Monday, March 22, 2010



Hey there! The new podcast episode is a convo with comic and storyteller Ophira Eisenberg; I feel moved to be really gay here and observe that she is "fabulous." Ophira is a frequent host of "The Moth" live storytelling shows in New York City, where she is hilarious, generous, and always encouraging with the people who put their name in a hat and get picked to tell true stories about their lives. She is also a core performer with "The Liar Show," a live show which I haven't had the pleasure of seeing yet, but hope to soon; in each show, four people tell stories, three of them are true, one is a pack of lies, and the audience interrogates all the storytellers and delivers a verdict about who's the liar. Sounds crazy fun.

Ophira and I gabbed about such important and timely topics as lying, Barbie Dream Houses, and why shorter stories are sometimes better. Thanks for listening! 

Sunday, March 21, 2010


"Forthwith this frame of mind was wrenched
With a woeful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale,
And then it set me free.

"Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns;
And till my ghastly tale is told
This heart within me burns."

That's from "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner," by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It's the epigraph for Mary Shelley's story "Transformation." The narrator, Guido, starts out: "I have heard it said that when any strange, supernatural, and necromantic adventure has occurred to a human being, that being, however desirous he may be to conceal the same, feels at certain periods torn up as it were by an intellectual earthquake, and is forced to to bare the inner depths of his spirit to another. I am a witness of the truth of this... I must speak."

Dude. Hardcore. Considering the emphatic language Guido uses, that must have been a pretty strange adventure he had, indeed! The short version is that he makes a deal with a sort of demon to gain the love of a woman. Such big secrets are hard to keep... you need company. Would you want to go around your whole life, not telling anyone you'd made a pact with a demon? 

The narrator of another Mary Shelley story, "The Mortal Immortal," pens his short autobiography more out of boredom than anything else. This narrator, a 323-year-old guy -- relatively young for an immortal, considering the "Wandering Jew" is already more than 1800 years old. "In comparison with him, I am a very young immortal. Am I, then, immortal? ... I detected a grey hair amidst my brown locks this very day -- that surely signifies decay." He continues, "I will tell my story, and my reader shall judge me. I will tell my story, and so contrive to pass some few hours of a long eternity become so wearisome to me." With that kind of start, you feel like the narrator is going to bore you to death -- writing is just a time-killer for him! Or maybe he secretly desires to bore himself to death. Well, by story's end, he conceives a "design by which I may end all... Before I go, a miserable vanity has caused me to pen these pages. I would not die, and leave no name behind."  It appears he'd rather exchange real immortality for the literary kind -- enough to have your name be known throughout time, rather than to have to live for all time.

Whether out of a need to be forgiven, or understood, or remembered -- these are people who are impelled to tell their stories.  

See also my recent post about listening in Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." 

Saturday, March 20, 2010


Two opposing forces locked in titanic struggle, political careers in the balance, one side ahead and then the other and back again, forceful and sometimes overblown rhetoric -- the debate over health care (or health insurance) reform has all the makings of great drama. But what makes this such an absorbing story for so many Americans is that such great interests are at stake -- our own. Whether you care about your own health insurance, or your family's, or if you're concerned about the national debt or what you see as the creeping government interference in people's lives, then there's plenty to interest you directly in the outcome of this debate. And the final round of battle is scheduled for tomorrow, when the House of Representatives is set to vote on the bill already passed by the Senate.

Consider some of the ups and downs over the past year. (Here is a timeline of efforts to reform health care.) President Obama promised during his campaign to tackle health care reform, and early in his term launched the effort. Saying that we were in a terrible crisis that only promised to get worse if we did nothing, Obama aimed to effect reform by the end of the summer. Let the fighting begin! Pow! Sarah Palin said that if Obama had his way "death panels" would decide the fate of seniors. Bang! "Town Hall" meetings about reform were disrupted by protesters disrupted. Thwonk! At one such meeting, Rep. Barney Frank memorably asked a protester who compared Obama to Hitler just what planet she spent most of her time on. Ouch! At a press conference on health care, Obama took attention away from health care when he said the cops who arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates acted "stupidly." Zonk! Crash! Ker-pow! The fate of the so-called "public option" went back and forth, creating a kind of cliff-hanger within the cliff-hanger that was the overall debate. Same thing with the way the Democrats courted Sen. Olympia Snowe to make the reform bill at least nominally bipartisan. Wham! Bam! In time, the House and Senate each passed their own bills. Ka-boom! Rep. Joe Wilson yelled "you lie!" during Obama's speech before a joint session of Congress, rankling some and emboldening others. Shplap! Scott Brown get elected in Massachusetts, taking away the Democrats' super-majority in the Senate. 

