Monday, August 17, 2009

state of the nation

“The unemployment rate is an abstraction …
but losing a job is a lived experience,
written on the nerves.”
Walter Kirn, writer, New York Times magazine

When I read this, it struck me as a poignant quote of what it must feel like to be one of those faceless unemployment statistics. He says of his own devastating retrenchment call, when it came through:
“I distinctly remember thinking, as the dispiriting conversation ended and I looked up to see my children’s faces smeared with hot fudge sundaes in the rearview mirror, that fatherly duty obliged me to wear a smile until I was alone, when I could weep.”

There must be many who can identify with those emotions, and it’s heartening to know of others out there who, after the first shock, are inclined to lie “in bed for three days straight eating cheese popcorn and watching pro wrestling”. That's exactly what he did.

Which brings me to the next bit. It’s official … the Federal Reserve says the downward slide of the longest recession since the Great Depression has hit rock bottom. Um … that means it’s levelling out.

There’s good news and there’s bad news:
The good … that financial markets and consumer spending have stabilised. In fact, in the last few months in Europe, France and Germany’s economies actually grew.
The bad … there ain’t no stopping unemployment at least till next year. And that means people are putting a hold on their non-essential spending for a little while longer. (Well, at least savings are making a comeback … makes a change from credit card meltdown.)

However, that's reason enough, subtle though it may be, to let out a gentle sigh of relief.

new york half marathon . . . it's so over!

So … the day I’ve been dreading for weeks and weeks is over! Cue applause. The New York Half Marathon is well and truly behind me, and all I have to show for it is some redness and chafing and stiff upper quads. And a galumphing dose of relief.
Nightmares are made of this…

It would be that the day dawned sticky and humid – the hottest day of the week. (Of course.) The weather bureau predicted a midday temp of 90ºF. That’s 32ºC! At 7:00am the humidity was 74%. So off we set in Central Park, together with thousands of other meshuggah (that’s Yiddish for ‘crazy’) runners – over 10,000 of them. You have to hand it to the organisers. Aware that it was threatening to be muggy and hot, they laid on so many extra water tables it was easy to drench yourself in cooling H2O at every mile. Which I did. (Hence the chafing.) And the regimental rows of those loathsome porta-potties was pretty impressive – you hardly had to wait in line to face your personal Armageddon. Mercifully, this time I managed to steer clear of that ‘end of days’ experience.

So … the route was great. One and a bit times around Central Park (it was a relief to escape the density of the air trapped beneath the tree canopy), then along Seventh Avenue to Times Square. Wow, you really felt like a star with the crowds lining both sides of the street, cheering behind the police barriers, and the mass of giant digital screens flashing and popping and zooming in and out – I just love the yellow cabs and synchronised troops of people marching across building facades, my favourite, a guy sliding vertically on a rope down a sliver of skyscraper.

Then we turned down 42nd Street all the way to the highway flanking the Hudson River (wonderful cooling breeze from the water!), and followed it to Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan. All along the route there were live bands and water sprays and clapping spectators. I got three high fives from people recognising my South-African-flag vest (yes … patriotic to the last).

The most delicious part of the race was the ice-cold face towels they handed out at the finish – no, it was seeing the “1 Mile to go” sign – okay, it was both. Then there were salted almonds and apples and pretzels, water and Gatorade and giant steel medallions as medals.
I take my hat off to the organisers, it's a real class act.

I can’t tell you it was easy. In fact, it’s getting harder and harder; I don’t think I’m cut out for this pain. (Yes, the memory was softened considerably by a glass of chilled champagne - or two - and lox and bagels, but …)

So, adieu, Queens Half – I’m not sure your roads are going to hear the pitter-patter of my feet…

Thursday, August 13, 2009

two men talking

All I can say is … Wow! And thank goodness a clinical psychologist friend of mine in South Africa urged me to go and see this performance. You can’t call it a play, because it’s simply two men talking, on a tiny stage with a bench and two chairs as props. But it’s the stories that come out of the men’s mouths, the slow unpacking of emotions and unfolding of secrets and previously unspoken things, that’s absolutely gripping. And the fact that both men are South Africans, with their unmistakably South African accents, yet holding prestigious positions at NYU and Columbia make this performance even more compelling.

Paul Browde is a psychiatrist practising in NY, and assistant clinical professor at NYU. Murray Nossel was a clinical psychologist in South Africa, got a Ph.D. at Columbia and is an Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker. Both men are co-founders of a storytelling training programme, Narativ, and both teach ‘narrative medicine’ at Columbia.

The storytelling is intensely personal, and begins with events in their own lives that have become embedded in their skin, affecting the way they see the world. As they talk, and peel off the layers of memory, and hurt, and long-held secrets, there is self-transformation and learning and new ways of seeing things.

I found my eyes pricking with hot tears, simply because they were my compatriots, reminiscing about a country we’d all grown up in and loved. And here we all were, so far away from home. But there was so much more. The Two Men Talking made us pause and reflect, they sang songs (a capella), they made us laugh – sometimes uproariously – they brought tears to our eyes.

