What I’m Watching Now (Today’s Special)

Another in the series and another that I watched as my hand lay immobilized in plaster or whatever that stuff was.

Today’s Special was doubly entrancing because it came as a total surprise. It arose on Netflix, and I streamed it knowing nothing about it. A light comedy, it delivers a serious message without making the viewer feel lectured.

It’s the story of young Samir, who has a promising career as a New York City chef trained in the classical French style. He’s loving what he’s doing until he’s turned down for a promotion. The boss says it’s because his cuisine lacks passion. That deficiency doesn’t translate well since Aasif Mandivi (who co-wrote the screenplay) plays Samir with such passion.

He returns kicking and screaming to his father’s sad, hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant in Queens, with its health code and building violations. One of the more disgusting scenes involves the father’s kitchen help, a clueless assembly of losers. Later, live chickens add humor and a certain queasiness.

Naseeruddin Shah graces the film with his presence as Akbar, the djinn-like taxi driver/cook/philosopher who comes to the rescue.

Along the way the movie shows the “uncles,” the collection of old men who sit in the restaurant. Samir’s matchmaking mother, played by Madhur Jaffrey, does a star turn with just the right balance of South Asian and Western qualities. The only mystery is why Jess Weixler gets top billing since Mandivi has all the heavy lifting.

A warning: Do not watch this movie if you are hungry. Especially do not watch it if you are hungry and like Indian food.

Memorial Day


Decoration Day postcard of a woman in mourning clothes at the grave of a Civil War soldier, 1908. Credit: Warshaw Collection of Business Americana – Civil War, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

… is for remembrance. It is held in honor of those who fell in battle.

This piece in Diversityinc has a terrific account that includes suggestions on appropriate things to say. They do not include “happy Memorial Day.”

One thing that Luke Visconti mentioned in an NPR interview  was the origins of the day. People decorated the graves of the soldiers who gave their lives for the Union in the Civil War. Daddy said when he was a boy, the South did not recognize it.

The Smithsonian’s American History website makes the point that the people most active in the first Decoration Days were women and African Americans, two groups marginalized during the actual fighting. They did, however, play major support roles.

Since the early years of the twentieth century Memorial Day has expanded to honor those from subsequent wars who died in battle.

On this day, let us pay tribute to the fallen.

And please, no fireworks.

Kudos, CFMC!

The Community Foundation of Middlesex County officially opened its doors on Wednesday. It was an honor to participate in the festivities. Board Chairman Wally Jones, CEO and President  Cynthia Clegg and the rest of the board and staff put on the best party.

The celebration included bagpipes — and the briefest speeches on record. There were mini-reunions happening indoors and out as supporters long-time supporters joined new arrivals. The weather even cooperated with the rain that has plagued the area holding off and the temps hovering around 70.

Here’s a link to Shawn Beal’s excellent article on how CFMC arrived at its new home.


What I’m Watching Now (Emma)

Another in the series. Readers of this blog know my passion for Jane Austen’s novels and Emma in particular. (I will at some point address the alt-right’s views about her works, which are as misguided as they are about the rest of the universe).

Not long ago the Gwyneth Paltrow version offered up a great disappointment: too slick, too many modern finagles, and characters pretty much devoid of engaging qualities. Miss Bates was too young looking, ditto Mr. Knightley. Paltrow’s Emma seemed to care about her father only for appearance sake, contrary to the absolute devotion of the novel.

The 1972 BBC version, which had more time to develop the story, excels. It’s a thoroughbred vs. a plough horse. First observation: except for Frank Churchill, these people are not gloss pretty. Doran Godwin wears her hair in a tight bun throughout, which gives her a severity that echoes Emma’s rigidity in her belief of her own superiority of perception. Mr. Knightley (John Carson) looks every bit of thirty-seven, perhaps even older. Ellen Dryden as Mrs. Weston is pudgy. And Mrs. Elton’s teeth! For the longest it appeared that she had one missing, but they are merely snaggled. This casting makes for an entirely credible take on Austen’s observation that she was writing about a few families gathered in a village.

Among the best scenes is the gypsy “assault” on Harriet Smith, though the assailants look too clean for living in the woods.

The obvious deviation from the novel is the disconnection of Colonel Campbell’s family. Austen has his daughter as best friend to Jane Fairfax, Emma’s erstwhile rival. Miss Campbell marries a Mr. Dixon. In the film the Dixons have no prior connection to Jane. The omission prevents great byplay over mystery of the donor of Jane’s piano.

Otherwise this version is a feast of music, laughter, and the occasional tear.

What I’m Reading Now (Memoirs of a Geisha)

Another in the series and another that somehow escaped until now. What a shame that it did.

Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha offers an education in Japanese culture – or rather cultures. The work purports to be a factual account, told by Nitta Sayuri, a woman who has retired from her duties.

The story unfolds in a flashback beginning with the perspective of a nine-year-old Sayuri – bright and inquisitive, and beautiful despite smelling of fish. Her father traffics her and her sister as their mother is dying. Sayuri does not want to leave the “tipsy house” on the hillside in their tiny village. She grows more despondent when the trafficker separates the two girls. In the first fifty pages, Golden serves up a portrait of class differences, of a society locked in tradition, and of collective isolation.

The genius of this work comes through from the beginning. Golden achieves what few men do  in capturing the voice of a woman, and even more, the clear-eyed observations of a little girl.

The secondary characters appear by turns exquisite and gruesome. Sayuri marvels at a kimono worn by the pipe-smoking madam (called Mother) that was “yellow with willowy branches bearing lovely green and orange leaves; it was made of silk gauze as delicate as a spider’s web. Her obi was every bit as astonishing to me. It was a lovely gauzy texture too, but heavier-looking, in russet and brown with gold threads woven through.” When she disobeys and looks at Mother’s face, “… it was as though I’d been patting a cat’s body only to discover it had a bulldog’s head.”

