Lord Zim

Monday, May 17, 2010

Small Pleasures: Anti-Climactic Copy

Searching online for a fresh, kicky, kid-approved synonym for "awesome" just now, I clicked on an "Iron Man" web ad and landed on Target.com, where the following copy gave me a faint smile. 


Stronger, faster and tougher than any version before it, the Mark VI armor perfects the Iron Man weapon system. Loaded with weapons and capable of supersonic speed, it turns Tony Stark into the ultimate high-tech hero. Take on even the toughest bad guys with this awesome warrior. Featuring the advanced and high-tech Mark VI version of his armor, this Repulsor Power Iron Man figure’s lights and sounds show enemies he means business. When you’re ready for the battle to begin, activate his snap-on blaster accessories and launch his projectiles. His glowing chest repulsor accessory shows that even the toughest combat hasn’t fazed him—and he’s ready for the next battle to begin. Figure comes with snap-on blaster and 2 projectile accessories.


Manufacturer's Suggested Age: 4 Years and Up

Care and Cleaning: Wipe Clean With a Dry Cloth

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

NY Story: Conversation and Conclusions in the Rain

Hello?  Hello?  Is anyone there? 

Oh, sorry.  It's you.  Do I seem a little jumpy? Yes, I guess I am.  I had a weird encounter just now, in the rain around midnight. Two, actually.  First, I recognized the former head of a major West Coast art institute, a guy I met many times in LA when we both lived there and a good friend of mine worked for him. He and I stood under a scaffold and talked for about 10 minutes on topics ranging from opera (he'd just come from one I'd never heard of) to museums, art critics ("museum groupies"), plants, and of course, our mutual friend.  It was a lively encounter that ended with him asking for my card and, as we went our separate ways, with me thinking about highly motivated people and my own crushing glibness. 

About 15 minutes later, still walking north, I was crossing 78th on the west side of Broadway near the Apthorp. I was chatting with a friend in LA about weighty issues (the usual), when a dark guy in a baggy dark coat strolled out from 78th onto Broadway.  He was about 20 feet ahead.  By day that block is a pleasant tree-lined stretch, but at night, the trees block the streetlights, and a wall of parked cars blocks any view from the street. So when the guy slowed under the second tree and reached into his pocket, I veered out into the street. I didn't make eye contact but crossed Broadway still talking.

My friend, safe at home in LA, told me the current vogue in muggings is to target people talking on cell phones, because they're oblivious to what's around them. Oh really? A block later, just as I reached the much bigger 79th Street, I was dismayed to see the same guy crossing ahead of me, as if to intercept me.  Was I imagining it?  Maybe.  Probably.  But I didn't like how it felt.  So I broke into a trot and crossed 79th away from him, explaining to my friend that I wanted to focus and would call her back. 

Broadway north of 79th was pretty empty -- the rain washes the streets clean, as Travis Bickle would tell you.  So I figured I'd just duck into the subway and take it home after all. I'd already walked more than a mile. If the guy were following me he wouldn't do so in the subway -- would he? Even if he did, I could just hang out by the station clerk's booth till the train came.

So I slipped down the stairs and found myself in a long, well-lit corridor, 40 feet away from the turnstiles.  I walked briskly down the hall, and when it opened up into the station lobby -- there he was. That guy. The station clerk, a small man in full uniform, was standing outside his booth, giving that guy the fisheye. Even so, that guy wasn't heading for the turnstiles: he was hovering, eyes restless. I looked at him. He looked at me. He had a nice face, but he seemed nervous and a little vulpine. Or did I imagine that?  The clerk's eyes darted nervously between us, and I didn't stop moving. I kept walking to the other stairway and then ran up it and back out onto Broadway. I didn’t look back. Why'd I leave? I had no desire to engage him in a staring contest down there with the station clerk as our witness. So now what?

The Dublin House, an average joint with a neon Celtic harp over the door, was nearby on 79th.  I almost never stop for a solo beer in a bar. But this seemed like a good time to dry off and hang out while the guy went away.  I walked in, full of nervous energy, but the crowd was too much, so I just stood in the doorway scanning the wet intersection for that vague silhouette.

