The Year Everything Important Happened

The Theater of Change

Cambridge (2)

We arrive in Cambridge, New York in a gentle rain.  At the corner of Main Street and Memorial Drive, a scattering of war memorials, monuments, an old piece of artilery, a gazebo decorated with bunting.  It is the Fourth of July 2015.  The cupola in the distance belongs to the Jerome B. Rice Seed Company building. Across the street is The Rice Mansion, which the family moved into inJanuary of 1904; it is now a bed and breakfast.


The Rice Mansion

The family would have moved in earlier than 1904 but the Cambridge Hotel a few blocks away burned soft coal, and the new structure had to be washed before it could be painted.  The Cambridge Hotel had opened in 1885 and ran for years and even appeared in an episode of the Fox reality show Hotel Hell; then it closed, was auctioned in foreclosure, is now being renovated as an assisted living home.

We get a tour of Hubbard Hall from Hannah, local volunteer and tour guide.  Hubbard Hall has a general store on the ground floor and an opera house above.  Small towns in America had opera houses once, sometimes more than one because nice ladies, Hannah explains, wouldn’t dream of entering a saloon or a dance hall unaccompanied; an opera house, however, was something else.  Language helps you negotiate the world; names matter.

Times change.  A business thrives and an opera house opens, a mansion gets built, a railroad arrives.  Small towns boom then bust, retreat into quiet neglect and some are spared earlier cycles of improvement, ill-conceived ‘urban renewal’ projects.   New people show up.  There’s now an arts and theater community growing up around Hubbard Hall, Hannah tells us.  Could I live here? I ask my traveling companion Rose. We have an app for available real estate. We look around.

The baking cheesecake nuns have a convent here, I discover, and brother companions in the local monastery breed and train German shepherds.  There is also a community of married monastics.  “Like the Shakers,” Rose observes, referencing another leg of our journey through this part of the country. “Segregation of the sexes but industrious, and lots of opportunity for religious devotion and sublimation,” she adds. The Shakers, I remind my friend, were responding to change, to the Industrial Revolution, to the transformation of the world.  “And an opera house,” Rose throws in for good measure.

I am reading Stella Adler on American theater.  “Very few people can take change,” Adler says. Think of Miller, Williams, O’Neill. The marriage isn’t working, the family is falling apart, the career has failed, the job is degrading.   “American playwrights write about the difficulties of giving up one way of life and going into another.” (Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012, p. 203).

I am always thinking about giving up one way of life and going into another. Could I live here? I ask.  Could I take that kind of change?  Could I make cheesecake?  Volunteer in the local theater group?  Raise dogs?

What You See


Bachelor Dinner, 1904, the Yale Club [Source]

You see what you know; you don’t what you don’t.  The nine of us look like a fairly diverse group to me: from Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, a couple native Californians, at least one Midwesterner, a variety of religious persuasions represented, Protestant to Catholic to None of the Above.  We’re all over 21, yes, but with an assortment of occupational and recreational interests; a mixed bag of tastes and talents and styles, out to get something to eat on a rainy night in the Valley.

A lady of a certain age approaches our table.  “Nice to see,” she observes approvingly.  “Nice to see.  You’re a Wolf Pack, right?”

“A what?” asks the Colombian with a slight German accent.

“A Wolf Pack,” she repeats.  “My husband was part of one.  He did enjoy it, I can tell you that.  ‘Goin’ out with the pack,’ he’d say to me and out the door he’d be for a night with the boys.  Hardly boys, though.  He’s dead now, my husband.  Of course, most of the rest of them are too.”

“None of us getting out of here alive,” I offer, and she smiles and nods with an ‘ain’t-it-the-truth’ look around the room.  “Nice to see you men enjoying yourselves,” she adds and wishes us all a good night.

“What on earth was she talking about?” Charlie asks.

“She thought we were men on the town without our wives,” I explain.

“Mine’s right here,” says Hans, and Keith kicks him.  “Husband,” he corrects himself.

