Category Archives: Music

Natasha and Pierre on Broadway

Well, yes, only in New York, sure. An electro-pop opera in a night club. In a tent. On a parking lot. In Times Square.

On line outside Kazino supper club, on a Wednesday night, we wait in the cold.


There are many sweet and stylish young couples.


Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812  takes place two centuries before us. A young theatrical wizard named Dave Malloy concocted the musical production. Will there be relevance in the enterprise?

A handsome man in a Tolstoy tee shirt waits for admission.


The company’s names appear on sheet metal inside the entryway. You know you’re not in Kansas anymore.


Inside, cocktail tables. Grey Goose available at $240 the bottle. Hot pierogies materialize, and short glasses of pink borscht that look like votive candles.

A big babe of a man called Royce strides around acting the hostess. Cossack hat, fur slouched over the shoulders, in a leopard skirt. Welcoming everyone.


There are voluptuous wine-colored curtains all around, hung with “vintage” paintings, including one of Napolean.


The actors prance onto the floor, belting it out. Suddenly, the show has begun.

There’s a leading lady straight out of Julliard, who really knows how to warble.


Tolstoy would say the actresses are “nude” because they have bare shoulders. They range the room along with the dashing young actors; the scene changes from the opera to a drawing room to a gypsy lair. Lovers Natasha and Andre are parted when he goes off to war, Natasha is seduced by Anatole, then finally forgiven by Pierre. A simple plot delivered with much gnashing of teeth, tears and sexy dancing. The audience is given egg-shaped shakers to accompany the musicians.

183792455The finale has Pierre singing a haunting tune to the Great Comet of 1812, represented by one of the night club’s old-fashioned chandeliers. It’s  goose-bump-making, breathtaking.


Did I mention the play’s based on War and Peace?

Only in New York. And Moscow.


Filed under Culture, Dance, Fashion, History, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Writers

Victorian Waltz and Tea

Writing a novel in which Gilded Age debutantes dance with their swains in the gaslit ballrooms of fashionable New York made me want to get some nineteenth century dance moves under my belt. Or, rather, under my crinolines. So I brought my best Tigger kicks in to Manhattan for an afternoon of 1-2-3, 1-2-3.

Tigger kicks

Susan de Guardiola, our elegant yet earthy instructor, came down from Connecticut. She generally teaches what she calls Jane Austen classes – picture Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice, sashaying down the line, all aglow.


I always preferred Matthew Macfadyen in that movie. Does he show up at any of Susan’s classes? She teaches not only English country dancing but about 12 other kinds and is a true authority in her field, with a website called Capering& Kickery  that gives all kinds of background on Victorian and Regency-era dance.

“If everyone’s good enough,” she told us at the start, “we’ll progress to jumping.” Such, I will tell you now, was not to be. It was baby steps for many of us, even as we behaved very well and tried very hard.


The last time I waltzed was in seventh grade cotillion, wearing a micro-mini dress and short white gloves. I loved it. But that was a long time ago. And a far cry from a tiny dance floor in the back room of a tile shop, in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.


Today, some women wore black dance shoes and a man came in wearing a steampunk-style leather top hat. You don’t see that every day on the streets of New York. “Shall I put my hair up because I’ll get all hot and sweaty?” asked a curly-haired woman. “I usually do,” said Susan.

This class was offered under the auspices of the New York Nineteenth Century Society, an outfit that takes seriously its mission: it  “unites historians, scholars, artists, philosophers, dreamers, and impresarios inspired by the 19th century.” Recently they had a Nineteenth Century Extravaganza, for which everyone put on their full Victorian regalia. Next up is an archery event. Yes! Perhaps I’ll attend. Savage Girl is an expert archer, as were many young ladies of the late 1800s.


“The 1880s, 1890s were the root of modern ballroom dance,” said Susan. It turns out that the waltz changed seven or eight times in the course of its development, becoming faster, closer, more stylized. The dip back we expect from the female partner now didn’t used to exist.


“I’ll tell you the secret of this kind of dancing,” said Susan. “It works if you do it on the balls of your feet.”


“When this waltz gets going,” she said, “it flies around the room.” She might have been a tad optimistic.

This was a lesson in shoulder blades. The man should place his hand on the woman’s left shoulder blade (“that’s the sharp thing sticking out of her back,” said Susan) though in Victorian times when everyone wore corsets and your posture was therefore better, your partner could put his hand farther down your back. The woman holds her left hand against the man’s right shoulder, above his chest, to help push him around during the turns.

We learned the gavotte glide, a slide to the right followed by a turn, and we learned the importance of leading with your toe, Victorian style. Susan suggested we lean in and not worry about the various “bits” of us that might touch. We passed partners around the circle, dancing with utter and complete strangers, experiencing waves of cologne, perspiration, different kinds of breath, good and not-so-good manners. Everyone tried hard. I got one partner, Jake, a couple of times, and we shared laughs over each other’s clumsiness. He suggested we hold a hand behind us, as I might do holding a bunch of petticoats.

hands cocked

Jake high fived me when we came to a halt semi-successfully. Very Victorian.


Lesson over, Gil and I proceeded outside, where a young dancer waiting for a tango class advised me that rubber soles such as the ones I had on might cost me an ankle. “I hope you keep it up,” she told me and Gil kindly. “Maybe I’ll see you on Dancing with the Stars.”

On the street, I asked Susan how to improve. “Practice five minutes every day,” she said. “Go to a supermarket and practice down all those wide aisles.” You don’t need to do it all at once. “Sleep on your lesson,” she said, “and you will do better the next day.”

