Saturday, September 19, 2015

Sing Polyphony & See the World. But not Cuba.

September 19, 2015: I'm watching Pope Francis arrive in Cuba, in advance of this visit to the US. I tried to go to Cuba 3 years ago, shortly after Pope Benedict visited, to sing in one of the polyphony courses I do around the world.  It was an idea before its time: the US Department of the Treasury wasn't having it. 

Here is my non-travel tale from 2012:

Cuba: the Pope [Benedict] didn’t have a problem getting into the country, but this lowly American alto couldn’t make it happen.

This tale of non-travel amidst my usual travelogues begins late last year when I learned of a thrilling opportunity to sing polyphony in Cuba, at an international workshop organized by Andrew Van Der Beek, who lives in England and runs the Lacock courses in Europe.

The course is in Havana, under the direction of the Spanish conductor Carlos Aransay, starting on Palm Sunday April 1 and ending with a FREE concert in the main cathedral on Holy Saturday on the 7th.

Here is the course description:
 “A week for singers of all ages and nationalities in the historic centre of Cuba's capital city. The course will be directed in English and Spanish, and will end with a public performance in Havana cathedral. The general aim is to explore Cuba's musical heritage with a leading specialist conductor, in a relaxed and convivial setting.

"Our concert will be in Havana cathedral on Holy Saturday, so we begin with Alonso Lobo's Lamentationes Sabbati Sancti, one of the most sublime and vibrant settings of these powerful texts. The year 2012 is an important one for Cuba: the 400th anniversary of the apparition of Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre, Cuba's patron saint and dedicatee of the church where we will be rehearsing. We will commemorate the event with two hymns to the Virgin: Ave Maria by Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), one of the most beautiful settings I have come across, widely performed in Latin America; and Salve Regina by William Byrd, the five-part setting. Early English choral music is virtually unknown in Cuba, and this is just stunning with its canons and quick ascending scales.”

Wow. Choir nerd heaven. (I had no idea that the Pope would be in Havana just days before the course started.)

The wrinkle for me is that Americans cannot travel independently to Cuba because of the economic sanctions enacted 60 years ago. President Obama relaxed some of the restrictions in Jan. 2011, allowing for some travel under very specific, spelled-out provisions that are in keeping with “U.S. policy.”

And so I began my saga to try to attend this workshop.

Rest Easy: Our Wire Transfer Officers Are Very Alert

The first indication that this was not going to be easy was when I tried to wire the down payment for the course to Andrew. I was wiring the money from Chase, and I had put in the note “Havana” because I was registering at the same time for a second course Andrew is running, in Italy, and I wanted him to be able to distinguish the two down payments.

Now, I knew that I would have to apply for a license to travel to Cuba, which was going to be my next step, when my bank Chase called to basically say they had confiscated my $234 dollars, which they could neither pay to the beneficiary (Andrew) nor return to me unless I got a license from the Treasury department. They followed up with this email:

Please be advised JPMorgan Chase is required under the U.S. Treasury dept. Asset Control regulations to hold wire transfer funds USD $236.50 due to the reference Cuba . This reference may be associated with Cuban Sanctions. The funds are now in a JPMorgan Chase Blocked funds account. Chase cannot release the funds to the beneficiary nor can we return the funds back to you unless you obtain a license from the Treasury office. In order to obtain this license you should apply to the following address or website.

All triggered just because I put “Havana” in the notation. Comforting to know that Chase officers are not asleep at the wheel. But I was still surprised, because I was paying pounds sterling to an Englishman in England! Not much supporting of Communism in that.

Licensed to Travel

An American needs to apply for a “license” to travel to Cuba from the Treasury Dept., the Office of Foreign Assets Control to be specific—not the State Department—because the policy sanctions against Cuba are specifically economic.

The T-Dept. has a good website that spells out the sanctions, and spells out what provisions you can apply to travel under. There is a general license, and they specific provisions.

I applied under “31 CFR § 515.567 Public Performances, Athletic and Other Competitions, and Exhibitions,” which seemed to be dead-on for my situation.

