I watched a film Sunday that had me muttering “Mengele! Mengele!” -- after the infamous Nazi doctor who conducted ghastly procedures on Jews.
In fact, Manohla Dargis of the Times used the same reviled name in her recent review of “Three Identical Strangers,” a documentary about adoption gone way wrong.
The film was on CNN, after a quick theater run last year, reviving the 1980 discovery by three young men that identical versions of themselves lived in the New York area.
Their ecstatic smiles lit up the talk shows – the sensation of the year! -- Boys born on the same date – from the same (unwed) mother – and within six months placed in three separate (Jewish) homes—now reunited.
The boys danced in unison and partied in unison and smiled for the camera in unison. Only slowly and tentatively did anybody ask: why were these three identical boys placed in three non-identical homes, all within driving distance of “researchers” who had somehow acquired permission to take videos of the boys, separately, going through psychological tests? Was it an accident they were placed in what could be judged as three different socio-economic levels? Was that part of this experiment, this playing with lives?
Only slowly does the documentary allow the victims – for victims they were – to disclose there was a dark side, behind the glowing smiles that seem ever more forced and ominous.
The most sane outsider in this documentary is a journalist, Lawrence Wright, who investigated the scandal for the New Yorker. Wright appears frustrated that he never really cracked the heart of darkness of this vile plot by Dr. Peter Neubauer, who had been trained by Anna Freud, and become a “prominent psychiatrist” in New York.
In Wright’s subsequent book about female twins, also separated for Neubauer’s nature-vs-nurture experiment, he describes “an extensive team of psychologists, psychiatrists, pediatricians, observers, and testers.”
A New York foundation that facilitated Jewish adoptions, and a doctor, born in Austria, who escaped the Holocaust in Switzerland, perpetrated this experiment on three families.
These boys, who had once slept in the same crib, nestled against identical bodies, had suffered the double loss of mother (at birth) and brothers (at six months). Only slowly do we understand the gaping holes at the centers of their psyches.
Adoption is tricky enough. Allow me to go personal here: both sides of our families have been enlarged and enriched by adoption, but the process may leave serious gaps.
My father was in orphanages and foster homes before being adopted by a Christian family of Hungarian background, when he was 5. When he was 15, his adoptive father skipped, leaving a wife and their natural daughter. My father, later in life, tried to learn more, knowing only the name he had been given at birth. Alas, the agency told him, all records have been lost. Or sealed. So sorry. Friends often told him he looked Jewish.
A few years ago, my DNA test revealed that my heritage is half English/Irish and half Ashkenazy Jewish. As a Christian, with many Jewish friends, I was thrilled with the discovery. There was no dancing, no partying, no talk shows, just the melancholy wish my father could have known the truth that was withheld from him by a system that victimizes adopted children who grow up with serious questions, or don't even know.
The three boys in the documentary discovered they had company in this world through the most bizarre circumstances: a young man arrived at a community college in the Catskills and students rushed up to greet him, hug him, kiss him and call him Eddy, which was strange, since his name is Bobby. A mutual friend united the two boys, who stared at each other as if in a mirror. And then the photos in the papers turned up another lookalike – all born on the same day.
Years later, after bonding, and then moving apart, the three young men in the documentary came to realize they were victims of an experiment – but for what?
The Louise Wise Services seemed to have encouraged unethical tactics by the doctor – hardly out of racial hatred, like Jews in the Holocaust, but out of greed, or hubris, or curiosity gone amok. Nazi stuff. Mengele stuff. The agency went out of business in 2004, laying down legal blockades for people who wanted information on their adoptions.
As somebody with half Jewish DNA, I feel contempt for the smug wealthy board members of that now-defunct foundation, who, get this, poured Champagne for each other after fending off the six adoptive parents, who, with such idealism, had adopted these boys.
The documentary touched our souls. Spoiler alert: there are flaws – passing over the implication of one of the men in a serious crime, ignoring the fact that a fourth identical child died at birth, and obscuring some family dynamics, undoubtedly for legal reasons. Only last fall, a legal challenge forced the sealed records to be opened now, rather than in 2065.
My heart aches for those three young men, who were treated like captives during a pogrom in a European shtetl. This happened in my home town, New York.
As the saying goes: Never Again.
* * *
Here's an interesting link critiquing the Jewish angle of the documentary:
The NYT review of the documentary:
An excerpt from Lawrence Wright’s book on the female twins who were reunited:
The psychiatrist at the core of the scandal:
The decision to unseal the records:
An article by Lawrence Wright:
More from CNN:
Michael Cohen emerged into a phalanx of 20-inch necks and watchful eyes.
The NYPD had its best people out in front of the courthouse.
My first response was delight that Cohen had to walk the perp walk, the felon walk, in front of the cameras, in front of the world.
This is, after all, the same chap who once rang up a reporter working on a story and threatened to do something “f------ disgusting” to him. The same fixer who zestfully helped Trump become Grifter-in-Chief.
The threats and payoffs seemed to come naturally to both of them.
I noted Cohen’s well-clad family, now shaken by a three-year sentence, and I felt no sympathy. They must have known the line of work he was in.
My glee at the downfall of this enabler was tempered a bit on Wednesday by Chuck Rosenberg, a former federal prosecutor, now a valuable contributor on MSNBC.
Rosenberg is a knowledgeable and stable presence – speaks softly, rarely even smiles, has no need to be cute, a pitfall for some regulars on the cable. He just knows stuff. And on Wednesday he made me feel (albeit temporarily) a bit guilty at my runaway case of schadenfreude.
MSNBC does not seem to have posted Rosenberg’s comment, and I was not taking notes, but the rationality of his impromptu comments stayed with me, after the moment.
Rosenberg said, not bragging, that he had loved being a prosecutor, finding the misdeeds, righting the wrongs. In words to this effect, he said he loved presenting evidence, convincing judge and jury, seeking justice.