“Why would she think that?” Jose asks.

“You only see what you know,” I reply.

“It’s a Valley thing,” observes Steve, which isn’t quite what I meant and probably only true if you’re comparing where we are to West Hollywood.  But we aren’t in West Hollywood and even if we were you still can’t see what you don’t know.  And so even if she didn’t see wives, she knows the defining characteristic of a group of grown men (if you’re a woman of a certain age) is that they’ve got wives at home or used to or at any rate ought to; and having been one herself she also knows how men like getting away from them, and so being the enlightened kind of wife she’s okay with it and even thinks it’s nice.

“Wow,” says someone.   “You get married just to get away?  It’s so… confusing.”

“You think that’s confusing,” says someone else, “try dating one.”

“A wife?”

“No silly, a married man.”

Which we all agree would be very confusing indeed.

Not in this world


Shaker Museum, North Family community, Mount Lebanon, NY

“You have left the world,” our young guide Benjamin tells us.  “You are now in the community of the Believers, otherwise known as the Shakers.  You have entered another realm here,  a new kingdom, a new Eden.  In 1774, a Scottish woman named Ann Lee had a vision to lead her followers to America.   She had a vision of a large tree in America, with every leaf like a bright burning torch, representing the Church of Christ which was to be in this land.”  He gestures to the buildings and fields and woods around us.  It is very quiet and orderly looking here, and very green.  It is also a thick and alive sort of quiet, as if old machinery is whirring somewhere far away, a murmuring in the distance, beyond the tree line; the kind of quiet that makes a buzzing in your ears.  Benjamin tells us about the Shakers, and I am not surprised to learn they kept bees.  The grass is freshly cut and moist, a heavy wet green.  Benjamin explains about the simplicity of the Shaker lifestyle, their passion for order, for economy, their devotion to work and God, their celibacy.

“He had me up to the celibacy,” my friend confides.  Someone asks Benjamin where the children came from.  He explains they were the pre-existing offspring of converts.  And the Shakers also took in orphans.  You could have done worse, I think, in 19th century America, than to grow up in a place like this.  I wonder if I might have been an orphan in those days, adopted by the Shakers.  A psychic told me I was a servant girl in one of my past lives, a maid in a great house ravished on the back stairs by the first footman.  An experience like that would put you off sex, surely; perhaps that was why and when I’d run off and joined the Shakers.  “Dying in childbirth,” I suggest to my friend as a common pitfall to life in the world outside, another reason for becoming a Believer.  My friend concedes that avoiding the perils of constantly having babies would be an incentive; still, he sees the downside: control by relgious doctrine, isolation, subjugation, rejection of the modern.

But the Shakers embraced modern technology, Benjamin tells us.  A Shaker woman invented the circular saw.  The Mount Lebanon community had a telephone line installed in 1883; limited service at the beginning but it was a start; they could communicate with their brethren in Albany without making the time-consuming trip by horse and wagon.  They believed the day would come when telephones would connect them to the world beyond and even make it possible to converse with departed Believers, for they assumed it would be possible one day to speak with their dead.

We decide to go.  We are off to see Whistler’s Mother; the painting is on loan from the d’Orsay in Paris to the Clark Museum in Williamstown which is not far from here.  Whistler died in July of 1903 but the painting was on exhibit in a memorial exhibition in Boston as early as February of 1904.  Unappreciated, even ridiculed when first exhibited, Whistler’s portrait of his mother is later embraced by the public as an iconic image of motherhood, particularly American motherhood; the unconventional and unacceptable becomes traditional; she is put on a stamp in 1934.

We get lost.  Our GPS app fails; it spins aimlessly, looking for coordinates.  My friend is convinced it stopped working as soon as we left the world to visit the Shakers.  The Believers embraced technology all right, he says: they stole our GPS.  We were carjacked by ghosts, he claims.