“You may request a specific license authorizing certain travel-related and additional transactions incident to participation in a public performance, clinic, workshop, athletic or other competition, or exhibition in Cuba. The event must be open for attendance and, in relevant situations, participation by the Cuban public.”

The provision even specifies a workshop. And the course has a free concert, which some students from a local conservatory will participate in. I expected a slam dunk approval.
Instead, my application to travel to Cuba for this workshop was denied because the performance provision does not “contemplate” the specificity of this international workshop.

(Side note, “contemplate” is a very active verb for a provision. Who knew our government was such a fan of personification.)

Such is the downside of bureaucracy: it leaves no room for common sense interpretation.

I know that an international workshop of singers who are not in any sort of permanent group is not specified in the provision, but the spirit of this activity is absolutely within the spirit of the provision.
I felt so strongly that my request was actually within “U.S. policy” I appealed my rejection. There is no formal actual appeal, you just reapply again, and try to emphasize anything that will show that your request fits within the provision. In the appeal I played up being a Roman Catholic, going to sing a FREE concert on HOLY SATURDAY, for my fellow Catholics in Havana.

I made that new application on December 27, and three months later they still had not made a determination, which basically ran out the clock on me.

I respect that there are national interest situations that put the good of the country above the individual’s rights and liberties. And so I didn't go.

I am glad that my European musician friends will be in Havana next week, bringing the sublime music of polyphony alive amid the ancient stones of the Cuban capital cathedral.

Up next for me: Petitioning to to get my confiscated funds back. A least there’s a specific form on the OFAC website to apply. Bureaucracy at its most efficient when you need it.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Leaving for the Land Where "Games of Thrones" & "Doctor Who" Film: aka, Croatia

I leave tomorrow for an end-of-summer,  Labor Day weekend vacation. Destination: Croatia. Trogir, to be exact. The entire island is an UNESCO heritage site.

Why write new, when you can just quote Wiki:

Trogir has 2300 years of continuous urban tradition. Its culture was created under the influence of the ancient Greeks, and then the Romans, and Venetians. Trogir has a high concentration of palaces, churches, and towers, as well as a fortress on a small island, and in 1997 was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List. "The orthogonal street plan of this island settlement dates back to the Hellenistic period and it was embellished by successive rulers with many fine public and domestic buildings and fortifications. Its beautiful Romanesque churches are complemented by the outstanding Renaissance and Baroque buildings from the Venetian period", says the UNESCO report.
Trogir is the best-preserved Romanesque-Gothic complex not only in the Adriatic, but in all of Central Europe. Trogir's medieval core, surrounded by walls, comprises a preserved castle and tower and a series of dwellings and palaces from the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque periods. Trogir's grandest building is the church of St. Lawrence, whose main west portal is a masterpiece byRadovan, and the most significant work of the Romanesque-Gothic style in Croatia.

Pretty amazing, yes?
I am drawn there by the prospect of a Renaissance Polyphony workshop, lead by the extraordinary Patrick Craig.  The music and theme of the week he has chosen: "Hope Amidst Turmoil in Tudor England," with brilliant compositions by the usual suspects: Tye; Sheppard; Taverner; Morely; Weelkes; Tompkins; and my favorite: Byrd. Whom we Catholics claim as our own, though scholarship has placed him on various sides of the Reformation divide through the years.

After a week of rehearsal, we will give a free concert of this extraordinary music in the famous St. Lawrence Cathedral. Anyone in the neighborhood, please come by.

And as fate would have it: that concert is on 9/11. This is the first 9/11, I will not be home. And so for that day, I again offer my own witness.

If I have to be anywhere other than NYC on this most New York City of all days, giving a free concert in an Eastern European city that has known great strife and sadness itself seems like a good place to be.
And now for the pop cultural conundrum: Game of Thrones films in Split (nearby to Trogir), and there is a now a tour: "Get a behind-the-scenes look at the hit HBO series ‘Game of Thrones’ on this 3.5-hour tour of the show’s filming locations in Split. Hear insider gossip about the series, see where Daenerys Targaryen plotted her return to power, and creep around the cellars where the slaves conspired with the Unsullied Army to overthrow the masters."

