Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Stop Ticking!

Tonight found me in Braddock, at a library under renovation, an astonishing building with double-hung windows ten feet on a side, stately woodwork in remarkable repair, a fresco newly restored on the ceiling of an auditorium tiered with a variety of seat I have never seen. The seats sat rest vertically, perfectly upright, until folded down, when the seatbacks drop down to a more comfortable angle. The hardware is pewter or bronze or brass improbably ornate.

A partially dismantled organ console stood just off stage right, a tall panel in the wall above it removed to reveal the wing of the stage, which was gently tilted forward, as though to slide the players to the floor at the foot of the audience. The stage was adorned with the suggestion of a two-story house framed in aged beams that suggested driftwood; a bed, a two-sided vanity, and a miniature of the set on a table toward the rear of the stage like an optical illusion between mirrors; a catwalk from the house's upper story to the balcony above.

I don't really do reviews here. Recommendations, I do. Raves, I do. And this is both of the latter.

The play is Quantum Theatre's production of After Mrs. Rochester, and if a review is something you'd like, try the Times Literary Supplement; locally the Trib offers a piece about the play and the library in which it is staged. Rather, it's the experience that interests me, tonight in particular.

On our way to the theatre, I and my friends talked a bit about Braddock and especially its universally well-regarded Mayor John Fetterman, someone who looks somewhat more biker than Mayor, but sounds all Mayor as soon as he opens his mouth. His left forearm bears a prominent tattoo of Braddock's zip code, someone said. Though I sat next to him at a talk not long ago, I hadn't noticed. As we pulled up the library, though, a very large man stood on the dark street by the library, and offered friendly suggestion as to where we might park. As he gestured with his left hand, the tattoo came into view -- the Mayor was directing traffic at an alternative theatre event. When we walked by on our way to the show, he shook each of our hands and introduced himself; it looks like glad-handing on the page, but it was far too affable, too casual, to be only that.

Once we were situated, I skimmed the program. I knew the play was a sort of biographical piece about Jean Rhys, author of Wide Sargasso Sea, a 1960's-era book that purported to serve as a prequel of sorts to Jane Eyre, recounting the life of Bertha, the first Mrs. Rochester, the mad woman locked in Rochester's attic for most of Bronte's novel. I knew Jean Rhys was a character at two different ages (portrayed by two different actresses), and I knew as well that Bertha was a character.

And now I need to rewind. Quantum's first production this season, last month, was The Crucible, which they staged in Mellon Park in Shadyside (review). It remains arguably my favorite Quantum performance, the classic play so passionately and inventively rendered, so ably performed. In particular, the Proctors, performed by Robin Walsh and Hugo Armstrong, were simply astonishing. Never on stage have I seen such incredible chemistry, both emotional and physical, and within the strictures of Miller's play the latter was especially striking. Quantum did not meddle with the play's origins or let anachronism spoil its clarity; but even within a period-faithful performance, Armstrong and Walsh breathed each others' breath. That's the only way I can think to describe it; they were so utterly evocative as a couple, and their combined performance suggested what is so often lost in period drama, especially on the stage: the fact that no matter where, no matter when, husbands and wives may and do achieve a degree of intimacy like nothing else on earth. Their performances, never overwrought or oversold, didn't imply marriage or signify it: they exemplified it.

And Walsh herself was a revelation: even within her period dress, the restraint and decorum the role largely requires, she exuded a sensuality difficult to put into words. "Hot" sort of works, but it's incomplete. I couldn't take my eyes off her whenever she was anywhere in view. I didn't want to.

After Mrs. Rochester reunites the two -- Armstrong as, inter alia, Ford Madox Ford, Rhys' lover and first publisher, and as Mr. Rochester himself (Jane Eyre, too, appears, evocatively cast with the same actress who plays Rhys' unnamed daughter); and Walsh, brilliantly, as Bertha.

Walsh's Bertha, rendered without restraint in filthy corset and tangled hair, spouting repetitive creole apostrophes and lurking under and against the skin of Rhys at all ages, the demoness whose exorcism from Rhys' psyche limns the narrative arc of the play, is simply incandescent. And "hot" isn't even the word.