We hadn’t had enough Victorian flavor so we went afterward for high tea at a place called Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon. It was on the first floor of a Gramercy Park hotel, The Inn at Irving Place, carved out of two adjoining brownstones that date back to 1834. Washington Irving was said to have spent some time in a house down the street, enhancing the old-fashioned aura of the neighborhood. The online reviews I read said a man would not be welcome at the establishment, so of course Gil wanted to go.

jz tea

Lights were turned down low and the whole effect was gracious and mellow and ladylike, even if there were a few male interlopers.

tea room

We chose our freshly steeped tea from a menu of 27 varieties. The “Lady Mendl,” which I selected, was hot and heavenly, especially after waltzing for two hours.


Darjeeling scented with bergamot, it was named after Lady Mendl herself – none other than the society woman Elsie de Wolfe, one of the first people to make her fame as an interior decorator. It’s said she had the expression “never complain, never explain” stitched on her throw pillows.


There was an amuse bouche consisting of a butternut squash tart with crème fraiche. Tea sandwiches. We were rolling. Everyone in the room appeared happy, or rather, high. High on hot, fragrant tea.

We reminisced about the banyan I made Gil one Christmas. Banyans are the “exotic” silk robes colonial men wore when they were at home at leisure, with their temporarily unperiwigged pates covered in caps.


There were, of course, scones and clotted cream. I ate some of the cream on a spoon to make sure it was property clotted.


As if that wasn’t sweet enough we had millefeuille cake with more cream, and chocolate-covered strawberries. In my opinion the strawberries are a specious addition, since a century ago you couldn’t get the kind of giant fruit they dip now. Not that I’m complaining.

choc strawberry

“It’s good to do something you don’t ordinarily do,” I opined with Victorian superciliousness. “It makes you grow.”

“It makes you groan,” said Gil, ready to go back to the Cabin, put his feet up and his banyan on.


Filed under Culture, Dance, Fashion, Fiction, Film, History, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Publishing, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing

Pumpkin Pie Women

Coming home from the supermarket, laden with cans of pumpkin and condensed milk, listening to the cheekily wonderful tune, Thou Swell, Thou Witty, Thou Grand, which Rodgers and Hart collaborated on in 1927.

The girls are coming to my kitchen – the women, the college women, to spend an afternoon producing pumpkin pies. It’s golden and smoky around the cabin,  warm and cozy inside.

golden cabin

We’re trying to raise money for a trip to Senegal in May, Maud tells me, cutting the butter into the flour, cracking a dozen eggs. BuildOn, the organization chapter she runs at Columbia, travels to other countries to build schools.

maud w eggs

It’s this times three, right, says Jess, her school buddy, intent on the recipe.


We’re baking six pies for Maud’s campus bake sale tomorrow, to be sold by the slice. Lots of cinnamon, lots of ginger, lots and lots of canned pumpkin.

You are so graceful, goes the lyrics of Thou Swell: Have you wings?/You have a face full of nice things.

Pumpkin is the simplest pie, the easiest to please. Like pudding, nice and sweet. Almost as sweet as these two at the kitchen table.

maud and jess

Each person has to raise $2,000, says Maud. We have $275 so far. That’s okay, she’s easy. At Fall Fest a bunch of other organizations will get together and raise money for her group. They do that, help each other out.

We’re also collecting dresses on campus and giving them to a consignment shop – we get sixty percent of the profit, says Maud.


So we need six teaspoons, says Jess. People die from overdosing on cinnamon.

Jess is a fan of buildOn, though her own time is spent as the treasurer of a new group called Scientista, which promotes women in, you guessed it, the sciences.

They’re so busy, these women. They dig in to everything. If you’re the first person to contribute fifty dollars or more to buildOn this season, you’ll get a free copy of Walk in Their Shoes, by Jim Ziolkowski, the president of buildOn, which tells the story of founding the outfit. Maud’s staying home this year but she’s still raising money.

Both thine eyes are cute too;

What they do to me.

Hear me holler I choose a Sweet lollapaloosa in thee.

How do they manage it all? Jess: You’re doing something wrong if you’re not rushing around doing xyz.

This is a vat, says Maud, stirring.


There’s some swooning over old Gavin deGraw, Chariot, and amazement at the tale of a friend he plucked off the concert floor.

Some bemoaning of chipped nail polish.

Crimping uncooperative pie dough isn’t in the customary lesson plan, but they make do pretty well.


People have different love languages, Maud says, quoting some psychologist.

Six pies go in the oven.

oven pies 1

I’m going to bake a pumpkin pie when I go home next, says Jess, My mom’s going to freak out.

Thou swell, thou witty, thou grand.


Filed under Cooking, Culture, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Music

House Plants on Parade

There are certain people, and I won’t name them, who believe that house plants are boring.

For the most part these are men.

My Thanksgiving cactus has decided to get an early start this year, so it’s pushing out the new, light-green segments that are called “articles” with abandon, and showing off plenty of exciting hot pink buds.

thanksgiving cactus

There, reader, are you male or are you female?

Today, inspired by my Thanksgiving cactus, I went down the road to Kitchawan Farm and saw Linsay, who manages the place, and who was offering a pop-up sale of geraniums and other house plants, along with a warming fire, hot tea, fresh-dug jerusalem artichokes and the last field flowers of the year.

