New York City

Gun Control: Now!

Posted on 07/25/2012 at 2:38pm

How many more will it take? Columbine High School, Washington, DC. , Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora.  When will we act?

Thank you, Michael R. Bloomberg, New York City mayor for asking the two political candidates to address gun control. Now. Not later. Now.

He wrote in an op-ed in today’s  Daily News:

“Every day, 34 Americans are murdered with guns. That’s 12,000 innocent people killed each year with guns, many of them possessed illegally.

During the next President’s term, if we do nothing, 48,000 people will be murdered with guns — nearly as many Americans who were killed during a decade of fighting in Vietnam. Yet neither presidential candidate has offered a plan to lower the death toll, which continues to rise.

Less than a week after Aurora, the two candidates are back to politics as usual, attacking each other on gaffes and trivialities. If not now, when is the time for them to outline their solutions to gun violence?”

According to the Star-Ledger today, “we are the most heavily armed people of the world, per capita.  Americans use guns more often to kill each other than citizens of any industrialized nation.”

There’s no good time for a death. My Great -Aunt Sylvia died last week at age 100. I remember telling people about her; I had to cancel some meetings to attend her funeral. The death of an old person isn’t a tragedy; it’s a celebration of a life. Yet as someone said to me, who had recently lost her 90-year-old father, “there’s never a good time to lose a parent.”  My cousin Robert lost his mother. For my mother, she lost her oldest living relative, making her the family matriarch.

This week was the one year anniversary of my cousin Abigail Burg’s untimely death from a jet skiing accident.  She was 24. Her parents and extended family struggle every day to make sense of her death and find solace in the gifts she gave instead of the life she’s lost.  I remember going to the funeral and one of my sisters saying how at least she wasn’t murdered or killed in a terrorist attack.

Accidents and illness happen. Some are lucky, like Aunt Sylvia to live to an old age.

And some, like the 34 people killed every day, like the 12 victims massacred in Aurora, Colorado, are murdered thanks to the easy access to guns and ammunition our nation condones.


Behind the Scenes: Auditions & Acting

Posted on 06/29/2012 at 6:08am

Getting off the elevator and entering the rehearsal studio, a maze of small, pastel-painted,  mirrored rooms, complete with ballet barres,  and  seeing the young actors primping and pacing, perusing scripts and listening to music on their iPods, I was happy to  be a guest, invited to observe auditions. I’d bid to spend a day with the casting director at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey‘s  gala. Last year, I appeared once in the company’s production of To Kill A Mockingbird  and wanted a different experience this time.

The casting director and play director were auditioning for Oliver Twist, to be performed in September. The play, adapted by Neil Bartlett, combines Dickens’ language, 12 actors playing many roles, and  music representative of Victorian England. Each actor had a ten-minute slot to audition, sort of speed dating with a script. Two company members assisted as readers, assuming various roles as the script demanded.  Immediately, I felt like a nervous stage mother, wanting each actor to do well.

The casting director assured me that after seeing a few, I’d recognize differences, and he was right.  I could tell who had studied accents, had dressed for the role, who acted but wasn’t melodramatic, who understood the role and scene. I learned that even if an actor presented well, the directors had to consider the entire ensemble. There has to be a balance between equity and non-equity actors. The company has to fit together; everything is balanced, including height, weight, and appearance.

Glancing at their resumes, I remarked at the various skills listed. Hand whistling, accents, musical instruments, and drivers’ licenses (good for films) among them.  In the morning I watched, about 20 auditions, 2 actors were asked to return for a callback the next day. One of the readers told me, “On average we go on 10 auditions a week. Success is great, failure is expected.”

I’d heard this sentiment expressed a week earlier when I interviewed the cast of Athol Fugard’s 1989 My Children! My Africa! at the Signature Theatre for Education Update. With the closing of the play after a seven- week run, the three actors were heading to different locations and projects.  They shared how they got into acting and the role of theater in their lives.