Bertha, as insinuated into this play, is the closest thing to Caliban I've ever seen outside The Tempest -- primal, avaricious, and bereft. Walsh injects such physicality into the role, infuses it with so much force and grief, and extracts (evokes is to weak a word) all of the sympathy for Bertha that Jane Eyre simply doesn't afford. Once again, she was impossible to ignore, lurking over Rhys' shoulder, acrobatically moving between the set's "attic," Rhys' bed and writing table cum vanity, at one point climbing a black ladder behind the organ console to lurk laughing in the shadows. Her vocabulary, perhaps a few dozen words, perhaps a hundred, stunted by the simple adamance of her desire for freedom -- from the attic, from England, from Rhys' mind -- and animated by her lust for some sense of a self she has forgotten, nevertheless is made decadent by the breadth of her expression.

Walsh is not young, is not lithe and glamorous (Karla Boos, Quantum's director who cast herself as the elder Rhys (and who acquitted herself well in a most challenging role -- that of a relatively composed narrator who bestrides the chaos about her that manifests her personal and artistic torment), has the shapely elegance of a woman aging well), but her raw animal fervence, deployed to brilliant effect in both of the abovementioned roles but in very different ways, is nothing short of mesmerizing.

On the way out, standing in front of the library on a dark deserted street in Braddock, a police car pulled up as I spoke into my phone. I demurred to the man on the other end: "Yes Officer?" I inquired. "Is everything okay?" he asked nicely. "Yes, fine, thanks -- just leaving the play." A friendly neighborhood police officer politely asking after my welfare. First the Mayor, now this -- in dilapidated, forgotten Braddock, a compelling show of civic pride.

Braddock has its best foot forward. As does Quantum, which has led off its season with two gems. And as for Walsh, well, I do believe I'm hopelessly smitten.

Visit Braddock; see the show; and enjoy it from deep in the depths of the first of Andrew Carnegie's thousand-plus libraries.

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Go Scarlet Knights!!!

Hey Emily, another great game to add to Notre Dame lore, but don't look now -- depending on whether you prefer the AP or USA Today, only ten or eight teams separate my Knights from your Irish! I might have to start caring about college football again.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Capillary and dust
and a third ill-defined notion
bloodlessly vibrant like
a midnight thunderstorm.

Tongue thrust out like a leaf
slapped down by an invisible palm
and wanting, unreleased static
sizzles in its stem.

For a poet of moist particulars,
silica abstraction
yields insipid sophistry
and the taste of burnt wire.

With no on one to decipher
a telegraph in transit,
its caternary undulations
lead inexorably to ground.

[Author's note: The first stanza is always the hardest to substantially revise or cut when it contains the impetus for a poem that has wandered far afield of its promise, such as it is. There's a connection here between those first lines and the rest, which plainly cohere more closely with the first stanza excluded, but I don't know what it is or how to draw it out. As for the title, I want something that spells out S____ O___ S___, but nothing comes to mind. Gah, I've grown lazy even in this.]


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

This House Is Home 10

Something is eating my house. It's gnawing. Right now, while I sitting at my battered, paint-stained writing table, tapping sweet ephemera into a magic box, trying not to layer my apprehension with the fear elicited by the steady rainfall.

Owning a home has not -- as I imagined it might -- restored me to some idealized self-sufficiency. I am ineffectual. I can't even adhere to my own resolve to set aside fifteen minutes, once each week, to tour the house from corner to corner to check for signs of new problems. And now, I fear, it has cost me.

The house doesn't care; she has far more perspective than I will ever have. In her 125 years, the house has weathered hurricanes without me, blizzards the likes of which I have never seen, years of abandonment while rowdies trespassed. She stands something like she always has, her shoulders erect where more than a few of the younger neighbors' are stooped, her brow level and uncreased by worry where neighbors glower or grimace, her face elegantly made up. I am addled by worry, however, the good son, insulting her tenacity with my fear.

A roommate's unrequited departure has forced me to own responsibility for every inch of this space, and so it is fitting that the problem first came to my attention in his room. I have visited it only a couple of times since he left; the spacious room vacant in his absence echoes like a canyon, recalling my house-hunting past. It has that ghostly emptiness about it, implications of former occupancy far more haunting than a stranger's presence. It diminishes me.