But, he added soberly, the part he enjoyed least was the sentencing. He did not enjoy being in a courtroom and hearing most of the suspects being sentenced to….something.
These are real people, Rosenberg said. They have families. They have private lives. They may deserve their sentences, but they are….people.
Rosenberg’s decency calmed me down, well, for a few minutes. But as the day went on, and front-page news came of that slimy gossip paper having flipped, with a safe full of salacious clips on Trump, and my ongoing awareness that Trump is tossing very dangerous toys around his playpen, I felt no empathy for Michael Cohen.
Let him sell his apartment to pay his fines and legal bills. I don’t buy the line by his lawyers and apologists that he is a changed man. He is a caught man. Sorry.
I give thanks to MSNBC for, during this terrible time, having brought in their own phalanx of qualified “contributors” – people who worked in government and the law, people who have expertise, and share it.
People I mostly never heard of until Trump strutted into the White House: Rosenberg, Joyce Vance, Barbara McQuade, Paul Butler, Mimi Rocah, Frank Figliuzzi, Maya Wiley, Daniel Goldman, my fellow Jamaica High School grad Jelani Cobb, and many others, plus two grand oldie-but-goodie Watergate lawyers, Nick Akerman and (drum roll, please) my second favorite septuagenarian lady, dressed and coiffed perfectly, a legal guru, smiling like a blonde Buddha from Chicago, Jill Wine-Banks.
I learn so much from these contributors. Now I am looking forward to a lot of people named Trump being frog-marched into the pokey for their grifting from here to Riyadh or Moscow and back again.
While we’re on the subject, I apologize for my lowball estimate that Trump would self-destruct within 18 months. I was relying on my having known about him from back in Queens, but I vastly overestimated the vestigial patriotism and integrity and common sense of Paul Ryan, Lindsey Graham and that White Citizens Council that stands mutely behind Mitch McConnell.
I once spent a day with Sen. Howard Baker on his campaign around Tennessee in 1972. None of these ciphers is Howard Baker, the Republican hero of Watergate.
So that’s where we stand. Michael Cohen got three years and had to walk the felon walk. It’s going down.
He looked like a garden gnome with an accent out of "Mayberry RFD," but when the subject veered to immigrants or demonstrators, Jeff Sessions would tighten up.
He wasn’t funny, then.
Then he was less of a Mayberry character than the town storekeeper who kept his Kleagle robe on a peg in the back room, more out of “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “In the Heat of the Night.”
He had a mission, seemed to me – to restore the good old days of the ‘50s – the 20th Century or maybe even the 19th.
Somehow he got in the way of Trump’s Ultimate Solution, and he had to go.
Then he got lucky. Compared to Trump, he became Fightin’ Jeff, the People’s Choice, remembering his lawyer past, respecting legal niceties like “recusal.”
The version I will miss most was created by the captivating Kate McKinnon on “Saturday Night Live,” who presented Sessions as a cuddly little elf who could fit in small spaces and flash a Howdy Doody smile to the world.
Lucky is the public figure mimicked by McKinnon, even with her glint of deviltry behind the entertainment as she portrays Sessions, Rudy Giuliani or the sewer-dwelling leer of Kellyanne Conway. She is a gem.
There are plenty of ghouls and monsters left to portray. I will still tailor Saturdays to be in front of the tube at 11:29 PM just in case Kate McKinnon is up first.
But I will miss the kewpie-doll grin of Jeff Sessions, so much better on Saturday night than any other time.
* * *
I am not the only one. The Huffington Post reports on a great national angst:
Barack Obama Gave a Speech on Television.
I had tears in my eyes.
I was sad for what we have surely lost – an intelligent, verbal president who speaks of values.
When the former president mentioned Michelle Obama and their daughters, I felt empty, as if thinking of good neighbors who have moved away.
He delivered a civics lesson at the University of Illinois, urging young people to vote -- clearly political but so rational and timely that it rose above partisanship, to become a warning:
Where have we gone? What have we done to ourselves?
He cited the white-power people who stomped in psychic jackboots through Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, in plain daylight, not even bothering with hoods. He evoked the man who is still president as of this writing, who claimed there were good people on both sides.
Barack Obama asked, plaintively:
“How hard can that be? Saying that Nazis are bad?”
My wife said that should be a bumper sticker.
A president who can write and read and speak his native language. Imagine.
On Friday in Illinois, he was at his best in the national and global bear pit -- Laurence Olivier performing Shakespeare’s speech for Mark Antony in “Julius Caesar:” “So are they all, all honorable men.”
The previous president spoke against stereotyping people, saying he knew plenty of whites who care about blacks being treated unfairly, saying he knew plenty of black people who care deeply about rural whites. Then he added:
“I know there are evangelicals who are deeply committed to doing something about climate change. I’ve seen them do the work. I know there are conservatives who think there’s nothing compassionate about separating immigrant children from their mothers. I know there are Republicans who believe government should only perform a few minimal functions but that one of those functions should be making sure nearly 3,000 Americans don’t die in a hurricane and its aftermath.”
Like Shakespeare, he was making a bigger point: there is a malaise loose in the land. At one point he said Donald Trump is “a symptom” and not “the cause.”
In other words, Trump is an illness that has been coming on for years.
I nodded grimly, in my den, thinking of the McConnells and Ryans, who have sat by maliciously, allowing a Shakespearean character, the worst of the buffoons, the worst of the tyrants, to tear things apart.
Was I imagining, the other day, that these politicians were squirming in their seats in the cathedral, along with their fidgety wives, listening to the orations for John McCain, wondering if anybody would ever confuse them with patriots?
On Friday, Barack Obama gave notice to the young people of many shades and facial characteristics in his audience: you are the largest population bulge in this country, but in 2016, only one in five of you voted.