The play, a story set in 1984 as apartheid begins to unravel, centers on a South African teacher and his students, a white woman and a black man,  who meet during a debate competition. Generations and ideals clash as the teacher,  Anela Myalatya, called “Mr. M,” sticks to traditional views.

For James A. Williams, the role as Mr. M wasn’t too far a stretch from what he does offstage.  Directing  a theater program for incarcerated youth in Minneapolis, he hopes to impart to others what his high school counselor did for him decades ago in St. Louis. “She told me, ‘I’m not going to give up on you even though you’ve given up on yourself.’ She handed me a stack of college applications and told me to sign them. College wasn’t a world I grew up in. People I knew got a job. They drove cabs.  They worked for the steel mill, or Anheuser-Busch or McDonnell Douglas” Williams said.

Allie Gallerani, who played the character Isabel Dyson, grew up in North Carolina watching musicals on television and participating in local childrens’ theater groups. She did her thesis at Northwestern on Athol Fugard, who met the actors during rehearsal of My Children! My Africa! “He let us be ourselves, “ she said, “we didn’t want to disappoint him but felt so honored to have him around to answer our questions.”

Like James A. Williams, Stephen Tyrone Williams (no relation), became an actor thanks to a high school drama teacher who convinced him to audition for the school musical. He sees many parallels between his character in the play, Thami Mbikwana, and himself. “We’re both students fighting against teachers who are trying to help us; we’re really fighting against ourselves.”

Listening to them talk about their passion for acting, I remembered how I loved participating in my high school musicals, how my children loved theater at school, and how I infused drama in teaching whenever I could.  I thought about the young people I met from this play and the ones I observed auditioning. Their passion for their art permeates the room.

James, Allie, Stephen

The Power of Words: Sendak, Bradbury & Churchill

Posted on 06/19/2012 at 7:48am

My supervisor entered my room and stood by the classroom door. I was teaching a class;  her interruption of my lesson  took precedence over anything else. I asked my 8th graders to read their books or complete some exercise while I met her at the door to discuss whatever was so important that couldn’t wait.

A parent had complained about a book, my supervisor informed me, and I was to stop using it. Startled and shocked, and wanting to return to my students, I asked her if we could talk about this later.

I’m going to shorten this story from many years ago.  Students could choose to read No Easy Answers: Short Stories about Teenagers Making tough Choices  an anthology complied by Don Gallo,  as part of a unit on short stories. I had about 12 copies available in addition to several other anthologies, all geared for young adult readers.   Students could select one story or more from many different collections, write responses in their reading journals, and discuss the literature in small groups. As the unit began, this book became popular. It dealt with subjects teens wanted to read about.

The parent, whose daughter had brought the book home, found the material inappropriate. I had written my master’s thesis on book censorship in public schools and celebrated Banned Books Week every year, teaching about censorship and the First Amendment.  The National Council of Teachers of English  and the American Library Association have clear procedures for schools to follow when a book is challenged.

The district’s Board of Education policy required that a committee be formed to examine a book being challenged.  By asking me to abruptly remove the book from from students, the Board was violating its own policy. I contacted the NCTE, who notified the board that it had acted without consulting its own policy and requested the creation of such a committee, composed of community members, staff, and board members. (I wasn’t allowed to be on the committee.)  My students and other parents  wrote letters supporting the book and the committee voted to retain the book.  (and of course,  subsequent readership of it escalated!)

Memories of this unpleasant incident in my teaching career returned when I heard of the deaths of two literary giants: Maurice Sendak  and Ray Bradbury. 

Where the Wild Things Are was one of our son Jacob’s first favorite books. We pretended we were wild things, creating mischief, roaring terrible roars, gnashing terrible teeth and dancing up wild rumpuses.   I used Sendak’s books when I taught middle schoolers about censorship. My  teaching unit, “Celebrate Democracy! Teach about Censorship”  was published in NCTE’s  The English Journal 
(May, 2005) and included a mock trial of picture books that had been banned.  Many Sendak titles are annual top hits on the ALA list.