Now, I don't watch Game of Thrones. But, it's unlikely I'll ever be back in the region. So, do I find time to take that tour? More importantly, I'm hoping to stumble on some of the streets from Doctor Who: Vincent and the Doctor in Trogir. 
Doctor Who: Vincent and the Doctor, recreating Van Gogh paintings in Trogir

Please follow me @mapeel on Twitter for dispatches during the week. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"Clarence Sent Me": Still Missing the Big Man as Born to Run Turns 40

I wrote the post below back in 2011 when the Big Man, Clarence Clemens, died. And now, August 25, 2015, Born to Run is 40 years old. It was great to see Springsteen and the E Street Band sing-off Jon Stewart with the rock anthem, but it's still hard not having Clarence on the defining sax sound. 

Born to Run. The song itself is exquisite poetry with a soul rousing sound. But every song on the album is extraordinary. For 3 generations now that collection of songs is a touchstone of yearning, love, and fear that touches the soul like few things can.  It's often said that the music of Bach is so complex and musically deep that it reveals the mind of God, and as a singer, I agree with that.  But Bruce. Bruce reveals the complexity of God's love for the strivings of humanity . . . and, clearly, his preferred groove (sorry Bach). 

In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream 
At night we ride through the mansions of glory in suicide machines 
Sprung from cages out on highway nine, 
Chrome wheeled, fuel injected,and steppin' out over the line
H-Oh, Baby this town rips the bones from your back 
It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap 
We gotta get out while we're young 
`Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run 

Wendy let me in I wanna be your friend 
I want to guard your dreams and visions 
Just wrap your legs 'round these velvet rims 
And strap your hands 'cross my engines 
Together we could break this trap 
We'll run till we drop, baby we'll never go back 
H-Oh, Will you walk with me out on the wire 
`Cause baby I'm just a scared and lonely rider 
But I gotta know how it feels 
I want to know if love is wild 
Babe I want to know if love is real 

Beyond the Palace hemi-powered drones scream down the boulevard 
Girls comb their hair in rearview mirrors 
And the boys try to look so hard 
The amusement park rises bold and stark 
Kids are huddled on the beach in a mist 
I wanna die with you Wendy on the street tonight 
In an everlasting kiss 

One, two, three, four!

The highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive 
Everybody's out on the run tonight 
But there's no place left to hide 
Together Wendy we can live with the sadness 
I'll love you with all the madness in my soul 
H-Oh, Someday girl I don't know when 
We're gonna get to that place 
Where we really wanna go 
And we'll walk in the sun 
But till then tramps like us 
Baby we were born to run 

The Death of the Big Man

It’s hard to lose a towering talent. My older brother was a fan of Southside Johnny and Bruce, that’s how I was introduced to the music. Born to Run then cut into my soul and touched every inch of its teen age fiber and I was cast as a fan for life.

Bruce and Clarence are both great storytellers with a love of the dramatic and the witty. Here’s a great story that Dave Marsh used at the end of his 1979 book,  Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story. It's from the 1978 tour, Bruce talking to the audience in the middle of Growin' Up. He's telling about his mom & dad and their attitude toward his rock dreams.

Bruce Springteen's Concert Patter

“Anyway, one day my mom and pop, they come to me and say, ‘Bruce, it’s time to get serious with your life, This guitar thing . . .it’s okay as a hobby but you need something to fall back on.' My father, he said, “You should be a lawyer’--which I coulda used later on in my career. He says, ‘Lawyers, they run the world.’

“But my mother used to say, ‘No, no, no, he should be an author, he should write books.’ But me, I wanted to play the guitar.

“Now, my mother, she’s real Italian, and my father, he’s Irish. So they say, ‘This is a big thing. You should see the priest. Tell him we want you to be a laywer or an author. But don’t say nothin’ about that God-damn guitar.’

