Remembering Romeo & Juliet…

On June 17, 1961 a 23-year-old dancer broke free of his Russian security detail, dashed through the immigration barrier at a Paris airport and asked the French for political asylum. Rudolf Nureyev wasn’t yet famous outside the world of Russian ballet, but in that world he was known as a White Crow – belaya vorona– Russian idiom for a person who is different from his surroundings, who doesn’t ‘fit’ within cultural circles, and goes against the stream. 

In 2018, a film entitled The White Crow was released without much fanfare. Written by David Hare (The Reader and The Hours) and directed by Ralph Fiennes, it chronicles Nureyev’s life up to and including his 1961 defection in Paris. It’s a mystery that the film didn’t register with the critics. It’s dramatic, true to its facts, suspenseful, and audiences loved it. Even if you’re not a fan of ballet it’s worth seeing. This is first class drama – both the life and film story.

Just three years after his defection and near the end of her remarkable career, London’s Royal Ballet paired 45-year-old Dame Margot Fonteyn with the explosive 26-year-old Nureyev in what became one of the great ballet partnerships of all time. Interestingly, it was not the first such pairing for Nureyev. At the Kirov in Leningrad, the ballet master paired the newly graduated 21-year-old Nureyev with the company’s 46-year-old prima ballerina, Natalia Dudinskaya, thinking a younger male partner would energize and thereby extend the career of its older star. It worked then and again later with Fonteyn.

It’s rare for ordinary mortals to experience greatness, but three years after his defection I had the opportunity to observe greatness as Nureyev and Dame Margot danced Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet in the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. I will never forget the feeling I had in their presence.

That night, as Dame Margot emerged en pointe from the wings, stage right, there was an audible gasp, a pause, and then explosive applause from the audience. She WAS the 13-year-old Juliet, and she held that audience in her thrall for the next two hours. Moments after her dramatic entrance Nureyev appeared, and the stage was set for Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers to dance their destinies to Prokofiev’s beautiful score.

In The White Crow, Nureyev is played by Oleg Ivenko, a talented young Russian dancer who not only looks like Nureyev but dances with the same swagger. Nureyev was a larger than life character. I had trouble imagining any actor or dancer playing the role, but in The White Crow Ivenko disappears almost immediately and Nureyev is on the screen front and center.

The film begins with his birth on the Trans-Siberian Railway enroute to Vladivostok and ends with a tense scene between Russian security guards and French immigration officials at Le Bourget Airport in 1961.

His Tatar-Muslim parents were poor and the father, a minor government official, was abusive and mostly absent, but when Rudik was six years old a ticket changed his life. His mother had one ticket to a ballet performance in Ufa, the Siberian town where they lived, and she was somehow able to smuggle Rudy and his three sisters into the theater. Afterwards, he said “There was simply from this quite early age the awareness that the only thing I wanted was to dance.”

His dance life began with folk dancing but his talent was so prodigious that he was handed from one teacher to another until at 17 he was selected by both the Bolshoi in Moscow and the Kirov in Leningrad for further training. To everyone’s surprise he chooses the Kirov, and this is where the film really begins…with his training under Alexander Pushkin.

Pushkin, the ballet master not the poet, is played by Ralph Fiennes who also directed and produced the film. I’ve always admired him as an actor. The English Patient is one of my all-time favorite films, but here, rather than a badly burned adventurer/spy, he plays Pushkin, the very placid, understated ballet master. Pushkin was not a frightening taskmaster like Diaghilev or a dominating personality like Balanchine. Rather, he was a quiet perfectionist and Nureyev his obsessively driven protege. Their relationship is complicated when Pushkin’s wife, a former ballerina, seduces Nureyev, but the seduction, like Fiennes character, is understated and some biographers have even suggested that Pushkin simply chose to ignore it.

Many of the actors in The White Crow are Russian, and so is much of the dialogue (with English subtitiles). Fiennes speaks it fluently and impressively. The film ends where most of us became aware of Rudolf Nureyev, with his dramatic escape to the West. It touches on his bisexuality but doesn’t dwell there. The White Crow honors his genius, individuality, courage, and lust for life. It’s such a shame that he was taken from the world by the AIDS virus at age 54.

