Sunday blog: The Beatles (well, a couple of them) sing “What’s The New Mary Jane?”


A few years ago I decided I needed a complete set of the Beatles on CD, so I scoured eBay, and found a Ukrainian who was offering just that for sale. I paid my USD$110 and held my breath.



After about four months, just at the point when I was picturing some anonymous Yuri or Boris frolicking with my money on the banks of the Dneister and laughing at my gullibility, I received a very suspicious-looking parcel, wrapped in brown paper and ugly twine (I wish I’d kept it, it looked incredibly illicit) with a whole boatload of nicely-packaged Ukrainian CDs in it, with every note from every Beatles album, and a whole bunch of other music included besides. It was the Ultimate Deluxe Bootleg Black-Market Package, including album art and lots of studio recordings that I’d never heard before.



Here, from those highly suspect Ukrainian CDs, is a song I bet you’ve never heard. It’s called “What’s The New Mary Jane?” It was recorded by John, and George, and Yoko, and Mal Evans, while sitting on the floor during the taping of the White Album. They were incredibly high, in case you can’t tell. The song very nearly made it onto the album, too.



I like it.



What a shame Mary Jane had a pain at the party!


28_What’s_the_New_Mary_Jane.m4a Listen on Posterous




Stop eating so much sugar and fat!


We crave fat. When we eat it, our bodies produce something called endocannabinoids, which resemble the active ingredient in marijuana. And that makes you want to eat more fat.



We were born to be hunter-gatherers, as my student/assistant Noah reminded me the other day. (He’s taking pre-med classes, and is also a varsity football player, so he knows his stuff.) The closer we keep to the Original Human Diet – complex carbohydrates, proteins – the more naturally our body responds to them.  (Noah claims he eats nothing but oatmeal and brown rice and chicken.  I have seen him eat chocolate, however.  Hmm.)  With unlimited access to fat and sugar . . . well, unpleasant things happen, like obesity, and diabetes, and fatty liver. We were not intended to have quite this much sucrose in a given day. As for fat – well, it was pretty scarce back on the savanna when our ancestors were chasing gazelles. Grandma and Grandpa Australopithecus gobbled it all up as soon as they found it, and their bodies taught them to crave more.



And we, their descendents, still crave it.



My Polish grandmother used to eat lard on bread. “Lard is rich people’s food,” my mother said.






I’ve never gone quite that far, but I recall buying a dozen Dunkin’ Donuts in one of those big pink-and-orange boxes, and eating all twelve while on the phone. (This was back in my plump-and-pleasant days, naturally.)



Nowadays I’m skinny and agile, and if any gazelles come past, I will lope after them and run them down.



Anyway: eat less fat. And sugar. They’ll kill you.



The Brown / Trinity Playwrights Repertory Theater, 2011


Last weekend Partner and I attended the third and final production of this year’s Brown / Trinity Playwrights’ Rep. Every summer for the past six years, this mini-festival has produced three brand new plays and presented them serially and – as a grand finale on the last day – as a three-play marathon. (And God bless Lowry Marshall for bringing this to fruition.)



We have seen some real winners. We were in one of the first audiences to see “Boom,” which was last year the most-produced play in America. Some years ago we saw a screamingly funny play called “Chicken Grease Is Nasty Business!,” about love and marriage and friends and a Southern chicken restaurant, and I laughed harder than at pretty much anything else I’ve ever seen in the theater. We have seen plays about police dogs, and video games, and a musical based on Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons.” Another favorite was a musical called “Torah! Torah! Torah!,” about a bar mitzvah gone wrong, with some really good songs, and featuring Mr. Peanut.



A few duds, too. One of the worst was last year: I won’t name it, it should rest in peace. I will only say that, unless you’re Chazz Palmintieri or Patrick Stewart or Hal Holbrook or Lily Tomlin, you shouldn’t attempt a one-person show. Enough said.



This year:



She’s Not There.” The description was unpromising: a couple whose lives are “upended by a new person in their lives.” Sound like a lot of movies you’ve seen? It started out in familiar territory: a couple in their 30s, comfortable but not ecstatically happy; the man meets a younger woman who lives in their apartment building, and –



But it built from there. The dialogue was fresh and witty. The three characters try making friends, ignoring one another, eviscerating one another. At the end of the day, things aren’t quite the way you thought they would be.