“So I went to the rectory. ‘Hi, Father Ray, I’m Mr. Springsteen’s son.’ I tell him. ‘I got this problem. My father, he thinks I should be a lawyer, and my mother wants me to be an author. But me, I got this guitar.”

“Father Ray says, ‘This is too big a deal for me. You got to talk to God,’ who I didn’t know too well at the time. ‘Tell him about the lawyer and the author,’ Father Ray says, ‘but don’t say nothin' about that guitar.’

“Now I was worried. Where was I gonna find God, right? So I go find Clarence—-he knows everyone. Clarence says, ‘No sweat, I know right where he is.’ So I show up at Clarence’s house in my mother’s car-—an old Nash Rambler. Clarence looks at me. He says, ‘You gonna go visit God in that? Man, he’s got like, people in Cadillacs, you know, He aint’ gonna pay attention to anybody shows up in a Nash Rambler.’ But it’s all I got.

“So we drive way out of town, and I say to Clarence, ‘Man, you sure you know where we’re goin’?’ Clarence says, ‘Sure, I just took a guy out here the other day.’ So we finally come to this little house way out in the woods. There’s music blasting out and a little hole in the door.

“I knock and this eye peeps out. I say, ‘Uh, Clarence sent me.’ So they let me in. And there’s God, behind the drums. On the bass drum it says: ‘G-O-D.’ So I said, ‘God, I got this problem. My father, he wants me to be a lawyer. And my mother, she wants me to be an author. But they just don’t understand---I got this guitar.’

“God looks at me. He says, ‘I know, I know. See, what they don’t understand is, Moses screwed up. There was supposed to be an Eleventh Commandment. Actually, Moses was so scared after ten-—it was a great show, the burning bush, the thunder, the lightening, you shoulda seen it-—he went back down the mountain. You see, what those guys don’t understand is that there was supposed to be an Eleventh Commandment. And all it said was:


* * *

So now the Big Man has met the Man Upstairs. And if Bruce is right, then he’s right at home, letting it rock.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Three Musketeers, a la Richard Lester at the FIlm Society of Lincoln Center

Thanks to Andy Webster's NY Times article, I'm on my way to filling in the gaps of my Dumas on film knowledge. The Film Society of Lincoln Center is presenting Richard Lester: The Running Jumping Pop Cinema Iconoclast series. While I imagine many will be interested in seeing the classic Beatles films back on the big screen, I'm thrilled that they are including Lester's trilogy of the French classic brought to life by a bunch of Englishmen.  The first two films were shot at the same time, and broken into The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers because d'Artagnan does become a Musketeer midway through the novel. I've seen the former many times, and am happy to go see its counterpart.

That is followed by Lester's 1989 The Return of the Musketeers. The idea was to follow Dumas to his less well known own sequel, called Twenty Years After.  It's a terrific read, bringing our heroes to the scaffold of Charles I in England. I'm sure the film makes up its own plot, as it substitutes Milady's son for a daughter, played by none other than Kim Cattrall.  The film has a place in the annals of sad film notoriety because Roy Kinnear, who played Planchet, died as a result from an on-set accident, which, as the Film Society site tells us,

". . . lead Lester to renounce directing features. But the resultant film (never released in the U.S. and currently unavailable on DVD), with its jocularity and swashbuckling action, provides a fitting valedictory to both men’s careers."

This post of my love for the novels is one of my earliest for this blog, back in the day of 2007.

* * * * *
I watched a little of Richard Lester's 1974 The Three Musketeers the other evening for the fourth or fifth time, and it proved to be a powerful cinematic madeleine for me.

There’s nothing quite like a teenage passion, especially when it’s the discovery of a book or a film that recognizes your own DNA. The passion that made my heart sing at that simpler time in my life was the world of Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D’Artagnan.

Now no eye rolling out there.

