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Monthly Archives: December 2014

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There are people who read a “Christmas Carol” every Christmas but my holiday tradition is a bit different: every five years or so I read “The Catcher in the Rye.”  It’s a Christmas story, it’s easy to read, it’s funny, and as I grow older it provides a good time to take stock of my own struggles with the “phonies”.

I first read “Catcher” when I was 13 and younger than the 16-year-old protagonist Holden Caulfield.  I read it again when I was his age, and then again when I visited New York City for the first time, and again when I moved to New York City, and after I moved out of New York City, and now again when I am probably older than Holden’s father.  Each time I’ve experienced it from different perspective and a different appreciation of what J.D. Salinger was trying to say.

Here are my takeaways from my most recent reading:

December 17-19, 1949.  This is the first time I’ve fully understood the particularity of the story because it’s the first time I’ve read the book with an iPad at my side; it turns out that “Catcher” is as firmly rooted in a specific place and time as “Ulysses” is rooted in Dublin.  And just as James Joyce fans celebrated “Bloomsday” on June 6, so too should Salinger fans celebrate December 17-19 as “Holden’s Weekend.”  We know that the events occurred in 1949 because Holden and Sally go to see the Lunts (i.e., Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne) in I Know My Love which ran on Broadway from November 2, 1949 to June 3, 1950.  A quick look at the calendar for 1949 shows that Saturday December 17 is almost certainly the night Holden leaves Pencey, given that the previous Saturday (the 9th) would have been too soon for the semester to be drawing to a close.

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(This is Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne)

In other words, we just missed a chance to celebrate the 65th anniversary of Holden’s weekend.  But more important for understanding the story, 1949 was only four years after the end of World War II, and the after effects of the War were still being felt.  With Europe in ruins, the New York of 1949 would have been by far the richest and most glamorous city in the world, but one full of veterans.  Holden’s brother, D.B., who had been in Europe for the whole American campaign, would have been one of those veterans, and after having seen what he would have seen, who could blame him for prostituting himself and moving to Hollywood? (Incidentally, here’s the place to remember that J.D. Salinger himself landed at Utah Beach on D-Day, experienced the Battle of the Bulge and helped to liberate a concentration camp.  No American writer other than Stephen Crane had as much war experience and it’s not really a surprise that he had a minor nervous breakdown in when the war was over.)

The Elasticity of Time.  I hate to be overly literal about the events in a novel, but when I reread Catcher this week, I realized that the time sequence as laid out in “Catcher” is a little iffy.  I can’t tell now whether the New York City of 1949 truly was the City That Never Sleeps, but consider this:  Holden leaves Pencey after his roommate Stradleter falls asleep (11:00 p.m. at the earliest) and takes a train to NYC.  It must be 1:00 a.m. at least when he checks into the Edmont hotel.  He then meets the three girls from Seattle in the Lavendar Room and then takes a cab to Greenwich Village to Ernie’s, and when he gets back to the hotel arranges to have a prostitute sent to his room.  By the time he declines her services and gets punched out by her pimp, it must be 6:00 a.m.

The same thing happens the next night.  Holden wanders around New York, and at 10:00 p.m. meets his friend Carl Luce at the Wicker bar at the Seaton Hotel (btw, this is a real place, which now looks like this).  He then hangs around Central Park in the middle of the night, visits Phoebe at his parents’ apartment and then shows up at the Antolinis’ at God-knows-what-time. Without ever sleeping, it’s early dawn when he flees the Antolinis’

All of which makes me realize that the breakdown that Holden has at the end of the novel is caused by sleep deprivation.  By my reckoning, he gets at most three hours of sleep Saturday night and two hours on Sunday night.  No wonder he passes out at the museum and breaks down crying while Phoebe’s on the carrousel.

