Thursday, January 21, 2021

Pearls

 

I put on my pearls today. This is important because I haven’t worn them in more than a year. In fact, I haven’t worn anything fancy or pretty in that time. Pandemic fashion for me involves yoga pants and sweatshirts. I only put on earrings and a little tinted moisturizer for zoom calls. 

 

Today, I wore my pearls and even dug out some lipstick. I did this to honor a woman I don’t know personally, whose college I wouldn’t have gotten into, whose sorority is not something I would have any interest. And yet, my desire to honor her is huge. We share only one thing in common, our gender, and based on that, I feel tremendous joy and pride at her tremendous accomplishment: she is in the White House. She is not First Lady, she is not a cabinet member, she is not a special advisor, she is Number Two in our hopefully restored government and to me, this is a towering achievement for all women across the globe.

 

The pandemic has brought to rise so many things, social, cultural, political, so ugly and repulsive, that we simply can’t see in the mirror. And yet, changes are happening everywhere. Turn on the news and you’ll see more black reporters and anchors, look at the bestseller lists and you’ll find authors of color who weren’t there before. A seismic change is happening, despite the death and destruction. It’s easy to forget that Justice Sotomayor is a trailblazer herself, the third of only five women to have ever served on the Supreme Court. (The first was in 2006.) What a historic moment to see her smiling eyes welcoming the Top Girl in our country to a place where the air is rare, holding that Bible once owned by the first black justice so many years ago. 

 

Our new president is surrounding himself with diversity and all we can do is pray that it all works out the way he intends. I hope that this group will form a true team, not pandering to special interests, not just representing their own demographic, but working together to address, accomplish, achieve, aspire and inspire. 

 

This year, spending more time on the sofa than ever before, I felt helpless and sometimes hopeless as I watched events unfold across the country. I am fortunate to have everything I need as we shelter at home, waiting for the pandemic to end and for our country to regain an even footing on the world stage. I lost sleep over things I couldn’t control, had way too much time to consider the chaos, found it difficult to ponder the positive. I know I’m not alone in that feeling and also in the new one I feel today.

 

I finger the pearls at my throat and appreciate their texture. They are smooth and hold the warmth from my skin. They were born of irritation and physical toil that took a lot of time. My pearls have a slight purple hue, grey with a swirling of muted rainbow. I know pearls come in all sizes and colors, so beautiful and so unique. 

 

I’m delighted by the reason I put them on today – to celebrate a new day for our country and to honor our first female Vice President Kamala Harris, who wears hers every day. For her, pearls signify the founders of her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority formed in 1908 at her alma mater Howard University. Howard is a traditionally black university that had five white women in its student body when it opened in 1867. By 1872, the university had educated more than 150,000 freed slaves of both genders, according to its website. Imagine that. 

 

Today, I feel hopeful. And I’m energized by my pearls and the reason I’m wearing them. It’s so nice to see a girl on the field and I know I join so many in wishing her success. I’m happy to hold up my arms to steady her as she stands on the shoulders of the pioneering women who have gone before. I’m even happier, to help her as she reaches down and out, to encourage and elevate the pioneering women who will follow her excellent example.

 

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Thursday, December 13, 2018

The "stunned tourist" debuts on London stage

Christmas pantomimes in London: a primer for foreign tourists
4thwall completely smashed

I made my London stage debut last December at the Kings Head Theatre in the Charles Court Opera production of King Tut’s Tomb. My performance in the role of “stunned tourist” was touted as “good fun,” by one particularly drunk audience member and “smashing, darling,” by the tiny theatre’s manager and intermission snack seller. This was a very short run for my character, about 20 minutes to be precise, but the experience will last a lifetime and just might encourage me to try again this year.

The Kings Head is located in the Islington section of London. To get to the theatre, it is necessary to cross the interior of the historic Kings Head Pub itself. Jammed with inebriated people, this was no easy task as we dodged beer mugs passed overhead and left the ancient floorboards wet with the snow that had just begun falling outside. We emerged a bit disheveled, and entered a doorway cloaked in a velvet curtain. Inside the theatre, there is bench seating for about 75 people. Let’s call the space intimate as the stage is very close to the seats. There is no room for bulky coats or modesty. This audience would become our new best friends for the next few hours. We did not know that a prerequisite of attending such a performance is to have consumed many alcoholic beverages prior to the start of the show, which would prove problematic for me later.