Oh, I had visited with Sir Walter Scott, read the obligatory Victor Hugo, and danced a little with Sabatini. But nothing got under my skin the way Alexandre Dumas did with his novel The Three Musketeers and its sequels Twenty Years After and Le Vicomte de Bragelonne (or Ten Years Later).

I was self aware enough in high school to be a little concerned that I might be Miniver Cheever.

Mivinver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the mediæval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

Or, as Joni Mitchell explains it, “All Romantics meet the same fate some day/Cynical and drunk, and boring someone in some dark café.”

So I knew I was at risk, but reading the Musketeers was so exciting I couldn’t help myself.

It’s Dumas’s strength of voice. He moves the story along so easily, primarily through those masterful character pictures. We watch Entourage now, but what is that but an updating of this seminal story about the effect that true friends, real fellow travelers have on each other’s lives.

Steed had an interesting point about the 1998 Man in the Iron Mask film, that it was the old actor guard--Jeremy Irons, Gerard Depardieu, Gabriel Byrne, John Malkovich-- bowing, literally, to Leo DiCaprio, the new king. Dumas never wrote a novel with that title. It’s actually one plot line in the gargantuan Vicomte de Bragelonne that was later published as a freestanding book. One of my earliest, deeply literary experiences was finding the entire 9 volumes of Vicomte in the Hofstra University library when my older brother was there. He took them out for me one by one, and I needed to use folio scissors to open many of the pages. I felt like I had found a portal into the “world of literature.”

Get the Damn Motto Right
And so I have a serious fan’s sense of privilege when it comes to anything related to Dumas. Claude Schopp may be the preeminent Dumas scholar, but I’m his amateur counterpart.

And I must state, unequivocally, that the famous Musketeer quotation is

ALL for one, one for all.

Not the other way around. It comes at the end of chapter 9, and it’s D’Artagnan’s line, whether he says it in English or in French.
“And now, gentlemen,” said D’Artagnan, without stopping to explain his conduct to Porthos, “All for one, one for all--that is our motto, is it not?”

“And yet--” said Porthos.

“Hold out your hand and swear!” cried Athos and Aramis at once.

Overcome by example, grumbling to himself, nevertheless, Porthos stretched out his hand, and the four friends repeated with one voice the formula dictated by D’Artagnan: “All for one, one for all.”

Yes, the whole point is that the are ALL for one, not the ego of one for the group. I have seen it wrong everywhere, even in a WSJ article about the novel! Although I must say the fanfic community gets it right, and a Fraiser episode did too.

In November 2002 Dumas’s remains were disinterred from his home village and moved to the Pantheon where he rightfully took his place with France’s literary giants. His casket was draped with a blue covering, and there it said “Tous pour un, un pour tous.” Pictured above.

The French may get a lot wrong, but they are not going to get this detail wrong. This should put to rest any lingering confusion.

And Now “The Plot Thickens”

Even with all these deep connections I have to this writer, to these characters, my grandmother made it even more special.

Toward the end of her 93 years on earth, she was getting fuzzy about things. Not Alzheimer’s, just some hardening of the arteries. One day Grammy was talking to my mother, who was her sole caretaker, telling her that she had had a husband who was a mailman “who came home every day.”

My mother said, “Yes, I know Mom. Your husband was my father.”

Grammy looked at my mother with her bright, bright eyes, then dropped her head down, and with a little shake and smile, said “The plot thickens.”

It was one of the funniest family moments of all time.

And it is the title of Chapter 11 of The Three Musketeers, as Cardinal Richelieu's machinations unfold and we get closer to meeting the great villainess Milady. Dumas isn’t particularly credited with coining this phrase, but I couldn’t find an earlier citation for it. The French is L'intrigue se noue. 

 It is a rare teenage passion that gains more resonance as time goes by.

My own remembrance of my past love for this world has led me to order the new translation of 3M by Russian translator expert Richard Pevear that came out in 2006.

As for the length of this post, it must have something to do with that madeleine metaphor. I guess you evoke it at your own risk.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

What the Hell, Britannia: Minions AND Mission Impossible Spotlight London

I don't often partake of the summer movie madness, but I happened to see Minions and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation on one weekend, trying to beat the heat and get some deluxe air conditioning.