But it was too long. Also, there was a gimmick (whether specified by the playwright I don’t know), in which the scene-changes were done by “hipster movers,” who made minimal changes to the set and did little hipster dance moves. Funny the first couple of times; tedious for the rest of the evening.




The Killing of Michael X: A New Film By Celia Weston.” This was loads of fun: it integrated a lot of film into the stage action. It was dreamlike and surreal at times, and almost everyone played at least two parts, but (and this is always a good sign) we never felt lost. We kept learning more and more about the characters, and it got funner and funner as we got higher and higher in the stratosphere. I have never laughed so hard while watching someone about to have her leg amputated with a buzzsaw.



On the downside: it was too hip. Too much in-joke chatter about movies, especially Godard’s “Breathless” – and if you haven’t seen “Breathless,” you really have no idea what they’re talking about. But this is a minor cavil. The play was generally excellent.



Finally: “My New Best Friend.” Technically, it was the best play of the three. Absolutely brilliant staging: when characters are talking on the phone to one another, they stand, they face one another across the stage, they pace and circle one another. The minimal set décor is torn apart and assembled several times. The dialogue is very witty and sharp.



But – and here’s the thing – the play is, among other things, about the dichotomy between New York and California. The New York-based characters are all smart and practical and a little rueful; the California-based characters are self-absorbed, silly, vain. “It reminded me of Woody Allen,” Partner said later, and he was absolutely right.



But you know what? We saw it first.



You might see it in local theater, or on Broadway, or maybe as a movie.



But we saw it first!





Jury duty


I have been a registered voter since 1976. I have lived in Rhode Island most of that time. And, in all that time, I have never been called for jury duty.



Until now.



The Providence County Courthouse is a 1930s pile that literally climbs up the side of College Hill; you can enter on the South Main Street side right across from the Providence River, get in the elevator, ride up five floors, and leave the building on the Benefit Street side, halfway up the hill. The elevators are ancient and full of fancy brass fixtures, and I expected to find little elevator operators with funny caps inside.



We straggled in, all 135 of us, and presented our summonses, and were given little JUROR nametags.



And they put us in a room and let us sit.



Luckily I have been alive for over fifty years and have learned a few things, so I brought lots of reading material. I felt dreadful for the guy next to me, who just kept turning his Juror Manual over and over again forlornly.



The jury-control people (or whatever they call themselves) talked at us for a while, and took us into a courtroom, which looked for all the world like an old New England church, with pews and reading-stands and everything, and the Rhode Island state seal instead of a crucifix. We were shown a video called “JURY DUTY: WHY ME?”, which reassured us that we would not be asked embarrassing questions, and that we would be released again as soon as possible, and that we would not serve on more than one trial, and that we might not have to do anything at all.



Then a judge popped out, very cheerful, to jolly us on. “Listen,” she said. “This is Rhode Island. If you get on a, let’s say, trial about an automobile accident, and you find out where it happened, it will probably occur to you, ‘I could just drive by there and take a look at it!’ Don’t do it. You’re not an investigator. Don’t research anything. Don’t ask around. Don’t Google anything.”



We got sworn in, and we went back to our room. By now we were all old friends.



But it was still horribly dull.



They gave us a mid-morning field trip to the downstairs coffee shop, run by a cheerful balding man who made the food and his blind wife who ran the cash register. “Golden toast!” he’d sing out. “Hot and delicious, from the Providence Superior Court, straight to you!” It took forever to get served, but believe me, it was a diversion, and we all badly needed diversion.



They sent us home at noontime; four cases were pending, but all were on the verge of settlement.



Second day: more of the same. I did my Financial Times crossword puzzle, and listened to another guy’s really dull stories (well, actually, a few of his stories were okay).



And then, at noon the second day, they released us.



And now I’m done, for three years.



Such fun!



I’m a little sorry we didn’t get to serve, though.



I heard there’s a really neat murder trial coming up soon.