Departed Believers, I think, who wanted to be in touch.  Watching us as they danced in the thick dizzy summer light, in the burning bright leaves of the trees. Curious about our world, and how we could travel to theirs by satelite instead of stars.

Let’s Go



“For Euler” Mark di Suvero, 1997.

The Universe has a map.  Being part of the universe, you do as well.  But you also possess the ability to second guess and doubt and exercise free will.  So you say, ‘This doesn’t look right,’ or ‘I’m certainly not turning left there,’ or ‘If only I knew where this was all going.’

I have been traveling lately.  How in the old days did we ever go anywhere without phones?  I don’t remember. We got lost.  People trusted we’d show up eventually, or fretted, or formed search parties.  Now we get to talking and disregard the app, or disobey the directions, and she makes a sad sound as she recalibrates our route.  I think the Universe does the same, without the sound effect.  You pass on an opportunity, you second guess an intuition, you think you’re doing it wrong or you pay no attention to what your heart is telling you and turn left instead of right, and the Universe readjusts, corrects course.

We can choose not to pay attention or overthink the situation.  Rodin’s Thinker was conceived in 1880 as part of a larger work but later exhibited on its own and enlarged into the famous monumental bronze version in 1904.  We think too much or not at all.  It is the Fourth of July; we are in Cambridge, New York, and we decide to drive on to Salem.  We skirt the town’s parade and arrive at Salem Art Works.  There’s a gentle rain and students working in the foundry, in the barn, a dog follows the car. We drive up Cary Hill to see the Suvero.  I take a picture with my phone.

Another day we are driving and miss a turn.  We arrive somewhere unexpected.  ‘Oh you’ll like this,’ my friend says. ‘Just around the corner is an old hotel.  It looks abandoned but it’s not.’

‘I know,’ I reply and am surprised to hear myself say so.  ‘I remember.  I stayed here once with a friend.  A long time ago.’

A long time ago indeed.  Thirty years ago.  Before we had phones and apps.  The place was in disrepair then but still taking guests.  It was an adventure staying here, there were supposed to be ghosts. I was with Skip and we had come to visit friends of his with a bookstore in Bennington. Until now I’ve only remembered the trip in pieces.  It was a difficult time, a terrible time, a different world, Skip was more than a friend and I depended on him. I relied on him for so much and I was scared.  We both were, I suppose, but I didn’t think about that, I was too busy counting on him to know the way and I was afraid the day would come when he wouldn’t, when he wouldn’t be there to show me the way and I’d be lost.  I didn’t know there would ever be phones and apps.  I didn’t realize the universe had a map.  I didn’t think I would ever find my way without him.  I worried about being lost.  I thought about it, didn’t think about it, didn’t want to think.

Now seemingly by accident I’m back again.  Skip is gone, has been gone for a long time and without him I have been lost and I have also found my way, and then I’ve gotten lost again, and recalibrated my route, corrected course, moved on by myself.  Or perhaps, having been part of the universe, he is still part of it.  As I am.  As we all are.

‘We were here,’ I hear Skip say.  Or I hear myself say, or I hear a ghost say it.  My friend opens the app on his phone and types in a new destination.  We wait for the GPS to find us.  ‘Let’s go,’ she says cheerfully, as if she knows the way and all we have to do is trust.

‘Let’s go,” I say and set aside my fine ability to second guess and doubt, and I try not to wonder if there is a map and where we might be, on it.



You’ll find the recipe for a Manhattan in Thos. Burdett & Co.’s “Hotel and Saloon Supplies” catalogue (Montreal, 1904) along with a variety of witty toasts, corkscrews and spittoons.  For the very best cocktail recipes, however, you need Harry Craddock’s “The Savoy Cocktail Book” (First edition, London, 1930).  Harry was an  Englishman living in New York, tending bar at the Knickerbocker, who headed back to England during Prohibition and developed his expertise for mixing drinks at the American Bar in the Savoy Hotel in London.  (He later worked at the Dorchester, after the War, and at Browns).  The creator of such classics as the Corpse Reviver II and the Hanky Panky, Harry also popularized the dry martini.