Mild spoilers ahead.

I saw Minions first, and I was charmed.  As many have said, the story is not that compelling, but spending time listening to the delightful gibberish and unquenchable élan of the distinctive little yellow ones more than makes up for any weakness. I like this description from The Guardian:

A ramshackle band of capsule-shaped, banana-yellow incompetents babbling like an unruly congregation of helium-sucking Esperanto-speakers don’t seem like your average celluloid heroes.

What I did not know before I went was that the plot centers around the arch villain Scarlett Overkill wanting to steal the actual Crown Jewels, right off the head of Queen Elizabeth II if necessary.

That brought our heroic trio--Kevin, Stuart, and Bob--to London for an extended sequence of lots of British humor/gags, including TV presenters having ubiquitous cups of tea in china cups; the trio popping out of the sewer at "Abbey Road" just as the even more famous quarter's legs are walking over it; Buckingham Palace; the Royal Corgis; the Tower of London; Bob assuming the throne (albeit shortly), and the Minion hordes landing on Albion's shores and taking afternoon tea in their bowler hats. It hits every cliche, I mean icon.

As charming as it all is, it seemed culturally tone-deaf for an American audience of elementary kids. Certainly seemed that way for the urban kids (of all races) I saw it with, and I don't know what kind of resonance all the Brit stuff is having in the Heartland. Although the solid gold soundtrack of classic British rock from The Stones, Kinks, Turtles, Who, and of course the Fab Four is timeless, and a great way to introduce the next generation to that collective brilliance. Illumination Entertainment, the production company, is based in Santa Monica. It was written by Brian Lynch, a guy from New Jersey. So again, I don't know what the Anglophilia was all about. (If they had based the plot around a surfing story a la Beach Boys, that would have made a little more cultural sense for the home team).

And Then There's Ethan's London

A mere 24 hours after the Minions, I was transported back to London in an Imax theater experiencing M:I. The IMF goes to Casablanca and Vienna, but London is given pride of place: the key action starts there, and the extended, clever ending sequence is British to the core. (One note: they could have had Ethan and Ilsa pass by some Pearlies as they are running through the backstreets. Maybe next time.) IMAX brought stunning aerial shots of London at night that truly transported the audience into Ethan's hyper-real, elite world.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation is a terrific action movie: funny, smart, sexy, it pays off in every small way you want it to. For me, the icing on the cake was the great use of the original TV music theme whenever the action became especially MacGyver-like on steroids (if I may mix my TV references).

A tale of two Londons: that of the Minions, and that of Ethan Hunt. Both slick, each idealized, a real moviegoing treat to see them both in one weekend. But it was a surprise to see that London, of all the world capitals,  is so front and center in the summer 2015 movie zeitgeist.

Oh, and a cautionary note for that other London film coming to the US in November. You had better step up your game, Mr. Bond.  Ethan Hunt has you on the ropes. And if MI beats Spectre in fan popularity and box office, then, in the immortal words of Alec Baldwin/Alan Hunley, it will "set US/UK relations back to the Revolutionary War." Oh yes, "KING BOB!"

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Appledore Revisited: I Am Charles Ryder (& Ishmael for Melville's Birthday!)

Happy Birthday, Herman Melville! Born August 1, 1819.

I read the stupendous Moby Dick in college, like generations before me.  My experience of the great American novel is that it is a symphony: some chapters seem to be independent movements, but you come away from the whole as though you have heard a musical masterpiece.

My own schooner sailing experience, however, has more resonance with Hemingway and Waugh.

“I felt that I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world.”

Charles Ryder, Brideshead Revisited

Last night I dreamt I went to the Appledore again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the dockyard, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me. I called in my dream to the captain, and had no answer.

Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me, and I was once again on the familiar douglass fir deck, underway with the enormous sails around me.