But there I was, Saturday, in the room, granting access through the rear window to the porch roof for the Direct TV installer to do his work. While he fiddled with wires outside, I eyed the space suspiciously, cat-like, staking out its perimeter my nose impetuous skimming the floor. There, at the baseboard, the broad historic trim rimed by a crust of paint where missing quarter-round once bridged the gap to the sanded down floorboards, a spill of dust, wood colored, fine and imprinted with vermiform suggestions. Mixed with the dust, a few crumbs of what might be kitty litter, a pebble-sized husk of the same color difficult to identify, and a separate modest spill of dust the color of brick. The whole thing, all of the dust combined, covered perhaps six square inches along the baseboard in one line, but it pointed me toward a hole in the corner, a gap in the floor casually covered by a piece of old paneling, a non-fix solution formerly hidden behind my housemate's furniture, as was the situs of the dust itself until a few weeks ago. I removed the board, horror movie scared, and there, in the darkness between floor and the lathing of the downstairs ceiling, more sawdust, significantly more, as though from recent carpentry -- except there has been so carpentry performed anywhere near there in decades.

I covered the hole, resolving to probe it with a flashlight . . . some other time. I focused on the TV-related machinations occurring around me. Made some phonecalls to people kind enough to humor my irrational worry. Complained. Fretted.

Tonight, I opened the attic door to carry the boxes that held my Direct TV receivers upstairs to be penned with their kind. The attic also newly emptied of my roommate's things, it took me no time to spot it, the phenomenon that's plagued me since Saturday. Another spill of dust along the baseboard, more or less directly above its complement downstairs.

It's probably not termites, as there's no suggestion of them in the basement or on the foundation (though when this rain stops I have to look more closely, I have to look more closely). But someone suggested carpenter ants, and that seems plausible. A google search offers this:

There are several ways to recognize a carpenter ant infestation:


• Sawdust: If you see sawdust raining from your ceiling or from any indoor cracks, you have a problem.

Whatever it is, the sense of personal failure has married my fears about making it through another winter of exorbitant gas bills and together they are breeding anxiety of a depth and dimensionality I can relate to nothing I have experienced before, a sense that I'm in over my head. It's ebbed and flowed during my one-year tenancy of this house, but it's never entirely left me.

Like any problem, whatever this is will have a solution, one within reach, and soon I will turn a corner leaving behind this melodrama and the fear of what I don't know, as well as my general distaste at the thought of little beasties pulverizing my real estate investment, for the simple elegance of an affirmative solution of finite cost and burden. In the meantime, I will ignore the fact that "[c]arpenter ants like damp locations" and "can be found inside wood structures where there are water leaks: around windows, chimneys, bathtubs, sinks, and drains," since I would have thought that the dust I've observed is nowhere near any proper source of moisture.

But tonight, up too late, water everywhere around me probing the innumerable breaches in the shell that contains me and all of my earthly possessions, an imagined stirring in the walls while I fail to sleep, I am left to remind myself that I chose this, that it comes hand in white satin glove with everything I love about this Grand Dame of the Tenth Ward.

This weekend, in the spirit of testing out my new DVR, I recorded "Magnolia," I movie I remebered liking far more clearly than I remembered in its contours and details. That night, tired with myself after a long day of doing very little, I escaped into the film, which was far more elegant and moving than I had remembered, really quite extraordinary.

At the end of the film, while a freakish event sends virtually every character into the tailspin he or she has flirted with for the entire movie, the most self-possessed character, a child, he alone smiles in the face of the improbable. "This is something that happens," he says. And it is.


Saturday, September 09, 2006

Best Times Film Review Ever

You needn't follow the link; Nathan Lee's review of The Covenant follows in its entirety:

By Nathan Lee

“Hey, what’s up? I tried calling you last night.”

“I know. I was at a movie.”

“What’d you see?”

“ ‘The Covenant.’ ”

“What’s that again?”

“It’s that movie about these guys who are witches, and they go to this creepy school, and there’s this new kid — Sebastian Stan — who’s, like, the bad witch, and they fight and stuff. It’s super lame.”