He didn't show up again. After a few minutes I headed over to Amsterdam, where bar crowds throng outside to smoke. I called my friend to say I was okay.  I kept looking behind me. Then, walking under a scaffold, I wondered if he might have gone up Broadway and crossed over to Amsterdam on 80th to cut me off.  That corner was coming up. But the street ahead was lively, so I kept going. At 82nd a police van was idling at the light, so I waved to the cop (he was picking his nose), and after he rolled down his window, I related my little tale. He said he'd check it out and took off, lights flashing.

Did I overreact? Maybe. But I have cause. Long ago, in Harlem at twilight, I was chased down Broadway by about 10 teenagers in hoodies chanting "Howard Beach! Howard Beach!"  That night a taxi saved my life (or something). As my friend and I climbed into the cab, the kids stopped coming toward us and started laughing. Visiting again a few years later, it was around 1am when I saw a cluster of teenagers in hoodies approaching me on Eighth Avenue (back before Eighth was the wonderland of boutiques that it is now).  As I headed toward them, two kids stopped way up the block in a doorway. Two more split off to wait a few doors down. One walked out to stand between parked cars. And two kept coming toward me. I saw all that happen and veered out onto the avenue to hail a cab. They also started laughing as I got in and took off.

I walk late at night all the time. I try not to be stupid or paranoid. I try not to assume things based on color or clothes. I keep my eyes open. Was that guy tonight innocently heading for the subway all along? Would he have done nothing more than ask me for change? Did my bizarre reactions offend him? Worse, did the cop end up harassing an innocent, possibly deranged guy with nowhere better to spend a wet night?  I don't know. Am I trying too hard to justify myself? 

I do know that New York continues to provide adventures, and you meet the darnedest people on Broadway.

Monday, May 10, 2010

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Bad Parenting

(Yeah, apologies to Stanley Kubrick.)

One of my librarian friends (yes, I have several librarian friends, go figure) responded thusly to yesterday's tale of moviegoing ire:
Loved the story about the R film and kids. You just have to let it go and realize that society needs damaged people. What would all the social workers do if they had no one to fix? Libraries would lose 10% of their patrons. 
Gee, I never thought of it that way.  I'll start applying the same logic to car crashes/body shops, matches/firefighters, and guns/gravediggers.

I feel much better now. Thanks, clear-headed snarky librarian friend! Keep up the good work!

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Mothers Day Movie Double-Threat!

Today was Mothers Day, and as part of the annual fealty display, mine wanted to see "Harry Brown," Michael Caine's take on the pistol-packin' pensioner motif recently (and most successfully) seen in "Gran Torino."  It looked mediocre, no matter how good an actor he is. I wanted to see the Banksy movie, "Exit Through the Gift Shop."  Mom's idea was we'd compromise by ... seeing both.  Um, okay.  So after lunch, we started with Banksy.  My plan was that we'd have our fill with movie one and I’d be off the hook.  No such luck.

After really enjoying the Banksy movie, we walked six blocks north to the second theater and took our seats in an emptyish room.  The endless ads and trailers finally ended and the lights went down. Highly stylized yet abject drear filled the screen, punctuated loudly and often by violence. About 10 minutes in, three women arrived and commenced a flurry of seating indecision near us. They had brought a child who looked to be about eight years old, and all of them ended up just two rows ahead of us. WTF? I was so distracted by thoughts of that child reacting to the horrors onscreen, I wanted to poke one of the adults in the head with my mom’s cane and suggest she get the kid out of the theater.  I thought of calling Social Services.

After the child had quietly witnessed simulated fucking, drug use, a vicious beatdown or two, and gunplay, plus a whole lot of bad language, one of them finally decided to remove him. Several deaths and explosions later, as the end credits rolled, I could not resist asking one of the two remaining women why they had brought him.  Yes, that was an annoying question.  I was annoyed.  She looked annoyed too and said something long and unintelligible. When I asked her to repeat it, she said, “We didn’t know what kind of movie it was.”

Uh, R-rated?  Did that not suggest anything?  And how much on-screen abuse was necessary to ascertain what kind of movie it was?  But I held my tongue.  No sense upsetting a pregnant woman. 

And that, friends, evokes one of the central messages of "Idiocracy," an unjustly overlooked, flawed yet brilliant movie about a future defined by the failure of smart people to reproduce in numbers anywhere approaching those of the stupid. 

Yes, guilty as charged.