Rocketman and Me

“And I think it’s gonna be a long long time
‘Till touch down brings me round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home”

Elton John’s first hit was Your Song released in October of 1970. My wife, Abby, and I were living in St. Tropez then, and it was the only one of his songs we knew until a friend came to visit the following spring. Francois, a Pan Am friend from our San Francisco days, was on his way to Spain to open a summer bar on the Costa Blanca. He was traveling with a stereo system he bought in Tokyo, a pile of record albums from San Francisco that included Elton’s second album, Tumbleweed Connection, and plans to spin them in his new Spanish venture. I remember sitting on the quai at the exact location you see above as he was telling us his plan.

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. Francois’ plan was as simple as they get. He was going to rent a run-down boathouse in Calpe (above) where his friend, Paco, had an antique store. The doors of the boathouse opened onto a rocky beach 20’ from the Mediterranean. He would gut the interior, build a wooden bar, string some paper lanterns, stock the coolers with ice and alcohol (no refrigeration), and be ready for business. And, that’s what he did.

The first night he opened the doors at 9pm and closed around 4am, but he thought it was too busy, so the second night he opened at 11pm. It was packed again and stayed that way all summer. At first, the crowd was young restaurant workers after their shifts, but word got around and soon it was the hottest bar in town. It was still too busy for Francois, so he simplified things in week two and cut back to only one drink – rum and coke.

Every morning he took the receipts from the night before to the liquor store and restocked the coolers. It was, after all, a simple idea. One day at a time. Abby and I drove to Calpe to see him and loved the bar’s rough simplicity. Elton John, Santana, and the Beatles provided the soundtrack. The moon reflecting off the glassy Mediterranean was the backdrop, and a young international crowd provided the energy. It was summer in Spain. What Francois didn’t spend on re-stocking the bar he spent on lunch for his friends in the afternoon.

In the fall, he went back to work at Pan Am. It was rinse and repeat for three years. I don’t know what he was telling Pan Am, but after three years he quit the airline and opened a paella restaurant in the hills behind Calpe. But, this is not about Francois; it’s about Elton and me.

By 1975, I was back in New York, and Elton John was a superstar selling out stadiums world-wide. When you’re a pilot or flight attendant, flying is more about schedule than anything else, and that October I picked up a charter trip from London Heathrow to Los Angeles. In those days that was about as far as the 707 could fly without refueling, and I was assigned as the second co-pilot (required on very long flights).

When we arrived at the Heathrow dispatch office, we were told that Elton John had chartered the plane to take friends and staff to Los Angeles for one of his two sold out concerts at Dodger Stadium. Elton was not flying with us. He was already in LA, but he chartered the airplane for his friends and support staff. It was a mixed crowd of every description from bell-bottomed hipsters to aging pensioners – all along for a free ride and First Class food from London to Los Angeles.

It was one of the best flights I ever had. Things were relaxed in those days, and from take-off to landing we had the cockpit door open and the passengers came and went at will. Anyone who wanted to visit us did. I remember how well-mannered everyone was. It was not a wild rock and roll party. It was 170 of Elton’s friends and neighbors.

Our Pan Am crew didn’t go to the concert, but last weekend M and I saw the new Elton John biopic Rocketman. It included clips from Dodger Stadium that took my breath away. If you haven’t seen the film, I recommend it. I always think it’s dangerous to make a movie about a living person, but this one is very good – sad and happy at the same time. Elton’s has not been a happy life and the movie doesn’t downplay that element. Today he seems fine. He’s been sober for 28 years, has a stable relationship with his partner, David Furnish, and is raising two young children. According to the film’s credits, he has raised $450 million in the last 25 years for AIDS research.

You probably have a favorite Elton John song. Mine is still Your Song, his first hit, but yours may be Candle in the Wind, Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting, Daniel, or Tiny Dancer. Whatever it is, see the movie and then listen to your song again. It will be different.