On my way to the stuga, the cottage where the sale was taking place, I fed an apple to a horse with a splendid white blaze named Trix, who polished it off in a single bite. We had just come from Thompson’s Cider Mill and were loaded down with heirloom apples, Crispins and Russets and Jonathans, the kind that can’t be obtained in any supermarket, plus three huge Northern Spies for pie.

red apple

Linsay knows quite a bit about house plants, among many other things. She has a hundred in her own home, and the ones on the two tables she’d set out came mainly from her own cuttings. Three dollars a pot, a good deal, expecially when it comes with a cup of hot tea on a bracing October day.

linsay with plant

In the shade beside the stuga she explained the habit of the walking iris, which might get away from you in a garden bed. At home I’ll keep a watchful eye on it. Some day soon it’s going to give me showy flowers that look like a cross between an orchid and an iris. I hope in the dead of winter, when there are snow drifts against the window.

walking iris

The epiphyllum, in the cactus family, hails from Central America, where it climbs trees and makes a strong hallucinogenic drink. It also promises a large red or white bloom, and, since it comes from the jungle, doesn’t expect much sun. Good, because sun is in short supply in the Cabin. Count me in.


The geraniums were irresistable, especially the heirloom double rose type. Linsay has Sweden in her blood and convinced me that bright windowsills need at least one of this flower. So, realizing I did in fact have one sunlit spot, I got two.

geraniniums 2

Why is it that geraniums have become associated with old ladies? Anyway, is there anything wrong with that? Even such a hipster as Bob Dylan liked them well enough to use the turn of phrase “geranium kiss” in Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.

Old ladies, I guess, have always known more about purifying the environment, keeping the air around you sweet-smelling and healthy. Spider plants as vitamins.

It had been a hard frost last night, the first of the year, and at Kitchawan they’d managed to harvest all the cutting flowers. Dahlias, my favorite, and zinnias, and a dozen other varieties with the spice of fall. Lavish, bursting with color, unlike the demeanor of some house plants, which might be demure and even a little forlorn at times.

flowers from the garden

Linsay was making a specially crafted bouquet for every person who bought a plant. It was kind of sad, she said, and kind of a relief for the season to be over. Now she could get to her other projects, her writing and her art, and do her other job of helping people organize their lives.

She organizes her plants with equal dedication. And here’s the thing. People who take these cuttings and nodules and hopeless-looking sections of stem, pot them up, test the soil, sprinkle in the proper quantity of water – they have a strong desire to organize, to fertilize, to nurture. To make things right. My mother, my best friends, the finest women I know have been wed to their house plants. Not that there’s anything wrong with a shockingly beautiful fresh-flower bouquet.

linsay bouquet

I’ve divided my last year’s overgrown aloe vera into four new pots, found the offspring four new homes at windows where the light is just right. I want to be an old lady.


Filed under Culture, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Nature

Mums the Word

The kiku were fragrant, lovely to look at, cool to the touch.


I had been in a mood. My foot was slower to heal than I’d like. I had a cold. I didn’t feel like working.


So I got myself to The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. It was offering its annual chrysanthemum show.

delicate white

As soon as the door swung shut behind me – the exhibit is indoors, in the haute-Victorian 1902 glass expanse of the Enid Haupt Conservatory – a feeling of bonhomie settled over me.

BG, Bronx

A feeling of chrysanthemum-induced ecstasy, a tranquil happiness enhanced by the Japanese flute music piped in to the gallery.

spangle 2

You could call on your phone for information on these amazing flowers, which had been trained for a year to be massed in geometric shapes by horticulturalists. They start with one stem, and pinch it off again and again until they wind up with a hundred flowers in rows, held in place by metal frames.


That’s the back of one display. “You tell the plant how many flowers it’s going to have,” said the disembodied voice on the phone when I called for info. Called ozukuri, the practice somehow appealed to me. The human hand so obviously taming nature.

flower in frame

year by year passes

thinking of being thought of by


So mused the nineteenth century poet Masaoka Shiki in one of the poems displayed along the garden’s walkways.

I couldn’t help but be contemplative. Chrysanthemum-contemplative. Consider the Ogiku, diagonal rows of pink, yellow and white, like, they used to say, the bridle of the Japanese emperor’s horse.


China introduced Japan to the flower in the fourth century, and the emperor soon made it his personal crest. In 1878 he opened an exclusive park to show off the plants grown in his garden. Since the 1920s that viewing opportunity has taken place in the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo.

Chrysanthemums are members of the aster family. There are 13 species, some fat and regular, others ragged, others spider-like, others spoon shaped, the anenome with a disk for an eye. Here they all were.

Everyone was snapping pictures, as they always are, everyplace you go nowadays.


I like the big’uns.

vivid yellow 2

I have to control myself not to publish all the pictures of them that I took.

white pink yellow

Some were big as a grapefruit.


Some almost the size of a newborn’s head.

Like circus animals, they could be trained to do anything, even climb up a tree, an enormous flowery bonsai.


I love their peppery, spicy scent and the cool, slightly rubbery feel of their petals. I was ready to pitch my tent and lie down to sleep beside the smooth-stone-bottomed pool that so glamorously reflected the mums’ enormous heads.

A woman crowed to her friend, “This is the color you wore to my wedding thirty years ago!” Well, yes, that butter yellow was the color of my bouquet, as it happened.

vivid yellow



in the garden,

the worn-out sole of a shoe

Kiku plants need 14 hours of darkness every day as they develop into glamour pusses like the ones in this exhibit. They spent a lot of time with a black cloth thrown over their heads.

Now that they’re out the bees want a piece of them.


I left the gallery, walked to the exit door and stopped in my tracks. You know the way you finish a book you loved and you turn to the beginning, to the first chapter, to start again? I proceeded back into the kiku gardens and took another look at everything as if for the first time.


Filed under Culture, History, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Nature, Photography, Poetry

What a Wonderful House

The walls can talk in Satchmo’s house. Literally. Standing in Louis Armstrong’s den in his longtime residence in Corona, New York, we heard his perfect rumbling tones describing his inspiration for What a Wonderful World – the children of his neighborhood in Queens. The docent had pressed a button. The effect was magic.