The room was very close and I fought down my inner claustrobic. When the lights dimmed and the show began we quickly caught on that this intimacy was intentional and greatly added to the expected audience participation. We hissed at the villain and groaned in sympathy with the heroine. We laughed hysterically at the corny jokes and double entendres. There was twerking, hip hop dancing, rapping, arias and personal asides. We cheered wildly at the astonishing skill of the performers, who also happen to be classically trained in opera. We felt very much part of the experience and enjoyed it thoroughly.

King Tut was a pantomime production, which confused this theatre-going New Yorker because the word pantomime has a very different meaning in British vernacular. To the average American, pantomime refers to a soundless, brightly physical performance often done by someone dressed in a striped shirt, wearing white face make up and a beret. In merry olde England, a pantomime (or panto) is a theatrical musical Christmas season treat featuring clever dialogue, witty lyrics and physical comedy. Think Monty Python. Usually based on a well-known fairy tale, fable or story, the panto features a series of characters including the dame (played by a cross dressing man), the main male character (played by a young woman), the main female character (played by a woman), a villain, and an animal or fantastical creature. King Tut featured a sassy camel who would periodically sing out looking for an audience response, “my hump, my hump, my (audience sings) sexy lady hump.”

Why Christmas? Pantos may have evolved from the Tudor post-Christmas “feast of fools,” when a Lord of Misrule was chosen from a noble household in a role reversal where the servant played master of the manor for the day. Thus the entire household was turned upside down with the day’s lord demanding certain favors and making outrageous decrees. This was done all in good fun, of course, and evolved into the well-loved tradition of cross-dressing characters playing time honored stories encouraged by booing and singing audience members. As a holiday treat, many pantos are performed for family audiences with cleverly concealed political jabs and snarky social commentary disguised as silly jokes that make the kids giggle with delight. Other productions are aimed directly at adult audiences, no holds barred.

At intermission, the audience was encouraged to collect the drinks at the bar that they had ordered in advance and to buy an ice cream, oddly, the only refreshment on offer. It turns out that we have the Victorians to thank for this interval treat: it is quietly consumed, has no odor, appeals to all audiences. When we settled back into our places for the second act the energy level was high on the stage and in the audience. In addition to the audience participation, there can also be physical interaction between the actors and the folks in the seats. A common practice is a pie in the face or other slapstick element. In Tut, the camel would “spit” into the audience, drenching the first few rows. The play within the play here featured a game show contest where two audience members were called by name to join the actors onstage. Guess who was one of them?

Normally, I am not shy or nervous addressing a group, but in this case, I was completely out of character. My participation in this show, came as a total surprise and I was thoroughly stunned. My husband captured the whole, painful thing on video and I am stiff and sweating under the hot stage lights. The actors were enjoying my dismay and a few people in the front row yelled their encouragement to me while trying not to spill their drinks. Unfortunately for me, we were the only sober people in the room. I suspect I was chosen because I had phoned the box office earlier in the day to secure the last-minute tickets. I actually spoke to a human who may have recognized my non-native accent and shrewdly figured this would add to the fun. 

My role was a participant on the game show which success would ultimately help get the time traveling characters back to the place they wanted to go. No pressure here, I could not fail. I flailed, I froze. The camel stood at my shoulder and fed me answers to the silly questions, his warm breath in my ear only adding to my discomfort. One of the game challenges featured a series of completely random items passing by a window cut into the set directly in front of my face. My task was to recall as many of these unrelated things as I could. Here the culture clash became downright bizarre as my brain struggled to recognize prawn crisps (shrimp flavored potato chips), a box of French letters (condoms), and Cadbury’s Dairy milk (chocolate bar), to name just a few.  I was surprised to “win” and my prize was yet more agonizing time onstage as the group presented another game for me to blunder through. The drunkest woman in the first row gave me all the answers and inspiration I needed and I was finally released from my position centerstage, to loud applause. I was patted, touched and congratulated on my way back to my seat. I was overcome with delighted embarrassment, a very strange feeling indeed.