Trump: the Criminal Case…

I’m a person who believes in playing by the rules, especially when it comes to the government of the United States. I know it isn’t perfect, but for 243 years it has stood the test. I believe it’s the most democratic form though not the most efficient. I believe its institutions deliver the fairest, most even-handed justice, though not always to everyone. I believe in one-man one-vote, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the right to bear arms (limited), separation of church and state, equal protection of the laws, due process of law, and three independent branches of government. I do not believe anyone, including the president of the United States is above the law or beyond its reach.

It’s very difficult to write anything original about Donald Trump. He’s a crass, venal, petty, corrupt, sexist, racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, ignorant, inarticulate, sexual predator and unfit for the office he holds. Have I left anything out? I have…he is the sole or principal owner and titular head of the Trump Organization, an extensive criminal enterprise comprised of 500+ business entities.

For the past two years America has been waiting for Robert S. Mueller, Special Counsel to the Department of Justice, to complete his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. His primary charge – to determine whether any crimes were committed by the Trump presidential campaign in collaboration with the Russian government and its surrogates.

The report, delivered on April 18, 2019, concluded that although there was significant evidence of Russian interference designed to promote Donald Trump’s candidacy, there was insufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy involving the Trump campaign and the Russian government. That conclusion, rather than clearing the air, caused interested parties to crank up their fog machines and deliver their own conclusions “based-on” the report’s findings. Attorney General William Barr issued a 4-page summary clearing the president of any wrong doing despite the fact that Mueller came to no such conclusion. Mr. Trump declared himself “totally and completely exonerated” by the report, a claim that moved more than 1000 former US Attorneys to sign a letter stating that but for a Justice Department policy against indicting a sitting president he would be found guilty of obstruction of justice and sent to prison.

Very unsatisfying all around. Trump wanted to be cleared of all misdeeds. Republicans wanted to declare “case closed,” and Democrats wanted to see Trump shackled in an orange jumpsuit.

Trump’s impeachment is on everyone’s tongue. Nancy says “I’d rather see him in prison,” but AOC and the progressives are restless and want to draft a Bill of Impeachment now. It does have an ironic turn-about-is-fair-play note to hear Sean Hannity declare that “Lock him up” would turn the US into little more than a banana republic. Sean…under Trump that’s exactly what we are now.

I agree with Donny Deutsch, the branding expert and former friend of the president’s; congressional Democrats have their knickers twisted over impeachment but the real play is the criminality of the Trump Organization writ large. Unless he stabs Nancy Pelosi in the White House’s Oval Office, impeachment is likely to die in the Republican Senate.

I have no doubt that he is going to be found guilty of assorted crimes sometime. There are so many to choose from – money laundering, bank fraud, serial sexual predation, campaign finance violations, bribery, extortion, Mafia collusion, violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, 501C(3) charity violations… and obstruction of justice. Take your pick. My guess is 15–30 years for the financial crimes, 5-10 for obstruction of justice. Served consecutively not concurrently, it would all be over for The Donald—just like Bernie Madoff. 

If the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel policy stands, we may have to wait until he is out of office to see him indicted, but current Congressional investigations can lay the groundwork for later prosecution. Democrats are determined to rid the government of Trump and his cronies, but Trump’s vulnerability is much larger than his personal misdeeds. Congress should focus on the Trump Organization, that network of 500+ business entities of which he is the sole or principle owner.

In a wild spending spree between 2005 and 2015 Donald Trump paid hundreds of millions in cash for golf courses in Scotland and Ireland, overseas hotels, and houses in Florida etc. He was broke at the time and reputable banks wouldn’t loan him a cent. Suddenly he was flush with cash from the wealth management arm of Deutsche Bank. We know DB was laundering Russian money at the time. It paid a $10 billion fine for just that in 2017 and further fines and charges are pending. 