I loved the way they were vulnerable and strong and funny. I loved how they spoke unapologetically about their maids. Yes, you could say they were ‘servants’ in a manner of speaking but it didn’t mean that the maids weren’t treated humanely or respected or loved. As children it was simply the climate they grew up in, it just was. Yet the two men talked with huge fondness and love for their maids, who were clearly an integral part of the family, so much so that both saw themselves as ‘second sons’ to these live-in women. The stories they told were about childhood and families, school tyrants and bullies, love and hurt, Aids and being HIV-positive, apologies and forgiveness.

The Barrow Theatre in the West Village was packed to the hilt. It was tiny, yet the applause was thunderous.
Find out more at

Cool things I ♥ about NY…

The steam billowing onto the streets through funnels and road grates from New York’s underground heating systems.

The way the subway express trains hurtle down the centre line at high speed, drowning out all sound with a deafening roar of clattering carriages . . . an adrenaline rush of noise and speed.

Watching the man across the way doing his daily T’ai Chi on the roof balcony of his apartment building. Very peace-inducing…

My fire-engine red Converse All Star sneakers.

My Betty Boop T-shirt.

Not so cool things about NY

:( In summer the subways are hot and steamy as a smelter’s furnace. We suspect someone went a little cuckoo the other day, overcome by the billowing heat and a lack of 02. A posse of eight police cars (at the very least) arrived in a cacophany of sirens and flashing lights at the subway right outside our apartment, offloading swarms of black-clad police officers who poured down the stairs like termites. We didn’t wait for the aftermath, but it was probably ugly. (Nice to watch such an effective police response system in full swing, though.)

:( New York’s air is filled with soot. If you live here long enough, you’ll periodically see thick black clouds of smoke charging out of the incinerator furnaces of the city’s apartment buildings. Almost Dickensian in its billowing blackness, the acrid, gritty fog is so dense it temporarily blots out the sky until mercifully dispersed by the wind. If your windows are open (like ours always are), you’ll find white window sills and cream suede couches covered in tiny grimy flakes that leave a smear when you try to smack them off.

steely dan's gaucho concert

Yes, yes, yes … we’re spoilt. We know it and appreciate it…
So a week after Chris Isaak, we returned to our hallowed theatre The Beacon (it’s in our neighbourhood, what can I say?) to watch one of two concerts by Steely Dan that faithfully reproduced a couple of their most classic albums, ‘Aja’ and ‘Gaucho’.

The big, lush, jazzy sound of Steely Dan was unmistakable, and it translated beautifully into a live performance. There were trumpets and trombones, drums and bass and electric guitars, electric keyboards and harmonica. Supported by three powerfully voiced female back-up singers, Donald Fagan’s strange yet utterly distinctive vocal chords sounded as good as ever.

After the band masterfully ran through the memorable songs of ‘Gaucho’ (one of the back-up singers walked over to an old-fashioned turntable and symbolically placed the needle on a spinning record), they launched into a run of their most well-loved songs to deafening whooping and whistling from the audience. New York audiences are definitely the most reactive and appreciative. In the aisle beside us, a couple was dancing and smooching endlessly; behind us a shaggy hippie type reeking of marijuana was twirling so wildly I feared he’d trip over his feet and tumble down the stairs. (He didn’t.) But it was a full two hours of Steely Dan’s big brass sound and we were seriously not disappointed.

chris isaak live!

Okay, I know, so we’re showing our age here… but I have to say, we walked into the gilted, Roman-inspired Beacon Theatre to see Chris Isaak with no expectations. Just an enjoyable evening listening to that amazing voice (and he’s still pretty dishy if you’re into cockroach-killer boots and that Elvis-style hair wave). Well, blue-eyed Chris took us completely by surprise. He is quite the showman, with an unexpected sense of humour, and had us cracking up throughout the night.

Hamming it up already with his first song, he leapt off the stage with a cordless microphone to get a better view of his audience, running up the aisle and jumping onto a seat (‘Hey, the view’s much better from here!’). Then he looked up at the crowded elevated balconies and decided he had to get much closer. So he dashed out of the auditorium and scaled the stairs to the upper echelons. All we could see were the rapt upturned faces of the people at the front of the theatre, clapping, laughing and roaring with applause. Who knows what he was getting up to.

That was the start… With enormous energy – his trick is to hop on one foot from one end of the stage to the other, all the while picking and twanging at his steel guitar – he swung through a repertoire of songs that ranged in style from gospel to haunting ballads to racy infectious rock ‘n’ roll. In a nutshell, he took our breath away.

Matching his sense of humour was a series of digital cartoon characters that flashed quirkily across a giant screen. At Chris’s song ‘Speak of the Devil’, a flaming-red devil-horned caricature with a malicious grin popped up behind him. During a gospel tune, he and two other musicians wearing matching embroidered shirts lined up to do a Shadows-style routine, taking synchronised steps and turning their guitars in unison.

A funny anecdote of his first meeting with James Brown had us laughing uproariously. When he sang the haunting Roy Orbison song ‘Only the Lonely’ in a voice crystal clear as Smirnoff vodka, you’d absolutely swear if you closed your eyes that it was Orbison standing there on the stage. The range of his voice … the inflections, the high notes and low notes…

And when Chris Isaak sang ‘Wicked Game’ his move was eternally wise. He reproduced it flawlessly, with no arty modifications or jazzing-up for a live performance. In the background his famous video with the absolutely gorgeous, green-eyed Helena Christensen played out, this time in grainy black and white. It was goose-flesh stuff.