The Role of the City. Perhaps no work of art – no TV show or movie – was more important than “Catcher in the Rye” in convincing me that New York City was the most thrilling and exciting place in the world.  All those night clubs, highballs, cab rides and cultural touchstones made me yearn for the sophistication of the City. And not only was it glamorous, it was safe; Holden walks the empty streets and visits Central Park in the middle of the night without worrying about getting robbed, stabbed, or worse.

To a 21st Century consumer, what’s most striking about the New York of 1949 was how affordable it was.  Consider what Holden does with his stash of money: he stays at a midtown hotel, visits and buys drinks at three nightclubs, buys two tickets to a Broadway show, sees the Rockettes perform at Radio City Music Hall, skates at Rockefeller Center, pays for a prostitute (granted, it’s only a “throw,” but still) and takes five or six cabs.  Today a weekend like that at Christmas would cost well over a thousand bucks.   For me the telling detail that demonstrates the difference between then and now is when he gets to the American Museum of Natural History and buys an admission just to satisfy his nostalgia. Admission prices at the museum are now $22 for adults and $17 for students.  I know he’s a rich kid but today’s pricing makes the museum something you do as a special event, rather than something you do to kill time.

It’s hard now to know whether Salinger was playing as fast and loose with Holden’s spending capabilities as he is with his late-night timeline, but we have to assume that his readers didn’t scoff at Holden’s activities and find them out of the realm of possibility.  To his readers in the 1950s, it didn’t seem outlandish that an upper-middle-class teenager could afford to spend a weekend in New York but today, even adults would have to think twice about the expense.

Holden’s Loneliness.  It’s a truism that when you read a book multiple times you discover something you hadn’t noticed before, and for me the aspect of Holden’s personality that I never picked up on before was his extreme loneliness.  He has no friends at his prep school and the reason he’s wandering around New York and staying in hotels is that he has no friends in the city to stay with either.  The only people he likes are his younger sister and a girl (Jane Gallagher) that he knew from the previous summer but hasn’t kept in touch with.  He doesn’t particularly like his quasi-girlfriend Sally Hayes (and who can blame him) or his old dorm resident adviser Carl Luce (ditto).

At one point he pleads with Luce to stay for another drink, admitting “I’m lonesome as hell.” He also invites his various cab drivers to have drinks with him, tries to get some little kids to socialize over hot chocolate, flirts with and pays for the drinks of the three Seattle tourists and tries unsuccessfully to make connections everywhere.

I think we are supposed to think that Allie’s death from leukemia three years earlier is a precipitating factor in his depression (if that’s what it is) and alienation, but I think the real problem is loneliness and an inability to make friends. (And it’s worth mentioning that Salinger himself ended up as a hermit in a New Hampshire cabin, so he knew whereof he spoke when he described Holden’s social isolation.)

Holden’s worldliness.  As a 13-year-old, I assumed that by the time I was Holden’s age I’d be just as sophisticated and worldly, able to navigate my way through nightclubs with aplomb.  As a 16-year-old, I realized: forget it.  To be honest, I didn’t really have Holden’s confidence in getting around New York until about five years ago.  And now that I’m the father of a former 16-year-old, I am struck more forcefully than ever how outlandish the whole escapade seems.  There’s no way that I or my son would ever have been able to survive overnight in NYC if we’d been plopped down there as teenagers.  Now, is Salinger exaggerating the sophistication of a typical Manhattan teen from the 1940s?  He’s ordering drinks, finding his own hotel rooms, and bossing cab drivers around.  I do remember that when I went to college, the kids who’d gone to NYC private schools were considerably more worldly than I was, so maybe it’s not so far-fetched.  I think it’s fair to say, though, that unlike today, when adults want to act like teenagers, the youth of the post-War era yearned to act and be treated like adults, so we shouldn’t be too surprised that he puts on adult trappings.

One area where Holden is NOT worldly, though, is in his understanding of himself or human nature.  He can’t even begin to articulate his alienation.  In fact, he can’t really articulate much at all.  It’s to Salinger’s credit that Holden really does sound like a 16-year old when he’s talking to adults.  He’s a random piece of dialogue – his response when his history teacher asks him whether he has any concern about his future: “Oh, I have some concern for my future, all right. Sure I do.  But not too much, I guess.  Not too much I guess.”  Yeah, that’s how teens talk even today.