“One in five,” the playwright emoted, enunciating his own words. “Not two in five or three. One in five. Is it any wonder this Congress doesn’t reflect your values and your priorities? Are you surprised by that? This whole project of self-government only works if everybody’s doing their part.”
The television showed the college students nodding, or averting their eyes. Will they remember this warning at mid-term elections in early November? So many distractions these days. So easy to get lost, twiddling thumbs in the social media.
Shakespeare was borrowing stories from earlier centuries but Barack Obama has been active in public life. On Friday he returned to the stage to deliver artful words, dramatically delivered, surely from the heart.
How many reminders, how many chances, do we get?
The transcript of Barack Obama’s speech (really worth reading):
When I was covering the World Cup -- eight of them -- I always welcomed the day between rounds as a chance to sleep, move on to the next town, get laundry done. Stuff like that.
Watching at home, there is an empty feeling to the one-day space between the group stage and the knockout rounds. While sizing up the teams that survived, I want to take one more day to think about the teams that gave me pleasure but have now gone home.
I already miss the two African teams that supplied so much energy and charisma, but could not hold on for 90-plus minutes. I will miss the field leader of Nigeria, John Obi Mikel, and the manager of Senegal, Aliou Cissé, who roamed the sidelines with his Richard Pryor eyes, the only African manager of the 32.
Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia are also gone. Egypt was the biggest loser of all, making its base in the wild-east Russian province of Chechnya, with its opportunistic leader who glommed onto Mohamed Salah, the pride of Egypt, the star of Liverpool.
Being used so blatantly by a regional lord (a friend of Putin) and the moronic Egyptian federation apparently nettled Salah so badly that he is considering not playing for his homeland any more. Nice going.
I’ll miss the two vecinos – neighbors of the U.S. – Costa Rica and Panama, who managed to qualify ahead of the hapless soccer giant of the north.
And I’ll miss the tireless and combative players of South Korea, who took Germany down in the third and final game.
Will I miss Germany? I slobbered all over them after their reflexive comeback against Sweden in the second match, but ignored warning signs that their expiration date had expired.
* * *
So much for the departed. Of the 16 survivors, I am rooting for two more vecinos, Colombia and Mexico. (How can I not love El Tri, with its opportunistic star nicknamed Chucky, from the movie character with the fiendish grin?)
I always love Brazil, going back to the great, failed team of Sócrates in 1982, and I love Spain and Andres Iniesta, trying to hang on, plus France, just because, but also in homage to the glorious final of Zidane in 1998.
And then there are the two survivors from Thursday’s last group: England has more energy than I’ve ever seen from an English squad, and Belgium won its third match with its three offensive stars all being rested, and a sub made a jitterbug goal that sunk England.
I was conflicted with England-Belgium. My mom, part Irish, was born in England. There’s that. And she mourned her two Belgian-Irish cousins from Brussels who died young after being caught participating in the Resistance. So there's that.
I’m rooting for Belgium because of the family connection, and because they have never won, and because I got to see Vincent Kompany, one of my all-time favorite defenders and soccer adults, who was honored with a quarter-hour cameo on Thursday, playing on knees “turned to sand,” as one of my Euro pals put it.
* * *
Who else won in the group stage of the 2018 World Cup? I’m choosing the Fox broadcasting team of J.P. Dellacamera and Tony Meola, because (a) I know them, and (b) because they are soccer people who do not talk too much.
J.P and Tony let the game breathe, like many European broadcasters. They don’t feel the very American need to blather every personal fact about every player that was discussed in the pre-game production meeting. Meola has grown into this profession, dissecting the game, not just the keepers. (And he was a good one, playing in 1990 and 1994, and a backup in 2002.)
Honorable mention goes to Jorge Perez-Navarro and Mariano Trujillo, totally bilingual and working in English, who supply just enough Latin flavor to make it different, and enjoyable.
Trujillo, a former player from Mexico, has the charming tendency to excuse some players who try something that fails. "But that’s all right,” he says, transmitting the enlightened optimism of players who keep trying stuff and fail, until something works, which, come to think of it, is the essence of this grand sport.
Now, on to the knockout round.
(I am thinking of leaving this World Cup match post up for a while. Please feel free to chime in, whenever. The NYT is doing a great job from Russia. And my former Times soccer pal, Jeffrey Marcus, now free-lancing, has his own learned World Cup newsletter. To sign up: http://jointhebanter.com/about/)
June 14. Russia 5, Saudi Arabia 0. Knowing nothing about either team, I put on Fox five minutes before kickoff. I noticed that Russia had a defender named Fernandes (from Sao Caetano del Sur, Brazil) and a defender named Ignashevich whose face looks like hardened cement and who does not sing the beautiful Russian anthem. (Turned out, he’s 38, hasn’t played for the national team since 2011, so he may be out of practice for singing the anthem. Or his lips don’t move.)
Then I noticed a lanky midfielder named Golovin, with a Lyle Lovett hairdo, who reminded me of one of the most charismatic and talented leaders I have ever met, Mrs. Gollobin, the director of the Jamaica High School choir and chorus back in the day. She once snapped at me, “George, be a mensch,” and I straightened right up, in her presence, anyway.
I decided to root for Aleksandr Golovin. Good choice. He set up the first three Russian goals for adept passes through the gaping Saudi players. I looked him up – 22, and being scouted by Juventus. He showed his youth by picking up a pointless yellow card in the final minutes. By the time he curled a free kick into the corner in the closing seconds for the fifth goal, Golovin had surely confirmed his ticket to Torino. Mrs. Gollobin would be proud of him.
Having covered eight World Cups for the NYT way back when, and having written a book about them, (https://www.csmonitor.com/Books/Book-Reviews/2014/0530/Eight-World-Cups-by-George-Vecsey-decodes-international-soccer-for-newbies,) I tried to compare this day (on the tube) with openers I attended:
The fans were a classic World Cup mix; could have been anywhere -- international types who could afford a ticket. Pretty woman in a red and white folk dress; guys with goofy headgear.