Louis kids

We were visiting the Louis Armstrong House Museum, where the atmosphere created by Pops and his wife Lucille has been impeccably preserved. It was the house’s tenth anniversary as a public destination. A celebration was underway. A group called The Hot Sardines had a throwback style and even a peppy tap dancer, dressed in the current men’s fashion of skinny, tight suits.

tap dancer

There was a powerful trumpet player who might have felt a bit under Armstrong’s shadow.

trumpet player

The singer called herself Miz Elizabeth and the dancer was Fast Eddy. Basin Street Blues and Ain’t Nobody’s Business mingled nicely with the jingle of the Mister Softee truck making its way through the neighborhood.

Waiters came around bearing paper bowls of gumbo — “based on Louis’s own recipe” according to the museum — prepared by The Cooking Channel’s Tamara Reynolds and her company, Van Alst Kitchen.

gumbo queen

The cornbread squares were properly crumbly-chewy. We went back for thirds on the gumbo.

“There are some people that if they don’t know, you can’t tell them,” Armstrong said. Anyone that couldn’t feel the swing in the air of this little Japanese-inflected garden in Queens would have to be unconscious.

After Miz Elizabeth delivered a soulful rendition of Sophie Tucker’s great signature tune, One of These Days, we ventured inside.

living room

A time capsule. Everything was exactly as it had always been, down to the knick knacks and the vacuum cleaner.


Lucille, a Cotton Club dancer, made this a showplace,  a glitzy but cozy habitat. She had found the house while Armstrong was out touring, she bought it, fixed it up, and gave him the address, so when he came back from the airport in a taxi he drove up and didn’t believe it – That’s not my house! he said. Or so a docent told us.

Everything is from another age. The kitchen has glossy turquoise cabinets.

Louis kitchen

And a stove to which a personalized nameplate was affixed.

Louis stove

You could see the Armstrongs’ recipe box.

Louis recipe

Duke Ellington called Armstrong “an American original.” Pops liked all types of music, not just jazz, and kept a well-used reel-to-reel tape deck with a collection of 750 tapes. He once made a country album and among his first recordings was a duet with Jimmie Rodgers.

Louis phone

His den was his sanctuary, the only place in the house he could smoke weed. Pot, he said, insulated him from racism.

What about that 14-carat-gold-plated bathroom? High style for Corona, Queens.

gold bathroom

A young woman with cat eye glasses was giving a guided tour to her boyfriend as we passed through the upstairs rooms. She had been there many times before. Look at the wallpaper, she said. I just love the decor, she told me, it has so much of them.

So many things change. This hasn’t. The telephone number for the museum is the original for the Armstrongs’ house.


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Filed under Cooking, Culture, Fashion, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Photography

A Recipe for Meatballs and Longevity

I told Gil I’d make him meatballs for his birthday. His 60th.  I assembled the beef, the pork, the eggs, the breadcrumbs. Plenty of cheese.


I was making the same meatballs I always make, from the delectable recipe served at Patsy’s restaurant on 56th Street in Manhattan. Frank Sinatra’s favorite joint.


That was a man who knew how to age gracefully. (Maybe eating Patsy’s meatballs helped?)

So does Gil. He said he’d take part in the meatballs’ production, though he had other things he could have been doing this afternoon. I showed him how you roll the meat in a pile of breadcrumbs. Good breadcrumbs. The better the quality, the better anything you make with them.


I asked Gil how it felt to be almost 60.  “Quoting Danny Aiello in Once Around,” he said, “just when you feel like putting a gun in your mouth everybody wants to come over and celebrate.”

Mortality on your mind? I went on scooping meat. An ice cream scoop cures a myriad of cooking ills. The right size works for cookies and meatballs alike.


“No,” he said, “I don’t really feel like putting a gun in my mouth. But I do feel like quoting Danny Aiello.”

The meatballs sizzled in hot oil. We split a few open and almost burnt our mouths stealing a savory bite.


“How does it really feel,” I persisted.

“It feels great,” he said. “Everyone’s telling me I look 50.”

Gil’s had a habit, ever since I’ve known him (that’s about 20 hundred years now) of doing kitchen work with a towel slung over his shoulder. “No woman ever shot a man who was doing dishes,” Gil says. Now he’s of a certain age, he could give husband-ing lessons to the younger generation. Love and marriage, love and marriage…


We play Ry Cooder’s One Meatball — he couldn’t afford but one meatball — and toast the perfect specimen with cider.


Gil’s someday epitaph: He chopped the onions for his own birthday meatballs.

Patsy’s Meatballs Recipe

Combine ¾ c. breadcrumbs and 6 T. whole milk in a small bowl.

Heat 2 T. oil in a skillet; fry 2 medium onions chopped fine and 6 cloves garlic chopped fine.

In a large bowl, combine 1 ½ lb. ground beef, 1 ½ lb. ground pork, 3 large eggs and 3 egg yolks, slightly beaten, 3 T. chopped parsley, 3 T. chopped oregano, 1 ½ c. grated Parmesan. Salt and pepper. Combine well.

[Now, Patsy’s recipe entails an elaborate method of rolling out the meat mixture, cutting it, rolling it, etc., which I find too burdensome. I take a simpler route, which gets the meatballs to the finish line faster.]

Roll small balls of meat mixture in bread crumbs and fry them well in oil. Invite all your friends over, as this makes around six dozen meatballs.