“Are they cute at least?”

“Totally. The main guy, Caleb — Steven Strait — has, like, these big lips and sexy eyes, and he drives a Mustang, and everything. And he’s friends with this crazy, like, blond dude, who looks kind of gay, and this motorcycle guy with long hair and some other guy. Actually, the whole thing is kind of gay. I mean, they’re on the swim team, right? And there’s this scene where they’re all in Speedos and everything.”

“Awesome. I think I saw the commercial. That’s the one with a car that explodes and gets put back together by magic, right?”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much the coolest part. The effects are super cheesy. Like at the end, when Caleb is fighting the evil transfer student, they fly around a barn and throw magic Jell-O at each other. I’m totally serious.”

“Is it scary, at least?”

“There’s this one part, where these spiders crawl all over this girl and go in her nose and stuff.”


“Super ew.”

“The Covenant’’ is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). The film is violently banal.

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

And just for the record . . .

. . . I'm back.


Shelter Island

28 August, 2006 (as scrawled on a legal pad by the muted light coming through the windows behind me as I sat on the porch in the rain)

The night is saturated and raw, a rude awakening from summer, but the peach hue reflected against the undersides of the clouds across the bay warms the sky. Runoff drums in the downspouts while baysurf sips at what's left of the beach afoot the seawall, insatiable, its mouth full of salt.

Drifting through the night come the sounds of two boats playing tag in the fog like children of sound cavorting behind parents of light, father first, his searchlight caving the mist in sweeping whorls, fixing the opposite shore for a moment before turning to pin me to the porch moist and still, mother steady in his wake, an emerald perched in her tiara?

As mother and father are eclipsed behind the point, their children still play over the sibilant white caps, which climb over their own backs to surf their bellies, and as their game dissipates higher surf visits the beach like a rumor of their passage.

Beset on all sides by water,
we leap from womb to womb
like sunfish breaking the surfact
to thrill in the gasping
before slicing back into the darkness.

** The photo was taken in 1989 from the top of a dune only slightly down the shore from where I sat when I scribbled the above musing. I remember sliding down it on my belly all the way to the beach as a child. FLICKR has many photos of Shelter Island.

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Home Sweet Home

It's 8:20; a string of advertisements drones in the background.

The Steelers just took the field, and as they gamboled all over the field reveling in their Super Bowl XL victory on the cusp of the new season's commencement, the camera pulled back. The blimp shot revealed every building in the city lit up in celebration, fireworks launching from behind PPG 1's spires, spot lights lining the river and the Fort Duquesne Bridge waving beams of light hither and yon, and the crowd, the Terrible Towel waving crowd.

I am the last person to lionize professional sports, especially on the day we lay to rest Mayor O'Connor, who was taken tragically in the first year of his long-sought tenancy of the Mayor's office, but it's simply impossible to ignore how beautiful my city looks tonight.

Pittsburgh, its best foot forward, is resplendant under the klieg lights; a smug glow suffuses me at the thought of how strangers to Pittsburgh all over this nation have turned to each other in the last twenty minutes to remark on how stunning our city really is. As well they should. This flawed, bankrupt rust belt town is gorgeous, and has so much to be proud of.

A born New Jerseyan, I've had the luxury in the course of my life of watching each of "my" teams win at least one championship in their respective sports -- the Devils, the Mets, the Giants. But never has my pleasure in those occasions matched my pleasure last year when the city turned out to celebrate the Steelers' fifth Super Bowl victory or the unanticipated pleasure I feel right now watching the nation celebrate this city for a few glorious moments.

The rush of civic pride I felt when the camera pulled back, as it does just now, my own office illuminated like virtually every other office in the skyline, is something completely singular in my experience. And just now I couldn't be more thrilled to live here.

UPDATE: Today (the next day), from a conference room, I espied three of the pennants atop the convention center in a slot between two towers. As would be expected on this occasion, they were bedecked by alternating flags of black and gold. But despite the festivities they bespeak, the flags fly at half mast in honor of our fallen Mayor. An apt memorial for the Mayor billed as that of the common folk.

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