In addition to other state and federal prosecutions, the Department of Justice should consider charging the Trump Organization and its principles, including Ivanka, Don Jr., and Eric with violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly referred to as RICO, a United States federal law that provides for extended criminal penalties and a civil cause of action for acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organization. For decades, in addition to its own crimes, the Trump Organization has been operating in partnership with Mafia groups, corrupt union bosses, and overseas criminal enterprises to build its empire.

Let’s finally put Donald Trump and the Trump Organization on the pointy end of a RICO investigation and prosecution. If we have to play by the rules, so should they. Let’s level the playing field and even the score.

Pictures courtesy of CNN and PinHead@PiercedSkull

Nerdy Ol’ Me…

Donald Trump exhausts me. He’s the train wreck I saw coming but couldn’t look away from. His mind-numbing ignorance and faux-gravitas would be hilarious if he/we weren’t in a death spiral of his making. He may be time-limited, but four years is an eternity when Pudgy-Wudgy, the village idiot, has the keys to the nuclear launch codes.

Part of my exhaustion comes from my wife’s insatiable need to watch the scum circling the drain–all day every day on two television sets. She and I are different. She is able to work, read, and listen to the competing news sources without missing anything. I’m not good at tuning in and out. I’m too easily pulled into the breathless Breaking News on MSNBC. Ever watch your 8-year-old grandchild when the TV goes on. I’m like that. Or like Joseph Conrad, who used to have his wife, Jessie, lock him in his upstairs study in the morning and not let him out until lunch time. He didn’t have the will power to stay and write without restraint. Neither do I. I’m Conrad’s Mini-Me.

During the week, I have a strategy; I bus it to my downtown office or find a table at Diva Espresso in Kenmore Town Center. Both are perfect settings; I can write in a quiet setting where nobody interferes and there are no carpets to vacuum, bills to pay, or dishwashers to load. Unfortunately, my “during the week” strategy doesn’t hold up on the weekend. I end up wandering around the apartment trying to avoid the stereo confusion of competing cable stations. 

Weekend news is like used food. It’s recycled, tasteless, and doesn’t nourish, so, in the hope of finding something fresh, I channel-surf. Weekend sports sometimes fill the void, but weekend channel-surfing offers an assortment of other choices too–Great Performances, Frontline and Masterpiece Theater are the gold standard. I’ve even settled for Antique Roadshow, but last Saturday, by accident I found another better option. 

Instead of recycled MSNBC, CNN, or Fox News I landed on Nerd TV. At least I think of it as Nerd TV. See… I am falling into the name calling trap just like Trump. What I’m really talking is about C-Span2 which every weekend, all day, both days serves up Book TV.

I am Book TV’s target audience. It’s is right in my wheelhouse. As an unabashed, unselfconscious, unapologetic lover of books, I like nothing more than hearing authors interviewed or reading from their books. Many of the interviews take place at book fairs, and the format is fairly standard; a host and author sit in comfortable chairs on stage in front of an audience to talk about the book. The other form is a Skype-like interview with the author and interviewer at different locations. 

I won’t bore you with all the good stuff I watched last weekend, but one interview was especially interesting to me. Both the interviewer and interviewee were women, both were former Marine Corps officers, and both have written books about their experience. As a former Marine myself, I was fascinated. Both women are still loyal to the Corps and proud of their service, but their critique of the misogyny and racism in the Marine Corps made me hope their words might lead to smarter, better deployment of women and better behavior on the part of their male counterparts.

Captain Anuradha Bhagwati’s Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedience was released two days ago (May 26, 2019) and she was interviewed over the weekend by Lt. Colonel Kate Germano, whose book Fight Like a Girl: The Truth Behind How Female Marines are Trained was a best seller last year.

Both women are underappreciated overachievers. After 20 years in the Corps, Lt. Colonel Germano was relieved of her command at the Fourth Recruit Training Battalion at Parris Island, North Carolina, notwithstanding the fact that her female recruits improved dramatically over previous cohorts. Captain Bhagwati, the daughter of Indian immigrants, left the Marines after five years of disappointment, harassment, and combat to pursue an advanced degree at Yale. 