One other observation: how nice it is to hear old World Cup hands, J.P. Dellacamera and Tony Meola, working for Fox, and confirming that one does not need a British accent to call a match for U.S. television.
How was your first match?
Check out the colorful outfits. Listen to the music. Pay attention to the message of inclusivity.
I am speaking here of the international flavor of the FA Cup Final on Saturday from sunny Wembley.
Chelsea – owned by a Russian, coached by an Italian – beat Manchester United -- owned by an American and coached by a Portuguese – by a 1-0 score -- on a penalty kick by a Belgian.
The FA Cup is one of the more romantic club championships in the world (even as FIFA threatens to pollute football with an extravagant quadrennial club tournament.)
Talk about democracy: the FA Cup tournament began last summer with amateurs and semi-professionals and other back-benchers but competition eventually produced two finalists from the top third of the Premier League, or as they say at Windsor, la crème de la crème.
The FA final was held after the royal marriage had taken place earlier, so that one great event did not intrude upon the other. (Anybody go to both?)
The wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, an American actress of biracial background, was a blend of royal tradition with a warm sermon by an American clergyman quoting Martin Luther King, plus that old English cathedral favorite, “Stand By Me,” written by Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The queen's chaplain, born in Jamaica, and a 19-year-old cellist from Nottingham but clearly also of African descent, added to the new feeling of inclusion.
The buzz of the wedding inspired Lourdes, a friend in Manhattan, to prepare a veddy English tea for the big event. And in Deepest Pennsylvania, a group of women donned millinery in the murky dawn to watch the great event.
Not everybody was charmed. I checked in with a favorite relly, Jen From Islington, to see if she was watching. “Nah,” she wrote back. But then she checked a few photos on line and was inspired to write: “Underwhelmed by it all. Esp. since I learned they invited 1800 of the wretched of the earth to Windsor to watch but failed to provide them with a packed lunch. If you are having a party, have a party, I think. Don’t have a pay-as-you-go bar, or make people kick in for the cake.
But then, I am a republican. xxJ.”
At the very least, the royals may be catching up with soccer, which has gone international in recent generations, with the old dump-and-chase English style made irrelevant by ball skills and intricate passing and devastating marksmanship, as performed in the Premier League by some of the greatest players from around the world.
(The influx of world-level players does not seem to rub off on English players, who have qualified for the upcoming World Cup – better than some nations I could mention -- but are not likely to be around long.)
(On the official Chelsea roster, 21 of 27 players are from outside England; on the official Man U roster, 19 of 27 are registered with other national federations.)
Presumably, this international flavor will continue after the implementation of Brexit diminishes the quality of life -- and probably football -- in Great Britain.
Somebody has to make Britain great again. On FA Cup final Saturday, Harry and Meghan did their bit.
Catering to the Thumb Generation (of which I am a fringe member), Major League Baseball disappeared a game from television on Wednesday.
The business that still charmingly thinks of itself as The National Pastime has a new partnership with the dippy kid in the gray t-shirt, Mark Zuckerberg.
I think that means all information on Mets Nation -- all we scruffy, gauche losers who root for one miracle every generation – is now in the hands of Comrade Vladimir in the Kremlin.
Facebook was already chums with something called Cambridge Analytica which seems to have been in cahoots with various apparatchiks during the 2016 election including the possible next national security advisor, Mad Dog Bolton.
Baseball is letting the t-shirt guy put the occasional major-league game on Facebook so people can like or dislike what transpires on the field. The price for one MLB game a week is $30-million for the season – that’s what matters, isn’t it?
In real life, it’s not that hard to tell if baseball fans like or dislike something. Just the other day, Giancarlo Stanton struck out five times in his Yankee Stadium debut and Yankee fans faithfully gave him something called a Bronx Cheer.
Schnooky old baseball managed to distract from Wednesday’s Mets-Phillies game in Queens. James Wagner of the Times appropriately wrote an entire sagacious article about the t-shirt guy’s coup rather than the Mets’ bullpen or the clutch hit. (Tyler Kepner did write a column about the game itself.)
What with all the teeth-gnashing about baseball’s sellout, it seemed the game itself vanished into the dark hole of likes and dislikes.
Not true. I caught most of that game on this strange medium called radio.
The Mets’ game was on WOR – 710 on the AM dial – described by Howie Rose and Josh Lewin. Rose, aware the game had vanished from the tube, offered the observation, “I think radio is here to stay.”
Home-town fans get used to their TV and radio broadcasters. When the national broadcast pre-empts a Met game, I opt for radio. Mets fans don’t need national drop-in experts telling them stuff they already know.
Plus, the sellout by #ShamelessMLB on Wednesday meant that Mets-TV addicts were forever deprived of possible weird dialogues such as the one that ensued during Thursday’s game in Washington, with Gary Cohen monitoring the banter between old teammates from 1986, Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling.
Darling to Hernandez on Good Old SNY: Were you this funny when we played together? You’re pretty funny.
Cohen: He was the Prince of Darkness back then.
That's what Mets fans expect – not twiddling of thumbs.
At least the t-shirt guy hasn’t sold all of baseball to Cambridge Analytica. (Memo to Mark Zuckerberg: when you are hauled into Congress next week, go find a suit. Play dressup.)
* * *
Speaking of Queens and baseball, my friend-the-writer, Rabbi Mendel Horowitz, has written about following baseball in Israel during Passover: Enjoy:
One of the best things on television in the past decade was The Brain Series by Charlie Rose.
The body of work exists – on line, easily accessible, and etched in the memories of viewers like my wife, who listened and learned.
The leader of the discussions was Dr. Eric R. Kandel of Columbia University, whose knowledge and manner commanded the screen. The other guests were also brilliant, and Rose raised his game considerably, moving things along and actually listening to the experts.
Now we are left with the image of a powerful man parading around his apartment in an open bathrobe, terrorizing young female colleagues.
