Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Wednesday Evening in Williamsburg: nbART, OSA and DOT Unveil "Plan Ahead" by Magda Sayeg under the Williamsburg Bridge

We took the 5:57 p.m. Q59 bus at Union and Metropolitan Avenues through scenic Williamsburg over to South 5th Street and Wythe and walked over to Kent Avenue to see the North Brookyn Public Art Coalition (nbART), the Open Space Alliance of North Brooklyn (OSA), and the New York City Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Urban Art Program unveiling of Plan Ahead, a 600-square-foot knitted installation by internationally recognized Knit Graffiti artist Magda Sayeg.

Here's the press release stuff:
Plan Ahead was selected through a competitive process as part of the Urban Art Program’s pARTners track, which is designed to connect artists and community organizations to neighborhoods to create site-specific art for the public realm.

The Open Space Alliance for North Brooklyn provided additional support. Sayeg first participated in the DOT pARTners track in May 2009 when a team of local knitters covered 69 parking meters along Montague Street with knitted cozies. That Brooklyn public art project was commissioned by the Montague Street Business Improvement District.

Magda Sayeg, founder of Knitta, has taken knitting out of the home and into the streets.

The simple juxtaposition of woven material and the urban environments in which she places it, has inspired an entirely new a new approach to knitting. One that questions the assumptions of a traditional craft while adding a previously unused material to the world of street art.

When Magda began Knitta in 2005, it was her response to the dehumanizing qualities of an urban environment. By inserting handmade art into a landscape of concrete and steel, she adds a human quality that otherwise rarely exists.

Her work has been recognized or its influence on street art as well as the craft of knitting. Magda Sayeg is based in Austin, Texas.

Though the last unveiling we attended was for our late great-uncle Abe and took place at New Montefiore Cemetery, we've seen knitting in art projects before, mostly by Agata Oleksiak, who goes by the name of Olek and has a lot of work in New York City. We last saw Olek's work at the Festival of Ideas for the New City in June on the Bowery.

Magda Sayeg, though, is considered by many to be "the mother of yarn bombing.” In 2005 she knitted a blue-and-pink cozy for the door handle of her shop in Houston, and it proved so popular that she began knitting lamp posts and stops signs, and then there was no stopping her, we guess.

We couldn't attend the reception that followed the unveiling. It was at IndieScreen (not the Knitting Factory?), but we were on our way up Kent Avenue to hear what we could hear of Real Estate, Dr. Dog and Bright Eyes from the soccer fields of Bushwick Inlet Park.

We didn't have tickets but we planned ahead and didn't have to squoosh together our final A and D.

We just had to walk away.

(Video courtesy of stoptheweakness)

Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, RIP

We are heartbroken this morning to learn from the New York Times that the extraordinarily versatile and compelling novelist, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, has passed away. She was our friend and mentor and teacher, the most generous writer we've ever known, who taught us so much that we could have never repaid her in a thousand years.

Our diary book Spring in Brooklyn is dedicated to her. It takes place in the spring of 1975, the second semester of our (and everyone's) MFA program in Creative Writing at Brooklyn College, when we had a Fiction Tutorial with Susan. We had to fight to get assigned to her; the director of the fiction program favored metafiction, as did the other fiction writing professors, and Susan taught mostly in the poetry program.

But having read her first novel Falling and fallen in love with it, we knew we wanted to learn from someone who wrote more realistic fiction. Susan was an excellent critic and gave us practical knowledge about submitting (she said Gordon Lish at Esquire might write "Feh!" on a manuscript he disliked; she told us to send our stories with young female protagonists to women's magazines using our initials rather than our first name) and the details of the writer's life.

We have read with enormous pleasure nearly one of her incredibly varied books. The Times obituary by William Grimes gets that right:
Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, a novelist with a gift for evoking complex characters in the grip of extreme psychological stress and physical suffering, notably in “The Madness of a Seduced Woman” and the Vietnam War novel “Buffalo Afternoon,” died on Friday in Chicago. She was 71.

The cause was complications of a stroke, her husband, Neil J. Schaeffer, said.

Ms. Schaeffer made a strong debut with the semiautobiographical novel “Falling,” published in 1973, which captivated critics with its brisk, entertaining stroll through very familiar fictional territory: middle-class Jewish life in Brooklyn, psychoanalysis, the struggle for self-discovery and fulfillment.