On the way out, I asked the young woman at the Customer Service desk if the theater staff can or ever does warn or stop parents from taking kids to violent movies, and she just shook her head.  (I know -- why was I so worked up?  Well, I saw a very scary movie on TV when I was about seven and I still remember being miserable during it.)  "Harry Brown" is rated R "for strong violence and language throughout, drug use and sexual content."  But all R means is "Under 17 requires accompanying by a parent or adult guardian." Sorry, kids! 

I know -- it's not the entertainment industry's responsibility to raise kids -- it's the parents' responsibility. I've worked in and around entertainment most of my career, so I am well aware of the argument, and in general, I agree with it. But what do you do when the parents fail the kids?  All the vicious, debased teenagers in "Harry Brown" are products of failed homes.

I wonder where the kid ended up today. I wasn't a fan of Tim Burton's gratuitously dark "Alice in Wonderland," which I had to see for work (believe it or not), but even that portentous, laboriously playful piffle would have been more suitable.  As would "Iron Man 2," in which the cartoon violence is probably scrubbed clean of humanity. Bang! Pow! Okay! Both were playing in that multiplex.

Well, it's almost funny that my mother subjected me to a mediocre movie today, citing executive mom privilege, and that little kid suffered far more at his mom's whim. 

And now, for a word from Philip Larkin:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.
Don't I have anything nice to say? Why, yes. "Exit Through the Gift Shop" was funny, thought-provoking, energetic, and very droll.  Suitable for all audiences. May contain strong language. 

Sunday, March 28, 2010

NY Preview: The Evening Plans of Lord Zim

I go out to see shows. Sometimes I see a lot of shows. As a reformed music critic, I used to write about the best of them in this very blog, but when it started to seem ostentatious I stopped.  Recently, my very smart friend MF had a better idea. She suggested I post a list of future events I'm considering, to share the benefits of my research.  Why didn't I think of that?

The weeks ahead being rich with options, this seems like an ideal time to start, if only to help me keep all the events straight.  Sadly, MF is herself out of town.

And now, on with the show listing.

Imminent Shows of Interest

Piles of pixels have been spilled over this 21-year-old Brit, so rather than rehash, I'll just direct you to the link above, where you can read about the band and watch a clip. You can also listen to the trio's debut, "Jewellery," on Rhapsody. LPR is removing the tables for this show, so expect a crowd.  And the PR puffery on Brooklyn's Tanlines, who open, cites the flamed-out geniuses of the KLF as an influence, so if I do go, I'll get there early.  Ish.

Who?!  Well, four years ago, a percussionist I know strongly urged me to go see this supergroup of NYC session players in their once-yearly show. I went, all the way to the far East 50s, and it was amazing. Even worth visiting that neighborhood. You may recognize bassist Will Lee from his day job in the Letterman band, but they're all excellent players.

Here's what the website says: "Founded in 2000, Toph-E & The Pussycats is a group of well respected and professional musicians who share a great love for rhythm and blues-and play it in an experimental jazz context. Based in New York City, they share an impressive list of credits and career connections."

Etc. Anyway, they play better than they choose band names.  And this week's show is happening downtown. 

I confess I’d never heard of this guy till I saw the event listed, but he looks like a good bet. Not sure I'm going, but if even one reader offers to join me, I'll commit.  And since it's near my place, I might be persuaded to make cocktails beforehand. 

The Miller Theater's website says: "The music of Helmut Lachenmann (b. 1935) has been described as 'ambitious,' 'powerful,' and 'life-changing' (The Guardian). A distinctive voice, he coaxes new sounds out of familiar instruments with extended techniques, creating music that is fresh and engaging. An all-star new-music cast, including Lachenmann himself, performs a spectrum of his work spanning four decades."

This is the season's last concert of the Miller's "Composer Portraits" series, which has also shone its light on, among others, Iannis Xenakis and Lou Reed's infamous "Metal Machine Music" album.  (Yes, I did listen to all four sides of LR's MMM as a ridiculous teenager. Did you? Were you also consumed by feelings of despair and alienation afterward?  Or is that what made you listen in the first place?)

Sunday, April 4, 7pm:

Remember Foetus? Or Scraping Foetus off the Wheel?  Or Clint Ruin? Same guy. His extensive career as a head-fucking musical provocateur aside, I really enjoyed a piece Thirlwell composed for music-playing robots a few years ago at the 3LD space downtown. This work looks like part of his midlife trend toward classical/experimental, and there's a vibraphonist (always a draw). Barring disaster, I plan to attend.