Plenty of other blows were landed, each of which took on greater meaning because the stakes were so high. If you believe that health care reform signaled that we were turning into a socialist fascist communist country, then you were probably just as invested as if you worried that health care costs were going to spiral out of control and we'd all -- individually and as a nation -- go bankrupt before too long. And if you got involved politically -- at protests, or phone-banking, or making donations to one or another effort -- then you probably became even more emotionally attached to the outcome. If the suspense wasn't killing you, then perhaps some catastrophic illness for which you weren't covered someday would. At least the suspense is no longer going to kill you, because tomorrow appears to be the big day. Tune in to C-Span or, well, pretty much any other news outlet!

Thursday, March 18, 2010



When thieves stole $300 million worth of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on March 18, 1990 -- 20 years ago today -- they did no favors to the artworks themselves, which were handled roughly in the process, and may have been damaged. But did they do an unintended favor for art appreciation? 

I grew up just a few miles from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which is styled after a Venetian palazzo, four stories with a garden courtyard in the center, and a lovely fountain that makes visitors lose track of time. The Gardner’s founder and namesake was a socialite who died in 1924 and left her residence and art collection to remain as a museum for the public’s enjoyment “forever.” The presumption of permanence is odd coming from a woman whose son died at age 2; she must have known something of the contingency of life. Or maybe that’s just the point; in the wake of her loss, perhaps she hoped to create something everlasting. Indeed, her will decreed that neither the physical plant nor the art collection ever be changed.

Even if the whole collection didn’t remain intact forever, it did remain long enough for me to see it as a teenager. Of all the works I saw, the one I remembered best was Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.” How could I not remember it? For one thing, it was the first Rembrandt I ever saw, and the master’s importance is impressed upon the minds of schoolchildren the world over. What’s more, it’s a big, dramatic narrative painting that depicts a passage from Luke 8, with Jesus and the panicked apostles in a storm-tossed boat, just before Jesus calms the waves and rebukes the apostles for their lack of faith. But memory is a queer thing. Like most museum visitors, I may have looked at the painting for a minute at most. Would I have remembered it if it hadn’t been stolen years later? Probably not.

But in the event, I can’t forget it. “Storm” is one of the world’s most famous stolen works of art. In 1990, two men dressed as Boston cops gained entry to the museum in the wee hours of the morning after St. Patrick’s Day, as the city’s real police officers were likely busy with other things. Against the museum’s explicit rules, the guards let the “cops” in, and were then tied up in the basement while the thieves had the run of the place for about 80 minutes. They stole 13 works in all—a few Rembrandts, one of only about 35 known Vermeer paintings still in existence, a Manet, a Flinck, several drawings by Degas, a finial from a flagpole, a Chinese vase. The haul was estimated at $300 million in value (sometimes higher); it is still the largest property theft in U.S. history, and the crime remains unsolved.

The robbery transformed the Gardner from a fine museum into the site of what some called a tragedy. Newspaper reports quote visitors in tears, saying that the works belonged to the public, or at least belonged in a publicly accessible place. The museum’s director and trustees were understandably saddened. I don’t doubt the loss was and still is genuinely painful for them. The empty frames—returned to the wall, in accordance with the term of Gardner’s will that nothing in the collection be changed—have served as a constant reminder of the theft. If a picture frame can be famous, then perhaps the most famous is the one that once held “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.”

That and the other works have been reproduced endlessly on posters and postcards and websites. We have instant access to images of any of these artworks, which begs the question why the genuine articles matter at all. Walter Benjamin famously wrote that an original artwork’s “aura”—the history and myth and ritual that pertain to it—is what distinguishes it from mechanical reproductions, such as photographs. But is that really true?

“Storm” may retain physical traces of its history, such as dust and grease from its exposure and handling over time—a sort of ship’s record of its passages. But even there, it’s the back-story of those traces that give the painting its aura, rather than the traces themselves. We can only intuit that history, or have it passed down to us. The aura of a painting may emanate from its physicality, but the aura itself is entirely conceptual, it’s in our minds. Or as Picasso remarked, “The only thing that’s important is the legend created by the picture, and not whether it continues to exist itself.”

I caught, as I say, my one real glimpse of “Storm” as a teenager. The fact that I, along with most the rest of the world, have been deprived of seeing the original painting again makes me wonder, was that one stolen glance perhaps enough? Would repeated exposure to the original have increased my appreciation of it any more than repeated exposure to a photographic reproduction? I can discover aspects of the painting and its legend by looking at it on my computer screen, or by reading or contemplation. Or by wondering on its loss, its whereabouts, its spirit. For years now I have visited the Gardner every time I’m in Boston, and have seen the empty frame far more than I ever saw the painting that it once held. That frame now emits the aura of the theft, and it has fired my imagination in ways that the painting might never have done. Even photographs of the empty frame touch me, for I know the story. It’s Walter Benjamin turned on his head. This is not the mechanical reproduction of a work of art, but the mechanical reproduction of the absence of a work of art. The painting’s loss has magnified its legend in ways that its presence never could.