When I read the bios of the performers I was impressed to see that most of their credentials are loftier than this “of the people” show. They are accomplished serious performers in real life. Alys Roberts, a Welsh soprano, was absolutely adorable as young King Tut. Sporting gold lame, 1980s-era “Hammer” pants and a super sparkly blue Egyptian head dress, she behaved as a 20-something person would do, with energy and agility. When she opened her mouth to sing, what emerged was a sophisticated, elegant string of music that collided completely with what our eyes were telling us. It was obvious that the actors were having just as much fun as the lucky audience members. They chuckled in the wrong places, ribbed each other when a joke landed particularly well and cavorted across the stage with the silly delight of 10-year olds, unwatched by their parents.

I’m going back to the Kings Head this year to see “Buttons,” a panto based on Cinderella. This time, I’ll have my family in the audience and will hopefully remain anonymous to the stage manager. If our decidedly foreign accents are detected, I’m prepared to play the part of “wiser American ex-pat,” and will wear lighter clothing so as not to perspire so much under the hot lights and friendly scrutiny.

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Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Can Man

The Can Man likes art and free wine 
On the Lower East Side


The art gallery is filling up fast only 10 minutes into the opening of the show. Owner Adriaan Vanderplas, stands in the middle of the room smiling broadly and explaining with great enthusiasm how the young Japanese artist displayed just inside the door, is in the US on a special visa sponsored by the Chinese government. He pauses briefly to let a 30-ish man in a red baseball cap and red Chicago Bulls t-shirt pass by. The man has entered the gallery, looking neither right nor left, making a bee-line for the back of the room and the stairs leading to more gallery space in the basement.

“Free wine,” Adriaan says, smiling sheepishly and shrugging his shoulders. “He is here for every opening. Doesn’t look at the art, just heads downstairs to get his free wine.”

The Can Man, so called because he parks his bicycle and an enormous, clear trash bag of nickel-back bottles and cans on the sidewalk just outside the gallery door, is a neighborhood fixture.

“I don’t know his name, but I’ve seen him around for years,” says Adriaan. “He means no harm and causes no trouble and maybe he appreciates the art a little bit on his way in and out.”

This is a common practice, especially among college students and less-wealthy young people, says one young artist standing proudly next to his displayed painting. 

“Kids know the schedule, they know the drill. They get here at opening, mix in with the crowd, get their free wine, then move on to the next gallery.” He shrugs. This is very common, very accepted and all part of the show.

This is the Lower East Side, where art galleries are growing like mushrooms. The vibe is accessible, energetic, youthful, but not necessarily the domain of the young. At this particular show, artists of all ages are represented, sporting many different colors of hair including grey, white, green and fire-engine red. 

A young woman in her early 20s, clutches a bouquet of flowers and grins broadly as her boyfriend snaps photos of her next to her very large, very wild painting. This is her first show. Another woman, middle-aged, conservatively dressed, accepts compliments on her serious, dark blue painting from a young man wearing a hot pink dress. This is not her first time around the art block. The connection between these two is simply arresting.

I’m lurking among the crowd on this particularly steamy evening because my son Alex is showing his second piece at the gallery. I am overwhelmed with parental pride as I watch him interact with his fellow artists and talk with folks about his mixed media work and his creative process. 

Then there is Bokov. Konstantin Bokov is a gallery favorite of indeterminate age and boundless creative energy. Born in the Ukraine and living in Moscow before arriving and staying in New York in 1974, Bokov is the elder statesman in the gallery. He quietly makes his way around the room, connecting with the other artists, mostly younger and greener, like a priest conferring benevolent blessings. Bokov’s pieces are subtly evocative, derived from trash and “found items.” A favorite at this show is his multi-media creation featuring a banged-up dust pan and broom, mounted on a well-used cutting board, all rescued from sidewalk trash cans, and painted to resemble a Cheshire-like cat. To say he is prolific is understatement and Adriaan is a huge fan and major collector, with hundreds of Bokovs on the walls and in his storage room.

