Spider-Man on Broadway

Partner and I try to follow what’s new on Broadway. We watched the “60 Minutes” piece on Sunday night about the new Spider-Man musical with interest; it looks lavish and fun, and Julie Taymor – well, if you’ve seen The Lion King, you know what she can pull off. Partner still talks about the time we saw Lion King here in Providence: during the big opening number, with the animals slowly entering the theater through the aisles around us, rhinos and elephants and giraffes, after a while he wasn’t watching the show anymore; he was watching the kids around us, who were completely open-mouthed and mesmerized by the spectacle.


But Sunday night’s preview performance of Spider-Man was not good, according to the Times. There were lots of problems with the aerial stuff (which is what they’re hanging most of their publicity on). At one point on Sunday night, Spider-Man had a sudden mid-air breakdown and had to be pulled down from his harness by stagehands.


And after hearing some of the score on TV on Sunday night, I will say that the music is terrific – but the lyrics are cheesy. “I sleep with my clothes on”?


But, man, I’m wary of criticizing anything without due review. I remember E. B. White’s story about Walter Kerr refusing to see “Oklahoma!,” because he thought it was stupid, and he was afraid he’d like it if he saw it in person. How’s that for perverse?


I used to work with somebody who was a Theatah Snob.   He was a sometime actor, and he had more than the usual number of likes, dislikes, and prejudices . I remember describing “Avenue Q” to him (which Partner and I had just seen on B’way), and he wrinkled his nose in disgust. “Puppets?” he said with disdain. “That sounds stupid.”


Oh, mama, that sent me livid. “You want stupid?” I said. “How about a musical about a killer barber and his girlfriend the baker? How about a singing Austrian governess? How about the members of the Continental Congress – all men, by the way – dancing a minuet? How about Che Guevara dancing with Eva Peron? Musicals are all about stupid.”


I remember my own words now. I remember the other night, when I saw the Spider-Man stuff on TV, the comic-book sets and the villains and the swoopy choreography and the loopy lyrics, and I thought: This looks stupid.


So I hope they keep up the tradition. I hope they break through the barrier, and work out the kinks in the aerial stuff.


I hope it turns out to be a triumph.




Cracking the Bullwinkle code

Pop quiz!


Explain the following jokes:


  1. Newspaper headline in a Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoon: ROCKET HITS MOON. WALLY OUT FOR SEASON.

  2. Bullwinkle, having been rescued from a pit full of poisonous snakes, leans back over the pit before he leaves and says, “Goodbye, Olivia!”

  3. Indians in a Peabody & Sherman cartoon attack the settlers by throwing Charlie Barnet records at them.

  4. Peabody says: “I have a theory, Sherman.” Sherman says: “Chateau theory, Mister Peabody?”

  5. Bullwinkle finds a ruby-encrusted model boat with the words OMAR KHAYYAM written on it. It is, of course, the Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayyam.

  6. Rocky and Bullwinkle plan an escape through Pennsylvania: “We’ll travel by night and rest in Scranton. There’s a farmer who lives near Gettsyburg who’ll put us up for a few days.”


These are, of course, all from Jay Ward cartoons. I watched these cartoons when I was very young. I laughed like hell at all these jokes. And I had no idea what they meant.


Kids learn culture by watching and imitating; they’re eager to figure out this mysterious complicated thing called Adult Life, and there’s no instruction manual, so they have to figure out how to act, what to say, and what things mean. So they pay attention, and they struggle very hard to figure things out. Nothing is too insignificant for analysis.


Here’s what I learned: adults speak in code. Sometimes you could crack the code, and sometimes you couldn’t. Sometimes you had to act as if you understood, even if you didn’t. And there was always something more to learn.


I don’t know about you, but I’m still figuring out the code.




  1. Wally Moon was a baseball player in the 1950s and 1960s.

  2. Olivia de Havilland was the lead actress in a movie called “The Snake Pit.”

  3. Charlie Barnet was a bandleader one of whose biggest hits was “Cherokee.”

  4. Chateau-Thierry is a town north of Paris where a famous World War I battle was fought.

  5. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a famous Persian poem translated into English by Edward FitzGerald.

  6. The “farmer outside Gettysburg” was President Dwight Eisenhower, who moved there after his presidency ended in 1961.


Don’t you feel better now?


Sunday blog: Russian teacakes


Today is the first Sunday of Advent, so I thought it was time for something Christmassy.


This is (approximately) my mother’s recipe for Russian teacakes. Here in Rhode Island people call them “butterballs,” or “Mexican wedding cookies,” or “Italian wedding cookies.” Call them whatever you like; they’re easy and very nice.