Mr. Antolini.  As a younger reader I took Holden’s characterization of Mr. Antolini as a decent caring teacher at face value, but as an adult I can see that he’s a bit of a pompous jerk.  He’s a capable and inspirational former prep school teacher who has married an older rich woman and now teaches part time at NYU.  He’s basically a kept man in a fabulous apartment on swanky Sutton Place (he sounds like a pedagogical Cole Porter).  He’s probably gay (or a “flit” as Holden contemptuously calls him). Not that there’s anything the matter with that, but he certainly did Holden no favors by scaring him out of the apartment with his creepy head-patting when he desperately needed sleep.

But the worst thing about him is that he’s such a blowhard!  Boy he sounds like a typical 1950’s intellectual windbag.  He’s lecturing at Holder when he he’s practically asleep on his feet and surprised that Holden can’t understand what he’s saying.  I finally acknowledged to myself that I can’t understand him either and it’s not my fault.

A couple of small points I noticed this time around:

  • Holden’s visit to NYC is actually his second time in the city on December 17.  He’d been there earlier in the day with the fencing team, when he lost the foils on the subway.  I also note that Holden never takes the subway in the book.
  • The living in NYC was a lot easier then.  If he and Sally want to go skating at Rockefeller Center they just walk up and do it – no 90-minute wait.  Same with the tickets to the Broadway show; they don’t have to buy them weeks in advance.  And he’s able to stash his luggage at the lockers at Grand Central Station – completely impossible now because of terrorism fears.
  • Holden has good literary tastes.  He likes “The Great Gatsby,” Ring Larder and Emily Dickinson.  He doesn’t like “A Farewell to Arms.” Interesting that he singles out “The Great Gatsby,” which had been a dud when published 25 years earlier, and was not yet considered the great American classic in 1949. As for “Farewell to Arms,” I’m sure Salinger was reacting against Hemingway himself, not the novel.  If there’s anyone Salinger would have considered a phony it would have been Earnest Hemingway.
  • The night that Holden visits Phoebe, Holden’s parents are in Norwalk, CT, which is about two miles from where I live now.  Huh.  If the book had been written today they would definitely not be visiting that city; it would be Westport, New Canaan, or Greenwich.  Also, it’s a little unlikely that they’d be out until 3:00 a.m. on a Sunday night, given that Holden’s father needed to go to work the next day as a corporate lawyer.
  • What we don’t see is Holden’s actual breakdown.  By the end of the book, he’s a mess for sure, but not in bad enough shape to be sent to a mental hospital, which is where he is when he’s telling his story.   All he says is that he got “sick” later —  I wonder what THAT was like?

* * * * * * * *

 I think I’ve probably read “Catcher in the Rye” for the last time.  My book, bought for 75 cents in 1968, is literally falling apart now, and although it still amuses me tremendously, Holden’s adolescent angst is beginning to seem self-indulgent.  I always found his denunciations of “phonies” bracing, but not so much the last several times I read the book.  I realize now that we’re all a little phony from time to time.  We try to act more confident than we are, or nicer, or more successful.   It’s time to cut the human race a little slack.  So adieu Holden.  Hope you find what you’re looking for.  Be real.

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The news that Bill Cosby has been accused of multiple rapes from the ‘70s and ‘80s has been as dispiriting as it’s been hard to fathom. My God! If BILL COSBY can allegedly be a rapist, what’s next? Pope Francis a drug lord? Mother Teresa an embezzler?

The human mind is capable of tremendous denial, and the allegations against Cosby are clearly the kinds of things we’d prefer not to dwell on. If we examine them too closely, they would undermine the foundational beliefs that help us get through the day. This denialism is practiced by football fans who ignore the fact that they’re watching athletes literally blow their brains out for the audience’s enjoyment, by feminists who turned a blind eye against the numerous sexual assault allegations made against Bill Clinton in the 1980s, and by anybody who’s been a serious fan.