M.A.Peel via Daphne DuMaurier, Rebecca

I crewed for two summers during college on a schooner out of Sag Harbor, New York. The Appledore was the last schooner custom built by the Harvey Gamage Shipyard in South Bristol, Maine, in 1978, designed by Bud Macintosh. After Herbert Smith sailed it around the world, he sold it to Cornelius Donovan and Ed Orr, two wild dreamers who were making a business of day sails in Gardiner’s Bay, and overnights from Montauk to Block Island. That’s when I entered their story.

I had only just sailed for the first time in college, as a guest of a childhood friend and the Georgia Tech Sailing Club for their annual tradition of sailing from Miami to Bimini. We were under a pelting storm across the Gulf Stream throughout the long night, and it was thrilling. When I got back home I wanted to learn to sail. I saw an article in Newsday about big boat sailing on the East End. I wrote 3 letters asking to be apprentice crew, and got 2 job offers. And so I landed on the Appledore.

Ed Orr: A Sagaponack Hemingway

The man who offered me the Appledore job was her captain Ed Orr, a retired principal of Southampton High School who loved sailing and the life of skilled sailors. He had a soft spot for an Irish American English major, and he received my letter just as he was thinking that he needed a feminizing influence for his overnight sails from Montauk to Block Island (although those aren't the exact words he used). His real schooner sailors were colorful, if a little rough on the edges. (They turned out to be great shipmates.)

He had sunk his retirement money into the Appledore, and strove to run it without losing the joy of it. Cornelius Donovan was a true Mad Men ad man,  a silent business partner who didn't interfere with how Ed handled the sailing.

Ed had the timelessness of the sailor's soul. He could have been been a whaler during the 19th century or on the deck of a Roman trireme.  I didn't know him well,  but there was a commonality of place and time: like my father he was in the service, I think also a Marine, went to college on the postwar GI Bill, and raised a family in postwar suburbia. He was blustery, with the Irish gift of storytelling. It wasn't hard to see that he was frustrated by some of the life choices he had made and he was railing against his fate in ways large and small, unimportant and corrupt: a classic tortured soul.

The Funniest Day: Tough Time Docking on Block Island

This memorable day took its first turn when the real schooner sailors George and Bobby both didn’t show up, and we had a usual sail planned from Sag Harbor to Block Island, with about 10 guests.

The captain that day was a very young, very talented guy named Robbie who had gotten his GRT 200 commercial captain’s license at a very young age.

“Captain—no guys today, just me.”

“No problem, we’ll be fine.”

Hmmmm. Maybe.

We had the guests to help raise the main and foresail, and the winds were low that day, so the run to Block was—yes—very smooth sailing. That wasn’t the problem.

The sun was just starting to set as we motored slowly through the forest of anchored boats in New Harbor on the way to Payne’s dock. I am standing in the bow, holding the bowline to throw, as Rob--

[I Interrupt This Story for Several Important Notes: Everything on a schooner is supersized. Even a fairly small amount of line on a schooner is very heavy. Lines are usually thrown overhand, to get the distance needed between ship and dock. I, alas, did not yet have much upper body strength, being fresh from two years of English majorness, compounded by sophmore mono. George and Bobby always do this part. Narrative resumes. . . ]

bie is piloting the 86-foot schooner toward the dock under a low engine. He brings the ship in at an angle, to get me as close to the dock as possible before he has to straighten it out. And in that flow of motion, I throw the dock line with as much might as I have. But---SPLAT!!!—--right into the water. Without the bowline to anchor us, Robbie has to swing away from the dock, and I have to haul the now wet, heavier, line back into the ship.

Robbie circles us around in as tight a radius as the size of the ship will allow, and we are headed again straight for Payne’s.

The Appledore coming into port is a majestic sight—it often attracts a crowd. Chug, chug, chug--we are close again---again I pick up the line, and throoooooow it with all my might.

OHHHHHHHHH the crowd roars, as the line once again falls into the water, and Robbie has to peel off, again.

I was horrified. I was exhausted. I was scared. What if I can’t get this line onto land? Isn’t this how the Ancient Mariner’s world went horribly wrong?