Some 411 from his site: "JG Thirlwell’s Manorexia will be performing live at Le Poisson Rouge, celebrating the release of The Mesopelagic Waters on Tzadik. The show will be on April 4 2010 at 7pm and tickets are $15.00. This is the only Manorexia show scheduled for the US in 2010."

Monday, April 5, 8pm
I don't love all drum solos, but the cerebral yet explosive and occasionally toe-tapping music of percussion ensembles gets me right here. And here.  To the matter at hand: The program is entitled "Made in New York: Celebrating the City's Musical Diversity" and it features the world premiere of David Chesky's "Street Beats" (2009) and works by Steve Reich, Alexandre Lunsqui, Steve Mackey, Lukas Ligeti, and Elliott Carter.

This is the only free event in the list, but you have to pick up tickets at the Juilliard box office Mon-Fri 11-6.  They've been available since Monday (3/22), so I hope they still have some left. 

Friday, April 9, time TBD
My old friend Clermont Ferrand fronts this fake French rock band, and while I have not been a faithful follower of late, I'll make a special effort next week. This blog covered the band's legal travails in some detail a few years ago; that's all been resolved and they've moved on, as their recent coverage on Public Radio International and trip to France attest.  LSC shows are always fun and funny. If you haven't been, go. If you have, go again.

And that concludes this preview of upcoming concerts I might attend.  Hope you've found it useful. Note: Other people far more committed than I compile lists like this more comprehensively than I ever will. This is just an experiment for now. The form will evolve (I will NOT write this much in the future), and the feature may even disappear.  But it fits into Lord Zim's scratchpad function, as advertised at top right. Feedback welcome.  

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

She Came from the Underground

My uncle Momo, whom you may have seen in the previous post's photo with his late aunt, Shoshana Raziel, was in New York today, en route to California with his wife, Bilha. I took the A train up to Washington Heights to meet them. They were staying with his sister Raichi, the one who left me a quavery voice mail about Shoshana two days ago.

We talked about Shoshana, of course. About how Momo got a call from the doctor at 5am saying that he should come now if he wanted to say goodbye, because she was almost gone. And about how he stayed at the hospital till 6pm, because that's how long she lasted. The doctors were amazed: "She didn’t want to die." About the 200-300 dignitaries who attended her funeral, many of whom were final remnants of the generation that helped Israel achieve independence. About how the Speaker of the Parliament, Reuven Rivlin, spoke. About the rousing, nostalgic way that the mourners all stood and sang an old anthem of the underground resistance, a song that my recumbent uncle started singing and wouldn’t stop singing, propped up on one elbow on the slip-covered couch.

Between internal and external pressures, it's a hard time for Israel now. Momo and Bilha were born around 1948, when the country declared its independence. Life was harder in many ways then, but also much easier: Israel won its wars but had yet to expand into disputed territory. Oil was cheap and didn't dictate global policy. Iran was a U.S. ally. Recent history made it hard to argue the need for a Jewish country. It was a time of intense idealism, of draining swamps and tilling fields and building cities. No wonder Momo looked happy singing. That was so long ago.

Speaking of happy memories, I asked if anyone had the recipe for Shoshana's delicious mandel brot cookies. Momo and Bilha agreed that as a baker and a cook, she was unexcelled in our family. He once asked my grandmother Yona why Shoshana's cookies were so tasty. "Shoshana uses six eggs," his mother snorted. "Big deal! It's easy when you use six eggs. I use two eggs, and mine are still good." They had a complex relationship, those sisters.

Alas, none of Shoshana's recipes survived her. "She had her secrets. She came from the Underground, and she stayed in the Underground," said Momo. Unable to stop myself, I added, "And now she's back underground." Sorry.

But in the digital world, she's more above-ground than ever. On Monday, Google turned up almost nothing on Shoshana, but by now a few articles have cropped up. I found this tribute and a couple photos of her memorial on an Israeli blog. Owing to the echo chamber effect, that brief post has popped up on a dozen or so other sites. The author was kind enough to link to my blog from his, so I'm adding to the feedback.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Remembering Shoshana Raziel

Here's what I found via Google yesterday:

Widow of Etzel Commander Passes Away

Reported: 23:49 PM - Mar/22/10

(IsraelNN.com) Shoshana Raziel, the widow of Etzel (Irgun Zvai Leumi - National Military Organization) commander David Raziel, died of old age Monday at a local hospital. Raziel had no children and did not remarry following the 1941 death of her husband in Iraq during a World War II operation on behalf of the British military. The Etzel had agreed to a truce with Britain at the start of World War II and many Etzel fighters joined the British army in order to receive military training and the opportunity to fight against Nazi Germany.