How do we process this?
The series remains. I suspect the science and the humanity will remain pertinent, at least until future discoveries add to the knowledge.
Can people live with a focused Charlie Rose moderating a landmark series?
Can people live with their vinyl and CDs and downloads of James Levine conducting opera?
Everybody has to live with their memories. I won’t miss Matt Lauer because I never, ever, watch morning TV. I don’t know how to gauge the widely variant charges or suspicions about John Hockenberry and Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz (and Charlie Rose), all of whom have interviewed me respectfully, let me hustle my books. What was it like for the capable women in those studios who made a visit so successful?
Harvey Weinstein is easy. He is a monster who produced some great movies but he is a monster just for what he did to that beautiful and spirited and talented Annabella Sciorra, whom I have loved since she sang in "Mister Wonderful."
(Go ahead, look at the video, watch her ex eat his heart out.) I want to be on the Weinstein jury. That’s all I’m saying.
Then there is Garrison Keillor. There were years when we built our Saturday afternoons and evenings around his radio show – times when my wife and I sat in a parking lot outside a restaurant until he finished his weekly visit to Lake Wobegon (the one about a man driving his young family back to Minnesota for the holidays, the one about the pioneer who dies in the badlands, never getting to see the Pacific.)
Keillor never presented himself as anything more than flawed. (His radio alter ego was reminded of this by his own mother, who couldn’t remember his name.) He added his human complexities to his voice, his words, his image.
Now he is accused of – he says – sliding his hand into the back of an open blouse. A mistake, he says, which happened while consoling a woman. Keillor says he is not a tactile person, and I believe it. In past decades, I interviewed him maybe half a dozen times on the phone but never quite got to have a conversation even at rehearsals at Town Hall in New York. He nodded in recognition -- and kept moving. A shy guy. Who knows about him?
Keillor played himself in a movie about his last radio show, art predicting life. The Robert Altman movie, “A Prairie Home Companion,” has an amazing cast, not the least of whom is Virginia Madsen as a redhead in a white raincoat who, he realizes, just may be an angel of death, with her eye on him. (She died in a car wreck while laughing at his radio joke, she tells him, as he edges away.)
The movie (Altman’s last) is classic Altman, in that you have to listen to overlapping conversations – a stretch for younger audiences. One of the subplots involves Meryl Streep as a country singer on the show, who was once Keillor’s girlfriend, and every so often she reminds him of exactly that.
He knows she is in pain that he caused. The ringleader figure in the movie is a creep, but a talented, sensitive, guilty creep. How human, art imitating life.
Now the question is, what do we do with the education, the art, the culture, from people (men, in this context) who seem to be varying scales of creep?
We have a major creep running for the Senate in Alabama.
We have a serial creep as President.
We have creeps of all major parties.
Meantime, I can watch Keillor in that movie over and over again. Some day when I grow up and develop a brain, I plan to watch the Brain Series, but for the moment we are left with the major creep in the bathrobe who caused such pain.
It has come to this with the Mets. The only reason to watch them is the commercial being played virtually every other inning on the local channel SNY in New York.
Of course, it’s also on Youtube (above) and all over the web.
But for all the dreadful events happening with the Mets, there is the consolation that when the inning ends there could be a visit from four weary monsters heading home for a well-earned weekend.
But work never ends for these four harried guys (what, no female monsters?)
They grumble about working conditions, particularly the werewolf who needs to howl on the weekend. (“A bit of me time.”)
I have seen that guy on the Port Washington line. Same whiskers. Same suit. Same weary grimace.
The Mets are not nearly as entertaining. They’re hurt or old or both, except for Michael Conforto (who is starting to go for that high pitch again) and Weepin’ Wilmer Flores, who in the eyes of the Faithful can do no wrong, even when he does.
Jacob DeGrom, a good athlete and seemingly a nice guy, is inconsistent.
But at least there is the commercial, by a group called Something Different.
Impervious to advertising, I couldn’t remember the product being hawked. Turns out, it is Spectrum. Okay.
Here is some stuff on the web about the commercial:
Somebody writing about the commercial mistook a commuter train (which are hideous enough) for the subway.
Most of the time, the commercial is shortened to a 30-second version, which downplays the werewolf and obliterates the last line (“He’s not waking up.”)
The good news? All four of these guys apparently will be back in three followup commercials. That is nice.
I’m watching Harvey, Reyes, Granderson and Cabrera all deteriorating in front of my eyes, but at least I can look forward to the four commuters. It gives me hope.
It was my first visit to Las Vegas. I was covering a Mets trip to the Coast in 1966 or so, and there was a day off between LA and San Francisco.
My pal Vic Ziegel of the good old New York Post said, “Let’s go to Las Vegas.”
Vic had been there before.
Flights were cheap. Food was cheap. The only thing that wasn’t cheap was the gambling, but I don’t gamble. Long story. I watched Vic play blackjack and I watched life in Las Vegas.
The hotel lounge was also inexpensive. By doing the math in Rickles’ obituary in the Times Friday, I deduce that he was around 40, but in a way he was ageless. Bald. Profane. Cranky. What’s it to you?
He had a theme: Anybody who came to see him in that lounge was truly desperate.
He pointed out a young couple and wondered if they were married, or cheating on spouses.
He pointed out a young man: “He’s thinking, I’m in Las Vegas, I can get rid of my pimples.”
Then he recognized Vic as a member of the tribe. A landsman.
“Look at that nose,” he said. “What’s your name?”
Somehow, Rickles deduced that Vic was the sportswriter from the Post.
“Vic Ziegel!” screamed Don Rickles from Jackson Heights, Queens. (Queens boys are a yappy lot.)
“I love you guys!” – meaning the good old Post. (I did not count.)
Rickles thought about it for a while.
“What’s a Ziegel?” he asked the crowd.
Comedic pause. Then he touched his own beak.