Filed under Cooking, Culture, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Writers

Going to the Chapel

I needed to get a new author photo and I wanted to pose against the neat red bricks of St. Paul’s Chapel on the campus of Columbia University. It was not difficult to set up, since Maud was the photographer and this is where she went to school.

St. Paul's

When I.N. Phelps Stokes designed St. Pauls, it was the first non-McKim, Mead and White structure erected on campus. This was 1907. A photo from the time shows it looking new and bare. It would prove to be Stokes’ greatest architectural achievement.


Over a century later, the diminutive chapel’s Renaissance design still wins acclaim for its beacon-like green dome, its Italianate authenticity, its salmon-brick Guastavino vaults and its splendid acoustics. A schedule of magnificent music was posted outside the doors. People love to get hitched here.


Waiting for our photo session, I took a seat–as I had many times, many years ago, when I was studying writing and this was my school–on the curving stone bench across from the Chapel.


It actually spells out Love Your Alma Mater, but I like the more elemental, bare-bones message.

All around, the autumn hedges were producing moist red berries.


They looked like pieces of candy stuck there for the taking.

I ducked inside to check out Stokes’ inspired efforts. (Not pictured here, because no pictures allowed.) He created the glossy floors of marble fragments in intricate patterns resembling those you find in Italian churches, but these patterns are purely decorative, with no symbolic meaning. Sturdy wood chairs were preferable to pews, he decided. He and Edith had toured Italy in the winter and spring of 1905 as preparation for working on St. Pauls. During the trip he decided to bring back some wine – not just a few jugs of Chianti but 50 liters of red in casks that he then had decanted into half-pint bottles.

Stokes was a meticulous man, and a driven one. He wanted the job of designing St. Paul’s. His passion for the project was shared by his altruistic aunts, immensely wealthy sisters who refused to provided the funding unless their nephew was hired on.

I hovered in the back of the Chapel while mass was conducted in the nave. Short and sweet, body, wine, done.

My pictures also came about pronto. In the background the bricks, yes, to the side of the columned portico – at the top of each of those columns is a cherub carved by Gutzon Borglum, who was responsible for Mount Rushmore.


In the background of the photos stands a Quattrocento-style bronze lamp, pickled green by time, designed by sculptor Arturo Bianchini to show the four apostles of the Old Testament but also a pod of swimming dolphins.


Of course what you’ll see most of all in Maud’s pictures is not the bricks, not the dolphins, but my smile, beaming, because it is my daughter behind the camera and we are connecting through the medium of photography.



Filed under Art, Culture, History, Jean Zimmerman, Love, Fiercely, Music, Nature, Photography, Writers, Writing

The Virtue of Patience

I arrive nice and early,  just like I like it, to see Patience Chaitezvi. Grey light is wafting in the Sunday afternoon windows of the old converted brewery, framing the mysterious-looking stone Palisades in the distance. Curious-on-Hudson, which describes its mission as “crowd sourced education in the Rivertowns,” is hosting the musical performance that is about to start.

palisades windows

Folding chairs are lined up just so, and in the hush it feels as though I am waiting with a crowd of ghosts. There is only the faint sound of a piano sonata being played in a studio on the floor below.


Patience, a master mbira player, dancer, and Zimbabwe cultural expert, is visiting New York for the fourth time. She is teaching her instrument and teaching about her culture. Most of all she is proving that to be a genius on the mbira you don’t have to be a man.


In Zimbabwe, where Patience grew up, Shona culture doesn’t readily admit women to the ranks of the important ceremonial musicians. “Mbira music is a cell phone to call the ancestral spirits,” she explains affably in a break from the music. She learned the iron-pronged thumb piano from a brother when she was 11 and was soon recruited to play with the big boys. She was good enough to overturn the conventional proprieties — to have a woman seated among men is seen as unequivocably wrong, she said. But she was exceptional – she also has a BA in divinity and teaches high school history. (Playing during ceremonies is still not allowed during menses.) She knows all about Shona traditions, and tells us about ceremonies where wise people beckon mermaid spirits with buckets of salt water.


On this day in America, she harmonizes with the members of mbiraNYC, my friend Nora’s ensemble. Mbira is a sacred instrument but it is also healing. And it is played for entertainment. As the foursome play, they sing, and Patience begins to softly ululate, smiling as she does it. I pretty much love it when anybody ululates.

As Renee Zellwegger would say, She had me at ululate.

hosho shot

“Sometimes you listen to mbira and find your worries gone,” says Patience. “How? The spirits…” She wants us to get up out of our chairs. We’re New Yorkers, weary from our lives, our obligations, weary of feeling weary. We hang back in those black folding chairs as thought we’re the ghosts I thought I saw before.

“If you can talk, you can sing,” says Patience. “If you can walk, you can dance.”

Patience rises from her chair and moves into the center of the room. The song is called Meat From the Forest. I beckon to my old friend Amy, sitting under the windows, and we hit the floor. Stomping alongside Patience, swaying, clapping. The room rises, 40 or so of us, and moves, led by Patience. By the time I sit down I am perspiring and my toe is sore, but that mbira music must indeed be healing, because being on my feet feels better than it’s felt in months.


Filed under Culture, Dance, Jean Zimmerman, Music

The Flash Mob in My Mind

To and fro they go, all the busy, self-involved commuters. A long day at work, the usual stresses, rushing home to other responsibilities. Set faces, hurrying through Grand Central Station with barely a glance at the reaches of fluid, majestic marble, the astronomical ceiling, the hundred-year-old intricate architectural features of the main concourse.

grand centrl

Then along the slick stone floor skitters something – what is it? – a human form, not walking upright but rushing through on all fours.