My great-aunt Shoshana died yesterday morning in Jerusalem. She was 92 and my oldest relative. Almost all her contemporaries -- sisters, brothers, friends, her husband -- were gone by the time she left. As the news item quoted above suggests, she lived a grand but tragic life. The news item barely even indicates why her death was news.

David Raziel's distinguished military career was brief; he was a co-founder of one of the first Zionist military organizations, the Etzel, and a major figure in the founding of Israel. There's at least one town named after him in Israel and dozens of streets. He was a hero. Ze'ev Jabotinsky reportedly said after meeting him in Paris in 1939: "I have waited for a man like this for 15 years.”

And two years later, imprisoned by the British in Palestine, Raziel volunteered to go on a mission to knock out a Luftwaffe depot in Iraq. He was killed by a German bomb near Habbaniya, 90 km west of Baghdad, leaving my great-aunt a pregnant war widow at 24. She never remarried. You could say she waited 68 years for another man like her husband. She lost the baby -- my dad says it was rumored the British killed the infant in the hospital. She recovered from her losses. Shoshana went abroad to raise funds for Israel, and she hobnobbed. Last year I learned that she was friendly with Marlon Brando in Paris. Last night my cousin Ilan told me another rumor, that "people" had discouraged her from dating or remarrying. Hard to understand, but she was a symbol.

And an educator. From 1948 on, she ran a school for girls in Jerusalem, an outpost of the first girls school in Jerusalem, the Spitzer School, which her mother had founded.

When I googled Shoshana a few months ago, I found the following tribute to her on a blog written by Shlomit Naor, an Israeli woman who was David's niece. Here's what Shlomit wrote about Shoshana, inspired by a random encounter with someone who had studied at Shoshana's school:
"[The landlord] told me that she also went to this school, on her days they had this legendary head teacher, who influenced her, and a lot of the students in a very deep way. The school in the early 1950's had many students that were refugees from the Jewish Quarter or new immigrants living in the Maabarot. Her name was and is Shoshana Raziel. Shoshana saw them as her own children, it was her life mission and responsibility to ensure the education they receive will open the doors to Israeli society."

By the time I met Shoshana she was in her 50s and still very active, though I'm not sure she was still working. Her sister-in-law was a member of the Israeli parliament, and Shoshana was, it seemed to me, also very active in -- or at least vocal about -- politics. I was eight, spending a summer in Israel on a mission of acculturation meant to actualize my Israeli half. That didn’t really happen, but I did spend a lot of time with Shoshana, partly because she spoke English better than most of my other relatives. I spoke almost no Hebrew then.

Shoshana had a strong jaw and a bosom like a ship's prow. Years in the desert sun had left her face deeply lined, but she kept her skin extremely soft with what I recall as a fanatical devotion to Oil of Olay. Her short hair was reddish brown until very near the end.

She loved welcoming guests from abroad to her well-appointed "flat" in the center of Jerusalem. Like most multi-family buildings in Israel, hers had terrazzo floors, an open-air stairwell, and no elevator. In Shoshana's book-lined living room, copper pots and platters vied for space on the walls with watercolor still-lifes and landscapes she and her friends painted at their weekly classes. Later, she made a specialty of adapting paintings by Hundertwasser into hooked rugs, which also hung on the walls. A low vitrine filled with antiquities functioned as a side-table, and mementos of her travels and friends perched all around.

I loved visiting Shoshana that summer. She was fun and an energetic conversationalist, as well as one of my least religious Israeli relatives. I was fascinated by the collection of single-serving bottles of alcohol on a narrow shelf above the living room door. I could always count on her for some of my favorite cookies; like most women in my Israeli family, she baked once a week. And there was always chocolate in the small wall-hung bar. She liked to read in English as well as in Hebrew, and gave me her copy of "Portnoy's Complaint" when I was 14. The liver scene amazed me, as did the fact that my great-aunt would own a book containing such salacious stuff.