At a very lovely wedding this weekend the table bases were decorated with reproductions of Gilbert Rumbold’s marvelous illustrations for Harry Craddock’s famous recipe book.  Beneath glass tops and surrounded by Philippe Stark’s Louis Ghost chairs, the illuminated bases cast a soft glow and the effect, on a summer evening on the penthouse terrace of a very chic hotel in West Hollywood with 360 degree views of the Hollywood Hills, Sunset Strip and Los Angeles twinkling all the way to the ocean, was enchanting.  Combined with guests who were sophisticated and beautifully attired, the food fantastic, the drinks intxoicating, a pair of adorable grooms and a hotel staff who could not have been more congenial or helpful and genuinely happy to have us there, and you had an absolutely perfect recipe for magic.

Not all wedding venues are as welcoming, however.  There are also some sanctimonious cake-makers out there – probably a few bitter bartenders and caterers and cooks too – who aren’t about to lift a finger to help celebrate a loving union between two men, or two women.  Love wins, eventually, but not everyone’s going to be happy about it.  My own opinion is, don’t force the haters to host, and don’t ask somebody who thinks you’re going to hell to bake for you.  It won’t turn out nicely.

But make no mistake: this has nothing to do with their religious freedom, it’s about entitlement and it’s at your expense.  They feel entitled to their beliefs and are bound and determined to make sure you aren’t entitled to yours.  It’s sad, really, the way some people will go to such lengths to feel superior.  Not to mention the hypocrisy; preach abstinence while you sleep around.  Really.  It reminds me of Prohibition.  Oh look, they said; look how the working class drinks so much, it’s really not right, they can’t hold their liquor, they’re not like us, with our occasional glass of a fine Merlot, there really should be a law against it.  And then there was, except it didn’t work.  Harry Craddock moved back to England though, where at least you could enjoy his cocktails with impunity.  He never came back.

Don’t get me wrong: few things can destroy a family, ruin lives and careers and marriages or just a fun night on the town like too much alcohol.  You know what else does that kind of damage?  Sex.  Lying about it, cheating around it, keeping it a secret or pretending it doesn’t matter or doesn’t exist, or using it to hurt other people or using it for power or control.  Too much of it or not enough.  It’s a dangerous thing, sex.  So is alcohol.  So is money.  They all lead to ruin if you aren’t careful or aren’t paying attention.  Banning them or outlawing them isn’t the answer.  Because they can also lead you somewhere else.  They are all doorways, after all.  They are ways to experience something beyond the immediate world, which is what makes them potentially so dangerous.  Because in the right amount, in certain combinations, with the proper recipe, what they have to offer you is a glimpse of the divine.


June 22, 1904


Teddy Roosevelt takes time off from being president to write a letter to his daughter Ethel and illustrate it with a drawing of her disciplining her brothers Archie and Quentin, June 22, 1904 (Harvard University, Houghton Library).

I have no desire at the moment to grab anyone by the collar or the hair and swing them around but that doesn’t mean I’ve let go of my need to judge or exert control and be in charge.  I’m not sure what’s changed exactly.  Probably me, certainly not the number of folks out there who could benefit from a little “necessary discipline.” Plenty of them around; if you have any doubt, try merging into moderately heavy traffic on an L.A. freeway sometime and see who let’s you in.  Or not.

I’m not into statements, political or otherwise, emblazoned on the vehicle I drive; I’ve been cut off and sideswiped one too many times by recklessly aggressive motorists with trunk fish and “Baby On Board” warning decals in the window: I’m wise to false advertising.   But someone with more wisdom than I possess recently talked me into putting a rainbow colored OM sticker on the back on my truck.  As if the ancient syllable of creation, message of Peace, Love, Shanti Shanti, would have any effect whatsoever on that Lincoln Navigator pulling up to my bumper baby at 80 mph, right?  Trust me, it doesn’t.