Adriaan is originally from Vienna but reminds you of an aging California surfer. He is handsome with kind blue eyes and a greying, honeybrown ponytail. Though not an artist himself, he is earnest and passionate about art, bringing artists together, encouraging collaborations and giving young people a chance. 

It is a singular experience for any artist to say they have shown their work at a New York City art gallery. Unless your sister-in-law or neighbor’s cousin is in the business, it is a mysterious and mystical process to get a piece hung in a gallery show. Adriaan changes his shows every few weeks, often issuing an open call for artists to submit samples to him. He invites many artists back repeatedly and permanently displays Bokov, who always shows up at an opening. You can count on seeing Bokov, and the Can Man.

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Sunday, October 22, 2017

Take Me Out to the Ballgame



“Bring me some apples and crackerjack,” the young woman bellowed tunelessly, swaying in time to the organist and slopping her beer just a little bit. I’m not judging her for not knowing the lyrics to this standard American anthem, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The funny part was that the words were rolling across the gigantic screen, karaoke style, right in her line of vision. Some simply sing the wrong words with abandon, carefree in their ignorance and unaffected by perfectionists nearby. Good for her.

We were in the bleacher seats, directly behind center field. From here, we could visit several concessions dedicated specifically to sausage sandwiches, hamburgers, fried chicken and of course, the ubiquitous hot dogs and French fries. No salad, tofu or sushi for these fans. Actually, you can probably find these if you really want to. Cracker Jack now comes in bags, making it just too easy to cheat and find the prize before you get to the bottom. Prizes have also experienced an economic hit as paper jokes and games replace earlier baseball cards, plastic rings and temporary tattoos. I never did like Cracker Jack, but the prize inside drove me crazy, as did cereal boxes, in my youth.

The only time I enjoy drinking a beer is at baseball games and heat-of-the-day summer barbecues. So, despite the very chilly temperatures of this particular game day, I enjoyed a cold one. For the price of this lovely, plastic cup of nostalgia, I could have bought a case of high-end brand bottles. Ah, no matter. This is a rare event.

Usually, I bypass the ever-popular ball park hot dog, steaming and rubbery in its slightly stale bun, for a hockey puck hamburger. I was surprised and delighted to find that the burger was very nicely cooked on a fresh roll with lettuce, tomato and onion. The price of a single burger is $9 but that is not the most painful part of the story. The shocking addition to the menu posted on the wall overhead is the calorie count for these comestibles. Argh! Who needs to know that a single rocket burger has 710 calories? A double comes in at a whopping 1020 calories – more than half what I should consume in a day. Sigh. Add that to the beer and glorious garlic fries we enjoyed as an appetizer and technically I should not eat again until sometime next June. Do we really need to know this? No. A baseball game is not the time or place to worry about healthy food. I imagine there is not one redeeming ingredient in the Cracker Jack, ice cream or cheeseburger spring rolls either.

The bleacher seats are special in that they are populated mostly by folks who have purchased some kind of season ticket. This way, you end up sitting with the same people throughout the season and a familial camaraderie develops. As we shivered together, sitting on metal planks, the group around us shared stories, snarky observations about the Red Sox and leaped to their feet in outraged unison when a ball over the left field wall only yielded a double.


While I really love going to a baseball game, I am not a purist and was not above retreating to the warm, enclosed Mohegan Sun sports bar during the 7th inning stretch. It was not so bad to watch the Yanks close out their winning game with a hot coffee in my hands and my toes thawing in my shoes. The bar has big screens covering all of the walls so you don’t miss a moment of action. What you might miss, however, is catching that long-shot hit to center field or having a little beer slopped on your jacket by an exuberant neighbor in the stands.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Cafe Gourmand

It seems that I am a little late to the table regarding my newest French food obsession: café gourmand. When I first noticed it offered on menus in France, I thought it was the Gallic take on fancy coffees like Irish coffee with Baileys or something highly sweet or flavored. I was not interested in such a thing, so ignored café gourmand. Quel dommage!