My grandmother Yona and her sister Shoshana both had endless, mysterious pains in her feet and legs. I still don't know what caused them to suffer so terribly. But maybe they shared that malady because they'd grown up together and lived in the same building as adults for decades; owing to that longtime proximity, they were very close. According to my father, he and his siblings were Shoshana's closest nieces and nephews, though she had dozens.

At eight, I didn’t understand why people called Shoshana "difficult," because she wasn't with me. As I grew older and started having opinions, I came to understand. She was kind and generous, but could be both sensitive and insensitive. She was quick to anger and sometimes said hurtful things without any regard for their effects. She loved to argue. For reasons few of us ever fully fathomed, she pushed away the people she loved. Maybe these were tests. After she said my mom was "a bad person," I swore off talking to Shoshana for five years.

Eventually, I realized that she wouldn’t live forever, and it was up to me to restore our connection. When she could no longer climb the four flights of stairs, she moved from her apartment to a pleasant assisted-living facility in Jerusalem's French Hill neighborhood. It was a shock to see her in that antiseptic senior storage, but I never saw her lined up in the lobby with the other lost-looking elders. She always greeted me in her one-bedroom unit, where she'd created a reasonable facsimile of her old place, and she prided herself on whatever independence she could retain. She moved more slowly, but she made the tea and served the cookies -- by then, store-bought or made by friends.

In 2005 I lived in Israel for three months and filled this blog with words and pictures. But I didn't write about the afternoon I took Shoshana shopping for an inflatable guest bed. I drove two and a half hours to pick her up and take her to the mall, but I arrived late. I called, but she was angry. I wanted to hurry to the store to make up for lost time, but after yelling at me, she was fine. She just wanted to sit, have tea and cookies, and talk. Still feeling very yelled-at, I just wanted to get moving. Eventually I understood that she didn’t care about the air bed; she wanted a visit. But I hadn’t driven two and a half hours and been yelled at, only to give up on this errand. When we reached the mall, between her feet, my impatience, and the lousy selection, we had a bad time of it. We parted on bad terms and bed-less. But I didn’t want that to be our last memory, so a week later, the day before I left Israel, I drove to Jerusalem again and apologized. She accepted, and I left, wondering if I’d ever see her again.

Shoshana was always tough, and she hung on for a very long time. Last year, my uncle said she was losing her memory and didn’t always recognize him. She kept firing the caregivers he found for her. But by late last year, two Russian women were watching her around the clock. The holidays gave me a break from work, so I went to see her and say goodbye again in December.

When we arrived for my last visit, she was swaddled in a blanket, freezing as she waited for the heat to come on at 5. We'd stopped to pick up hummus for all of us, which upset her for some reason. At first she didn’t recognize us -- dad, my uncle, and me -- but then she did. And then she didn’t. My dad was sitting next to me on the couch when she asked me, "Is your father still alive?" It was shocking and hilarious in a terrible way. Less hilarious was her reaction to my marital status. It was all a little alien: My beloved great-aunt seemed to be interviewing me with the warm sincerity she'd have shown a total stranger. But the only truly hilarious thing was her reaction to being tickled.

They say that one of the worst things about getting old is that no one wants to touch you anymore, so I, trying to make up for years of absence and give her a treat, tickled the soles of her feet. She laughed like a kid. She almost gurgled like a baby. I did it a few times, and she responded the same way every time, delight animating her ancient features. We all laughed together. I took some posed photos, too. And as I said goodbye, kissing her on the cheek, I smiled through grim certainty that I’d never see her again.

A few days later, she told my aunt, "The most charming man came to visit me. I don’t remember his name, but he was so nice!" My uncle said I was the only person she remembered that week. He also said he'd tried tickling her but it didn't work.

Shoshana with her nephew Momo.

Two weeks ago she started a steep decline that landed her in a nursing home for fulltime care, and she never recovered. The Israeli and French news reports yesterday said she'd died of old age.

Her funeral was today. My dad told me more than 200 people showed up. Some dignitaries spoke, as did my uncle. We were both sorry we couldn't be there.

Irascible, opinionated, confrontational, loyal, devoted, generous, and well-intentioned, Shoshana wasn't just the widow of an Etzel commander. She was my truly great great-aunt, and I miss her.