I’ve compared about four or five recipes, and the variations are slight:


  • You can chill the dough if you like.

  • You can use other kinds of nuts (although I like walnuts best).

  • I always use more nuts than the recipe calls for. Just make sure they’re finely ground.

  • My mother used margarine. I use butter. Don’t even think of following her example.

  • The cookies are very delicate when they first come out of the oven, so be careful. They explode like grenades if you drop them.

  • You don’t want them brown on top when they come out of the oven. Try peeking to see if they’re brown underneath; if so, they’re done.

  • I use parchment paper on my cookie sheets these days, and it has transformed my life in a small pleasant way.

  • Be careful with baking time. My oven’s fast, so eight minutes is sometimes too much, especially for the second batch.




Russian Teacakes


1 cup butter, softened

1/2 cup powdered sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups flour

1 cup finely chopped walnuts

1/4 teaspoon salt

Additional powdered sugar, for coating


  • Heat oven to 400 degrees.

  • Mix butter, 1/2 cup powdered sugar, and vanilla.  Stir in flour, nuts, and salt, and mix until dough holds together.  Shape into 1-inch balls.  Place about 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheet.  Bake until set but not brown (8 – 10 minutes).

  • Roll in additional powdered sugar when fresh out of the oven.  Cool for about 30 minutes.  Roll again in powdered sugar.


Makes about four dozen.




Magical thinking

Partner is a very pragmatic person, but I know he believes in luck. If his team (the Patriots / the Red Sox / the Bruins) is too far ahead or too far behind, he doesn’t like it. He doesn’t want to watch, but he’s afraid to look away; I think he’s afraid that his awareness is affecting the game in some quantum way, and he doesn’t want to stir the pot too much. He gets very jittery, I can tell you.


I catch myself talking to the world a lot, as if I could influence it. It’s not exactly praying, and it’s definitely not bargaining – what can I offer the rain gods, or the gods of luck, if they do what I want them to do? And how would I be able to tell, in any case? But evidently I find the conversation comforting. I do it a lot.


So Partner and I are both magical thinkers.


I have read Jared Diamond and Richard Dawkins on the idea of “cargo.” This is the idea, common in some South Pacific locations, that Westerners have lots of mysterious stuff, including airplanes, radios, guns, and medical equipment. They’re never seen to make this stuff. If an airplane breaks, they don’t fix it; they send for a new one, and magically a new one appears.


Silly people, who think airplanes and radios are magical!


When I lived in Morocco, I heard lots of stories about the former king, Mohammed V. He had baraka, magical power, partly because he was king, partly because he was considered a saint.


My favorite story was this:


The French, who used to control most of Morocco, did not like Mohammed V, as they were afraid he might lead his country to independence someday. They exiled him first to Corsica, then to Madagascar. On the way to Madagascar, the airplane carrying Mohammed V had engine trouble. One of the crew came back to the passenger compartment to let the king know there was a problem. Mohammed V was lying down; he had a heart condition. When he heard the news, he rose from his couch, went to the cockpit, took off his prayer cap, put it on the plane’s control panel, and said: “Fly.”


And the plane flew.


Mohammed V’s son, Hassan II, was no saint. He was by all accounts a venal man, shrewd but not brilliant, willful, certainly not saintly. But he was the King, and he inherited his father’s baraka.


He survived two brutal assassination attempts. One was at his birthday party in Skhirat, south of the capital, in 1971; a group of Moroccan military cadets came into the palace and opened fire. As many as a hundred people died, by some accounts.


But the king survived.


A year later, returning from France in the royal plane, pretty much the entire Moroccan air force tried to shoot him down.


And again, the king survived.


Funny, funny. People believe in magic.


I don’t believe in magic. Do you?


Oh, wait a minute. Yes, I do.




This crazy weather we’ve been having

It’s late November. And there are rhododendrons and magnolias, and lilies, and roses, blooming in our neighborhood. In New England.


I really didn’t notice until about a week ago, when I noticed a few rhododendron blossoms here and there. Then I noticed the magnolia trees on the Brown campus were budding out, just the way they usually do in March and April, with those huge obscene buds. And what do you know? They popped.


It’s colder and rainy today, and it will probably freeze tonight. So the trees have wasted a lot of energy for nothing.


This isn’t really new. Two years or so ago, I was in downtown Providence around this time of year, and the cherry trees by Kennedy Plaza were in bloom.


In New England!


I first arrived in Rhode Island in 1978, six months after the big blizzard of that year. The winter of 1978/9 was snowy and bitterly cold; I got frostbite on my knuckles from carrying a suitcase down the street for twenty minutes without gloves on. Two years later, there was another bitterly cold winter, with wind chills down around twenty below.