“It’s an eagle. A Jewish eagle. A Ziegel.”
That’s all I remember, except laughing a lot. I’m sure Vic could re-create the entire dialogue but unfortunately Vic left the stage in the summer of 2010. He had introduced me to a lot of good stuff on the road – “Beat the Devil” in Cambridge, Mass., him chatting up jazz musician Roland Kirk in some all-night coffee shop on the square in Cincinnati. And Rickles.
In 2015, I saw an aging Don Rickles on the Letterman show; I noticed the immense respect Letterman had for him, getting him through the gig.
Now Rickles has bowed out. But every time I went back to Las Vegas – to write about boxing or an entertainer – I remembered Don Rickles in that lounge.
As soon as the ball clanged out of Yoenis Céspedes’ glove, I texted another Met fan: “I’m sick of Cespedes.”
The $27.5-million man (just this season) loafed after an easy out to left field, not wanting to expend too much energy in the first inning of opening day.
It must be nice to be that cool.
Fortunately, somebody in the booth was ready to call it for the attitude error that it was: Jessica Mendoza, who has become an essential part of ESPN broadcasts.
“I’m an outfielder,” she said, not needing to mention she was a star on the USA 2004 Olympic champion softball team in Athens.
Mendoza said it made her mad to watch outfielders drift toward a ball without bothering to catch up with it and protect themselves by raising their bare hand as insurance. She was old-school. Purist. And absolutely right.
Both Céspedes and Mendoza were picking up where they left off last season – he with his maddening nonchalance, she with her player-and-fan knowledge of the game, particularly hitting mechanics.
Mendoza leaped into public awareness last season when Curt Schilling made yet another stupid comment and was off the air. She fit seamlessly and has been paired with Dan Shulman and Aaron Boone, the third-generation major-leaguer, who treats her with collegial respect, calling her “Jess” and asking her opinion. There is none of that clubhouse male buffoonery that mars most MLB-NFL-NBA network broadcasts.
Generally, I am not amused when network coverage intrudes on the Mets and Yankees, preferring to get heightened insights from people who cover the club regularly rather than get filled in the morning of the broadcast.
I was mad that Gary and Keith and Ron were not available to me Sunday night. But Shulman and Boone and Mendoza did not posture and bluster.
I am not surprised about Mendoza, who gave me a terrific interview in 2004 in Athens just before the Games began, when softball was facing its eventual and unfair exclusion. She provided a thoughtful glimpse of the athletes’ village and talked about her own sport. I found the link here:
We in New York have had another female broadcaster – Suzyn Waldman, the long-time Yankee radio color announcer, working the clubhouse and paying attention to the game as complement to John Sterling’s shtick. Waldman and Mendoza know the game.
On my own, I figured out that David Wright (with his bad back) looked shaky at third and facing fastballs. And I could see how the Mets had upgraded defensively with Asdrubal Cábrera at short and Neil Walker at second. That will save a game or three. No more cringing every time a ball goes near Daniel Murphy.
Now I cringe when a ball goes near Céspedes in left field.
It’s a new baseball season. Life begins.
Weekend Update: The debate was a ghoul show. Saturday Night Live was ecch, as we say in New York. Rather than expend more good energy, I ducked the Super Bowl. It just didn't exist. Watched political history on C-Span. Listened to classical on WQXR-FM. Read a great New Yorker piece on Chechnya. What a clean feeling to wake up Monday, like getting up early on Jan. 1 after not drinking. But the news says Trump and Cruz and El Joven are still with us. Yikes.)
Nevertheless, my household is hooked on the presidential primaries: Steve Kornacki explaining stuff on MSNBC and Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd with all their enthusiasm and Chris Matthews never letting his guests get in a word.
(What is Brian Williams, with his pomaded network stiffness, doing on cable? As the subway guy bellowed in the movie “Ghosts:” “Get off my train!”)
Plus, the primaries beat the heck out of football, which I always knew was bad for the brain, anybody’s brain.
As of Saturday morning, I was not at all sure I would watch the Super Bowl. I had already seen one NFL game this season. Yes! It happened two weekends ago, after I gloated about going a full season without seeing a single down.
Having made that boast, I went to a family gathering two Sundays ago for (a) home-grilled wings, (b) the NFL doubleheader and (c) glimpses of the grand-daughters. (The girls ate the wings and promptly vanished downstairs to watch “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”)
As a sociologist in a strange land, I did observe:
*- NFL broadcasters no longer chortle how tacklers “rang his bell.” I wonder why.
*- Deep loathing of the Patriots. One family member hates Brady because he retains a resident chef.
*- Football has not changed much since the last time I took a peek – sporadic running, passing and kicking, plus commercials.
*- My wife – not a sports fan – noticed Peyton Manning’s craggy face on the sideline: “He’s the one who sings about chicken parmesan on TV.”
*- Speaking of commercials: the ones for football are aimed at active younger people (cars and fast food) whereas the commercials for my age group push health insurance, stair lifts, vitamins for arthritis, ringing in the ears and upset stomachs, plus pills that involve couples splashing around in water.
*- With the game dragging, some of us discussed the delightful prospect of Barbara Bush going to a primary and kicking Trump in his posterior, while sneering, Not our type. Go, Granny, go.
With two minutes left, fear and trembling took over. Laura, the sports and political columnist, cautioned that Bill Belichick, master of dark arts, might still think of something. The behemoth named The Gronk plucked the ball out of the air to bring the Patriots within 2 points. The onside kick skittered harmlessly. Game over. Cheers. Civilization saved.
I came away from my annual NFL game comparing candidates and coaches:
*- Chris Christie and Rex Ryan, of course. But Rex had better lap-band surgery.
*- Jeb! and Dick Kotite. Nice guys who….
*- Trump reminds me of a fan in a goofy costume, who makes brave noise from the stands but doesn’t understand the game.
