quite the same, but the beignets and hot coffee are.

On our last day in NOLA, we lunched at the venerable Palace Café. Located on the fringes of the French Quarter, where busy Canal Street meets Chartres Street, the two-story café features contemporary Creole dishes. We couldn’t resist another opportunity to imbibe turtle soup (almost as good as the one at Commander’s Palace), followed by one more helping of delicious grilled fish. But the real lure for us was Bananas Foster. As our server, Matt, prepared it tableside, he related its history: the dessert originated in New Orleans in the early 1950s, when NOLA was the major port of entry for bananas shipped from Central and South America. Restauranteur Owen Brennan asked his chef to prepare a new dessert that included bananas. Bananas Flambé later became Bananas Foster as a tribute to Brennan’s friend and dessert enthusiast, Richard Foster. It features not only bananas but also rum, banana liqueur, and vanilla ice cream, and it’s great fun to watch it cooking, especially when the rum ignites. The Palace Café’s version was sublime.

Needless to say, NOLA offers much more than world-class food. Its not-quite-complete recovery from Hurricane Katrina has been remarkable. (You can trace the recovery in an exhibit at the Presbytère museum, where you’ll also find a colorful exhibit related to Mardi Gras.)

NOLA offers museums, an aquarium, a zoo, and other big-city delights. But don’t forget the music. Harry Connick Jr. calls NOLA the only city he knows that has “a constant backdrop of music,” a backdrop you can witness for yourself. Musicians seem to pop up everywhere, sometimes creating what appear to be impromptu musical performances. This musical backdrop includes jazz, of course. The city’s legacy of great jazz survives in polished nightspots like Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse as well as unique settings like Preservation Hall.

Finally, let’s not forget NOLA’s literary connections. If you’ve ever seen the stunning film, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” or the play that inspired it, you can view the wrought-iron balcony where Tennessee Williams wrote the original play. (I envision him typing away on a cheap typewriter while he sat on that lovely balcony.) It’s on St. Peter Street, not far from Jackson Square. Other literary luminaries include William Faulkner, who lived on nearby Pirate’s Alley in 1925, working on his early novels while he wrote for the Times-Picayune newspaper. You’ll find a busy bookstore on the ground floor of the house he lived in. Another notable but troubled writer, John Kennedy Toole, wrote “A Confederacy of Dunces,” set in NOLA during the 1960s. Finally published in 1980, years after Toole’s suicide, his book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981.

“Laissez les bons temps rouler!” I carried home a shiny coffee mug inscribed with this Cajun expression (no, it’s not classic French). Sitting on a shelf in plain view, it will unfailingly remind me of the great food and good times my companion and I relished during our astonishing visit to New Orleans.