Quickly, Ms. Schaeffer broadened her scope, deepened her sympathies and staked out more ambitious fictional ground. Her second novel, “Anya” (1974), a reimagining of wartime Poland and the experiences of a young woman who makes a new but unhappy life in New York, signaled another direction, confirmed in the expansive family novels “Time in Its Flight” (1978), set in 19th-century Vermont, and “Love” (1981), about two Jewish immigrant families whose story extends from the turn of the century to the late 1970s.

“The Madness of a Seduced Woman” (1983) reaffirmed Ms. Schaeffer’s talent for imagining the lives of women on the brink, in this case a transplanted farm girl in 19th-century Vermont whose obsessive love for a stonecutter leads her to commit murder and attempt suicide. Her trial is more than a judicial proceeding: it raises questions of choice, instinct, destiny and female identity.

Confounding readers and critics who regarded combat as the exclusive reserve of male writers, she turned to Vietnam for her eighth novel, “Buffalo Afternoon,” for which she conducted extensive interviews with veterans of the war. The story begins in Brooklyn, where an Italian-American teenager, Pete Bravado, enlists in the Army to escape an unhappy family life. He lands in hell when he is shipped off to Vietnam, and a second hell when he returns, prey to inexplicable rages and unexpungeable memories.

Almost unanimously, critics praised Ms. Schaeffer for the immediacy and conviction of her combat scenes and the psychology of men under fire. In a review for The New York Times Book Review, Nicholas Proffitt, a former Vietnam bureau chief for Newsweek, called it “one of the best treatments of the Vietnam War to date, and all the more impressive for the fact that its author never heard a shot fired in anger or set foot in that country.”

Ms. Schaeffer seemed somewhat surprised at the surprise.

“I did not find it difficult to write about men in war,” she wrote in a statement for her publisher, W. W. Norton. “Everyone believed it could not be done by a woman — as if men would somehow be alien beings to a member of the opposite sex. I have never understood that attitude.”

Susan Fromberg was born on March 25, 1940, in Brooklyn and grew up in Rockville Centre on Long Island. She studied literature at the University of Chicago, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1961, a master’s degree in 1963 and a doctorate in 1966, writing her dissertation on the novels of Vladimir Nabokov.

In 1967 she took a teaching position at Brooklyn College, where her future husband was a colleague in the English department and her students included Ramona Lofton, a poet whom she encouraged to write a novel. “Push,” published in 1996 under Ms. Lofton’s pen name, Sapphire, became a literary event and the basis of the 2009 motion picture “Precious.”

Ms. Schaeffer, who returned to the University of Chicago in 2002 to teach English and creative writing, published several poetry collections, including “The Rhymes and Runes of the Toad’ (1975) and “Alphabet for the Lost Years” (1976), and two children’s books, “The Dragons of North Chittendon” (1986) and “The Four Hoods and Great Dog” (1988). She was also a frequent contributor to the Book Review in the 1980s and ’90s.

In addition to her husband, Ms. Schaeffer, who lived in Chicago and South Newfane, Vt., is survived by two children, Benjamin, of San Francisco, and May Brown, of Colorado Springs; a brother, Jeffrey, of Los Angeles; and two grandchildren.

In her later novels, Ms. Schaeffer pursued what she liked to call “the autobiography of the imagination.” She treated subjects as various as Greta Garbo, explored through a fictional double in “First Nights” (1993), and the conflicted love of twin sisters for each other in “The Golden Rope” (1996). Her penultimate novel, “The Snow Fox” (2004), took her to medieval Japan, where female passions confront cruel circumstance — a constant in the author’s imaginative world.

We were just getting to know Susan in the spring of 1975, but after that semester, we continued to seek out her advice and guidance. She helped us get more than one teaching position and publication, and we corresponded for decades afterward. In 1978 we wrote a "cameo of the poet," a little profile of her for the Buffalo-based poetry magazine Buckle. Her versatility and her encouragement to reach past our comfort level as a writer made her an inspiration.
From Spring in Brooklyn:
April 14, 1975
Today I went to see Susan Schaeffer give a lecture in SUBO. I really admire her, for she seems to be “together.” She says her dream is to stay in the Neponsit Home for the Aged for a few weeks and to be waited on and not have to do anything, as she’s been teaching full-time since she was 23.