When dining with French friends last spring, they encouraged me to try a café gourmand. When they described it to me, I wanted to smack my forehead in regret. Quite simply, café gourmand is an after dinner coffee, accompanied by a few mini desserts. This was just too good to be true. Indeed, my tiny coffee cup was surrounded by five tiny pastries, each one a delightful bite. It was heavenly and satisfied my permanent sweet tooth without the commitment of an entire mousse au chocolat, which I could have happily devoured and regretted later.

Our family lived outside of Paris for three years at the turn of the last century. It was 1998 to 2001 but sounds so much more dramatic this way, n’est pas? Among the many, many cultural things we learned as Americans in a foreign country for the first time is that unlike home, the after-meal coffee could never, never accompany dessert. We received such looks of horror, disbelief, and disgust when we tried to order the two at once, that we got the message pretty quickly.

In the ensuing years, we return to France frequently and are comforted by the things that endear us to this beautiful country including, random railroad strikes, a mystifying inability to understand our accented attempt at their language, the perfect bread that exists only here, excellent wines that are affordable, and the most sublime roasted chicken on the planet. I have noticed recently, that portion sizes at restaurants have grown, though no one can really tell me why. This is not a good thing as before, we could enjoy a four course meal without groaning in regret. In the early days of our Francophile training, the starter might be one small piece of pate seated on a tiny bed of greens, followed by a few slices of perfectly cooked duck breast next to a bouquet of 10 green beans tied with a cord of celery and a golf ball of creamy potatoes. After that came the seemingly unnecessary, but highly anticipated plate of cheese, usually three small slices of whatever looked good to the chef at the market that day. All of this would be followed by a larger crème brulee (after all, what is really the best part of the day?) then a small coffee of several sips. We would enjoy a glass of wine or two with this meal and left the restaurant feeling satisfied but not overburdened.

Today, as the portions have become much more generous, I often skip the starter and dessert, or simply take a starter and salad or cheese. Dessert is rarely something I order as I simply cannot enjoy it after so much wonderful food. The glorious answer to the gaping lack in my restaurant experiences these days is the café gourmand. As the Spanish have their tapas, perhaps the French might consider a wine gourmand offering? It could feature a generous glass of wine along with some cheese and mini-meal elements, much like we have in the states when we say “heavy hors d’oeurves.” This would be followed by its sweet cousin, café gourmand and we would end up with an extremely abbreviated version of where I started almost 20 years ago. I must admit that I prefer the classic meal formula. It forces one to relax a bit and savor the food. Unfortunately, the French are increasingly becoming American as they alter their eating habits to keep up with family and work commitments. Quel dommage, indeed.


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Monday, July 17, 2017

Did you stay in the car at the drive-in movies?

My brother was just a baby at the time and we were set up in the back seat of the family station wagon. There were pillows, blankets and stuffed animals all around us. We had on sweatshirts over our pajamas. It was thrilling to be outside in our pjs at night. This was a special occasion for us: we were at the drive-in.
            I can remember so clearly, the smell of the Jiffy Pop that my mom made for us. In the days before microwaves, this was a real treat and enjoyed only occasionally. The unpopped kernels came packaged in a covered aluminum pie tin contraption, with a handle. You slid and shook this thing across the heat of your stove and in a few minutes, the top had puffed out and the wonderful, hot popped corn was inside.
            When we were kids, there were always two movies at the drive-in. The first was usually a kid-friendly cartoon, the second a first-run adult movie. The idea was for us to nod off after ours, so the adults could enjoy theirs. Of course we couldn’t resist fiddling with the heavy, metal boxes that hung precariously from the slightly lowered glass of the car windows. This was the speaker through which distant and crackly voices emerged. The speaker was attached to a pole by a thick wire and we were admonished time and again not to pull on it. Yeah, sure.
            At the front of the parking field, just before the huge screen, there was a playground with swings and a rickety slide. We wanted desperately to play on those things while we waited for it to get dark enough for the show to begin. Nothing doing, said our parents, we were encamped and no one was going to miss a moment of the movie. From the concession ads to the final check that the speakers weren’t still attached to the car, a trip to the drive-in was an adventure indeed.
            When we hit our teen years, we considered the admission price to be a group fee. Two would sit in the front of the car and pass by the small booth, handing over the pooled resources of the group sneaking through the adjacent corn field at the same moment. We thought we were getting away with something. Who wanted to pay for a ticket when you could put that money to good use at the concession stand?
            It all began in 1933 when Richard Hollingshead rigged up the first drive-in movie in his backyard in Camden, New Jersey. As he tweaked his big idea, looked for an improvement on his little radio hidden behind the screen that had been nailed to a few trees. He contacted RCA Co. which devised a directional sound system and the drive-in movie on a large scale became a possibility. The idea grew in popularity through the 1950s, taking a brief hiatus during the mid-40s when the US was focused on the war effort. Construction of these outdoor theatres flattened out in the 1970s and by the end of the 80s, they began to close. Cable TV and VCRs were taking over as new forms of family entertainment.
            Recently, drive-in movies are enjoying a resurgence world-wide with theatres being restored and new construction taking place in the mid-West in particular. Nostalgia seems to be the driving factor. Lord knows we all have plenty of electronic gadgets in our homes to keep us occupied. Now, we look to the great outdoors for family-friendly entertainment.
            