People stand back. The human animal races pell mell all around the place, knocking into briefcases, brushing peoples’ knees. It becomes clear gradually that underneath the tangled hair and plain white shift this is a wild girl of some kind.

Voices pipe up throughout the concourse, first a few, than a chorus, and people begin stepping through the crowd, toward the center of the space, in high Victorian dress. The men have top hats and frock coats, the women wear sweeping gowns.


They are harmonizing a strange, old fashioned tune, a dance-hall melody with unfamiliar lyrics.

Grand Central commuters halt in the path to their gates and listen. The music swells. A cello flight emerges out of nowhere.

The savage girl skitters out of sight.

As the song continues, the throng of singers parts. Suddenly, just under the constellation of Pisces we see the savage girl, now transformed into a young woman, gliding forward,  fully upright. She is dressed spectacularly in a pearlescent floor-length dress with a train, long cream-colored gloves, glossy hair, décolletage.


The Victorian assemblage turn to her and she joins in their melody for the final verse.

Then, as quickly as they appeared, the players vanish. Savage Girl is perhaps the last to go, and gazes one final time out at the crowd with a beautiful but remote expression on her now civilized face.

I had a conversation with my literary agent about ways of introducing Savage Girl to the world come March. I got off the phone and fantasized about a Victorian flash mob starring our girl. It might never come to be, since Grand Central is full of armed homeland security folks and german shepherds, but wouldn’t it be fantastic?


Filed under Art, Culture, Fashion, Fiction, History, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Publishing, Savage Girl

Nuggets From Afar

When the fall chill hits and you wrap yourself in a shawl and feel like drifting off to other times and places, these links might inspire you.

The Evolution of Love Songs. In case you ever forget the words to Let Me Call You Sweetheart, here rendered by the Peerless Quartet in 1911.


Chrysalis is a firm of archaeological consultants that specializes in the history of New York. They’ve recently pursued excavations in the South Street Seaport Historic District that recovered two intact nineteenth-century wooden water mains. Other treasures: eighteenth-century toddlers’ slippers crafted of leather, and British Revolutionary soldiers’ buttons, which turned up along the original shoreline of Manhattan. A liquor bottle seal circa 1764 brings that time alive.


Between 1885 and 1908, a collector named William Hayes Ward amassed a bounty of 1,157 cylindrical seals dating as far back as the beginning of the fifth millenium. If you like tiny images on semiprecious carved stones from Mespotamia – gods, bulls, antelopes galore — you will want to take a look at these enchanting objects, which formed the core of J.P. Morgan’s collection.


Living With Herds: A Visualization Dictionary is a short film by a research fellow at an Australian university that shows how Mongolian herders communicate with their animals.


Women’s bodies were never meant to be squeezed into corsets, which is immediately apparent when you check out x-ray images from 1908.

woman xray

Linguistic fossils offer a glimpse of times gone by.


And finally, secret, tiny fairy doors began materializing all over Ann Arbor. This was in 2005. Perhaps not surprisingly, the carpenter turns out to be a children’s book author. Doors have appeared at the library, the pet store, the children’s hospital. Anyplace they’d be sure to raise an eyebrow and the corners of your mouth.

tiny door


Filed under Art, Culture, Fashion, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Nature, Writing

Kitten on the Keys

Gil Reavill has kindly provided the following guest post.

Smalls (writes Gil) is a Manhattan jazz club whose name describes it well: a tight basement space in the West Village, one that in past years would be thick with tobacco smoke. It’s a perfect throwback. Spending a recent evening at Smalls made me feel as though I had stepped into a time machine. I was transported back into the glory years of the Nineteen-Fifties, waiting for Bird to step onstage. The jazz club has a jazz cat, Minnow, a Maine coon who loves curling up on the credenza of the Steinway, inches away from the piano player’s face. (T-shirts can be had with Minnow’s countenance.)

Smalls Sept 24 2013

My pal John Bowman and I were at Smalls to see vocal phenom Cyrill Aimée, among the best of a current crop of female singers (like Melody Gordot, Linzzi Zaorski and Cécile McLorin Salvant) keeping the traditions of jazz singing alive. Aimée did a terrific couple of late sets. The standouts for me were the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer classic “My Shining Hour, ” plus the Thelonious Monk composition “Well, You Needn’t,” a tune I’ve listened to my whole life without realizing it had lyrics (they were composed in the 1970s by singer Mike Ferro). But everything Aimee did was superb. She had a crack band backing her, led by pianist Pete Malinverni. “Me and Pete and Minnow are going to do a trio now,” Aimee announced before one number, afterwards name-checking the cat accurately as “Minnow on the piano.” A magical evening.


Filed under Culture, History, Music

A Catskill Idyll

I really ought to get out more. Even if out means going from a cabin to a cottage with an adjacent bungalow as I did this weekend.

It was the gray, cool weather of late summer, more like fall. The Catskill Mountains. The cottage had a quaint disposition, the pet decorating project of antiquarian friends of friends. Charm bloomed in corners. On side tables, one of which held a seal enraptured with a ball.

seal lamp

Windowsills offered various small collections.

small nest

Dramatically tarnished old mirrors lined the walls.

tarnished mirrors

We brought zinnias, butterscotch bars.


Neil, the host, grilled chicken over wood. There was sweet aged bourbon for some. For me,  mango lemonade. A funny kind of tea, milky oat tops. Was it restorative in some way or just cut up grass in bags? Hard to say but worth gently debating. What music should we listen to? Everything sounded good.

milky oat

A fire glowing in the stove, a healthy stack of wood.


Conversation about our kids growing up, finding their feet. About ourselves,  still finding our feet. Will we ever find them? Monopoly and pet play.

dog play

The shaggy, gloomy, romantic Catskills offered up their forests and creeks.