Every literature anthology I’ve ever encountered during teaching included a selection by Ray Bradbury. For many students, science fiction lures them into reading. My students read Fahrenheit 451,  Bradbury’s famous  1953 novel about book burning in a dystopian society. Bradbury, too, is among the authors subject to censorship attacks.

Thoughts about censorship and the bravery of those that fight the fear of ideas came to me as I strolled through the Morgan Library  this week, visiting the exhibit “Churchill: The Power of Words.”

(1941, estate of Yousuf Karsh from Morgan site)

Solider, statesman, Prime Minister, War leader, Orator and Writer. Churchill’s life and words are well documented in countless biographies, movies, and exhibits. His writing- ranging from letters to his parents to his speeches and books – are collected in vast archives, more than 3,000 boxes holding about one million pieces of his work.  About 70 of these documents and ephemera are included in the Morgan exhibit.  Quotations from famous speeches line the walls and film clips highlighting important events are played in a small viewing pod.

Hearing his voice, seeing his handwritten speeches, reading telegrams from world leaders, instills an appreciation for a leader who used his words to stand against tyranny.

“A little mouse of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic,” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said in his “Defence of Freedom and Peace” speech, a radio broadcast October, 16, 1938 to the American public, calling for support in the early days of World War II.

The exhibit runs through September 23. Worth a visit.


The Un-Pulitzer Prize: Big Deal or Not?

Posted on 05/01/2012 at 5:53am

We’ll never know why the Pulitzer Prize board decided not to recognize the fiction category this year, spurning the three novelists nominated.  What we do know is that sales of these books have increased regardless. Prize or not, people are reading the titles.  Imagine if there were more finalists than three!   Nominations create interest, whether in movies, plays or books.

Meanwhile there’s no shortage of titles and other awards, perhaps equally as important.

In New York City, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced the NYC Literary Honors, which will be given to living writers whose work highlights the city.

Towns and cities around the country sponsor literary festivals and community reading initiatives, where an entire town reads a book and meets in small discussion groups.  Book clubs are flourishing. Most of my fiction reading comes from recommendations by friends in book clubs. Though not for me, I know people in several book clubs at once, reading several titles at a time. New York City’s “Big City Book Club” is reading Jack Finney’s novel, Time and Again. Discussions open for all 9 million New Yorkers are held online. 

I borrowed this year’s Pulitzer flunkies from the library:  Train Dreams by Denis Johnson,  Swamplandia! by Karen Russell  and The Pale King by  the late David Foster Wallace. 

I’ll let you know if  any  deserved a Pulitzer.

Award winning but not Pulitzer winning novelist Ann Patchett chided the Pulitzer board for not selecting a fiction finalist.  As a writer, reader and independent bookstore owner, she felt the decision hurt all three.  “If I feel disappointment as a writer and indignation as a reader, I manage to get all the way to rage as a bookseller.”

She champions the importance of fiction: “(Fiction)…is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings. Following complex story lines stretches our brains beyond the 140 characters of sound-bite thinking…”

I read fiction and non-fiction. Sometimes two or three books at once. I’ve written a bit about books I  read this past year, though can’t say there was one that stands out above the rest. What keeps me turning the page, keeps me awake at night, is my favorite for the moment.  Until the next book.

I’m always looking for new titles. Suggestions?

Book Briefs: Bohjalian & Englander, Sentences & Censorship, Basketball & Birds

Posted on 03/19/2012 at 7:29pm

 I recently read four books by Chris Bohjalian, having never read any before.

I began with Skeletons at the Feast, recommended by some blog I stumbled upon. Set in Germany as World War II draws to a close, the novel follows a Prussian family’s attempts to reach the safety of allied lines. Bohjalian spares no detail describing the atrocities man inflicts on man, whether German or Russian soldiers, balanced with a lusty romance between the protagonist Anna and her Scottish prisoner of war lover.

I moved on to novels set in his home state of Vermont, where the landscape becomes as much a character as any person.  I loved The Buffalo Solider.  A Vermont state trooper and his wife lose twin daughters in a flood then take in a foster child, a black boy. A gripping tale of grief and recovery.