“Storm” was and is considered “priceless,” if only because it was never to be sold, and there was no market valuation of it. Certainly if it had been put up for auction, it would have been appraised and assigned a starting bid—a high one, admittedly, but a dollar value nevertheless. Much as we might want to crow about the inestimable loss to culture, the fact is that few people ever appreciated this or any other painting—we look at it for seconds or maybe a few minutes, collect an impression of it, maybe buy a postcard at the gift shop, and that is all. Does the original artwork matter? Maybe as a commodity on the art market. But the loss of this one painting, great though it may be, can serve as a challenge of sorts in how we view and appreciate all art—not just its dollar value on the market, but its artistic value in the culture.

The loss of “Storm” from public view may inspire us to see it more closely. To look at reproductions. To wonder at its aura. To think of the empty frame looking back at us as a dare to remember that painting. To see it without having to look. To picture Jesus on the boat, about to ask the apostles, and by extension the rest of us, where is your faith? Or, where is your imagination?

Sunday, March 14, 2010


The neighbors are talking, sitting in on judgment. That, on the surface, is what leads Janie Crawford to tell her life story to her best and oldest friend, Phoeby Watson, in Zora Neale Hurston's 1937 novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God." Janie tells her friend, "Ah don't mean to bother wid tellin' 'em nothin', Phoeby. 'Taint worth the trouble. You can tell 'em [the neighbors] what Ah say if you wants to. Dat's just the same as me 'cause my tongue is in my friend's mouf." 

Maybe Phoeby's defense of her friend will get the neighbors to stop their petty gossip, but it doesn't matter so much. "They sat there in the fresh young darkness close together. Phoeby eager to feel and do through Janie, but hating to show her zest for fear it might be thought mere curiosity. Janie full of that oldest human longing--self revelation." That, rather than cutting the grapevine short, is the deeper motivation for Janie talking.

"Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches," writes Hurston. And Janie says, "Ah know exactly what Ah got to tell yuh, but it's hard to know where to start at." The neighbors are only judging Janie for her recent absence from the town, and for her wearing overalls that day. But why she was gone and why she is wearing overalls is merely a small branch of the tree of her life--it can't be justified, or at any rate explained, without following that branch down to the trunk and finally the roots of the tree. So Janie goes back to her childhood.

"Phoeby's hungry listening helped Janie to tell her story. So she went on thinking back to her young years and explaining them to her friend in soft, easy phrases while all around the house, the night time put on flesh and blackness." 

Janie recounts the story of her family and her various relationships. There's a pretty good summary on Wikipedia here. Suffice it to say, it's dramatic stuff--two unsatisfying marriages followed by love with man named Tea Cake. Tea Cake gets rabies from a dog bite during a hurricane, attacks Janie in a rabid fury, Janie kills him in self-defense, she is put on trial and acquitted, and returns to Eatonville, Florida, where the neighbors gossip about her and where she tells her story to Phoeby. The book becomes the telling of this story, but occasionally the scene returns to Phoeby and Janie sitting together, and we recall that this is a story being told to someone else.

Janie has lost her love; has been judged and acquitted by a jury; has been judged and gossiped about by her neighbors. But by the end of her tale, Janie has revealed herself. And no less important, Phoeby has given her a full hearing. "There was a finished silence after that so that for the first time they could hear the wind picking at the pine trees."

(It's no coincidence, perhaps, that Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist and folklorist, and herself an expert in listening to people's stories, voices, and accents. No wonder she could reproduce them so well on the page. Visit the official Zora Neale Hurston website for audio of Ruby Dee reading from the first chapter of "Eyes.")  

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Poor Dr. Frankenstein. Busy on a doomed mission, chasing his rogue monster over frozen seas of ice!  

It is in this terrible terrain where -- in Mary Shelley's novel "Frankenstein" -- we first encounter the, how to say, mad scientist who created a man out of the body parts of the dead. But this all comes later. 