Girdled, Neil the arborist says is the term for roots that entwine themselves like this. What about those trees, though, that entwine themselves as though in love? No special name, they just are.

entwined trees

Mushrooms gleamed against the mulch.

white mushroom cu

When the woods were so delightful we couldn’t stand any more, we took a drive through the weathered local community, Livingston Manor. An ancient graveyard, simply marked, appeared on Creamery Road.

st aloysius

Plain, as was the cemetery’s groundskeeping shed.


Something else simple appeared out of nowhere — a staunch old wood covered bridge dating to the late 1800s.

covered bridge

Sometime in the long afternoon I saw my friend Suzanne sitting by the fire, taking a pensive break from all the charm, the activity, the pets and children. The yap of conversation.

suzanne pensive

I thought of one of my favorite poems, perfect any day but especially for this place, the person, the moment: When You Are Old, by W.B. Yeats.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;


How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;


And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.


Filed under Art, Cooking, Culture, Dogs, Music, Nature, Poetry, Writers, Writing

Art for Art’s Sake

When was the last time you thought about Art Garfunkel? His angelic tenor, his sensitive beak, his fallouts/reunions with Paul Simon, his blond ‘fro?


Probably, like me, not recently.

Which is why I jumped at the chance to see him solo in a tiny venue in the middle of New Jersey, in a performance that was being billed as an “open rehearsal” – for what, somewhat unclear. Anyway it would just be Art and a guitar up on the stage, with a group of several hundred devotees.

Three hundred fifty, to be exact, because that was the seating capacity of a hall called the Tabernacle in a magical, historical community called Mount Tabor that originated as a Methodist summer camp meeting ground in the late nineteenth century.


People live there now, in houses, not tents. Our friends Eric and Mary Ann have been Mount Tabor-ites for decades.

eric and maryann's home

Walking to the Tabernacle for the show has an element of the mystical, along the small, civilized paths.

magical tabor

When the place originated, tent properties (leased from the Camp Meeting Association of the Newark Conference of the United Methodist Church, never bought outright) stretched back from the central building and its green, with the more prominent families closest to the preaching. People came here for a month in the summer to get their evangelical fix much the way they did at Ocean Grove, Tabor’s Methodist sister town on the Jersey shore. It all depended on whether you wanted the mountains or the sea, both were equally soul-restoring. The movement faded at the turn of the twentieth century, with houses  eventually built to replace tents, and 212 of the ornate gingerbread-decorated originals remain. National landmark status for the district is imminent. Quiet streets wind throughout this other-timely locale.

tabor homes

Eric and Mary Ann, who raised three kids here, have a property of “six to eight tent plots.” They are “the landed gentry,” Mary Ann wisecracks. She tells me that unlike other towns, here you actually tell your kids to go out and play in the street – because yards are postage stamps if they exist at all. It used to be canvas abutting canvas. “You sneeze in your house,” Mary Ann tells me, “and they say bless you in the next house.”

Mary Ann 2

There’s history here, multiple generations living on in one house. A descendent of the original farmer-landowner named Dickerson still runs the supermarket down the hill. Mary Ann orchestrates a longstanding local holiday (like, a hundred-forty years long) called Children’s Day. “You could be a benevolent dictator,” suggests Gil. “There are certain people you must dictate to,” says Mary Ann archly.

We wait in line for Art Garfunkel. Hydrangeas glow in the dusk.


Time expands. The line stretches, people who have journeyed to this little enclave to see a great singer.

There are perks of being a Mount Tabor resident, and since Mary Ann and Eric know George, the organizer of the event, we go back to the green room half an hour before the performance. It’s located in an adjacent historic building that is usually bare, filled only with folding chairs, where various committees hold their meetings.


“This is why they come,” says George, referring to the other big-name acts that have appeared in small-town Mount Tabor, Hot Tuna, Arlo Guthrie and Donovan among them. The green room features low, romantic lights and rich burgundy tableclothes and a line-up of chafing dishes in this quaint building that transports you to another time. They had to peel Donovan out of here to get him to the airport after a post-show Buddy Holly singalong.

“Art is sleeping on the ground floor beneath us,” George tells us. I think about that.

art garf

Ssshh. Outside, we inhale the late summer air, cool and warm breezes intermixed, the scent of late roses from people’s tiny garden plots.


We’re standing next to what everyone likes to call the 1873 condo, a building of connected homes where three tent sites originally stood. Slate and gingerbread! Some of that detail might enhance the Cabin.


The Tabernacle, built in 1885, is a wooden octagon topped by a cupola. It has no heat, just hardbacked benches with plenty of leg room.


The interior paint is original. No joke.

inside tab

Giant poles hold the roof up.

tab inside

It’s time. George, at the mike, gives fair warning: Art detests gadgets. Phones and cameras throw him off his game. Turn everything off. Everything. Now. A big change for those of us accustomed to concerts with everybody waving their units around in the air, with everything instantly You Tubed. What kind of curmudgeon makes these rules?

And Art does turn out to be a bit curmudgeonly,  approaching the front of the stage to lecture someone rude enough to attempt a picture. He looks the curmudgeon too, his nose sharpened by time, his height perhaps decreased, his pate and his frizz, a plain checked shirt and jeans, a man in his later years.


He begs our forbearance. He has been struggling with his “damaged voice” for three years, he says. (He cancelled a tour last year, I heard.) He just now feels he can bring it out in front of a crowd, but he is self conscious. Between songs, he thanks listeners graciously for their support. He reads to us from writings on the backs of white envelopes, poems, he says, he wants to test out on us, from a collection will be published next year by Knopf.