Susan appears to be such a “regular” person despite her recent success. “You go to another city and people make a fuss over you like you were something special,” she said. “And then you go home and your family still thinks you’re lazy and your kids think you’re stupid or whatever.”

Wednesday April 23, 1975
Susan Schaeffer liked “Alice Keppel” a lot, the other stories less so. She said I should send it out and not worry about rejection notices; she’s gotten as many as 300 a year. She let Prof. Mayer read the story and he thought it was good.

Susan seems to be really interested in me as a writer; usually, she’s really tight with just the Poetry people. And she doesn’t seem spoiled by her success and didn’t seem perturbed about not winning the National Book Award, but of course she’s had a week to regain composure – although I doubt that she needed to.

The hour tutorial went so fast; it’s a pity we have only more tutorial left, for she’s taking a leave of absence next year.

We know that many other friends, readers and former students of Susan's are feeling as bad as we do at the moment. Our deepest sympathies go out to Neil, who was our boss once, and to her children and other family members.

Susan said, "You never know how a story ends until you read the last page." We're devastated that we can never hear from Susan again, but we will reread some of her books to the last page and keep her in our hearts.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tuesday Night in Waterside Plaza: Curious Frog Theatre Company presents "Two Gentlemen of Verona" at the Plaza

We've just come back from seeing another entertaining Shakespeare production by the excellent Curious Frog Theatre Company: their sparkling, sexy, slimmed-down 1980s version of Two Gentlemen of Verona,

played outdoors tonight at the Waterside Plaza apartment complex overlooking the East River.

This was the fifth time we'd seen the Curious Frog troupe, but we'd never been to Waterside Plaza before, despite working for years just a few blocks away. Their outdoor plaza, open to the public, isn't an ideal setting although it has a raised stage; the cast had to compete with noisy generators and helicopters taking off.

Yet the actors still managed to convey the truly curious mixture of light-as-air comedy and bizarre betrayals that make up what is generally thought to be Shakespeare's first dramatic effort and one of his lesser comedies. Their line readings were generally fine (even when the nimble puns are nearly incomprehensible to the average contemporary theatergoer), and some of the physical comedy was among the best we've seen in outdoor Shakespeare.

A particular standout in the small cast of eight (Two Gentlemen has the fewest characters of any Shakespeare play, and you can tell it's a fledgling effort by the way he can't deftly handle dialogue between any more than three characters at a time) was a zany Krystine Summers in the comedy's most crowd-pleasing role as the servant Launce, who with his flea-bitten dog Crab (played here by a lovably worn orangey stuffed animal), made us laugh more than anyone did this entire summer.

She was indeed funnier than the only other Launce we've seen: the great actor Dylan Baker, playing against type in the Central Park New York Shakespeare Festival 1987 production. (Hey, that was actually in the 1980s.) Two Gentlemen of Verona can be very funny, as here, and it also prefigures some of the themes of love and loyalty that Shakespeare will develop in a more mature way in his later comedies (and his Verona-set play, Romeo and Juliet).

The story is relatively simple: Proteus and Valentine are two gentlemen of Verona. Proteus initially loves Julia and Valentine falls in love with Sylvia. But then Proteus falls for Sylvia too. All repair to a forest, where Julia is disguised as a boy. And as in other Shakespeare comedies, love finds its way in a remote setting when a heroine disguises herself a male. But Proteus's betrayal of his BFF Valentine and his beloved Julia just upon seeing the lovely Sylvia always seems highly problematic.

Here all is played with extremely fluffy comedy: when Proteus (played with eye-popping unstable energy by Emilio Aquino, whose innate decency somehow manages to transcend the character's uglier side) first sets eyes on Julia, the action goes into slo-mo as heart-stopping music blares. That makes it easier to try not to think about the implications of his treachery and selfishness, and Valentine's end-of-play turn-on-a-dime forgiveness of his buddy, whom he's just seen attempting to sexually assault his girlfriend.

Apart from Krystine Summers and Emilio Aquino, we saw top-notch work from all the actors in this production, directed by ReneƩ Rodriguez (who also directed the Romeo and Juliet and Midsummer Night's Dream: the Scavengers we liked so much in the past two summers; she also played Cassius in the company's Julius Caesar we saw a week ago in Fort Greene Park).