*- El Joven de Florida reminds me of boy wonders who get a job somewhere and are immediately over their heads.
*- Clinton does not conjure up a football image but I could not help thinking of baseball manager Gene Mauch, a verbal lifer who knew the game inside and out. (You know the rest.)
*- Cruz and Belichick. One delivered a chop block to Ben Carson's knees. The other has a perp list of dirty tricks.
*- Bernie Sanders and Tom Coughlin, two apparently grumpy old men who lightened up. (Coughlin won two Super Bowls. Just saying.)
I planned to watch the GOP Frolics followed by Larry David and Bernie Sanders on SNL, to clear my head.
As for the Super Bowl, MSNBC said Jeb! was planning a Hail Mary Pass: an expensive commercial starring The Old Decider. We've seen how that one works.
The contrast between baseball and soccer, my two favorite sports, was never more apparent than this past week.
With baseball acknowledging the yawning length of games – now over three hours and getting worse – soccer returned (was it ever away?) in Europe with matches under two hours.
This is a huge advantage for soccer. A fan can commit to a match, or even half a match, without falling into a slack-jawed stupor in front of one of those four-hour Sunday-night horrors the Yanks always seem to be playing.
I made the decision last Saturday morning that I could afford to watch the first half of Manchester United and was rewarded with the delicious sense that it was 2013-14 all over again. (Man U, lost, 2-1.) Then I came back from chores to watch the second half of Everton, with Tim Howard picking up where he left off for the USA in the World Cup, trying to overcome a weak back four. (Everton coughed up a tying goal, late.)
Two welcome chunks of the Premiership, and it was not yet noon.
Meantime, baseball is acknowledging that the average time of a game has gone from 2 hours 35 minutes to 3 hours 2 minutes 47 seconds -- the longest on record, according to Tyler Kepner in the Times.
One reason the games get longer was noted by Howard Kitt, once a promising lefty in the Yankee chain, who has been a specialist in antitrust issues with a keen eye on sports business. (I covered him helping win county titles in basketball and baseball at Oceanside High around 1960.)
Kitt, who advanced as high as AAA ball, listed one cause of long games – “the number of pitching changes per game, especially in the late innings.
“When I played, there were three categories of pitchers: starters, long relievers and short relievers. Starters were expected to finish; long relievers were used when a starter didn't have it; and short relievers were used when a starter ran out of gas and/or when a fresh arm was needed to finish a tight game. Closers? Never hoid of 'em!
“Now, the last three innings frequently take at least as long as the first six because of the number of pitching changes by each side. Think about it: A manager walks out to the mound; signals for a reliever; who comes in from somewhere beyond the outfield fence; who then proceeds to take eight warmup pitches (hardly necessary simply to get a feel for the mound, given that the pitcher is already warm); after which--finally--the game resumes. Multiply that time two or three times per team, and some real time elapses (this can easily be verified with a stopwatch).”
Kitt, who understands the importance of commercials in televised sports, added: “If this is required by TV sponsors, understood; if not, limit the number of changes per inning and watch the game speed up.”
Asked about the number of pitchers who seem to fall apart these days, Kitt cited the high salaries since free agency. Players don’t have to take off-season jobs as they did back in the 60’s and can work out virtually all year. Do their bodies ever really rest?
However, no sport grinds its players down more greedily than soccer. We saw Champions League-level players trudge into the World Cup in early June and many of them were still slogging into July. A few weeks after the final, my favorite-named player, Bastian Schweinsteiger of Germany, flew across the world for a meaningless friendly and was creamed by a red-hot player from Major League Soccer. Now he’s out six weeks.
Soccer, under the see-no-evil “leadership” of Sepp Blatter, does not care. On Monday, Neymar of Brazil, last seen writhing on the grass with a broken back on July 4, was running around Camp Nou on Barcelona, along with his new playmate, Luis Suarez, he of the health-hazard choppers.
I know Suarez is suspended from some league and national matches, but shouldn’t he be banned from going out in public until he is trained?
On Tuesday, some of the lads were playing in an early round of the Champions League.
But at least soccer league matches are over in two hours, whereas baseball could be dawdling toward irrelevancy.
Because I am slow, I needed my son (and later, in print, Maureen Dowd) to explain to me that the Stephen Colbert I see in fragments is his entire act.
In my tangential relationship to much of television, I assumed this was one facet of Colbert’s persona, that sometimes he was actually Stephen Colbert.
But, no, I was patiently told, he does this all the time.
So now Colbert is about to replace David Letterman in the next year or so. As somebody who has grown older along with Letterman, I admit to misgivings.
Wait, they have given a terrific forum to somebody who mimics right-wing wackos?
How will that work in interviewing guests? Will Colbert switch a dial and draw out guests the way Dave does in his own twitchy way?
(My inner adolescent loves Dave talking about Martha Stewart and the justice system: “She shot a guy.” And how Dave made poor addled John McCain squirm for ducking him in 2008. And the quacking noises when Dr. Phil arrives. And Dave’s flat-out crushes on Julia Roberts and Cate Blanchett, and why not?)
Probably it’s just me, but I don’t find Colbert funny. (I know he’s a good, smart family guy.) I think it’s because, in addition to soccer and baseball, I watch mostly news on television and they are all over the place.
Ted Cruz? Louie Gohmert? Darrell Issa? Mitch McConnell? The Koch Brothers? The Fox lot? Rand Paul? Eric Cantor? Frothing preachers? Avaricious bankers? State legislators trying to make it harder to vote? Beyond satire.
The first time I saw much of Colbert was via the televised correspondents’ dinner in 2006 when he made fun of President Bush, who was there. My politics are the same as Colbert’s, but I still thought it was tacky. Remember this?
I have the feeling Colbert has created a role that may be hard to put behind him – much like another good man, James Gandolfini, who in his later work still seemed about to reach for his pistol. Not his fault. He had done too good a job creating Tony Soprano.