But it seems to have had an effect on me.  A little at least, against my will and in spite of my highly refined sense of justice and self-righteous indignation.  Even if it says nothing to you (or sends the wrong message: ‘old hippy dude in a pick-up’), me it seems to be helping, this sparkly sacred symbol on my tailgate, don’t ask how or why. Lately there’s been a whole lot of people dismayed and distressed by the behavior of other people, and I’ve been told how they need to straighten up, not do that, do something else, never pull that again, watch the f-bombs, and so forth.  A whole lot of some people thinking what other people need is a good swinging around by the collar.  And those other people telling me, just try it, mister, f-bomb you,  f-bomb them.

So there I am, seemingly stuck in the middle, Ethel swinging Archie and Quentin, when all I want to do is merge into one more sunny day without being killed.   And I think, hey, you know what? I’m not going to try and keep the peace or swing around anyone, okay?  I’m not going to grab any collars or hair or control or authority.  Because it’s not necessary, and I’m not in charge, and it’s not about getting you or anybody else to understand or do or see or fix anything.  In the end, for me, it’s about my awareness, my clarity, my consciousness, my peace.  It’s not about you at all.  OM Shanti Shanti.

June 15, 1904


On June 15, 1904 the excursion boat, SS General Slocum, caught fire on the East River of New York City. The boat was carrying about thirteen hundred people, mostly women and children on a church picnic outing from St. Mark’s Lutheran on 6th Street and Second Avenue. The wind was very strong, fanning the fire until it was out of control. The life preservers and hoses were rotted. Most of the crew and passengers were burned to death or drowned when they jumped into the river to escape the flames.  More than 1000 people perished, making it New York’s worst disaster until September 11, 2001.  [Source]

June 15, 2015 I go to see my guru.  I take the 405 at morning rush hour,  my version of walking on my knees over broken glass.  As usual, the visit is a mix of ecstasy and anxiety, mostly women and children scrambling for the best seats, staking out their territory as if they were putting down blankets at a picnic at the beach instead of claiming places in line or chairs in a hotel ballroom near LAX.   A festive atmosphere prevails with an undertone of nervous irritation that erupts here and there into petty squabbles or fits of laughter or tears.   If Jesus returned, I think, it would be like this: people arguing with parking garage attendants, jostling in line, complaining about the wait time, texting friends, the old struggling with infirmity, the young sitting cross-legged in heavy traffic areas, blissed out and oblivious, delirious with joy.

“Reckless Ecstasy” was Carl Sandburg’s first published work, privately printed in 1904; it failed to attract critical attention.  The next year he married the daughter of Edward Steichen.  His reputation as a poet was not established until “Chicago Poems” came out in 1916.

Plans for a church picnic end in tragedy, with bodies washing up for days afterward on shore.  You write, you seek recognition, you get married, you write more.  You pursue spiritual comfort and lose your place in line; the family in front of you sways together in a state of euphoria and joy, the woman behind you is convulsed in tears.  You are at turns annoyed and fascinated, even joyful.  Your own ecstasy feels a little reckless but fails to attract attention, even if you wanted it to (you don’t).  The friends you invited to come with you all dropped out, had other things to do, you are on your own.  At the Second Coming you would be on your own, you think, and so would everyone else.  You would be looking forward to a picnic, or thinking about any number of other things, mundane, profane, not sacred certainly, or maybe just a little but in a pleasant way.  Or would you?  Is there an undercurrent of nervous anticipation you try to disregard, can’t shake but choose to ignore?  The Slocum took less than twenty minutes to be consumed by flames.  A handful of minutes, of heartbeats (or an eternity, depending) before you realize there’s no escape, no exit, rotten life preservers, useless hoses, no way out.