Dissecting dinner before it dissects you


Partner and I ate at Outback Steakhouse on Sunday. I don’t care if you think this is bourgeois or not; the food is excellent, and reasonably priced, and I get a kick out of pretending that Tex-Mex food is really Australian grub.



Partner was feeling his inner cowboy and ordered a whole mess of ribs. I was more ladylike, and ordered the Outback Special: a nice little steak and a bunch of king-crab legs. My plate, when it arrived, looked like a prop from science-fiction movie, piled high with nightmarish alien body parts. Partner grinned and handed me a shiny metal thing that looked like an instrument of torture. “Get crackin’,” he said.



I do not mind this too much – I’m a farm boy, I grew up eating with my hands and a pocket knife – but I like it better when someone does the operating for me. I’m messy, for one thing. I was a regular geyser of melted butter and little bits of crabshell the other night; they probably had to call Stanley Steemer to clean the booth after I got done.



My friend Apollonia doesn’t like to dissect things at the table either. “Crab?” she said. “When they give you that stupid hammer and pliers? That’s for chumps. Somebody should be able to smash up your crab for you, back in the kitchen.”



Littleneck clams and oysters I can handle easily; they’re tedious, but they taste good. Mussels I adore, especially with garlic and tomato, and lots of bread to sop up the fragrant broth. Lobster I like okay, but only if someone has already dismantled the monster and put the meat in a nice little dish for me, with maybe some cracker crumbs on top.



And, well, speaking of mussels: usually hereabouts they give you Prince Edward Island mussels, which are small but succulent. Back in June, however, while we were on Cape Cod, I ordered a bowl of mussels marinara. They arrived in something like a tureen; each mussel-shell was the size of a souvenir ashtray, and the mussels themselves – while very good – were, um, big. And maybe a little gelatinous. The flavor was terrific, but the texture . . . um.



And, long ago while in Puerto Rico, I ordered a nice paella which promised a nice selection of mariscos. Ay yi yi! Along with the expected fish and conch, here was a tiny starfish. And over there: the most darling baby octopus, about the size of your thumb!



Never let it be said that I don’t clean my plate, however.



Starfish: a little chewy. Not much flavor.



Octopus: bright, fishy, interesting.



But did it have to be a baby?



Its mother is probably still out there somewhere, looking for me.



So it’s probably a good idea for me to keep my hammer and pliers handy . . .




Captain America


I mostly knew Captain America from his bad 1960s cartoon show, and he always left me a little cold. He could run and jump and punch, and he had that damned shield, but his costume was beyond dorkitude. I don’t recall any individual episodes, but I still remember the theme song:



When Captain American throws his mighty shield,

All those who chose to oppose the shield must yield . . .



(There’s an echo of T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” in that last line, but I digress.)



Well, Partner and I saw the new “Captain America” movie on Sunday, and I have maybe a little more respect for Cap now.



First of all, it’s beautifully filmed. It’s mostly shot in an elusive sepia, the color of old newspapers piled in the attic, to remind you that this is the 1940s, and the fights and battle scenes are very beautifully delineated. (We saw in in 2-D, which I don’t think spoiled any of the effects; naturally Cap chucks his shield right in your face a couple of times, and there are a few explosions which I’m sure would have been spectacular in 3-D. But we didn’t feel that we’d missed anything of importance.) But the final impression of the cinematography – and I think this is intentional – is of a very very very prolonged flashback.



So: we meet young Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, morphed down to the size of Gollum, or maybe Dobby the Elf). Steve is patriotic and kind and brave and sweet and asthmatic and anemic, and he has big sweet vulnerable eyes, and he aches to be a hero. We meet Stanley Tucci as Steve’s mentor / kindly uncle / father figure; Tommy Lee Jones (who reminds me of a big talking piece of leather) as Steve’s commanding officer, who basically reprises every role he’s played over the past twenty years; and some skirt (Hayley Atwell) playing a tough cute scientist who provides the necessary love interest.



A few injections and Vita-Rays later, little Steve turns into gigantic Steve, and is provided with a seemingly endless supply of tight white t-shirts. (Evidently the machine that makes your muscles bigger also oils you up. Also, it’s okay to leave your pants on during the transformation, because they change size automatically, right along with you.)