But there’s no escaping the Cosby story. So many accusers have come forward, and their stories are so similar that it’s impossible to brush them aside.  And even taking into account the presumption of innocence, the lack of criminal prosecutions, etc., etc., we will probably never look at Bill Cosby the same way again.

Which brings us to the problem of “The Cosby Show,” one of the most wholesome and popular shows in television history. Is it possible to watch that show now with any degree of enjoyment?

This quandary is similar to the angst of Woody Allen fans who felt conflicted when allegations that he’d molested his young adoptive daughter resurfaced a couple of years ago. But at least Allen’s early persona was that of a mildly depraved sex maniac; there wasn’t such a huge disconnect between the allegations and the face he presented to the public.

But Bill Cosby was supposed to be about as far from being a sexual predator as you could possibly get. As recently as September, the publication of Mark Whitaker’s bio “Cosby: His Life and Times” set off another wave of reminiscence and celebration focusing on his breakthrough as the first black actor to co-star in a network TV show (“I Spy”) and then as the Every Dad on “The Cosby Show,” the very embodiment of upper-middle-class aspiration for white and black families alike.

The question of whether you can separate the art from the artist is one that has preoccupied critics and fans for centuries. On the issue of anti-Semitism, Jews have long debated whether they could enjoy the music of Richard Wagner, the poetry of T.S. Eliot, and the philosophical musings of Soren Kierkegaard. The list of allegedly racist artists is long as well, including Flannery O’Conner, Ted Nugent and anyone born before 1900. Then there’s Mel Gibson, an equal-opportunity offender. Can we consume any of these artists’ art with a clean conscience?

There’s a whole school of thought that says you can love the art but hate the artist. This is one of those philosophies that sounds good in theory but collapses when confronted with the messiness of real life. The truth is, we’re all full of hypocrisies. We want to be moral but don’t want to spend 24 hours a day judging whether people are worthy of our admiration or condemnation. And we’re willing to make accommodations if it’s in our interest. When we learn that an artist has been accused of something, we make a number of quick and dirty calculations: How bad is the offense? Is it a crime against our own race, religion, national origin, gender, etc. and if not, how empathetic do we feel about people in those demographic groups?  How badly does the offense contravene our image of the perpetrator? How likely is it that he or she is guilty? How much do we love the work, and are we really willing to give up our attachment to it? Is it possible to conveniently forget we ever heard of the offense?

For TV stars, the calculation is even more complicated because it’s almost impossible to disassociate the screen presence from the role.  You can read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” without thinking about T.S. Eliot’s peculiar personality, but you can’t watch Dr. Cliff Huxtable on TV without connecting the character to Bill Cosby, the alleged serial rapist.

Life is unfair. Throughout history artists have been scoundrels, sinners and lawbreakers, but we can only pass judgment on the offenses we know about. There have certainly been bad guy artists who have gotten away with their crimes scot-free. And even after artists are exposed, some still get a free pass because the media chooses not to pile on. The allegations against Cosby were known to the public for decades, and we collectively decided to turn a blind eye until new ones surfaced in the wake of Whitaker’s laudatory biography  But now Cosby finds himself in a media firestorm — even though nothing is really that different except for the media attention and the higher number of accusers.

Without passing judgment on Cosby’s legal guilt or innocence, it seems hard to believe we’ll be able to watch “The Cosby Show” in good conscience for many years to come. I don’t feel particularly good admitting that I might not have reached that conclusion if there hadn’t been blanket media coverage of the accusations. But no matter how tortuously we reached this point, I’m afraid “The Cosby Show” needs to go into the vault for a long time.

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Really, who among us, at the beginning of the TV season, anticipated that the year’s critical darling would be a soap opera about a 23-year-old pregnant virgin Latina? Yet here comes “Jane the Virgin” to show that TV still has a few surprises left in the tank.