First we meet Robert Walton, a young Englishman who, in an effort to give his life purpose, is arranging an expedition to the North Sea. In St. Petersburg, Russia, he starts recruiting a ship's crew, and within months is off. However cheered he may be by the start of his journey, he is lonely and friendless, as he reports to his sister in letters back home. The situation worsens when his ship gets stuck in ice -- being stranded out in the middle of an icy nowhere with only your crew (whom you respect but have little in common with) is maybe not the best situation for making new friends. From his ship, Walton spies a fearsome figure skating across the ice on a sleigh. Later, his ship is happened upon by a weary man who, as it turns out, is chasing the man, or rather the creature, who had sledded by not long before. That second man is Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who in time unfolds his dreadful tale to Robert Walton. Walton is delighted to have a friend, and Victor Frankenstein is relieved to have someone to unburden himself to. After all, he's got a thing or two to unload: as we learn over the course of the book, Victor created a man out of corpses, and that creature went on to kill innocents, which compelled Victor to follow him to the ends of the earth to stop him from causing any more destruction.

The novel, in this way, is framed by listening -- Robert listens to Victor carefully, and acts as a set of ears for the reader; we listen to this story through him. As Robert bends his ear towards Victor, so are we inclined to bend our ears towards the novel. (In a sense, the reader takes the place of Robert's sister Elizabeth, the silent recipient of his letters. It's yet another layer of listening in the book.) But the fact of the story being told through someone else is more than just a literary device. Robert's open ears give Victor a reason to tell of his awful adventures; any person who was less ready than Robert, or could not hear the tale, or did not want to hear it, or thought ill of Victor for his actions, or disdained him -- such a person could not draw the story out of Victor, or at the very least could not relate it with such sensitivity. But that's not the best part of it. In Robert we have a sorely lonely man stuck in the ice on a make-or-break mission; perhaps he is more likely to listen to whatever reasonably intelligent company comes along! Besides, he gets to hear a fantastic story he can tell at dinner parties the rest of his life ("Didn't I tell you about the time I met the mad scientist?").

But Victor is an attentive listener as well, as Robert reports: "Yet, although unhappy, [Victor] is not so utterly occupied by his own misery but that he interests himself in the projects of others. He has frequently conversed with me on mine, which I have communicated to him without disguise. He entered attentively into all my arguments in favour of my eventual success and into every minute detail of the measures I had taken to secure it." Granted, Robert says that before Victor actually tells his story, so maybe Victor does end up being pretty self-absorbed. But I like to think not: here's a mad scientist whose life's work has gone terribly amuck, and he goes on a wearisome and possibly fruitless quest to destroy the monster he created. And yet, from the very start, he is not so totally self-absorbed as to ignore the concerns of those around him. I'd venture that we all know people who get wrapped up in their own worries; well, they've got nothing on Victor Frankenstein! We should all be so responsive in our interactions.

(P.S. One last thing I want to mention. I was surprised to learn that, in contrast to the grunting monster of movie Frankensteins, the creature in the book is extraordinarily sensitive and articulate. All he wants in the end is some companionship. And who can blame him for that? Certainly not Robert Walton, who himself started this story saying how much he wanted a friend.)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Here's a fantastic piece by former infantry officer Roman Skaskiw, on "Narrative and Memory at War." It's the last of a five-part New York Times series called "Retelling the War," in which veterans of the Afghanistan and/or Iraq wars reflect on recent war movies "The Hurt Locker" and "The Messenger," and on the larger topic of war and narrative. (Photo of Skaskiw is from the NYT website.)

Skaskiw's piece has special insight on the ways that life and life-story are intertwined. He cites a passage from a short story by Isaac Babel: "A well-thought-out story doesn't need to resemble real life.  Life itself with all its might tries to resemble a well-crafted story." He says that his own life has tried with all its might to resemble the story of a hero or a victim, regardless of what his own feelings and experience may be. I encourage you to read the whole piece. 

Thursday, March 4, 2010



Abraham Lincoln is perhaps our most storied president. Of course one of the most legendary aspects of Lincoln is, alas, his assassination. From the shooting in Ford's Theatre, to the fact that his killer was an actor, to the place of the murder in national history and lore, this murder is, among other things, the stuff of theater. It's only fitting, then, that Ford's Theatre would memorialize Lincoln in a walking tour that takes participants back to the time following the assassination. In this episode of the podcast, you'll hear segments from the walking tour, and a bit of conversation with actor Matthew McGloin, who led the tour when I went on it last year, the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth. (The above photo of Matt in character is by Mark Ramont.) The tour is called "Investigation: Detective McDevitt," and was written by Richard Hellesen. For more on this and another Ford's tour called "A Free Black Woman: Elizabeth Keckly," click here.

Btw, Ford's is still a working theatre, with a mission to celebrate the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and to explore the American experience through theatre and education. The box where Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd were seated on April 14, 1865 has been cordoned off, and is draped with flags. There is Lincoln memorabilia in the lower level of the theatre. Here's the current season of shows, and here's a cool virtual tour of the theatre, with click and drag panorama photos of the interior.