In the other comic servant role, Robert J. Dyckman (who directed Julius Caesar) has leahter-jacketed wise-guy aplomb as Speed; he seems more Corona than Verona, and it works.

Angela Sharp, whom we thought excellent as Calpurnia a week ago, here portrays Julia as a ditzy but resourceful riot grrrl, matched in effervescence by her confidante/maid Lucetta (Umi Shakti), who's constantly egging her on. Julia's scenes with Proteus give off both light and heat as early on, they pretty much can't keep their hands off one another.

As the play's nominal hero, the noble Valentine, Justin Maruri matched the exuberance of his friend and rival Proteus, but also exuded sweetness and earnestness in his both his heterosexual passion and his commitment to the bromance with the other gentleman of Verona.

James Ware, authoritative last week as Julius Caesar, brought some gravitas to the play's most mature (in every sense) characters, Proteus's father, the decisive but casual Antonio, and Sylvia's father, the stuffy, formal but clever Duke of Milan.

And as the golden uptown girl of Milan, Bushra Laskar was alternatively ardent, flighty, and petulant -- she makes Sylvia worth fighting for even if the song "Who is Sylvia?" doesn't quite have a definitive answer.

The cast wore variously funky, comfy and stylish Eighties fashions thanks to the costume design by Samantha Guinan, and the dialogue was nicely highlighted by the background music featuring a blaring playlist of some of the decade's better songs.

The action romped back and forth a couple of times from the stage on the north side of the plaza to a strip of grass on the south side, representing the forest to where Valentine is exiled and joins the outlaws (played by Dyckman, Shakti, and Summers) following a highly stylized and comic fight scene (directed by Rocio Alexis Mendez).

This back-and-forth entailed moving the audience, mostly Waterside residents with lots of older folks as well as little kids (some scooted around during the performance), and while we didn't mind one bit, a few people obviously had trouble literally following the action.

We would have preferred to see this production in daylight (the company will be doing Julius Caesar here at 4 p.m. on Saturday, September 10), and there were some problems catching the lines due to sporadic noise, but night lent the convoluted hijinks touches of whimsy and insouciance, as befits this lightweight, frothy comedy, fittingly set in a lightweight, frothy decade.

We're grateful for Curious Frog Theatre Company's presenting Two Gentlemen this summer in such a festive, colorful package.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Late Saturday Afternoon in Williamsburg: Metropolitan Avenue Prepares for Hurricane Irene

After 4 p.m. today we went out during a lull in the pre-hurricane rain to get a couple of 9-volt batteries so we can listen to the radio if (when?) the power goes off. The great Crest Hardware store was ready for Irene. They're staying open till 7 p.m.

Down Metropolitan Avenue, dueling deli/newsstands have taped up their windows.

Around the corner, some of New York's Bravest, two FDNY firefighters, as well as a couple of dog walkers, were at Sunac. No word if the market will stay open 24 hours as usual.

Across Union Avenue, Kellogg's Diner half-heartedly taped up its windows. There were a lot of people inside, as they were elsewhere, at the Macri Park Bar, San Marcos Pizza, etc.

The subway was closed, of course.

The person in this billboard by the BQE is what we imagine Hurricane Irene looks like.

According to our friends at Free Williamsburg, Hurricane Irene can potentially destroy our neighborhood. We live across one street from a Zone B evacuation area and across another street from a Zone C evacuation area. Why we are in a no-evacuation zone, we have no idea.

We wish everyone good luck in weathering the storm.
# # #
UPDATE, SUNDAY 5 P.M.: We are all fine here, with no damage except a lot of leaves and a few branches on the ground. No flooding or loss of power here. We are very grateful for that and know that many others were not as lucky.

Saturday Morning in Williamsburg: Awaiting Hurricane Irene on Conselyea Street

A car ready to greet Hurricane Irene.

A story from Richard Grayson's Eating at Arby's: The South Florida Stories (Grinning Idiot Press, 1982)

A scary warning

“Oh, oh,” said Manny one afternoon.

“What’s wrong, Manny?” asked his wife Zelda, who was in the Florida room sweeping away little salamanders.

“They just said on NewsWatch 10 that there’s a hurricane warning.”