Next I borrowed The Law of Similars from the library and found myself skimming sections.  It’s a lawyer story—akin to a Jodi Picoult or John Grisham- a patient of a homeopath dies after treatment. Midwives, written earlier, is a similar story only a pregnant woman dies under the care of a midwife. I liked this one much better.

I earmarked a sentence I loved in Midwives.

“Those nights when sleep would come easily, those afternoons when naps would come quickly, those hours when her dreams would be untroubling and serene, were gone forever.” (p. 98)

I remembered to copy it for safekeeping after reading  Jhumpa Lahiri’s column in the New York Times, 3/18, “My Life Sentences.”  

Like Lahiri who wrote she “used to underline sentences that struck me, that made me look up from the page,” I collect sentences that invoke images and inspire writing craft. When I taught, I emphasized sentence imitation as a way to learn how to write, encouraging students to find words, phrases and sentences that jumped out at them, that they loved the look or sound of, and try to do the same.  I used sentence composing books by Don Killgallon   and would supplement by finding sentences from my own reading, including a tough one by Lahiri: “Her soliloquies mawkish, her sentiments maudlin, malaise dripped like a fever from her pores.” (From  “The Treatment of Bibi Halda” in Interpreter of Maladies.

  This sentence packed vocabulary, alliteration and a simile into one lesson.  (Try it and send to me in comments!)

Basketball & Birds

I’m not a sports fan.  I don’t have favorite teams other than my daughter’s college tennis team and toss the newspaper’s sports section to the recycling pile without cracking it open.  Until last week.  

I went to a Knicks game with my daughter, home from college for spring break, and a professional basketball addict. She loves the Knicks. I had suggested we go out one night and had forwarded her some listings—dance, music, theater.  “How about a Knicks game?” She asked, scouring online sites to get tickets.  I enjoyed the game and the entire “New York City” experience. The zooming in on the celebrities (Adrian Brody and John Lithgow) and of course the halftime proposal, though the girl, flashing her ring, didn’t’ seem too surprised. And guess what?  The next day, I found myself reaching for the sports section, wanting to know more about the inner politics and personalities.

While watching the birdfeeder outside my kitchen window, I wonder about the birds. Why does the female cardinal seem to linger longer than the male? In olden days, I might have turned to an encyclopedia; my family owned a World Book set, to learn about something that intrigued me. Now I turn to online search engines and have answers within seconds.

Which brings me to the freedom to read.  I select books, begin books, abandon books, recommend books, reject books, borrow, buy and donate books. As a parent and teacher, I encouraged the freedom to read. Unfortunately, in Arizona, high school students can’t read author Matt de la Pena in their classrooms. The Arizona state legislature has ruled  it’s illegal to teach his books.

One more book recommendation. Nathan Englander’s  What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.  Provocative, funny, different. And  “The Reader,” the second-to –last in the collection, will resonate with every reader and writer.

Happy 200th, Charles Dickens!

Posted on 02/09/2012 at 5:15pm

Charles Dickens would have been 200 years old this month.  His birth is being celebrated with museum and library exhibits throughout Britain and internationally.

Prince Charles, attending a celebration in Portsmouth, Dickens’ birthplace, read:  ”Despite the many years that have passed, Charles Dickens remains one of the greatest writers of the English language, who used his creative genius to campaign passionately for social justice. The word Dickensian instantly conjures up a vivid picture of Victorian life with all its contrasts and intrigue, and his characterisation is as fresh today as it was on the day it was written.”

What I wonder, is how many people still read him?

A Tale of Two Cities (1859) was my first introduction to Dickens. Assigned in high school freshman English, the book’s plots and characters were discussed and dissected, analyzed in essays and tested about in examinations.  This was before study guides existed- no Cliff Notes, Spark Notes or Internet to help understand the reading.

I remember loving the novel. My father, quipping about my mother’s knitting, would compare her to Madame Defarge; the infamous character who knit the names of her intended victims into garments.