Those days are past, however. We still get cold winters, but the timings are all off. The plants are confused. They’re blooming in the wrong seasons, at the wrong times. Cold weather is followed by unexpected warm spells, and the plants go into panic mode, I think.


I’m no botanist, and I’m obviously no climate scientist. But things are changing, becoming more volatile. More than volatile: unpredictable.


And there’s nothing to be done about it. Whether (as seems obvious to me) it’s human interference, or whether it’s simply part of some larger ice-age / pluvial-age / sunspot cycle, it’s already begun, and nothing can stop it.


This is the grim thing about writing a blog called “FutureWorld.” I don’t think the future is going to be a very nice place for the people who come after us. I don’t think they’ll have much to thank us for. I suspect they’ll think of us pretty nastily; they’ll know we did exactly what we felt like doing, and we left the place in a mess.


I’m so sorry, and I wish I could tell them so. I’m doing the stupid little bits and pieces than I can, to keep my footprint small and light. But I know that my contribution probably won’t make a hell of a lot of difference.


I hope they forgive us.


This is Ursula LeGuin, in a poem written from the point of view of our descendants:


In your ending when the words were forgotten,

in your ending when the fires burned out,

in your ending when the walls fell down,

we were among you:

the children,

your children,

dying your dying to come closer,

to come into our world, to be born.

We were the sands of your sea-coasts,

the stones of your hearths. You did not know us.

We were the words you had no language for.

O our fathers and mothers!

We were always your children.

From the beginning, from the beginning,

we are your children.


Thanksgiving blog: Thank you

In the spirit of Thanksgiving: the last few stanzas of Kenneth Koch’s wonderful early poem “Thank You.”




. . . Thank you for the chance to run a small hotel

In an elephant stopover in Zambezi,

But I do not know how to take care of guests, certainly they would all leave soon,

After seeing blue lights out the windows and rust on their iron beds –

I’d rather run a bird-house in Jamaica:

Those people come in, the birds, they do not care how things are kept up . . .

It’s true that Zambezi proprietorship would be exciting,

with people getting off elephants and coming into my hotel,

But as tempting as it is I cannot agree.

And thank you for this offer of the post of referee

For the Danish wrestling championship – I simply do not feel qualified . . .


But the fresh spring air has been swabbing my mental decks

Until, although prepared for fight, still I sleep on land.

Thank you for the ostriches. I have not yet had time to pluck them,

But I am sure they will be delicious, adorning my plate at sunset,

My tremendous plate, and the plate

Of the offers to all my days. But I cannot fasten my exhilaration to the sun.


And thank you for the evening of the night on which

I fell off my horse in the shadows. That was really useful.





I collect, among other things, cookbooks. They fall into several categories:


Useful. Only a few in this category. The Joy of Cooking. Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. The King Arthur Flour Cookbook (I have the 200th-anniversary edition, for which there is no replacement). When in doubt, I turn to these three. My friend Stu, years ago, referred slightingly to “Joy” as “101 Ways to Cook String Beans.” Well, ha ha. But if you want the basics, they’re all there. And some damned good recipes, too.


Magisterial. Again, only a few. Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The Larousse Gastronomique. My grandma’s copy of the Encyclopedia of Cookery. I look through them sometimes for entertainment and inspiration, but I never ever ever ever use the recipes. I seldom need to know how to stuff a figpecker, or how to gut a wild boar.


Eccentric but useful. The Molly Goldberg Jewish Cookbook is a goldmine of mid-century “ethnic” cuisine. My friend Paula turned me on to Betty Crocker’s Dinner For Two, which has some excellent recipes in it, and which has a very satisfying 1960s look and feel. I bought The Best of Shaker Cooking in 2009 up in Hancock, Massachusetts, and it’s full of interesting ideas. Peg Bracken’s I Hate To Cook Book is no joke: it’s loaded with excellent (and easy, and quick) recipes. And I have a little local cookbook from the late 1940s, published by a Lutheran church in Nebraska, with red-white-and-blue binding, and it’s got some of the best cookie recipes I’ve ever seen, along with handwritten comments (“very good,” “try with almonds,” etc.) in the wavering old-lady handwriting of its first owner.


Church-group collections. Also PTA groups, Chamber of Commerce, 4-H Club, etc. The same recipes over and over again. Here’s the test: if it has a recipe for “Wacky Cake” in it, discard it immediately. (Or, if you’re like me, file it on the “cute but useless” shelf.)


Cookbooks to read for pleasure. Anything by Elizabeth David. Summer Cooking. A Book of Mediterranean Food. Elegant, precise, and beautiful. She measures things in wineglasses and teacups. If she says something is “very delicious,” I believe her.