The Marine Corps is a southern, macho-male culture. Historically, many of its officers were graduates of VMI (Virginia Military Institute). It is the only military service that still segregates the sexes during initial training. Both of these women challenged the wisdom of segregation and advocated for tougher physical standards and higher expectations for women recruits. Their stories are different, but both are compelling.

Book TV on C-Span2 was an eye-opener. When I think of C-Span I think of Congressmen slumped over hearing room desks bickering over line items in the budget. I never imagined myself glued to Nerd TV. It’s a good lesson. Keep your eyes and ears open. There’s a lot of good stuff out there and it’s not always where you expect to find it.

I confess, Rachel and Ari and Lawrence and Brian still draw me in. The government of the United States is in jeopardy. As citizens we have an obligation to stay on top of the news. We deserve better than what we’re getting from the White House, although we’re getting what we deserve. We didn’t pay attention and not enough of us voted. We didn’t see the warning signs. Trump and his posse are dismantling the progress of the last 70 years. But, Kate Germano and Anuradha Bhagwati deserve better too. Look them up and read their stories. You might even take some time to watch Nerd TV this weekend. Squeeze it in and feed your brain either before or after Golden State whups Toronto’s ass in the NBA finals.

Words, Words, Words…and Jargon

Poets use them almost as a concentrate…a few here, a few there…liberally sprinkled down the page. Of course, I’m talking about words. We all use them, but they are the hammer and nails of a writers toolkit. Some use them masterfully, and I’m in awe of the great ones, particularly poets. They set a high bar by showing us how with economy and precision we can all become better communicators. Poets teach us to be miserly, to condense, and concentrate our thoughts in order to clarify and intensify our meaning.

David Foster Wallace, the novelist and essayist, is one of the best American writers in recent memory. The tragically flawed author of Infinite Jest loved words. In the back of his book of essays, Both Flesh and Not, are pages of vocabulary – listed but not defined. Whenever he ran across a word he didn’t know or whose meaning escaped him he wrote it down, to better absorb its meaning, imprint it in memory, and incorporate it into his prose.

Writers are obsessed with words. They matter. They are the building blocks of their craft. Journalists are are a subset of writers constrained by deadlines. Time is a luxury poets and fiction writers enjoy, but it’s not vouchsafed to journalists. Deadlines and on-your-feet responses dictate a different vocabulary. Time is of the essence. Political journalism, in the era of Trump, has become a blood sport. Fox News vs. CNN. It’s like speed dating. The sheer volume of Breaking News dictates it. As a consequence, journalists are digging deep for new words, phrases, metaphors, similes, and taglines to invest their stories with freshness. Today’s story is stale in 24 hours. As a consequence, I decided to write my own up to date news release using a political reporter’s vocabulary of the moment. Trust me; there will be something new in the next news cycle.


With all the Breaking News I thought it would be important to know Attorney General Barr’s endgame,  so, trying not to put my thumb on the scale or get ahead of my skis, I asked a lawyer friend if we were confronting a constitutional crisis or if there was predication for the AG’s action. I told him that with all the memes and tropes flying around and the Russians trolling, the rest of us were breathlessly marinating in Fake News concerning white privilegewhite supremacy, and shithole countries full of non-binary individuals and Antifa provocateurs,  I was confused. He assured me I had nothing to worry about; there were adults in the room and guardrails definitely baked-in, so despite the culture wars and identity politics, AG Barr was convinced Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein could land the plane and deliver the goods safely if everyone stayed in their lane.

I hope he’s right. With subpoenas flying and Donald Trump living rent free in Hillary’s brain I began to worry that there were Trump avatars lurking behind every porn star and tabloid entrepreneur, that perhaps there actually had been a foiled coup d’état but we would never really know because the unredacted Mueller Report was reportedly a hoax and a witch hunt perpetrated by James Comey, Michael Cohen, and other rats, flippers, and snitches. I just wish someone could explain the difference between a conspiracy, collusion, obstruction, surveillance, spying and opposition research. If they could I’m sure everything would be perfectly clear.


“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”   

Graham Greene