I can barely write this, but my throw fell short a third time. We were entering Monty Python territory now. (I built a castle, but it fell in. So I built another castle, and it fell…), but it wasn’t funny.

For insurance reasons, the guests are not allowed in the bow during docking, so even though there are some good sized guys with the guests, I am on my own. Once again, I coil the evil line. Robbie shouts that he is going to come in even more slowly, which means he can get even closer to the dock.

Chug-chug–chug. There is now a very large crowd gathered, many rows deep, waving, shouting, pointing to our ship. Mercifully, they are a blur to me. (I should have never left the safety of the library.)

Several resourceful, Frat-looking guys are forming a human chain to hang out as far as possible over the dock. Someone yells at me, “Throw it underhand.”

We are now close enough that I can lob 2 feet of this cursed line to the guy at the end of the human chain. He cleats us, Robbie goes into reverse, cuts the engine, and we are home.

I didn’t have time to be too mortified at that moment. I help the passengers off the boat, dress the deck as usual, and go into town.

After dinner I go to Captains Nick’s, a friendly place where the sailing crowd dances.

I am relaxing at the bar, when a very good-looking man starts the “what brings you here” conversation with me. Now, during this summer, I was not above aggrandizing my job a little--tall tales are the way of the world on the water--but that night, I say, “I’m an apprentice sailor, learning big-boat sailing.”

He looks straight at me and smiles and says, “I know.”


“I tried to catch one of your dock lines today.”

At the public dock in Sag Harbor

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Agatha Christie and Our Independence Day

I recently saw the hashtag #125stories on Twitter, and landed on the hub that the Christie Estate created as lead-up to the celebration of Agatha's Christie's 125th birthday in September.

"Whilst digging through the Agatha Christie archive we stumbled upon something quite special – a huge box full of old fan letters addressed to Agatha Christie. Their envelopes were decorated with stamps from exotic locations from every corner of the world, and their contents was even more diverse. Some even had replies from Christie herself."

The Estate decided to ask we current readers to share our stories.

I thought Independence Day would a fine day to share mine. Sure, we threw off their Imperialist rule, but the cultural bonds between the US and the UK would not be severed. Not even by my Irish-American grandmother, who had no use for the English, but was not so hard-line to forsake being a huge Christie fan.

Another lovely crossover to July 4th is this: Christie wrote a fascinating memoir entitled Come, Tell Me How You Live, which I wrote about last year. Her title is a quote from verse three of the White Knight's poem, Haddocks' Eyes, from chapter eight of Through the Looking-Glass (1871). And it was on July 4, 1862, that Lewis Carroll rowed upon the Isis of Oxford University with Reverend Duckworth and the three daughters of Henry Liddell, including Alice, which lead to the much-loved Adventures in Wonderland (which I wrote about here).

My #125Story for Agatha Christie

The skulls. Those perfect, bright red, cloned-like skulls, all sitting in a row. They fascinated me, tantalized me as a young child.

You know, the ones on the side of mystery novels. 

In my local library they were the only books with symbols on the spine. The other books all had dull Dewey decimal numbers. But the mysteries . . . they got the ominous skulls.

I got focused on the skulls because of my Irish-American grandmother, Mary Walsh O'Neill. She was a voracious reader of mysteries and my father, her son, went to the library every week to pick out books for her. I went with him, and that's when I first saw them. The rows upon rows of the red skulls on the shelf, and then the stack of six or eight my dad would carry out, and off to Grandma's.  It was a  lovely ritual.

Grammy read a wide range of authors, but Agatha Christie was first among equals. My first direct encounter with Christie was the 1974 film Murder on the Orient Express, although I couldn't really follow it. But once I got to college, I was reading through the canon and enjoying every moment of it.

Most recently, I read her fascinating memoir, Come, Tell Me How You Live, engaging travel writing of her time on archaeological digs with her second husband, Max Mallowan. What an extraordinary woman to get to know. Thanks for the early introduction, Grandma.