Sophomore year brought Great Expectations (1860-61) and Miss Havisham, the rich spinster who lived in a decrepit mansion.  Even now, when cycling, I’ll comment about the appearance of a forlorn looking house, wondering if Dickens’ character lives there.

Then my reading of Dickens stopped. The rest of high school and college included other authors.

Moving to London in 1982, I became reacquainted with Dickens. The historical blue plaques that dot the landscape include seven honoring Dickens; his family moved a lot.

I bought used copies of his novels at the bookstalls on the South Bank of the Thames River and once again became enthralled with the plots and characters depicting Victorian England.  When the Royal Shakespeare Company announced its 1985 revival of Nicholas Nickleby, (1838-39) an 8-½ hour long stage adaptation, I bought tickets, ready for the marathon. The play is divided into two parts with about an hour in between; it was a fantastic theater experience.  

Returning to the US, and many years later, I took the children to Patrick Stewart’s solo performance of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) on Broadway.  Stewart played 40 characters from the ghosts to Tiny Tim.  

My three children, recognizing Stewart as Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard, sat mesmerized. 

As each child entered high school, I reread some of these Dickens’ classics; it was a good way to inform dinner conversation about homework and provide ideas for essays.  Their reading of Dickens also ended by 10th grade.

Happy Birthday Charles Dickens! You should be happy at least that teenagers are reading you, if not for pleasure, at least for school.

Kids & Activities: Balancing Ballet

Posted on 01/19/2012 at 2:17pm

Plié, jeté, arabesque. These terms dance in my head years after my ballet lessons ended.

When I see a ballet, I remember doing these steps and marvel at how the bodies on stage move with such fluidity, poise, and grace.  Older now, I understand how hard dancing is: the strength required to maintain balance, the suppleness needed to lift a leg into the air, the concentration to spin rapidly across the floor.

Invited by a family friend who takes his co-workers and clients to New York City Ballet a few times a year, I happily accepted. I love Lincoln Center and love the NYCB.   

As a child, my mother took my sister and me on the train to NYC from New Haven to attend the ballet. After we’d visit my Great-Aunt Sylvia for dinner.  Sometimes my mother drove to my grandparents’ house in Flushing, Queens and we’d take the subway into Manhattan, my grandmother pushing my sister and me under the turnstile.   From the conductor’s first downbeat to the final ovation- and I loved how these would go on and on long after the lights were up and coats already on— the entire experience was always a treat.

The all Balanchine program included four dances. While often I prefer a story ballet, like Coppelia or Giselle, it was pleasant seeing the variety of choreography, costumes and staging with the different offerings.

I danced from very young through 8th grade, taking ballet and modern classes. I walked to Mrs. Dauer’s small studio above her garage and appeared in the annual recitals held at the town hall.  I kept a scrapbook, cutting out photos of ballerinas from newspapers and magazines- a requirement of the class.  I credit those ballet lessons for giving me good posture, strong legs, and a sense of esthetic. Where else does one learn about music, composers, and movement than in a dance class?

By high school, my interests changed. Boys. Sports. More homework. Yearbook, student council, and so on. I couldn’t keep up with dancing.

The urgency to specialize I notice is happening younger and younger.  My daughter danced through elementary school and loved it. By 7thgrade, when she became more serious about tennis, she too couldn’t manage dance classes. Her peers were taking at least three to four classes a week, something she couldn’t do. To merely enroll in a lower level class meant she would be with very young girls and couldn’t dance on toe, which she had already accomplished.

7th Grade Ballerina

I see the same pattern developing with my two nieces who dance. As they get older, there’s more pressure on them to take more classes at the expense of pursuing other interests.

This is worrying. Children need to be exposed to many activities and find what suits them. To grow audiences, arts organizations need young people filling seats. Children, if taking lessons in dance, music, or art, would find a visit to a performance or exhibit more fun.

NYC Police: “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught”

Posted on 12/19/2011 at 8:40am

“When I was 14, my mother told me not to panic if a police officer stopped me. And she cautioned me to carry ID and never run away from the police or I could be shot. In the nine years since my mother gave me this advice, I have had numerous occasions to consider her wisdom.”  – Nicholas K. Peart in the New York Times, 12/18/11.

