A Letter from the Berkshires, August 30, 2006
© 2006 by Joel

I'm somebody! Who are you? Are you somebody, too?

Who are you, dear readers? You are evenly divided between women and men, the youngest being thirty-eight, the oldest eighty-seven and the rest not telling. To date all are middle to upper middle class Caucasians, most college graduates, with four PhD's in the mix. One edits, three get paid to write. Twelve are or were teachers, three are artists, one an actor/director, another a former dancer, and one a psychotherapist. A record fourteen no longer work.

Though one voted for the current President, few if any are Republicans. The majority are liberal and all are fair minded. Not a one is shy about expressing his or her views.

I count sixteen Jews, three Catholics and the rest Protestant or Other. One is a devout Christian for whom God does not condemn but "just loves." One hails from Israel, another Sicily, and one from England.

Four have dogs, among you are at least eight cats, and we all have pet peeves. Seventeen are parents, twenty-five married straights, two married gays, five gay singles and one single straight.

Six live in Manhattan, four others in NYC suburbs, seven in southern California with nine in the SF Bay Area, three here in the Berkshires, two in Virginia and one in Texas. At least four are members of the World Affairs Council of Northern California. Six are naturally blond, one a redhead and four, like myself, are balds.

You folks keep me honest. With a Christian looking over my shoulder I can't get too profane, with Council members too facile, with writers too ungrammatical and with a shrink too insane.

Don't think that I'm new to this game. At the age of twelve I founded a newspaper for the condo community my parents moved us to in Yonkers, N.Y. The condo was called Greystone and my journal the Greystone Gazette.

My specialty was the eye catching headline. "Mrs. So & So is Pregnant–Again!" merely echoed what all the women were gossiping about anyway. "Mr. Such & Such is 'Artistic,'" I wrote of our gay next door neighbor, this in 1955. "He regularly entertains young men he calls his ‘nephews’" may not have been the height of tact.

The coup de grace? "Condo Board and FHA in Collusion" suffered less from inaccuracy than from my not understanding the implications of my parents' privately expressed concerns. Mom took to telling strangers she was childless and my father buried himself in work. Soon after, we moved.

And now, another catchy headline.

The Shiite Hits the Fan

Call me old fashioned, but I like my Arabs and Jews alive.

When Hezbollah launched its assault against Israel and kidnapped its soldiers in July I found it impossible not to be on Israel's side. Militant Islamists live to see Israel die. Nonstate actors in the Middle East, viz. Hamas and Hezbollah, have developed fearsome capabilities, what with Hezbollah's arms from Syria and Iran, effective military tactics, use of media to manipulate opinion in the region and beyond, a maniacal attachment to the "glories" of destruction and defeat, increasingly popular support (which has got to be countered) and the expediency of using civilians as human shields. Their leaders speak as though they were heads of states themselves.

Will Hezbollah's audacity backfire, or has Israel been provoked into fighting a proxy war and in the process engendering even greater hatred of themselves and of the U.S.? Of course no country should tolerate such attacks, but there are degrees of responding to the intolerable, and most countries are not in the Middle East. Attacks on Israel's northern border during the Sharon years were met with considerably more restraint.

And where, oh where, has everyone been? Sharon, I have read, was acutely aware of Hezbollah's buildup but too preoccupied with the Palestinians and burnt out on Lebanon to act, President Cornpone with maintaining his faith in the invisible hand of democracy in Iraq while his head was where it has always been.

Some realities. One is that many, many people in many places and of many faiths are going to die before conflicts in the Middle East are even near to being resolved. Thought was given recently to blowing airplanes out of the sky.

Another reality is called Iran, and we had better get this one right. Unless the United States in some way engages Iran diplomatically and with eyes unclouded by ideology, we can expect to hear from a reinvigorated Hezbollah and a nuclear bound Iran again and again. We had also better examine, re-examine and re-examine again our every assumption about our adversaries, their leadership, their relations with their neighbors, religious composition, motivations, vulnerabilities, psychic as well as political and economic needs, susceptibility to miscalculation and their lines in the sand, so to speak, which amounts to as expert an understanding of their national souls as is possible. To accomplish this we need a wise president and diplomats expert in Middle Eastern history, languages and ways supported by the most reliable intelligence we can provide.

The third is that the U.S. had damn well better seek restoration of the prestige and influence we have lately lost on this globe.

Heed the rueful words of New Hour's Hisham Melhem. In coffee shops in Damascus, Amman and Cairo sit armchair warriors content to "fight Israel to the last Lebanese and the last Palestinian."