Big brawny Steve becomes a salesman for War Bonds; he sings and dances, he’s featured in comic books, kids love him. (Get it?) And he is dismally unhappy, and dissatisfied.



Finally, however, he meets the villain of his dreams. Hugo Weaving plays Johann Schmidt, and if you don’t know Johann’s secret – and his comic-book monicker – I ain’t gonna tell you. I loved Hugo’s irritable / vaguely constipated Elrond in “The Lord of the Rings,” and his Agent Smith in the Matrix movies was wonderfully creepy. He’s equally good here, as a smug uberNazi with an Odin complex.



There are a kajillion tie-ins with other recent Marvel movies: a dash of “Thor,” lots of “Iron Man,” and maybe even an echo of “The Hulk.” And we get a brief look-ahead to the Grand Unification: the Avengers movie promised next year.



And at the end of the movie –



Oh, come now. Who do you think I am? I wouldn’t do that to you.



[Evil chuckle.]




Produce in season


Walking through the produce department in Eastside Marketplace the other evening was a delight.



It smelled like a country garden at dawn. Strawberries. Cherries. The warm musty smell of ripe tomatoes-on-the-vine.



These are the pleasures of “produce in season.”



I remember the Marche Central in Tunis, where we only got stuff in season. Of course, when you’re in North Africa, seasons are longer, but you learn to appreciate what you’ve got, while you have it. Bananas we had maybe three days a year, when a shipment arrived from the Ivory Coast, and they were precious. (I remember walking down the street in Tunis after living there for a couple of years, and seeing a banana peel! And suddenly breaking into a sprint, running to the market, to see if there were any bananas left!)



And delicate morels, and sweet fresh reddish figs, and little soft pears that tasted like candy . . .






I saw a woman the other evening at Eastside Marketplace pick up a honeydew melon in one meaty claw and holler at a produce guy: “How can you tell if this thing is any good?”



I wanted to say: Smell it, you idiot!




You see how disconnected people have become with nature? She thought a melon was like a box of cereal, and had a “best by” date printed on it.



It never occurred to her that she was holding a big greenish seed-pod in her hand, bred to be big and juicy and fragrant . . .






Coming soon: canteloupe!



Sunday blog: The late Amy Winehouse sings “Rehab”


I had a different song planned for today, but when the sad news of Amy Winehouse’s death came around yesterday, I wanted to do a little tribute to her.



She was 27. Others who died at 27: Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain.



As of this writing, cause of death is still unknown. But I think we all have a pretty good idea of what might have happened.



I love this song: I love Amy’s whiskey voice, and the chimes, and the horn section, and the quiet backup group that comes in on “No no no,” and the strings that creep in so stealthily at the end.



They tried to make me go to rehab; I said No no no . . .


Amy_Winehouse_-_Rehab.mp3 Listen on Posterous




Spoiler alert!


“I was watching ‘Lord of the Rings’ last night,” Apollonia told me not long ago. “And don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful. But twelve hours! And then I was lying in bed and thinking about it. And all of a sudden I thought: Why couldn’t one of the eagles just have taken the ring and dropped it into Mount Doom? Wouldn’t it have been simpler?” She grimaced. “And then I realized that I have no imagination. I could never have written that story.”



“The goal is not the point of the story,” I said. “The journey is the point of the story.”



She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah. I thought the point of the story was getting rid of the stupid ring.”



“Well,” I said, “now you know why I always read the last page of a book first. I can’t stand suspense. I want to get it over with.”



She recoiled, as if I’d told her something truly horrible, like “Robert Pattinson and Tilda Swinton are actually the same person,” or “’Twilight’ was actually co-written by Glenn Beck and Michelle Bachmann.” “How can you do that?” she squealed. “It goes against nature.”



“That’s me all over,” I beamed. “Against nature.”



Seriously, I can’t stand suspense. I like mystification and puzzles, but I noticed a long time ago that most dramatic situations end up having unsatisfactory conclusions at the end of the day. Remember “Twin Peaks”? I loved it. But then the writers thought that they actually had to explain what was going on, and everything fell apart. Ditto “The X-Files.”