“Oh, no,” said Zelda. “What does that mean?”

“That means a hurricane is probably going to strike South Florida. We must get ready for the hurricane, Zelda.”

“How do we do that?”

“First, we have to make sure we have food in the house. If there is a hurricane, we cannot go to buy food at Publix or to eat out at Arby’s. Then we have to board up our windows. After that we need to buy batteries for our flashlight. And then we should fill up our station wagon with gas.”

“I’m scared of hurricanes, Manny.”

“The important thing is to be prepared. If you are prepared, Zelda, there is no reason to get scared.”

“I suppose hurricanes are just a fact of life for us here in South Florida,” said Zelda.

“Yes, but hurricanes are not always so bad. Besides, our weather is almost always beautiful.”

“Yes, Manny, our weather is almost always beautiful. I guess hurricanes aren’t that scary. I feel better now.”

“Good for you, Zelda,” said Manny. “Now we can get out our map and track that hurricane!”

Friday, August 26, 2011

Twenty-Six Years Ago in Brooklyn: The Last Hurricane/Earthquake Combo in New York, 1985

As we await Hurricane Irene from outside an evacuation zone (Zone B is across one street here in Williamsburg, Zone C across another) and reflect on the shaking bed incident (we knew it was an earthquake immediately: see below) on Tuesday afternoon, we thought about 1985, the last time we were living in Brooklyn and experienced both an earthquake and hurricane within a short time.

Here are the hurricane and earthquake excerpts from our book, Indian Summer: Park Slope, the third volume of The Eighties Diaries:

Friday, September 27, 1985

8 PM. Today was Hurricane Friday, but as I suggested last night, Gloria didn’t live up to her advance billing. Last night the Mayor announced that public schools would be closed today, and private schools, CUNY and other colleges, banks, the stock exchange and most businesses followed suit.

Things sounded awful this morning; the TV stations had hurricane alerts which tried to get people to take the storm seriously. Because they’ve evacuated Fire Island and other shore communities, I was worried about Grandma Ethel, especially after they told Rockaway residents to leave.

I called Grandma several times but she wasn’t moving. “It will pass,” she said. She did have a neighbor tape up her windows and glass terrace door, though.

I went out to Key Food at 8 AM and everyone was busy buying food and candles and batteries. People were more polite than usual and waited patiently on the long lines. The storm certainly seemed fierce; I got soaked to the skin, and my umbrella was useless against the winds.

Back on TV, forecasters said a “worst-case scenario” was approaching, with Gloria due to make landfall in mid-Long Island with 120 mph winds. But although the storm caused lots of felled trees and power lines and a good bit of property damage, it was no killer.

Coming at low tide and moving through the area very quickly, Gloria didn’t cause heavy flooding at the beach. “The beach is still here,” said Grandma Ethel, recalling that back in 1971 the ocean was under the boardwalk.

It turned out that Grandma’s relaxed attitude was more appropriate than my media-fed anxiety. Here in Brooklyn, we had heavy rains and wind – there are a lot of trees and branches down – but by 1 PM, the sun was out and it seemed calm.

I knew that was the eye of the hurricane, though, and expected worse; however, all we got after that were whipped-up winds from the other direction and a little rain. The skies cleared, and out on Seventh Avenue, people were walking around with smiles, cheerfully enjoying an unexpected holiday.

Saturday, October 19, 1985

8 PM. I didn’t get to sleep till about 11 PM last night; my sleepiness faded, and I watched "Dallas" and "Miami Vice." The latter show made me homesick when I saw Biscayne Bay, the Freedom Tower – Miami’s only stately skyscraper – and other streets that looked familiar.

I was awakened at about 6 AM by a loud rumble, and for a second or two, the room seemed to shake. The lighting fixture was swinging back and forth.

“An earthquake,” I thought – and then, “Don’t be silly. It must be an explosion or something.” And I forgot about it until our break at Columbia, when Dipti, a fellow student said, “Did you feel that earthquake this morning?”

By then, I’d figured I’d dreamed or imagined the whole thing. Kenny, in the next room, told me he didn’t feel anything, nor did Grandma Ethel in Rockaway.

But it was a quake centered in Westchester, measuring 4.3 on the Richter scale: very mild, but enough of a jolt to wake me up.