Shoshana Raziel at home, December 2009

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Pushing the Taxicab

Sunny day today. Gorgeous. The city was alive with the freshly buzzing energy of a populace finally freed from winter's cold wet hug. Riding south on the Hudson Bikeway this afternoon, just past the USS Intrepid, I saw a taxicab inching across the West Side Highway, which parallels the bikeway. Two men were very slowly pushing the full-size sedan across three southbound lanes. One was behind the car, his body at a 35-degree angle to the asphalt. The other was half inside, steering. They paused in the intersection between the north and southbound roadways, a narrow area defined by the width of the median.

I grew up in L.A., where people usually join in to help push a stalled car off the road. Maybe that's part of living in a car-centric culture. I stopped and stared at the cab's slow progress and the resulting traffic jam. The walkway was crowded with people in shorts and sunglasses soaking up the year's first fine Spring day. And no one was doing a thing to help get the cab out of traffic.

I locked my bike to a pole and walked between cars immobilized by other traffic to help them. They were happy for an extra body. They didn’t really speak English. The car was just dead; they didn’t know why. They were pushing it across the northbound lanes to the curb at the closest corner. It was heavy and slow-going. But we did it. We got that ton of machinery across three lanes of traffic within a single green. I crossed back before the light turned red and then got stuck at the median myself.

The river was also beautiful today, the sunlight glittering on its uncommonly untroubled surface. Did you know it's not a river off the coast of Manhattan? It's an estuary. It changes direction twice a day. When it's in New York City, the Hudson goes both ways.

Pushing a stalled car is not a big deal. I'm not patting myself on the back or asking for a prize. It was easy, and the sense of well-being I got from helping them far exceeds any benefit I provided. (Perhaps, to be honest, my sense of civic outrage is just as rewarding, in a less delightful way.) But I'm writing this because I was surprised no one else helped. New York, I love you but you're bringing me down.

Well, I'm not perfect either. Ask anyone.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

10 Things Tourists Should Not Do in New York (Updated!)

Books, websites, blogs, magazines ... all manner of media wish to counsel the hapless tourist on best practices for enjoying Manhattan (okay, and Brooklyn too. Fine). But what about best practices for not gumming up the works and upsetting the locals?

Last night at dinner in one of those little places tourists rarely find (the Half King), my two friends and I started talking about the things tourists should not do in New York. The one of us who works near Chelsea Market said she can't stand the way tourists clog up that place's walkways. I usually try to help people with maps find whatever it is they're looking for, or steer them away from bad restaurants, but I kept my counsel (NY does not heart Pollyannas), and instead proposed we develop a list! A list, added my other friend, to be distributed at all major airports in the New York metropolitan area.

Somehow, our list never really grew past variations on the theme of "keep moving -- New York is about forward motion, people!" -- but I still think it's a fertile plot to till, so here we go. Oh, and, uh -- yes, I know. Tourism is big business in New York, and many thousands of locals make a beautiful dollar on our cherished visitors. Yes. I know. And when I am a tourist I hope I'll have the good sense to follow these wise rules myself.

Tourists of New York! We the locals urge the following:

1. Do not pause at the top of the subway stairs to consult your map. We are behind you and we want to keep going.

2. Do not attempt to pay your bills in Euros. True -- some places accept them, but we are not your banana republic. Not yet.

3. Do not walk four abreast down our sidewalks. You are wider than we, and you block the normal flow of traffic.

4. When on our sidewalks, kindly stay to the right. Our taxis drive on the right in this city, and we walk on the right too. We don’t think it's funny when you force us to do that stupid little right-left-right dance -- we just want you and your overstuffed satchels out of our way.

5. Gawk safely. We know you have to stop to admire our tall buildings, but please do not pause in vehicular or pedestrian traffic to do so. People may get injured. People like you.

6. Do not wait 20 minutes in line to buy an overpriced cupcake just because you saw that same twee bakery on a TV show.  The cupcake is not that good. Honest. And it'll spoil your appetite for dinner in one of our many fine restaurants.

7. When on the subway with your tourist friends, please don't yell at each other about all the stuff you did and plan to do. And definitely don't sit on facing benches and converse loudly across the car.  Notwithstanding metal on metal at jet decibel levels, we like our trains quiet, OK? (This tip courtesy of Xine.  Thanks!)