Speaking of “The X-Files”: I was talking to my student assistant Noah the other day about the show. He’s never seen it, but he loves fantasy and science fiction and crime drama, and is planning to stream the whole series on Netflix. (These kids these days and their technology!) “There was this terrific sexual tension between Mulder and Sculley on the show,” I said. “And they never really resolved it, until -”



He covered his ears with his hands. “Lalalala!” he screamed. “Don’t tell me! I don’t want to know!”



See? Another one. Just like Apollonia.   




But sometimes I find an innocent victim.



Years ago, I was attending a Film Society event at Brown, and the girl taking money at the door had the Penguin edition of “Sense and Sensibility” lying on the desk in front of her as she made change for people. (This was back in the 1980s, before every single Jane Austen novel was made into a film.) “Enjoying it?” I said, nodding at the book.



“I really am,” she said earnestly. “She writes so well. And, you know, I’m only about halfway through, and I really don’t know what’s going to happen. I assume they’re both going to get married, but – ”



“Elinor marries Edward,” I said smoothly, “and Marianne marries Colonel Brandon.”



I have never forgotten the incredulity on her face. “Why did you tell me that – ”



But it was too late; I’d escaped.



This is one more thing I will have to account for on the Day of Judgment.



I’m against nature, remember?



Harry Potter and the slam-bang finale


Finally, after all these years, it’s over.



And this final movie, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two,” is the best of the lot.



All of the young actors know exactly what they’re doing now. (It’s been ten years, so they’d better.) It’s wonderful to see Emma Watson as a calm and very confident young woman; Rupert Grint isn’t goofy anymore, but stalwart and funny and sort of cute if you squint at him the right way; and dear Matthew Lewis as Neville Longbottom, the Wimpy Kid of Gryffindor, has matured beyond all recognition, and is now handsome and brave and pretty much the tallest kid in his class.



Daniel Radcliffe. Okay. He’s excellent. But he’s a place-holder. He’s you, you see? He’s your foothold in the story. You’re supposed to identify with Harry, so they couldn’t really cast anyone really dramatically distinctive in the role – not a funny redhead like Grint, not a zombie albino like the mutant who plays Draco Malfoy. Radcliffe is perfect in this regard, sort of like Elijah Wood over in “The Lord of the Rings”: he’s got an interesting face and a pleasing personality, but he mostly reacts to stuff. Picture him in your mind. You’re seeing him looking at something and reacting to it, aren’t you? And that’s perfect. I foresee a long and successful career for Mister Radcliffe, and more power to him.



The older actors – you know, the entire British acting community over the age of thirty – really only need to show up in costume. But it’s wonderful to see Maggie Smith’s deadly serious face when she’s wand-to-wand with her adversary, and later to see her irrepressible giggle when she casts a spell that she’s always wanted to cast. Nice to see Emma Thompson with her thick spectacles on; nice to see Julie Walters growling like a mother tiger, fighting with the terrifyingly insane-looking and insane-acting Helena Bonham Carter.



Hope I didn’t spoil the movie for you with those glimpses.



But I didn’t, did I?



And, see, that’s the thing. There are no spoilers here. You’ve either read the book, in which case you know what’s gonna happen, or you haven’t, which means that – well, you pretty much know how it has to end, right? (Hint: don’t get that Death Eater tattoo just yet.)



The cinematography is beautiful. I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie with night scenes in which I could actually make out what was going on. (We saw it in 3D, and there are a few worthwhile effects – some of the spells, some of the pyrotechnics. But, kids, save your three dollars. You really won’t miss a thing if you don’t see it in 3D.)



The movie actually improves upon the book in a few places; it omits some of the tedious flashback stuff, and straightens out a few of the more roundabout plotlines. And maybe things don’t happen quite like the book in a few places – but wouldn’t it be a bore if they did?



And I am so effing grateful to see the bloody quidditch stadium burn down. Because – you know what? – I think quidditch is stupid.



But this movie is not stupid. It is really grave and beautiful and solemn.



And a lot of fun to watch.



So. Imperio! See this movie!




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