“Jane the Virgin” is the most original scripted TV show since “Glee.” Both shows adapted previously unexplored genres (the telenovela and the Broadway musical, respectively) to mainstream TV, both seemed aimed at a younger female audience, and given their remarkably unique sensibilities it’s unlikely that either will be copied.

“Jane the Virgin,” which is loosely based on the Venezuelan telenovela called “Juana La Virgen,” is a slightly campy, densely plotted story about a young middle-class woman (aka the eponymous virgin) who is artificially inseminated with the sperm of her wealthy boss by the boss’s lesbian OB-GYN sister, who’s upset that her lover has cheated on her.  And from there story gets really complicated!  There are plot twists, murders, love triangles, glamorous hotels, back-stabbings, intergenerational conflict, fraternal rivalry, and deep uncertainty about the course of true love.

At the core, though, this is a story about the consequences of a collision between two families, one rich, glamorous and ambitious, and the other middle class, hardworking and respectable.  The power dynamic between these two families is not what you’d expect, though, because as long as Jane is pregnant with her boss’ baby, she holds all the cards.

Here are five things that make the show unusual.

  • The virgin. In the slutty world of 21st Century television, Jane stands out as one of the few female characters outside a convent to eschew pre-marital sex.  She’s not a prude, she just wants to avoid the fate of her mother, whose ambitions were derailed when she got pregnant at 16.
  • The Latino setting. Set in Miami, about two-thirds of the characters are Latino/Hispanic, but the show is not about being Hispanic in America. The characters are not stereotypes (drug dealers, sexy and heavily accented wives, etc.) but are regular people going about regular lives.  Jane’s grandmother only speaks Spanish, but it’s no big deal. Nor is it a big deal that Jane’s oh-so-patient fiancé is Anglo.
  • The lack of a message. Unlike “Glee,” which has crusaded for gay rights and done shows about bullying, school violence, religious intolerance and teen drinking, “Jane the Virgin” does not go in for politics.  The plot is moving too fast to provide a “message” on immigration, discrimination, class conflict, voter suppression or whatever other notion might be rattling around in the heads of the showrunners.
  • The omniscient narrator. Given the heavy amount of story-telling that takes place each episode, the show deploys a narrator to move things along and clarify some points.  The narrator is frequently used for ironic effect, driving home a subtle point about motivation or character.
  • Fairness to the characters. This is possibly the most revolutionary aspect of the show.  At first glance, the series is full of good guys and bad guys, but it soon becomes apparent that behind every supposed character flaw there’s an explanation.  The way people first seem are not really who they really are.  As in real life, the characters are alternately selfish and sacrificing, vain and humble, arrogant and frightened.  We’re not exactly at a “Mad Men” level of character complexity, but more than on most shows the characters are rounded and driven by a mixture of good and bad motivations.

“Jane the Virgin” is primarily a comedy, and viewers can feel confident that no matter how many murders and double crosses there are, they will not be deeply distressed.  And yet beneath the tongue-in-cheek plot twists, there’s a real humanity to the characters.  In almost every episode there’s a scene that gets you a little bit choked up by characters who are exposing their emotional vulnerability and being honest with each other.

My main concern about “Jane the Virgin” is that it will suffer the same fate as “Glee,” which could not come up with enough credible plots to keep the story internally consistent.  Technically, “Jane the Virgin” is not a telenovela, because true telenovelas have a set end point; the producers know how the story will wrap up from the beginning  “Jane the Virgin” faces the same challenge as other serial dramas going back to “Twin Peaks” and “Lost.”  It’s already been renewed for a second season so the story will not conclude at the logical place: the birth of the baby.  Where it goes after the baby is born is anyone’s guess – including the creators.

But whatever the future of the series is, “Jane the Virgin” is fun for now.  In some respects, it’s television at its best: pure undemanding entertainment that’s not an insult to your intelligence or sensibilities.  That’s pretty rare on TV in the year 2014.