He recites a poem he originally read for Paul Simon on his 70th birthday:

For 70 years his arm has been around my shoulder,

He’s dazzled me with gifts.

I nurtured him in his youth.

He brought me into prominence.

I taught him to sing.

He connected my voice to the world.

I made him tall.

All of our personal belongings are intertwined.

We say it’s exhausting to compete,

But we shine for each other.

It’s still our favourite game.

tall art:simon

He tells us a story of living on Amsterdam Avenue when he was in architecture school at Columbia, living among roaches. Simon came over saying he thought he had a song that might be worth something and it was Sounds of Silence. Garfunkel sings Sounds of Silence for us. Haunting.

He shares an anecdote about Jack Nicholson’s acting chops when they did time together in Hollywood on Carnal Knowledge.


A story about the “bird in his throat,” and singing Ol’ Man River for a herd of cows as he hiked in the country one day.

As for the singing… the angelic tenor… well, the instrument is indeed broke, in part. Still ravishing, sometimes. It is an amazing performance, though, just because it is so raw, because his voice is imperfect, because of the notes he can not hit and the notes he snags, better in the lower registers. Bookends, a capella. Cathy’s Song. The Boxer. Parsley, Sage, eliding over the rosemary, but bringing the song home, ultimately.

There in Mount Tabor’s intimate, historic Tabernacle, all is forgiven.

tab night


Filed under Culture, Film, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Nature, Photography, Poetry, Publishing

Crushes on Crutches

At the movies I saw a woman on crutches. A young, pretty woman in a color-block sundress. As I watched, she hopped around the serve-yourself beverage kiosk, assembling her ice, her soda and her straw, putting the whole drink together before her boyfriend politely carried it away for her.

I saw her next swinging her way into the ladies’ room. Into a regular stall! Not the one with the wheelchair icon I was struggling to enter with my kneeling scooter The Bloke. I washed my hands, she washed her hands, the difference being that she was cool as a cuke, graceful and weightless, not perspiring and puffing like me. Probably about 24 years old.

At the film line she was waiting, as was I, to go in. We shared war stories. A motorcyle accident, she said.


A little piece of the bike flew off into her ankle. The doctor had her in her cast for six weeks. It was a little difficult, she told me, because she lives up four floors and the laundry’s in the basement. But she’s making do okay. Her bike? Came out of the accident perfectly fine. She couldn’t wait to get back on it.

By the next morning my conversation with motorcycle girl had begun to percolate. I had been proud of myself for managing The Bloke so well. But now I had crutches envy. How do you make the best of this particular situation, a bum foot, and do it with some measure of equanimity and grace? It helps if you are an athletically gifted person of 24, of course. I wondered, how do you take your lumps and move forward, albeit with a cast on your foot that feels like a stiff leather ice skate with no sock? A little sand drizzled in for good measure.

Recently I asked my brother Peter for blog ideas since I knew I’d be less able than usual to go on gallivants and cover eclectic cultural happenings like I usually do. Why don’t you just catalogue all the stuff in your house, he suggested.

I feel, though, that I have already catalogued some of the things I like best. My vintage cookbook-pamphlet collection, for example.

salad book

The heirloom lace created by my foremothers.

lace cu 2

I don’t know that I’ve ever indexed the bones that have surfaced from the marsh in front of the Cabin, mainly carried helpfully to us in Oliver’s mouth. We joke that he is trying to assemble to assemble a full deer skeleton.


Or the skins that have been sloughed off by so many snakes just to the south of the house.


But, like motorcycle girl, probably I do get to a few things every day, even now, move my constrained life ahead bit by bit. Take some action, even if I’m not swinging effortlessly on my axilla mobility aids. Thus, a catalogue of 10 actions taken today.

1. A shower bath, my leg encased in a plastic bag, with streaming hot water and a worn-down bar of soap a revelation.

2. A knitted row of  angora, hopefully without a slipped stitch.


3. Perused some passages in Travels in North America, a volume published by Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm in the 1760s. In it he expounds on such scientific matters as the way bears kill livestock in Philadelphia: by biting a hole in a cow’s hide and inflating it until it dies.


4. Stumbled upon a recipe for Warm, Cheesy Swiss Chard and Roasted Garlic Dip. As soon as I’m up and around the kitchen again!

5. Checked out the Thanksgiving episode of Orange Is the New Black.


How many programs have a cast that is 99 percent female, let along with a heavy lesbian slant? Mindblowing.

6. Pushed The Bloke to the sushi bar at the back of a Japanese restaurant and had the treat of watching the chef halve a bright pink, yard-long salmon with finesse, season it with rock salt and layer it in a tub with its perfect filet brothers.

7. Scootered through a supermarket I usually despise as being too plastic but which today looked cheerily kaleidoscopic after two weeks of grocery deprivation.


8. Brought home the beer in The Bloke’s handy basket.


9. Visited my garden for the first time since the surgery. The collards were begging for a simmer with a pork hock.


10. Visited with Oliver on his turf, the front yard, for a change, rather than him visiting with me on the couch.

oliver rolling

I’m getting back onto that couch now and elevating my aching foot. Ahhhh. But… I wonder what motorcycle girl is up to. On her anime-sparkle-titanium-neon crutches. Rocking the lead vocals with her hip hop crew? Bottle-feeding a new litter of rottweiler-lab pups? Baking a dozen loaves of vegan meatloaf for her closest friends? Or just getting ready to fly down those four flights and go out to the movies again? Because she can do just about anything she wants. As can I.


Filed under Cooking, Culture, Dogs, Fashion, Film, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Knitting, Music, Writers, Writing