And Alice Toklas! Try (if you dare) her recipe for Oeufs Francis Picabia:


Break eight eggs into a bowl and mix them well with a fork, add salt but no pepper. Pour them into a saucepan – yes, a saucepan, no, not a frying pan. Put the saucepan over a very, very low flame, keep turning them with a fork while very slowly adding in very small quantities 1/2 lb. butter – not a speck less, rather more if you can bring yourself to it. It should take 1/2 hour to prepare this dish. The eggs of course are not scrambled but with the butter, no substitute admitted, produce a suave consistency that perhaps only gourmets will appreciate.


I’ve never made it. I can only imagine the pan of glop it would produce if I did.


But I never tire of reading about it.















Point of etiquette

So I get a big fat envelope in the mail on Friday from the Pacific Northwest, where I have friends and family. What could it be? Then I notice the cutesy little bride-and-groom stamp on the back of the envelope. Ah ha! A wedding invitation! But from whom?


Ah ha.


My Christian conservative nephew.


The invitation was addressed only to me, not to me and Partner, by the way. And I have been informed that, back in 2004, this kid registered to vote solely because he wanted to vote to forbid gay marriage in Oregon.


I get it. He probably doesn’t want me at the wedding, but he figures I won’t fly cross-country for his nuptials in any case. But they’ll maybe get a gift out of me.


Okay. First question. What should I get them? There was a cute little note included with the invitation, cheerfully informing me that they’re registered at Target.


Terrific! I can just pick up a People magazine and a Three Musketeers bar and some batteries at the local Target checkout counter and send them along to the happy couple, now that I know they’re registered there.


But that would be too easy!


How about a gift in the names of the bride and groom to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation? Or ACT UP?


How about a year’s subscription to “Out”? Or “Lusty Bears Monthly”?


Second question. I wasn’t planning to go to the wedding, but maybe we should go after all. What do you think? Would drag be too much? Or how about if we show up dressed as Jesus and Mary Magdalene?


And third question.


Why are people so damned dumb?





Harry Potter and the box-office juggernaut

Partner and I (and most of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere) saw the new Harry Potter movie yesterday. Now, I’m one of those people who read the ending of a book first, because I hate suspense. But I could not make head or tail of the ending of this book! (No spoilers here – but is there anyone who doesn’t know how this story ends?) But still. I mean, if Harry’s linked to Voldemort, that means he – but, wait a minute, Voldemort drank some of Harry’s blood, so he – and there’s the whole Horcrux thing, so they both – but they have the same wand, so they –


Anyway. This movie only gets us halfway through the book. We don’t have to worry about the face-off between Harry and Voldemort until next July. In three-D. It will be spectacular.


Partner and I liked this movie. It’s dark without being obscure. It breezes right along (mostly). It’s a whole Who’s Who of British cinema, too. (Colin Farrell, on Graham Norton this week, made a funny/sad observation that he hadn’t been asked to be in it, and that he was probably the only actor in the British Isles who wasn’t asked. It’s a shame. He would have been adorable.) There are a few jump-out-of-your seat scenes, which are pleasantly startling without being heart-stopping. The magic is beautifully depicted; it’s become so natural over the course of the past six movies, they don’t need to feature it anymore. When a newspaper photo turns and looks at you, or someone lights a lamp with a wand, it’s not even surprising, even for us Muggles. It just seems normal. (Also, now that Daniel Radcliffe is all grown up, he takes his clothes off a lot. It makes for a pleasant diversion.)


But there’s a long dry spell in the middle of the movie: Ron and Harry and Hermione wander in the woods and bicker with one another. Time passes. The scenery is very stark and lovely. Aren’t we on the clock here? Isn’t Voldemort doing bad stuff off in the distance? Why are you guys just kicking around through the dead leaves and pouting at each other? It’s exactly the same dry patch that the novel had, and I remember being very irritated with it. A couple of the novels gave me the sense that Rowling was just filling pages with words, to bulk up the novel – kids like their novels bulky! – and this was one of them.


The movie has a sad / ominous ending. Voldemort (what’s with that nose? Do evil wizards get their noses revoked?) is winning. Helena Bonham Carter is a cackling maniac. And somebody nice dies.


But don’t worry, kids. Stay tuned. All is not lost. There’s more to come.




Sunday blog: The revolutionary costume for today

For today: Christine Ebersole as Little Edie Beale in “Grey Gardens.” I never got to see it on stage, and am awaiting the revival. This number kills me every time I watch it.


“There’s more to living than Kelly green . . .”




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