Comedy(?) Tonight

You all know how much I love to joke and laugh. Well, at times I think I am losing my sense of humor.

"Dying is hard," gasped the moribund actor, "but...comedy... is...harder." With respect for the dying, these days I'm not so sure. We seem to laugh at everything we think we're expected to enjoy.

At a revival of the musical Kiss Me Kate the curtain rose on a "stagehand" sweeping the bare stage in preparation for the grand opening number. This piece of business, devoid of comic content or intent, had the audience in hysterics.

Local t.v. business and weather reports are played for laughs. News anchors yuck it up by straightening their scripts and tapping pencils on their desks as they crack up on cue. In her early days at Washington Week Gwen Ifill ran such a sillyfest I wrote to suggest that David Broder and Michael Duffy wear lady's hats like t.v. personalities of old.

The predictable, easy laugh is not limited to the screen. At the prestigious Tanglewood music festival a mile from where I write, vocal students recently used their lovely voices to wow audiences with witty tunes from shows. Lacking even rudimentary acting or comic skills, all these attractive youngsters could think of was to make funny faces. And darned if they didn't get laughs, albeit forced, from an audience oh so anxious to seem knowing and to please.

Couldn't we leave the clowning to a Keaten, a Jerry Lewis, a Charlie Chaplin or a Lucille Ball? Would you pay $200 a ticket for a lovely opera sung by Carol Channing, Nathan Lane and Elaine Stritch? Can you think of greater talents in one field who are less qualified to perform in another? The spectacle of opera singers "crossing over" to Broadway or popular music is as absurd. Compare a Pops orchestra's arrangement of a musical theater score to a theater pit orchestra's playing the same. The sound, the orchestrations and the spirit of the former is just all wrong.

A mile in another direction from Tanglewood is Shakespeare and Co., which has brightened the Berkshires for almost thirty years. I prefer the Olivier, Gielgud more traditional take on the plays, although I am open to well conceived innovative interpretations. At Shakespeare and Co. their standard is what is known of the original productions, which were as accessible to illiterate Elizabethan playgoers as they were to good Queen Bess. The crowd expected a more visceral experience at the Globe. They interacted with the characters on stage and afterwards joined clowns in a merrie olde jig. If that kind of hilarity was necessary to keep an Elizabethan audience content I'm glad I wasn't around.


Soon we will commemorate the fifth anniversary of September 11, 2001. Where were you and what were you doing when you got the news? We were right here in Stockbridge heading toward breakfast in town. Passing the restaurant window I observed patrons sitting in glum silence, which seemed odd on such a lovely day. Upon entering I spotted an older couple sitting at the counter listening to a radio, their mouths open wide.

A fellow diner, unasked, concisely filled us in and I forgot to say "thanks." When we ignored the waitress's request for our order she wandered off as though our inattention was the most natural response in the world.

A woman with her young daughter sat down and asked us what had happened. Her facial expression did not match her words of assurance that they had been to the top of the Empire State Building two days earlier and that the Towers had been standing and that everything was all right. Later, an elderly neighbor dropped by to say what a beautiful day it was. "Bess," I replied, "this is a simply dreadful day." Her head dropped as she softly agreed, "Yes, it is."

T.V. became our community bulletin board. As she interviewed New Yorkers searching for their loved ones CNN's Elizabeth Cohen did not try to hide her tears. Rabbi Harold Kushner said that he saw God in the work of emergency workers at Ground Zero. The next day a Muslim American man spoke of verbal abuse he had endured, adding that he understood and that he forgave. One could have seen God there, too.

I wish I could electronically communicate and interact with you, but we are not yet online, and were it not for the Carises you'd be getting this in the mail. How I yearn for your feedback, some of which I would include in subsequent letters. Even infallible people need the thoughts and opinions of others, especially when we are totally wrong.

My next letter, from Manhattan, will appear on Nov. 1 or soon after; I'll send you a reminder. Meanwhile we'll be cruising the Mediterranean and then reacclimating ourselves to N.Y.C.

A final word about 9/11. To date the American response to that tragedy seems to consist of a war with Iraq the long range consequences of which I shudder to imagine, a hastily thrown together National Security Agency that doesn't make me or anyone I know feel any safer, distribution of federal emergency preparedness funding on the basis of political expediency and unabated reliance on Middle East oil. While I'm not suggesting that everyone is asleep at the switch, can you think of anything in your daily life besides inconvenience at the airport that has changed as a result of the change in our world?

Archive 2006