More harrowing is skin on the shoulders and back of the woman called Granny, a retired geisha who used lead-based makeup, which reacted to chemicals in the water. Sayuri describes the flesh as “bumpy and yellow like an uncooked chicken’s.” So much for the image of the delicate flower of geisha-hood.

Even in the early pages, Golden has established the anguish and pain of Sayuri’s life.

Happy 100th, Lil!

Lillian White, 100

Here’s the letter I’m writing to a former Middletown Press colleague in honor of her one-hundredth birthday.

Dear Lil,

You were the one person at every reunion who didn’t need a nametag. Everyone knew Lil White. We remember your sparkling eyes and your great smile. You kept the Advertising Department running like a well-oiled machine. (Was it true they had to hire two people when you retired?!)

You have over the years become an inspiration to us all as you have maintained your spirit and your liveliness. Watching former bosses pay homage to you was the best.

Inquiring minds want to know: What’s your secret to longevity? We all need to follow your example.

May you continue to grace us with your presence at the reunions.

Many happy returns, Lil.



RIP, Luis Montalván

Even though it happened months ago, I just learned that Captain Luis Carlos Montalván has died. Here’s a link to an account of his death.

Luis and Tuesday offered much inspiration and uplift over the years. Here’s a link to what I wrote last September when the captain was raising funds for a prosthetic leg.

The world is a much diminished place with Captain Montalván’s death, and it will be a long time before the wound heals.

Tuesday’s Promise: One Veteran, One Dog, and Their Bold Quest to Change Lives came out on May 9. Not sure if I will ever read it.

One can only hope that Tuesday lives a long and happy life.

Music, Meditation, Magic

The world is unsettled these days, but Bob Nasta and Wendy Black Nasta tonight provided a refuge from the storm. This month’s concert to raise money for the school they run in Africa featured Wendy and our good friend Richard Kamins reciting and singing the poetry of the Zen monk Ryokan. The Flying Particles, accompanied them with Bob on koto and percussion; Kevin O’Neil on guitar; and Russ Becker on clarinets and flute.

The effect was meditative and challenging. Ryokan drew much of his inspiration from nature. Wendy and Richard and the musicians captured the beauty and isolation of his life, along with his playfulness and humor.

Many of his poems are Zen koans:

Who says my poems are poems?
These poems are not poems.
When you can understand this,
then we can begin to speak of poetry.

Throughout he writes of playing with children – and of drinking quantities of sake. A woman sitting nearby said, “I didn’t think monks were supposed to drink.” This one sure did.

As a measure of the magic of the evening, the ninety-minute performance felt like less than half that. The fading of the light marked the passage of time – but only afterward did I notice it had grown dark outside. It was fitting end to an evening filled with the sights and sounds of nature.

What I’m Reading Now (Peninsula of Lies)

Another in the series and another that I read while the hand was in recovery.

Edward Ball once again has created a masterwork with Peninsula of Lies: A True Story of Mysterious Birth and Taboo Love. This time he writes at the intersection of sex, race, and identity — gender and national.

Most readers know Ball for his award-winning Slaves in the Family, in which he tells the story of his relatives, black and white. There he blew up his father’s admonition: “There are five things we don’t talk about in the Ball family …  Religion, sex, death, money, and the Negroes.” Peninsula of Lies crosses all those boundaries and wades deep into the river of transsexuality.

The peninsula of the title is the city of  Charleston, South Carolina. Gordon Langley Hall lands there in the 1960s from Britain via New York where he has befriended the heiress Isabel Whitney. Gordon proceeds to charm then scandalize the city that in many ways was still living in the nineteenth century. He fills an ante-bellum house with antiques and participates in the round of dinners — second tier because he wasn’t a native.

Then he goes to a Baltimore hospital and comes home as Dawn. She marries John-Paul Simmons, an African American mechanic. White Charleston turns its collective back, and Dawn embraces the black church. The glamorous house becomes overrun with animals and devolved into squalor. Dawn begins wearing maternity clothes and and soon appears with an infant in arms. At some point the money runs out, and she moves from Charleston to upstate New York – and back. And so forth.

This yarn is pure Southern Gothic – William Faulkner couldn’t have written better – except it’s all true, documented by Ball in minute detail. In some ways it evokes Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.   Ball’s writing somersaults over John Berendt’s in style and narrative drive. Plus, the Lady Chabils is a staid matron compared to Dawn, who can even claim an English castle in her past, though not quite in the way she tells the story.

Some of the statistical bits detract from the pacing. Worse, Ball shows his roots by saying that Eli Whitney was responsible for “textiles.” More like responsible for chaining generations of Americans to a cruel and degrading way of life for generations.

Peninsula of Lies came out in 2005. Why hasn’t anyone made a film of it?

What I’m Watching Now (White Helmets)

Another in the series and another that I watched when the cast held my hand captive.

This gruesome and uplifting short documentary deserved the Oscar  its portrait of the intrepid people who rescue war victims in Syria. They who serve as paramedics and EMTs while risking their lives from bombs and mortar fire. They display their passion and determination in their searches for the living and the dead in collapsed buildings and without pause race through the streets to the next crisis.

Questions that seemed to go unanswered: where does the money come from to supply equipment and support the training in camp in Turkey? Do the White Helmets earn a living? They treat people regardless of affiliation, so it seems they could be manipulated out of existence.

The denouement is especially poignant. I realize cultural and religious norms prevent revealing anything about women, but it’s sad that the second most important person in that part of the story was represented by  just a full-length black robe covering even her eyes. Wasn’t there some way to communicate her emotion?