Perhaps we become aware of love and death in the same way.  Embraced, engulfed, consumed by either, by both, on a bright summer day, while we’re busy thinking of something else, what we’ll do later, as soon as we get where we’re going, as soon as we get what we came for, our just reward, our heart’s desire, at the journey’s end.



PAUL CADMUS (1904 – 1988) Jerry.  Oil on canvas, 1931, 20 x 24 in. Toledo Museum of Art

June 9, 1904


Transmission lines crossing Northern Pacific Railway tracks, June 9, 1904

It takes a long time to understand some parts of it, this world, this life.  You’re trying to get somewhere; you want to speak to the person in charge. You’re at the end of the line and you’ve got miles to go, and then you reach the end of the line and you realize you don’t have anywhere you need to be.  You’ve come a long way, such a long way.  Look where you are, the middle of nowhere, the edge of the cosmos.

It takes forever sometimes to get what you’re looking for.  You’re afraid you won’t find it so you don’t; faith in an old idea can be a lot more powerful than your abilty to let go of it.  If they only knew, you think; if only you could make them see and support you, validate your efforts, you’ve tried so hard, look how hard you’ve tried.  But the drama is self-inflicted.  They see just fine, maybe.  Or they don’t and don’t care either.  It’s only your fear they never will that gets in the way.

I’m working on a new project, I tell my friend.  It’s about a psychic.  But tell me why? my friend asks over barbecue pulled-pork, sounding exasperated, as though we’ve had this conversation before.  Why does it matter? And then, rephrasing the question, what’s so interesting about a story like that?  Unless you prefer not to tell me, he adds, suggesting I have a secretive side, or can’t explain, or to let me off the hook.  I know he thinks I don’t understand the rules of drama sufficiently to pull it off, as they say.  I also know I will probably never persuade him. Why would I try?  What’s so interesting to me about making him see or care?  Those parallel rails, those transmission lines in the sky only seem to converge at a distant meeting point.

I am the psychic, I want to tell my friend.  But I don’t.

Pyschics are all such frauds, my friend observes. That’s the angle you should pursue, he advises.  That’s a story worth telling.

Go for the Gold


Bronze medal awarded to James Joyce for his singing, May 16 1904 [source]

Joyce was one of 22 singers who entered the singing competition at the Feis Ceoil on May 16, 1904.  He was 22 years old.  He sang two songs – “No Chastening,” from Arthur Sullivan’s oratorio “The Prodigal Son”, and “A Long Farewell,” by Scottish composer Alfred Edward Moffat.  He declined to sing a third number when requested by the judges and as a consequence was awarded the bronze, not the gold medal.

What you do is what counts.  What you don’t do counts too, but in a different way.  A friend went to a party recently, in the hills.  He took video on his phone and showed me.  A techno beat accompanies a slow uncertain panning shot of the twinkle lights of the Valley at night. The infinity pool in the foreground undulates and glows an unnatural aqua.   A giant clear plastic bubble bobs into view on the water’s surface.  Inside the bubble is a female acrobat. “From Cirque du Soleil,” my friend explains as the girl bends and stretches and wobbles inside her plastic sphere.  “She was the entertainment.”  Silouettes pass back and forth.  Then the shape of a small horse obscures the view.  “The hosts have a Great Dane,” my friend adds.  “Nate and Jeremiah were there.”

He means one of the most famous gay couples in the world but not Neil Patrick and David who were on the cover of Architectural Digest recently and currently appear on a billboard in West Hollywood, or Anderson and Andy, who aren’t exactly a couple but are both TV celebrities and BFFs.  “Jeremiah spoke French,” my friend tells me, “because the hostess is.”  He shivers and makes a swooning sound as he rolls his eyes .  “So adorable.”

“I am there,” I say, pointing at the nighttime sky beyond the infinity pool.  I am one of those tiny lights in the distance.  I am not part of a famous couple, but I am part of the view.  We are all who we are, doing and not doing what we know, and what we can, and what we care to do, or not do. We are all going for the gold.

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