Graduating from college next May, Peart describes several incidents when he was stopped, frisked, handcuffed, and frightened by New York City policemen.

I thought of the song from  Roger & Hammerstein’s 1949 musical South Pacific:  “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.” (

I thought about how 62 years ago this show was written and is continually revived on Broadway and elsewhere.

I thought  about how 47 years ago President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

I thought  about how President Barack Obama had to prove his birthplace to hateful cynics trying to derail his candidacy.

I remembered being with a good friend in New York City, an African American professional woman, watching her efforts to hail a cab ignored. I remembered taking a diverse group of 8th graders to a local theater and seeing how they were treated by students from other schools.

And I thought whatever’s being taught, isn’t enough.

Peart wrote: “Essentially, I incorporated into my daily life the sense that I might find myself up against a wall or on the ground with an officer’s gun at my head. For a black man in his 20s like me, it’s just a fact of life in New York.”

 Peart went from respecting police to fearing them.  “The police should consider the consequences of a generation of young people who want nothing to do with them — distrust, alienation and more.”

The prevalence of handguns makes police quicker to draw their weapons. The epidemic of  gang violence and drug-related crimes make them more suspicious, less tolerant and less patient.   No excuse, still, for random frisking and humiliation.

“I hope police practices will change and that when I have children I won’t need to pass along my mother’s advice.”

Or at least not that advice.

NYC’s High Hopes for Haikus

Posted on 12/02/2011 at 7:19am

Yay!  New York City!
Celebrating poetry
Promoting safety

I wrote the above when I read about a new traffic safety campaign launched this week by the NYC Transportation Department.  About 200 eye-catching, 8″ x 8″ signs, some with accompanying haiku in English and Spanish, will be posted at congested crosswalks in all five boroughs, from the Bronx to Staten Island.

Cool, I thought. Another way to share literature in public.  As a frequent subway rider, I remember when the city adopted the Poetry in Motion program, hanging placards of poems, enriching the straphangers’ rides. Begun in 1992, the poems provided a pleasant distraction until 2008, when the city replaced them with public service announcements, such as “See Something, Say Something,” and paid advertisements.

Then I took myself on an urban scavenger hunt to see these curbside haiku safety warnings. I downloaded the map  and found nine in the Columbus Circle vicinity. (West 57th-58th Street).

Later,  I wrote this haiku:

Small signs hard to find
Only a few with haikus
QR codes on most

Nothing against the idea. Or the art. Love the 12 graphics by artist John Morse and the poems too.   (Curbside Haiku Poster © John Morse)


But I doubt they’ll do anything to lessen traffic accidents. How many pedestrians want to stand in a busy intersection and use their smart phones to scan a poem? How many cyclists and drivers can read while in transit? Won’t that cause more crashes?

New York City, bring back Poetry in Motion. The only hazard there might be people missing their stops because they’re so engrossed in reading. And they don’t need a smart phone to enjoy the poems.

Here’s my final haiku:

Boo New York City
Taking public poetry
Off subways, miss it

My first haiku was published  in the New York Times comments blog. 

Here are my  other posts on public art:

Summit’s Sculpture  Statuary

 Sweaters not Bombs

The High Line: A Different Way to See NYC

Posted on 10/31/2011 at 3:15pm

What’s great about New York City’s High Line is what it doesn’t have. There are no concessions selling souvenirs or hotdogs. The mile-long pedestrian walkway brings people to an area of the city they’d normally ignore. The former rail road tracks were raised 30 feet above ground in 1930 to make the streets safer. Last  used by trains in 1980, it’s now a public park.  Running from  Gansevoort Street in the West Village- a former meat packing district now sprinkled with art galleries – to West 30th Street, the park includes local vegetation, benches, overlooks on  both sides offering views west to the Hudson River and east to Manhattan,  and a different way to experience an urban park and the city.

The freak snowstorm left us powerless; we spent a night in NYC. Here’s some photos.