8.  There is no 8 yet. I'm not going to sit here all evening listening to "Metal Box," covered in grit from my four-hour ride around Manhattan, dreaming up more ways to complain about how tourists make things slow -- not when I know the livid city is full of xenophobes hungry to wax wroth.

So you go, New York. Tell us what to tell the tourists. Apart from "Thanks for spending your money here!" I'll add the best ones to the list and, who knows? Maybe someday, Governor Paterson will help get this useful document to the right people.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Annual Post (a Day Early)

Funny how the timing worked out. Like some undeniable call from my writer's ego to assert my words once more. Okay, here they are. Words.

Tonight I had the good fortune to witness one of the more magical events I've attended in a year or so: Doveman (Paul Bartlett and Nico Muhly and about a dozen other excellent musicians) performed the entirety of their new album, "The Conformist," at the Kitchen. As a former music critic (yeah, a long time ago), I'm so jaded that even during the best concerts I invariably look at my watch five songs in and wonder, "How much more?" Not tonight. The complexity, spirit, and gorgeousness of the music and performances swept me away.

(Holy cow, the guy's on fire on Twitter.)

And then, after a light postfacto dinner at the Half King with my friends, I came home. And, as is increasingly the case, after an evening of merriment and lively conversation, I stood in the kitchen downing a glass of water and thought, "Damn. Did I say that? I'll have to apologize/explain/recant. How could I have been so wrong?"

If these gaffes were the product of uninhibited drinking, such nocturnal second-guessing might make some sense. But I don't drink all that much anymore. Is this what happens to editors after years of fixing copy -- that they find any word string fair game for minor repairs? No, because I hear all kinds of nonsense that leaves me unmoved to improve. Is this desire to unspeak my own words perhaps the result of a growing sense of right and wrong about what should and should not be said? If so, why has it appeared so late in life? Aren't such signs of the reformation meant to attend one's 20s? Do I blame a crisis of confidence ... or just a stodgy uptick of rectitude? (Hey -- is that the new catchphrase? "Well Dan, looks like just another stodgy Uptick of Rectitude at the Vatican today ...")

Speaking of the Vatican, there was the night a week ago when I discovered in the cab back from Brooklyn that the person with whom I’d been speaking of "crazy religious" people -- to clarify, that was me using the two words together as if they'd been joined at the lips, like "high-octane" or "waste management" -- when I discovered, with a shock, that she was herself religious. I was like, as they say, WTF? I didn’t know I knew any religious people (who aren't related to me). Not very religious, she clarified, but enough to want to see where Jesus was born, preached, and died when she visits Israel this summer. And I knew all that about her, but she still had to ask me three times what I meant by "crazy religious people" (Three! Like the holy trinity!) before I finally realized that I'd been insulting her in a spasm of sheer obliviousness. And while I was in fact talking about my own cousins, who live in true-believer settlements in the desert, it was my high-octane, waste-mismanagement conjoining of the two hot-button words that set her teeth on edge. But I didn’t send that apologetic email. I decided apology is a sign of weakness.

As in: Never complain, never explain, never apologize. Words to live by. Especially if you’re George W. Bush, who's commonly blamed for this verbal Cerberus. I think he just adapted the folk wisdom to his own ends, because he traded "never retreat" for "never complain."

And tonight! I was being funny (oh really?) talking about an invitation I'd received to an opening where I'd be sure to see a couple between whom I’d come a few years back, and just how very awkward that might be. They weren't married then and still aren't, to my knowledge, and I only started carrying on with her months after he'd left her and their kid for one of his students. He eventually ditched the student and returned to their common-law relationship, but I never met him and never wanted to. So there I was this evening, waxing loud and preposterous about what a disaster it would be to attend that opening after having made free (not my exact phrasing) with someone's "wife" -- when in fact there were no wives in the equation. But the people hearing my ridiculous tale didn't know that. So once again I feel compelled to send an email explaining myself. And I will send this one. Or I'll just direct them to read this. Much easier at this point. And then I can monetize the traffic!

On my way home, post-gaffe, I read Roger Cohen's recent New York Times opinion piece urging the Obama administration to stop trying to control every scrap of quote that hits the presses.

I don’t think he was talking about me. But we're all engaged in our own little campaigns to sway opinion. Vote me fun. Vote me funny. Vote me into your life. Vote me into your ... inner sanctum.

See? It's late but I'm toeing the line. I don’t want to have to apologize to you in the morning.