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Saturday, June 4, 2016

Peeping frogs, loud birds and strawberries


I woke up this morning thinking about strawberries. I can’t say why, exactly, but it might have been the bright sun just beginning to intrude through a gap in the draperies. Or it might have been the trilling cacophony just outside my open window. The sun and the sound of the birds only wake me in the spring and summer and I suppose my brain was already moving on to the next things that herald the best time to live on Candlewood Lake: strawberries, Johnny’s chicken burgers on the grill and cold beverages.

So back to the berries. I really learned about the art of buying fruits and vegetables when I lived in France more than 10 years ago. At that time, super-speedy refrigerated shipping and storage were not as prevalent as they are today. We found in the markets only the fruits and veggies that were ripe and in season in the nearby area. I think the only time we could anticipate a fresh fruit treat out of season from a truly distant land was clementines from Israel at Christmas.

Strawberries were my introduction to this wondrous phenomenon. I had just arrived in Paris with my two young children and my husband announced that we would go food shopping. I was soon to discover that there was nothing in the fridge in the huge, old house we had rented. Thoughtfully, he had waited for me to join him to accomplish such a task. The irksome part of this is that he had already been living there for six months. Those tales, my friends, are for another day.

So we go to the market. It is a magnificent, outdoor affair with lines and lines of stalls featuring everything from salad greens to rabbit carcasses. My jet-lagged brain was slow to adjust to the French writing on all of the signs, and filling my ears. My husband, ever the eager helper, picked up a cardboard basket of strawberries and asked me, “is this a good price are these good?” Before I could answer, the woman operating the stall reached across her beautiful display and slapped at his arm, nearly causing him to drop the carton. She growled something incomprehensible at him and shook her finger at me in admonishment. Hmmmm. I guess we are not to touch the goods, as we do at home in the United States. Lesson learned. I looked at him in despair and said that any price would be good right now and would he please just pay the unhappy woman and let us be on our way.

A few weeks later, I had learned to navigate the roadways and the kids and I found a wonderful, pick-your-own farm. Here we used shovels to wrest carrots from the ground, pulled green beans off their bushes with our fingers and sat in the warm sandy soil among the strawberry plants and simply ate the berries as fast as we picked them. When we got home, we made a dinner of those veggies and for dessert, a beautiful strawberry tart. I had not had any cooking lessons yet, and boy did I need them, so the tart was not actually beautiful in the traditional sense. I did not get the cream right but we sure had fun creating designs on top with the sliced berries. Sadly, by the time we were finished with the masterpiece, we were too full to eat it. The tart was a little defeated looking by breakfast the next day, but it was still delicious.

So today, I conjure up all of my strawberry memories as I lie in bed and think about summer. Strawberry season is upon us now in Connecticut and the local crop is a good one indeed. My mother always told me the best way to buy fruit is to smell it: does it smell like a strawberry? Surprisingly, the answer is often no. But go ahead and lift that plastic container close to your face and inhale deeply. It should smell like sunshine, sweetness, birds singing and the star of your lunch-time salad.

Copyright © 2019 Susan Irving Monshaw

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