Next Tuesday, Colbert will appear on the Letterman show. The tastes of late-night audiences shift by the generation, of course. I tried watching Jimmy Fallon for his first few weeks. Love his band, but Fallon seems on a perpetual sugar rush. I dialed back to Dave, fiddling with papers on his desk, puzzling over electronics.
I’m hoping Dave, in his late-maturing way, will draw out the inner Stephen Colbert.
As somebody who could not watch a second of Jay Leno, ever, I was charmed by Jimmy Fallon’s first show Monday night.
I’m a total Letterman fan, attuned to his twitchy moods, his dark history, his world view, his infatuations – Julia Roberts, Cate Blanchett. But Fallon can be an outlet during reruns, commercials, stupid pet tricks.
I love that Fallon is young (39), agile and musical. I love the brothers in the shades in his band (The Roots) and hope they get more of a chance to play whole riffs than Letterman allows Paul’s talented band to do, on air.
My one question about the Fallon show is the presence of his announcer pal Steve Higgins. As an old guy, I kept saying, “Why is Steve Allen standing there? Is he a ghost who materializes from the walls of the ancient studio?”
I also love the Spike Lee intro for Fallon – need to catch more of the references – and love the ‘30’s set, so New York, so Rockefeller Plaza. Two shows from The Greatest City in the World, as Letterman’s announcer used to call it.
Welcome to Big Town. It may be time to learn how to download TV shows.
If the Roman Catholic church needs spending money – and what religion doesn’t? – I have a modest proposal: brand the tolerant words of Pope Francis about gays and sell t-shirts and ball caps with the revolutionary phrase, which sounds like the sayings of the Jewish preacher of two millennia ago.
The new Pope’s words on his trip home from Brazil suggest an inclusivity not always seen in the era of the various hand hand-choppers of modern religions. You’re not like me? Whack!
Speaking of judging, how about the interview by Lauren Green of Fox, apparently the occupier of the Glenn Beck Chair of Philosophy at the network of fair-and-balanced?
Green was interviewing Reza Aslan, author of a new book about Jesus, called Zealot. She asked how he, as an American of Iranian descent, who is Muslim, could possibly write a book about Christianity. (He had been Christian for a time, but she did not seem to know that.)
In the official Fox judgment, this rule would disqualify Hindus from writing about Islam, Christians from writing about Judaism, and so on. Academic research and opinion, be damned. The academic was forced on the defense, to stress his degrees and past work. In Beck-ish, O’Reilly-ish tones, the Foxite asserted her position: Stick to your own kind.
The good news is that Zealot is selling very well. In appearances with Chris Hayes and others, Aslan has come off as wry, complicated and earnest. Perhaps he should have done the Fox interview with a t-shirt quoting this new Pope.
At first I thought Chris Hayes was a trifle callow when he began making cameos on MSNBC, but he has quickly become one of the most thoughtful talk-show hosts on television.
And my long-time impression of Christopher Hitchens was of a skanky mixture of alcohol, tobacco and ego, but now I am enjoying his last collection of essays.
My wife kept saying there was more to both of them, and she’s usually right. (She told me to take a fresh look at the noted wingnut Ted Turner during his hilariously epic Goodwill Games venture with the old Soviet Union in the late ‘80’s.)
Hayes was tall and young and enthusiastic when he started to pop up on the Rachel Maddow show. It wasn’t that I disagreed with him about much, but I just didn’t think the world needed another true believer on the left or right.
Fortunately, somebody saw enough to give Hayes his own show, Up w/Chris Hayes, on Saturday and Sunday mornings from 8 to 10 on MSNBC. He knows his stuff, and he also lets his guests speak – in paragraphs, in complete thoughts – without shouting them down or belittling them, which is surely the mode on cable these days.
Hayes is a master of getting smart guests, most of them from the liberal end, but he is gracious and fair to all guests (as is the well-prepared Maddow.)
Last Sunday Hayes had three panelists I did not know, all of them interesting, as well as Edward Conard, who helped build Bain Capital and is the author of the current book, Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong.
In the course of a civil conversation, Conard agreed that Mitt Romney was “legally” the CEO of Bain until 2002, a point Romney does not choose to concede.
I could not tell if Conard felt he was able to fully represent his book, but he seemed to fit in with the other panelists.
(Melissa Harris-Perry strikes pretty much the same thoughtful tone on MSNBC on weekends from 10 to noon. May their tribe increase.)
Christopher Hitchens was an acquired taste. I had caught him preening and pontificating over the years and was mostly turned off. (As my friend Pincus once said about somebody at work, we grew up in different schoolyards.)
A few years ago, at my wife’s urging, I read Hitchens’ memoir, Hitch-22, about a life far more Dickensian than I could have imagined. After he died, I began reading his last book, Arguably: Essays.
Hitchens takes readers places we do not have time to explore – authors, countries, mind sets. I have no idea how he managed to know so many people, be so many places. He even had himself waterboarded -- without Dick Cheney ordering it.
Just one essay will stand in for all of them. Given the ferment that has come out of Tunisia in the past few years, I was delighted to discover Hitchens had visited there for a July 2007 essay in Vanity Fair. It began:
If we all indeed come from Africa, then the very idea of Africa itself comes from the antique northern coast of the great landmass, where the cosmology is subtly different and where the inhabitants look north to Europe and southward at the Sahara. Here was the mighty civilization known as Carthage, which came as close as possible to reversing what we think of as the course of “history” and conquering Europe from Africa instead of the other way around. With its elephants and armies and under the brilliant generalship of Hannibal, it penetrated all the way through Spain and France and down over the Alps…
Hitchens soon introduces us to the wine and cuisine and feminism and education level of modern Tunisia as well as the tensions within Islam that more or less prepare the reader for the revolution that followed.
I am going through the Hitchens collection slowly, hoping somehow it will keep expanding. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that avowed atheist found a way to file from the beyond?
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: