Monday, April 25, 2011

Psychology Today: Interview with Stephen Mitchell

In the beginning was the word
Presents an interview with translator of religious classics, Stephen Mitchell, about his insights on stories in 'The Book of Genesis' in the Bible and his journey to enlightenment. Mitchell's comparison of the sufferings of Buddha and Abraham; Insight on the 'Book of Job'; Portrayal of Jesus Christ in the book 'The Gospel According to Jesus.' INSET: Selected works by Stephen Mitchell.
By PT Staff, published on December 01, 1996

The gospel according to Stephen Mitchell, the preeminent translator of our time, is sometimes dangerous, often shocking-and always personal.

The breadth of his knowledge is astonishing--sprawling across centuries and cultures. More than a messenger, Stephen Mitchell is a magician who brings our greatest spiritual teachers to life. He reads French, Greek, Latin, German, and Hebrew. His latest translation, Genesis, was inspired by Bill Moyers's invitation to participate in the 10-part PBS series Genesis: A Living Conversation, in which noted writers and scholars discuss the meanings that the stories of Genesis have for us today.

The other day, we had a delightful animated lunch with Mitchell. In essence, we wanted to know what this 53-year-old man had learned from translating the classics.

PT: You've recreated stories about the most primordial issues of life: creation, temptation, compassion, betrayal. How do we know when we're reading a good translation?

SM: Samuel Johnson said that a good translation reads like a great piece of literature in the language into which it's been translated. It has to capture the spirit of the original. The center of anything genuine--from translation to marriage to our spiritual life--is intimacy. Old Chinese stories will say of an enlightened master, "And then he became intimate." Not intimate with anything, just intimate. And that's what it's like for me to be dwelling with these gorgeous presences. I literally fall in love [with my subjects], from Jesus to Job to the poet Rilke. When I translate, I find tone as important as content. And in the stories of Genesis, it was a delight to recreate the gritty, powerful music of the original Hebrew.

PT: How old are these stories?

SM: Nobody really knows.

They were composed, some of them from ancient folk material, by a number of different writers. Many of them are much older than the date they were written down, because for centuries they were preserved orally Some of them parallel stories from other cultures that appeared thousands of years earlier, like the story of a great flood. And yet oral traditions tend to be very conservative. Often holy texts are memorized from childhood on. For instance, the traditional test for a 13-year-old student of the Talmud was this: take a pin and stick it through one word on one page and tell what word the pin went through on the next twenty pages. That meant the student had to know the text photographically as well as by heart.

PT: Some of the stories in Genesis are very disturbing.

SM: Even the greatest stories of Homer don't plumb the same depths as the weird and dark stories of Genesis. Yet they're marvelous because they're like mirrors. Take the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent. When I read this aloud to a group of people, I can almost see flames coming out of women's ears when Eve eats the apple and Adam denounces her. It's really a very dangerous little story--like a Kafka parable--where men blame women for all the miseries of humanity And that's how it's been interpreted by both Jews and Christians.

PT: So what's really going on?

SM: The story is much more complex. The serpent is a symbol of wisdom in many cultures, because it sheds its skin and thus is born again. In India, the serpent represents the energy stored at the base of the spine, known as kundalini. When this energy rises it can be a potentially great and painful awakening of consciousness. So it's interesting that the antagonist in the story takes the form of a serpent, and that the serpent tells the truth.

Then you have a God who plants a forbidden tree right in the middle of the garden, like a parent placing a cookie jar in front of children. And he says, "If you eat from this tree, you'll die." But that's a lie. Adam and Eve don't die.

PT: So God is bullshitting.

SM: He's not telling the truth.

PT: In a way, he lies to Abraham, too.

SM: People have been trying to rationalize God's lies for thousands of years. These stories are very powerful and are at the root of our culture. But you have to realize that the God of Genesis is a human creation, not the God at the center of the universe. Whenever God is presented as a character, that presentation is partial, and therefore false. Ultimately, God is not a character in a story. God is the whole story.

PT: In your introduction to Genesis, you draw a fascinating and even shocking parallel between the suffering of Buddha and that of Abraham. God appears to Abraham and tells him to leave his family and murder his child. The Buddha-to-be is also faced with a heartbreaking choice: stay with his wife and son, or go off and seek enlightenment.

SM: The story of Abraham is darker and has such transcendent power. It deals with the most extreme suffering possible for a human. Imagine the emotions that come with having to murder a beloved child. On the surface, it's a very authoritarian story. But once you dig deeper you see it depicts the hardest thing that anyone following any spiritual practice can do--let go of attachments. Both the Buddha and Abraham do. In Abraham's case, he lets go to the point where he can withstand even the most unthinkable horror.

PT: You write that it's possible to be "so fluid and centered, so filled with trust in the intelligence of the universe, that even horror can pass through us and eventually be transformed into light." Have you experienced that kind of suffering and transcendence yourself?
SM: I don't think I could have written that if I hadn't. My own spiritual path began when I was 22 and studying comparative literature at Yale. I had the most painful experience of my life up to that point. I broke up with my girlfriend after two years together. It was my first serious love affair and it blew up in my face. For the next year I couldn't find any way to deal with my pain. It was so intense that even after another love affair nothing could touch it.

I found myself magnetically attracted to the Book of Job as the one place in Judaism that deeply addresses the problem of human suffering. I would read the King James version and hear the music of the voice of God, who appears to Job out of the whirlwind. God gives a gloriously poetic speech about the natural world and a beauty beyond good and evil, but nobody has ever been able to figure out how that speech provides an answer to Job's suffering. It seems to be the most dazzling nonanswer of an answer possible. Yet I felt whoever had written this had had some experience I was desperate for. I decided to learn Hebrew in order to go back to the original and enter that experience completely.

Knowing Hebrew allowed me to get closer to the dark music of the passages, but not an inch closer to understanding the answer. I'd speak to famous rabbis and ask them about suffering, but nobody had a due. Then a friend of mine said, "Why don't you come to Rhode Island and meet this guy who's supposedly a Zen master who came to America six months ago. He has no money, doesn't know English, and he's repairing washing machines in a laundry. I don't know if he's a Zen master, but he has very strange eyes." So I went to this very funky apartment in Providence and walked into the kitchen of a man dressed in an undershirt and a sailor's cap, of all things. I looked into his eyes and I was absolutely certain that he knew what I needed to know and that if I penetrated far enough into his eyes, I'd come to the place where I knew, too. So I stayed with him and did nothing but practice Zen. A year later I found myself in the center of that whirlwind. I felt I was standing in the place from which God's answer to Job arose, and I understood that there is absolute justice in the universe. Anyone who doesn't understand that cannot fully understand what God is.

PT: What do you mean by absolute justice? Are you saying a thief who steals a wallet will get his comeuppance?

SM: It's not a moral tally of right and wrong, of reward and punishment. That view can eventually become very moralistic and punitive. Justice happens on a far deeper level. When you can hold the greatest pain and the greatest cruelty of your life with grace and surrender, then everything becomes light. Light both in the sense of not weighty and in the sense of the ultimate intelligence of the universe, which some call God or Tao.

PT: That's a pretty thought, but how does it explain your vision of absolute justice?

SM: I'm talking about what happens at unconscious levels, where the root of all experience lies. When people are in great pain they usually ask, "Why me?" Almost always, they really don't want to know the answer. They would be scared by it. But in order to transform pain, you need to become aware of its source. Then you can say, "Oh, this is why I'm stuck here." And you can change it. My experience in Zen training, where all my doubts vanished and everything was absolutely clear, is a classic one. But it's only the first step. What's important is how you integrate that experience, and how fully you work through your own neurotic material.

I came to spiritual practice with enormous neurotic material and had to go through a number of demanding hundred-day solitary meditation retreats with four hours of sleep each night. That was what was required for the deep material to float up, very excruciatingly, into consciousness before it could be transformed.

Even then it can take years. Not long after my wife and I got together [in 1977] she very kindly began to point out that my money karma was totally messed up. Essentially I didn't want anything to do with it. For a dozen years I'd been living on $3,000 a year. She kept pointing out that aversion is the flip side of desire, and that my aversion to money was just as unhealthy as greed. I reluctantly began to let that message in and to work toward changing. It was extremely painful, but I finally got to the root of it. I had equated earning money with male distance and emotional absence. When I disentangled the two, I could see that money was simply energy. If my books were ever going to be accepted by the public I would need the grace to receive what came with their sale.

Though I'd gotten to the root of my problem, nothing changed that year, or the next. In 1986, I accompanied my wife on a hundred-day meditation retreat, and the insights I gained ultimately inspired me to do a new, very free translation of the Tao Te Ching with my own commentary. The book just took off, had huge sales, and the transformation of my money karma was complete.

PT: In The Gospel According to Jesus you portray Jesus as an enlightened man, not a god; a brilliant teacher who would have been appalled at the things later said and done in his name.
SM: People have put a message in his mouth that's antithetical to what he felt with all his heart. He talks about the kingdom of God being here and now. Yet at the end of Mark the risen savior says, "If you believe in me you'll be saved, if you don't believe in me you'll be damned." This verse has been responsible for more human suffering than any single verse in history That ending is not in the earliest manuscripts. It only appears a few hundred years later. As Thomas Jefferson said, these later teachings simply cannot come from the same mind that gave us the authentic teachings.

The central message of Jesus is a very attractive one, and something that many people feel they need personally So much of what's been written about Jesus, however, is fictional biography. For political and theological reasons, the Church had to show that this great teacher whom they all adored didn't die in vain.

PT: And yet what you are doing is also potentially dangerous. Just like the biographers of Jesus, you as a translator have an enormous responsibility.

SM: It was tremendously fulfilling to be able to collect the best of the teachings and paint a portrait of a person I was deeply in love with. I tried to view this great Jewish teacher in relation to his peers, spiritual masters such as the Buddha, Lao-tzu, and Ramana Maharshi. Many scholars of the gospels see him only within the Christian tradition, which means seeing him in relation to people who are very much his inferiors, starting with St. Paul, who was a brilliant but deeply neurotic and intolerant man.

PT: What is the gospel according to Jesus?

SM: Simply this: that the love we all long for in our innermost heart is already present. Jesus left us the essence of himself in his teachings, which are all we need to know. We want to know much more about him, of course. What did he look like? Was he married? Was he ever in love? Why is the emotion that informs Jesus' teaching about forgiveness so intense, so filled with the exhilaration of forgiving and being forgiven? I feel it must have come from a profound personal experience.

PT: How have people reacted to your assertion that Jesus was an illegitimate child, and this caused him very human pain and anger?

SM: A lot of people have found his anger enormously liberating. I don't think that we can fully appreciate who Jesus became unless we realize the overwhelming difficulties he must have had as an illegitimate child in a small provincial town. This teacher is much more effective than the superhuman figure who bears the sins of the world. And people don't feel so damn guilty about being human and flawed themselves.

PT: If you had to recommend one Genesis story for our readers, what would it be?

SM: The most beautiful story of all is "Joseph and His Brothers." I didn't expect Genesis to contain a story of this greatness--which in the Bible is now almost mined by the additions of later scribes. This is the only story in Genesis, besides Job's, where a character undergoes a profound spiritual transformation. As the story begins, Joseph is described as a gifted and beloved child, but also as a spoiled brat. And so it feels cruel but appropriate when his brothers decide to wring his neck. Through Joseph's suffering, and years of slavery and imprisonment, he becomes truly wise, a shaman, an interpreter of dreams, a great political leader, a man who can open his heart to the brothers who almost killed him and forgive them completely. A story this large-hearted reveals God not as a character but within Joseph himself, who has come to fully trust the intelligence of the universe. It's the most moving story in the entire Bible.


A Book of Psalms

Tao Te Ching

The Book of Job

The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai

The Enlightened Mind: An Anthology of Sacred Prose

The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry

The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke

Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn

The Gospel According to Jesus


Psychology Today: Interview with Ben Bradlee

Still news
Presents an interview with newsman Ben Bradlee. Views on psychologists; Perspectives on the late American President Richard Nixon; Appreciation for female boss Katharine Graham.
By PT Staff, published on November 01, 1995

BB: He was on the brink of fulfilling all his promise.

PT: What is the meaning of it all now?

BB: There was a recklessness in Kennedy's life that I didn't see, a sexual recklessness I don't understand. I'm appalled at the sharing of a woman with a gangster, a gangster's moll. She had terrible friends. It boggles my mind, truly. Whether it lessened his presidency in any way, I don't know.

PT: Why do you think he did that?

BB: I think it must have heightened the excitement of it.

PT: Do you think he needed excitement one way or another in order to feel he was alive--is that fair?

BB: It turns out to be closer to the truth than I knew. Maybe the furtiveness of the sex or the scandal of the sex made sex more interesting to him. I don't quite dig that but I can imagine it.

PT: Do you feel more, or less sentimental about Kennedy as you get older?

BB: I feel a greater sense of potential and a feeling that he was much more human. His second term would have been a dinger.

PT: So he would have been president for another four years. Then who?

BB: Then Bobby.

PT: So there would have been a liberal Democratic consensus for, say, 16 or 18 years.

BB: Yeah.

PT: What ever happened to Janet Cook [the Post reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for an article, about an eight-year-old drug addict, that proved to be made up]?

BB: It always comes down to Janet Cook. She wouldn't talk to me. I don't have much to say to her. I think I know why she did it.

PT: She wanted to get famous?

BB: Rich and famous. And her worst fears were realized: She became poor and famous. Last I heard, she was in Toledo.

PT: What would you ask her if you could?

BB: It's easy to see how it could happen. And at the end of the day, if somebody wants to lie to you straight-faced and is very smart about it, they can do it. Boy, my colleagues, did they tuck it to me.

PT: Well, when you get played in a movie by Jason Robards and you become your own larger-than-life character, they're after you.

BB: But there was the allegedly famous Bradlee instinct, the shit detector. How did I miss that?

PT: Do you worry about it?

BB: No, it's the only one I missed.

PT: Are there certain stories that you wish you had done?

BB: There are a lot of stories that I wish I'd done that I didn't know about when they were there. That's the problem.

PT: What do you think about Dole? What makes him think he can be president?

BB: Because he can be whatever anybody wants him to be. If he makes president, he'd be an okay president because he's so sensitive to what people think of him that they'll force him into a middle-road position and he won't be his worst.

PT: You think he'll be elected?

BB: I don't know. It seems to me that the positions that Powell is taking about gun control and racial opportunities are going to make him awfully hard for the Republican Party, as it now exists, to swallow. That's going to force Dole into putting somebody acceptable to them on the ticket -- and that will reelect Clinton.

PT: What's the dumbest thing that you ever did?.

BB: It was to take Janet Cook's story.

PT: And the moral of the story for people who aren't in the reporting business?

BB: Be sure you don't want something so badly that you lose your judgment. PT: Your favorite newspapers?

BB: Well, I think the Post and the Times are in a class by themselves.

PT: Favorite editors?

BB: I think newspapers are scared of strong editors.

PT: The dangerous editor, that is the lesson of Watergate: Whenever you get down to it, lots of people don't tell the truth.

BB: They don't. The motherfuckers lie. PT: They lie straight-faced.

BB: But nobody gets upset about it. PT: Who is there to get upset?

BB: The papers, the editors ought to get upset about it. Reporters ought to get upset about it.
BB: A big deal to me. I got it in March [of 1936, at age 14] and I didn't get up until July. I didn't will myself well, but it did not occur to me I was going to be crippled, even as I sat with those fucking braces on. PT: What did you learn about yourself? BB: I learned that optimism as a way of thinking about life worked for me. The fact that I didn't fear it and think about it must have had something to do with it. I wasn't left with anything except I'm slow as molasses now. I can't run fast. I can't bend.

PT: If you were born after polio ceased to be a danger, then you just can't imagine it.

BB: It was like the plague in the summer. You couldn't go anywhere, you couldn't eat fruit. You couldn't go to the movies or swim in a pool. Polio and the Depression and the war were marking experiences. If I hadn't had them l'd have been a different person.

PT: What do you make of the reverence you've received? You've been the subject of articles in the New Yorker and elsewhere. I can't imagine more positive press than you've had in certain kinds of elite publications

BB: Well, there is an explanation.

PT: That you're a good guy ?

BB: I hesitate to hit you over the head with it.

PT But it's all true? BB:

I try that on myself and there's a dark voice that says, You won't be able to sell that. Along this journey, I have accumulated some like-minded people who have risen to do like-minded things and who are now writing about me. I also think that in the years since I've left the city, I have inched inexorably towards legend. People say, "What the hell's the point of beating this guy over the head? He's pretty good. Leave him alone." I haven't seen the 60 Minutes piece, but I hear it's okay. There's Mike Wallace, whom I've known for 40 years, and what is he going to do, beat the shit out of me at this late stage? He's got Art Buchwald on. Buchwald is an old friend of mine.

I hear that Buchwald cries to Wallace when he starts talking about the love that men have for each other. So I called him up and said, "What the hell did you tell Wallace?" He said, "You wait until you see it."

Art's quite remarkable. His columns are the first smile of the day. You read the first three or four 'graphs and you smile and say "Goddamnit, that's funny and that's true." He's genuinely funny and a very warm man.

PT: Has being a celebrity been a positive experience for you?

BB: Richard Nixon made me a public figure. I'm sure I made me a public figure. Katharine Graham made me a public figure. Sally Quinn made me a public figure. What am I going to do? Go up into the woods and ignore it? Where it gets me a little bit is when you walk into a room and the damn paparazzi start taking pictures. Or when you are walking outside Penn Station with Annie Leibovitz taking pictures of you at 7:30 in the morning.

PT: What do you hope to get out of the book. Why did you write it?

BB: You want to sum up, you want to convince yourself that life had a certain border and that it made sense. It's kind of a legacy: This is what I think I did, what I accomplished, and why I accomplished it. There's something that drives you into being judged that interests me. I don't quite get it. It's like an actor. Why would you drive yourself to be judged?

Plus somebody threw a lot of dough at me for doing it. You want to have something to do. I don't want to go play golf. I don't want to go drink tea with people

PT: What do you think about the new magazine, George, edited by JFK Jr.?

BB: I don't know. I haven't seen it yet. I'm not sure that what the world needs is a comment by Madonna on anything. But I admire the way that he has said "Okay, they want me to try this and I'm going to give it a shot." It seems to me he's behaved himself with dignity and class--all the while he tried to find a personal life. I've only met him a couple of times. I used to carry him around on my shoulders, long ago.

PT: A publishing type told me that he's extremely nice to the help, which impresses me.

BB: You have to say about Jackie Kennedy, whatever else you want to say, that she did a hell of a job raising those kids.

PT: One of the things that you described in your book and you have no answer for, is that Jackie was mad at you for writing the book Conversations With Kennedy. She said, "It tells more about you than my husband."

BB: That was not a compliment--but that I was betraying a friendship. I don't know. I don't think I betrayed the friendship at all. Jack would have loved that book.

PT: I was struck by the two encounters you describe having with Jackie [in which she ignored you]. You had many conversations with these guys, and knew them fairly well. They had been your neighbors. What I can't fathom is how disciplined or angry somebody would have to be not to say hello.

BB: I just don't get it. And I've stood on my head trying to figure out an explanation. I wrote her a letter before she died but I think I wrote it too late.

She may have assumed we were complicit in Kennedy's relationship with Mary Meyer [Bradlee's former sister-in-law],which we were not. If she thought we were somehow part of that, you can imagine she'd be sore as hell.

Whatever I feel about Jackie, I would never have ended the friendship.

PT: What are your thoughts as a guy who's had a full life but knew a president who was cut down at the height of his glory?
BB: He was on the brink of fulfilling all his promise.

PT: What is the meaning of it all now?

BB: There was a recklessness in Kennedy's life that I didn't see, a sexual recklessness I don't understand. I'm appalled at the sharing of a woman with a gangster, a gangster's moll. She had terrible friends. It boggles my mind, truly. Whether it lessened his presidency in any way, I don't know.

PT: Why do you think he did that?

BB: I think it must have heightened the excitement of it.

PT: Do you think he needed excitement one way or another in order to feel he was alive--is that fair?

BB: It turns out to be closer to the truth than I knew. Maybe the furtiveness of the sex or the scandal of the sex made sex more interesting to him. I don't quite dig that but I can imagine it.

PT: Do you feel more, or less sentimental about Kennedy as you get older?

BB: I feel a greater sense of potential and a feeling that he was much more human. His second term would have been a dinger.

PT: So he would have been president for another four years. Then who?

BB: Then Bobby.

PT: So there would have been a liberal Democratic consensus for, say, 16 or 18 years.

BB: Yeah.

PT: What ever happened to Janet Cook [the Post reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for an article, about an eight-year-old drug addict, that proved to be made up]?

BB: It always comes down to Janet Cook. She wouldn't talk to me. I don't have much to say to her. I think I know why she did it.

PT: She wanted to get famous?

BB: Rich and famous. And her worst fears were realized: She became poor and famous. Last I heard, she was in Toledo.

PT: What would you ask her if you could?

BB: It's easy to see how it could happen. And at the end of the day, if somebody wants to lie to you straight-faced and is very smart about it, they can do it. Boy, my colleagues, did they tuck it to me.

PT: Well, when you get played in a movie by Jason Robards and you become your own larger-than-life character, they're after you.

BB: But there was the allegedly famous Bradlee instinct, the shit detector. How did I miss that?

PT: Do you worry about it?

BB: No, it's the only one I missed.

PT: Are there certain stories that you wish you had done?

BB: There are a lot of stories that I wish I'd done that I didn't know about when they were there. That's the problem.

PT: What do you think about Dole? What makes him think he can be president?

BB: Because he can be whatever anybody wants him to be. If he makes president, he'd be an okay president because he's so sensitive to what people think of him that they'll force him into a middle-road position and he won't be his worst.

PT: You think he'll be elected?

BB: I don't know. It seems to me that the positions that Powell is taking about gun control and racial opportunities are going to make him awfully hard for the Republican Party, as it now exists, to swallow. That's going to force Dole into putting somebody acceptable to them on the ticket -- and that will reelect Clinton.

PT: What's the dumbest thing that you ever did?.

BB: It was to take Janet Cook's story.

PT: And the moral of the story for people who aren't in the reporting business?

BB: Be sure you don't want something so badly that you lose your judgment. PT: Your favorite newspapers?

BB: Well, I think the Post and the Times are in a class by themselves.

PT: Favorite editors?

BB: I think newspapers are scared of strong editors.

PT: The dangerous editor, that is the lesson of Watergate: Whenever you get down to it, lots of people don't tell the truth.

BB: They don't. The motherfuckers lie. PT: They lie straight-faced.

BB: But nobody gets upset about it. PT: Who is there to get upset?

BB: The papers, the editors ought to get upset about it. Reporters ought to get upset about it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

InsideOut Interview - Ed Koch: Loveable Guy

A Q and A with Owen Lipstein

It’s hard to believe that Ed Koch was the mayor of New York City so long ago — from 1978 to 1989. Since then, he has written a book with one of our favorite titles of all time: “Giuliani: Nasty Man” (Barricade Press, 1999/2007). And in response to Giuliani’s bid for the Republican nomination, he wrote a new forward. We were lucky enough to meet with him in his office in New York, and this is what he had to say.

Owen Lipstein: You take partial responsibility for the fact that Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor the first time because you endorsed him.

Ed Koch: I have no regrets for having voted for him twice. I voted for him the first time, and I hoped for the best. I broke with him near the end of his term, because he began to politicize the appointment of judges, a major change that I had made with respect to how mayors in New York City would be appointing criminal court and family court judges. When he ran for re-election, his opposition was a radical on the Democratic left, the far left of the party, but a very nice person — Ruth Messenger — someone I have known for many years; but nevertheless, I [held] my nose and voted for Giuliani even though I was critical of him.

OL: One of the premises of your book is that people should inform their decisions based on the public personalities of people. Obviously it’s your premise that he’s a nasty guy.

EK: He’s a mean-spirited person, which I sum up in the phrase “nasty.”

OL: How do you suggest that would-be voters assess the personality of their would-be politicians?

EK: When I refer to personality, I mean how an individual reacts to people. In the case of Giuliani, I believe that he is mean-spirited, and I give as the best illustration of this the fact that he wouldn’t meet with the two highest elected black officials in the city of New York.

I knew many people, leaders and the people who elect leaders, ordinary citizens, and they said to me on a number of occasions, “He’s a racist.” I said, “He absolutely is not a racist. He is mean to everybody.”

Mayors, when it’s at all possible, reasonable, and responsible, should defend cops, but his responses in cases like the [Amadou] Diallo one, cases where it seemed clear that there was a problem, and maybe more than a problem in defending the police actOLns -- his responses just simply inflamed the population. Not just the blacks and Hispanics, but whites as well.

OL: Let’s talk briefly on the subject of post-9/11. Giuliani and even his actions there.

EK: He performed superbly on 9/11. Mark Green made a fool of himself when he ran for mayor and said he could have done it better. Nobody could have done it better.

OL: How about some of the criticisms, the idea that precisely because of the sort of contentious behavior that he helped foster between the police and the community, the [communication regarding the] South Tower coming down [failed]. Was it a Giuliani problem?

EK: Let me give you the best of my knowledge on the subject. The problem of the radio communication was a long-standing problem that mayors before him had tried to eliminate, and [that] he tried to eliminate. I’m not sufficiently technically minded to tell you that the state of the art was such at the time that there was a way of eliminating it, and it wasn’t used. I can say that when he placed the city’s communications center at 7 World Trade Center, that was a ridiculous thing to do. It was on the 22nd or 23rd floor. They had to put in an oil tank, which I’ve read may have been responsible for the fire that ultimately caused the destruction of 7 World Trade Center. When he was recently asked about it in some of the discussions before or after the presidential debates by reporters, his answer was that he did it because the person he appointed in charge of emergencies, I think the guy’s name was Jerry Hauer, had told him to do it. Jerry Hauer is reported in the press as saying, “I did no such thing. I told him to put it in Brooklyn.”

OL: Should he be blamed or criticized for the fact that so many people were operating without masks?

EK: Remember: There is no independent investigation into these matters on my part. I’m really parroting what the major newspapers and reporters have said after they made investigative reports, but I believe them to be accurate. Normally, federal authorities like OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and other agencies would come in because it was a dangerous site. [But Giuliani] made it clear that he was in charge, and as a result, the normal safeguards had to be enforced by him and city agencies if he displaced the federal agencies that would normally be in charge.

One of the things that clearly was not enforced was a regulation [concerning] those responders who were on site [as well as] the cops, firefighters, and volunteers from all over the city and the country [who] came there wanting to help. Apparently they were not required to put on the respirators that should have been [used] under those circumstances. Now we have, as I understand it, thousands of people who are alleging that they are sick as a result of what happened to them when they volunteered or were officially part of the team to remove debris.

OL: How do you assess his chances for winning the Republican nomination?

EK: I don’t think the Republican right wing will buy Giuliani because of his liberal positions, which initially he tried to run away from, [but] now he’s taken back with explanation. For example, when he first debated, you would get the impression that he was a right-to-lifer against abortion, when in fact that is not true. You can change your position based on new evidence or based on epiphanies with an explanation, and if it’s reasonable and rational, people may not agree with you, but they can accept the change. When it’s a clear flip-flop for political purposes, you only lose votes, and he understood that and went back to his original position.

What I was shocked at was the other recent debate on — I guess it was CNN. [The question was], do you support “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” which is legislation intended to eliminate from the military people who are gay or lesbian and in any way make it public. The intent of that regulation is that the Army won’t embark upon a campaign to look for it if [troops] don’t make it public. But if you make it public, like marching in a gay rights parade or telling people, then they are going to discharge you. In any event, every Democrat, to their credit, said they would eliminate “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and do what every member of the NATO countries does with respect to their military. There is no restriction based on sexual orientation. It’s conduct that counts..

When the same question was asked of the Republican candidates, they all said, “We wouldn’t change it,” and Giuliani said, “… particularly in the middle of a war.” Now when you contrast that with his very positive supportive actions as mayor with respect to eliminating discrimination against homosexuals, it’s a shock, an absolute shock, especially in New York City.

OL: Is it possible that he may surprise us and be successful in his election bid?

EK: Of course. One business that you really can’t predict the outcome of is the business of politics. At this particular moment, I believe that Rudy Giuliani is popular because people remember his superb leadership qualities demonstrated on Sept. 11, but what most of the country is unaware of is that as a result of his actions over the years, on Sept. 10, one day before, I believe if there had been an election, he couldn’t have been elected dogcatcher.

One other thing that most people don’t know is [that near the end of his term], he went to the Democratic primary candidates Mark Green and Freddy Ferrer, and asked each of them: Would you agree to allow me, Rudy Giuliani, to serve an additional three months? That’s the nuttiest thing I think anybody in public life has ever requested. It would violate every constitutional provision. Without going into all of it, how would it work? He’s the mayor for an extra three months, and the members of the City Council, who are being elected at the same time — they don’t stay for an additional three months; the new ones come in. That too, is dumb, dumb, dumb.

OL: Looking back now, what are you proudest of?

Most people would accord me the following successes: One, I brought fiscal stability back to the city of New York and balanced the budget for the first time in 15 years, setting the city on a course where today it’s a colossus once again. [Two], I gave the people of the city back their spirit. If you asked a New Yorker in 1977 or ‘78, “Where do you come from?” he would say “Long Island,” because he was so ashamed of how low the city had fallen. The third thing [I did] was something that no other city had ever done before or after us, and that is built low-income, moderate-income housing with affordable rents, [using] city dollars and bonds. The fourth thing that they give me credit for is changing the selection of judges, removing politics from the appointments of criminal and family court judges, and I’m very proud of that.

OL: Let’s talk about the second, which is the spirit. People like you.

EK: Whether they like me or not, and I think that they do, I can’t really comment on that. I can tell you that what I did would be most epitomized by the transit strike. I recognized that people were looking to survive the illegal strike that had been perpetrated in violation of the law by transit workers. I saw them walking over the Brooklyn Bridge on the first day of the strike, and I was in the police commissioner’s office on the 14th floor. He was telling us all he could do, which was find parking places and carpools and so forth. In a split second, I looked out the window, and I said, “I’ll be back.” I took the elevator down, there were lots of press following me, and I rushed over to the Brooklyn Bridge. As I got on the bridge, people started to applaud that I was there. I can’t explain to you why I said what I said, but I said it instinctively: “Walk over the bridge,” I said. “Walk over the bridge. We’re not going to let these bastards bring us to our knees.” People were cheering.

OL: People have always responded to you as an individual.

EK: I have always been very grateful that the people of the city of New York allowed me to become congressman and mayor and I love them for it. If they like me, I am very grateful. Being mayor was the high point of my life, but I don’t look back. I practice law. I’m a partner in Bryan Cave. I write books, and have a radio and television program. I write weekly commentaries. I don’t expect to retire until I die, and I expect to die at this desk … I love what I’m doing.

Register Star: Owen Lipstein puts InsideOut into the winner's circle

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InsideOut Interview: Blake Bailey

by Owen Lipstein July/August 2009

The Far Side of Paradise: Blake
John Cheever was regarded as one of the foremost American fiction writers—during his own lifetime, especially near the end, in the 1970s. Since then, academics have moved away from Cheever’s work—perhaps due in part to his slice-of-life style which doesn’t fit neatly into a particular classroom discussion—and the general reader has simply forgotten him.
Until now. The Cheever family gave biographer Blake Bailey unprecedented access to over 4 million words from Cheever’s unpublished journals, as well as his address books, photos and letters. In the copiously-researched, 784-page result, Cheever: A Life (Knopf, 2009), we are introduced to the man behind the artist: a man who struggled with family relationships, battled with homosexual urges, wrestled with alcoholism, and undulated between narcissism and self-doubt—and who somehow still managed to be a prolific genius.
When Bailey spoke with us, he helped not only to demystify the exceptionally tortured artist, but to make the case for his reinstatement in the American cannon.
Owen Lipstein: A tiny fraction of Cheever’s journal, replete with depression, alcoholism, adultery and bisexuality, was published posthumously as The Journals of John Cheever [(Knopf, 1991)]. Did he want that writing to get out?

Blake Bailey: Well, on that subject—as on every subject—Cheever was of about five or six different minds. In the early years, the 1950s, he said, “I find myself rereading my journal and thinking how wonderful it is, and how nice it would be to publish it or give it to a library—and I don’t want that at all. This is personal; this is an exercise in refreshing my memory [for the work].” But later on he rewrote a section of it and donated it to his manuscript collection at Brandeis, and toward the end of his life—or so his older son, Ben, claimed—Cheever had decided definitely in favor of posthumous publication. However, I think—and I’m not entirely sure about this—if he had his druthers he would have had it published after his widow Mary’s death.

OL: In your book, you describe an incident from the 60s where Cheever has just had an affair with a sailor named Calvin Kentfield, and he shows a scandalous part of his journal to the grand dame of the house he’s staying in—hoping for a reaction. That’s just one of these peculiar show/not-show tendencies he had, isn’t it?

BB: Absolutely. Again, when you read over the entire 4,300 plus page single-space-typed journal, you think to yourself, My God, this man had nobody to confide in. The implicit loneliness of the whole enterprise is absolutely overwhelming.

OL: It is overwhelming.

BB: He didn’t have anyone to talk to. He had a very contentious and erratic relationship with his family. He had no intimate friends. He saved everything of that nature for his work, and the laboratory for his work and for his emotional turmoil was his journal. So when he had something difficult that he simply couldn’t bear to hold inside—not only on that occasion, but on others, like later, when he was trying to confess his homosexuality to his son, Ben—he gave him his journal to read. That was sort of the way he went about it when he couldn’t formulate those sorts of things on a social basis.

OL: To read your biography is to witness the pain and suffering and the self-loathing he went through. Could you comment on him as both a pioneer—a person who wanted to be out but couldn’t quite be out—and a prisoner of his own battle with his sexual preference?

BB: I think an intriguing dimension of his particular struggle is that it’s sort of near the evolution of that issue in this country over the course of the 20th century, and Cheever was definitely quite conscious of that. Right before he had that relationship with Kentfield in Hollywood [he wrote] all of these remarks in his journal about having seen Gore Vidal on TV and how Vidal “doesn’t comport himself like a conventional fairy,” as Cheever would have put it—and that “people of the fold,” as Cheever would say, “are no longer being constrained into attitudes of rancor and bitterness, and that a better day is coming,” in short.
Then he went to [the] Iowa [Writers’ Workshop] in 1973 and met Allan Gurganus, who was really the first out gay man who was totally comfortable in his skin that Cheever had ever met; Cheever had known a lot of gay men at Yaddo, so this was eye-opening, especially since Cheever was attracted to him. It made his demonstrating that attraction much easier.
But I don’t think that Cheever ever got to the point where he could accept a person of his own generation being frankly gay. He was shocked and angered when one of his old [United States Army] Signal Corps friends told him that he had “had his cock sucked, too, on occasion—it’s not a big thing to worry about.” Cheever said, before he’d finished that sentence, “I decided to never see him again as a friend. And I never did.” And [when] John Ettlinger, his old dear, dear friend, confessed to Cheever a few years before his death that he had, too, led that sort of bifurcated life—that was profoundly shocking to Cheever.

OL: How he was he able to produce this amount of great creative work when he was drinking so much?

BB: Well, one of several of Cheever’s admirable qualities was an iron discipline. Part of that was instilled in him at childhood: he was a Quincy [Massachusetts] Cheever, and these were not frivolous people. These were people who were taught to be tough, and [while] Cheever was not particularly tough about certain aspects of his life, he was rigorously devoted to his work. Only toward the end of his alcoholism could alcohol really overwhelm that impulse. Quite apart from any conscious discipline, Cheever was the sort of genius to whom writing was such a pleasure and joy and bounteous overflowing, that alcohol, until the very end, couldn’t entirely interfere with it. And, Cheever kept himself sane with his art; again, he was a man without intimates and he had no one to confide in, so he had to work out all that pain on the page.

InsideOut Interview: Pete Seeger

by Owen Lipstein and Amanda Schmidt July/August 2009

We’ve done hundreds of interviews over the past years, and in the course of what we believe is judicious editing, hundreds of thousands of words have fallen on the floor. In our history, there have been only two that we’re run nearly every letter of, not because we couldn’t cut them, but because we couldn’t bear to let those words fall like seeds onto stone. Both fought hard for their wisdom. Both spread it through story. Both have moved a nation. One was Maya Angelou. The other is this one.
From strumming his banjo as an enlisted man during World War II, to refusing to plead the Fifth during his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, to popularizing “We Shall Overcome,” to co-founding Clearwater back in 1966, Pete Seeger continues to do everything he can to provoke, educate and move multiple generations with his songs. Whether he’s at Madison Square Garden, or an elementary school in Beacon, Pete Seeger makes a difference.
As an artist, as a community member, as the guy who shows up to play his banjo on its banks—no single person has done more for our Hudson River. (At least no one since 1609.)

Pete Seeger: What can I tell you that you don’t know already?

Owen Lipstein: We know very little, actually. But we’d like to know what we can learn from looking at the river every day. What do you learn?

PS: I see how things are connected. The Hudson is an arm of the ocean, you know. And people have come here from all over the world.
First, I guess you know that there were two separate migrations over the Bering Sea. One was about 15,000 years ago, and [those people] went down the West Coast all the way to South America. But 12,000 years ago, another small group came over. They peeled out through North America, but they didn’t go into Central or South America. And I think they’re not sure exactly how many got to the Hudson how many thousand years ago. But I think they’ve got archeological records from at least 4000 years ago. At that time, only the Haudenosaunee—we call them the Iroquois—had any kind of government.
Listen, some day you’ve got to have a story about the Haudenosaunee system of government. Because it’s a very dramatic story. It’s like Jesus.

OL: Will you tell us?

PS: A young man paddled out of Lake Ontario, went to a village and said, “There’s going to be a great peace.” Because the six nations were just having one war after another. They spoke the same language, more or less. But there was fighting even within villages. The shamans would say, “Oh, this man has put the evil eye on you. You must kill a member of his clan.”
Anyway, [this young man] goes from village to village and says, “There will be a great peace.” And he sketched out a plan. Women, who were the heads of the clans, voted on which men would meet. Once a year, they would meet in the long house, under the great tree of peace, with the white roots of peace reaching at all four points of the compass, and they would decide how to settle arguments between them. There would be no fighting.
This happened about 500 years ago. Two hundred and fifty years later an Irish fur trader married an Indian, the daughter of a chief. He sent Benjamin Franklin a long letter explaining the Haudenoshaunee method of government—or at least of keeping the peace. Thirty years later, Ben Franklin’s at the Constitutional Convention, and the Convention had almost broken up because the Hamiltonians and the Southerners couldn’t come to an agreement with the Jeffersonians and the working class ones. Ben Franklin knew that if they couldn’t get these 13 colonies together, it was only a matter of time before the king would take over again, and there’d be fighting.
So he said, “Let me read you this description of the system of government of people we call savages, because their ways are different from ours. But they have been able to keep the peace. Who can say that 13 English colonies can’t learn to do it?” So he reads this letter, and sure enough, they got together and finally worked out the idea of having two houses of Congress. One the Senate, which the Hamiltonians and the Southern slave-owners liked, and the other, the House of Representatives, which the others liked.
Well, that’s a long digression. Except the history is a little upstate. But, the Hudson Valley’s certainly fascinating because of all the different people here.

OL: How does all of the appreciation that you’re getting at this stage in your life affect you?

PS: Well, frankly, it’s the most difficult period I’ve ever had. My wife and I led a halfway normal life for the last 60 years, since we’ve been in Beacon. Now, I’ve gotten too much publicity, and the mail comes in by the bushel, and the phone rings every five minutes. And I have to hire somebody to help us send out form letters, where I say, “I’m sorry I can’t write you a longer letter. I don’t have time to listen to your CD. I don’t have time to read your book. I can’t come and accept an award,” and so on and so on. It’s not easy, to say the least. But I hope I’ll survive it for at least a year or two, because I’m fascinated with what’s going on. I should tell you my mantra.

OL: Please.

PS: The agricultural revolution took thousands of years. The industrial revolution took hundreds of years. But the information revolution is only taking decades. And if we use it, and use the brains God gave us, who knows what miracles may happen in the next few years. Well, one miracle happened last November.

OL: You couldn’t be more right about that. Does all of this attention, all of this publicity, all of these honors—all of us wanting more from you than you can give—does it distance you from that person who is the artist, and the activist, and the husband, and all of the other things that you are?

PS: Well, things are difficult. But my wife and I are very fortunate to have a little house on a hill, with a beautiful view of the river. We’ve been here exactly 60 years this month.
There was a small cliff, and some land, which was very steep. The real estate agent hadn’t been able to sell it. People said, “Well, I can’t build on land this steep.” But I climbed up the little cliff, and saw that it leveled off for half an acre. And I’d been to a school where I learned to use an axe, so at the end I had 70 straight, mostly oak trees, chopped down. With help, we had a foundation dug, with stones—very amateurishly—pasted together around the base. One of my hobbies is stone masonry.

OL: Really?

PS: I call it the folk art of masonry. It was killed by the invention of Portland cement.

OL: I think Portland cement is one of our great enemies.

PS: [Laughter] Yes. Now you can paste any stone in any position. Before, you had to lay them in level courses, and you slanted the top of each rock slightly to the outside of the wall, so that if wind should blow rainwater into a vertical crack, it would drip down and hit the top of the rock underneath it, and then flow to the outside, rather than getting trapped inside the wall, and freezing and breaking the wall up.
That’s a digression also. You might say I think the arts will very possibly go down in history as saving the human race. I’m thinking of all the arts, including the art of cooking. And I include sports: Joe DiMaggio leaping for a fly ball is as great as any ballet dancer. These things can all leap over barriers of religion, and barriers of language and ethnic rivalries, and so on.
I’m very glad you’re having an issue on the arts, which often gets put in a corner by people who like to think of Art with a capital A, and anything else is not really art. [Laughter] Musicians who say, “Well, now, Bach and Beethoven. That’s music. And all the rest is just trash.”

OL: There’s something incredibly healthy about building a good stone wall. With great affection, you spoke of the art and science of dry masonry the mastery of old time skills that are easily forgotten.

PS: I think it’s fascinating that in this machine age, handcrafting of various sorts has not died—whether it’s needlework, people making patchwork quilts, or even spinning, and people making threads or garments. Gardening is coming back with a rush. There are probably more than 800 community gardens in New York City now. An umbrella organization called The Green Guerillas got rules passed by the Parks Department, so that if you get a number and a name and perhaps a fence, you will not get bulldozed. Otherwise, your garden improves the neighborhood, and it’s only a matter of a few decades before a developer says, “Hey, I can make some money there. Bulldoze that garden, and we’ll put up a high rise.”
Incidentally, is Amanda there?

Amanda Schmidt: Right here, Pete.

PS: Because I think you should be asking some questions, too. If there’s a world here, it may be women that save us.

AS: I hear that you have a new book coming out.

PS: Yes. My book of songs will be out in the fall. It came out 15 years ago, but was so full of mistakes—some of them very big mistakes—that I told the little publisher, little Sing Out magazine, “Don’t reprint it. I’ll revise it, correct it.” Finally—it took me ten years or more—this spring, the final corrections were made. W.W. Norton Publishers is going to be the co-publisher now, and it will be officially off the press in November. It’s called, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Sing-Along Memoir.”

AS: In so many ways, when people—at least in my generation—think of art and the river, we think of you. As an artist, and a father of the movement to protect the Hudson, how have you watched art and the river affect one another?

PS: I could see how pictures of the Hudson affected people in Europe, as well as here—this astonishing combination of cliffs and farmland and waterfalls. Writers took advantage of it, whether it was Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper or others, like how the Mississippi got written up by Mark Twain. Rivers were highways in the old days, so rivers have been important always, in bringing people together. I’d say the arts, though, whether it’s architecture or music or painting—or even sculpture —they’re all very much part of the picture.
It’s almost amusing that an occasional, unusual artist will actually get things together, like the Storm King Art Museum, where they have a lot of sculpture. Or Dia, in Beacon. Have you ever seen Dia?

OL: Yes.

PS: I have to laugh. Being in a room about 50 by 60 feet, with rectangles around the wall, all of a different shade of white. Bluish white, greenish white, yellowish white, pinkish white. Purplish white. [Laughter]
The one piece of art which I hope they never take away is where a person cut strips of brightly-colored metal, and they start from the floor, and go up 11 feet, and then stop. They spread out as they get up, go higher. I call it an upside-down waterfall.

OL: You wrote in a letter to us that you’re a magazine-a-holic. Why?

PS: Lifelong, I’ve been a magazine-a-holic. I remember that my grandfather had a bookshelf of Harper’s Weekly—probably from the late 19th century—that was about five feet long.
I read radical magazines and conservative magazines that dip into this, and dip into that. Some I drift out of, because they don’t have too many long articles. It’s a rare one that I like that doesn’t have illustrations. I like pictures in magazines, as well as writing.
I don’t mind a magazine having a very frank opinion. So it’s kind of interesting to read The Wall Street Journalor Forbes or lots of things. I read Life and Look years ago. Now, of course, all publishing is in trouble, as the Internet is crowding them financially.
I actually wanted to be a newspaperman, myself, because I ran the school newspapers from age 12 to age 18, in three different places. But the Depression was on when I dropped out of college, and I failed utterly to get even a hint of a job. Meanwhile, I had an aunt who taught school. And she said, “Peter, come sing some of your songs for my class. I can get $5 for you.” It seemed like stealing. Most people had to work all day to get $5, sometimes two days. There, I got it for having fun for an hour. Pretty soon I was singing at another school, and another. In the summer, I was singing at camps. And quit looking for an honest job.
Well, I urge you, even though your circulation may go very slowly, keep on reaching people with truths of this and that. And be very strict about your editing. You know what Dr. Seuss says. “If you want to use your words to carry great strength, use them with shorth.” [Laughter] “Shorth is better than length.”
I look forward to the next few issues, as long as I’m living.

AS: Pete, you’ve been involved in so many extraordinary events over a long and prolific career. If there’s anything that you could tell us you’ve learned, what would that be?

PS: The same thing many other people said. Don’t give up. Persevere. If you think it’s a good idea, stick with it. Calvin Coolidge wrote it down, and said, “Don’t think you have to be a genius. What you have to be is persevering.” And—who knows. Who knows?
I look upon myself as a sower of seeds. You know the famous parable? It’s in all Gospels except John, about the scatterer of seeds in the field. Some fall in the pathways and get stepped on. They don’t grow. Some fall on stones. They don’t even sprout. Some fall on fallow ground, and grow and multiply a hundredfold.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Wall Street Journal - Magazine Wunderkind Lipstein... - July 17, 1996

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InsideOut Interview: Mary Stuart Masterson, 2007

From the Outside … In
Mary Stuart Masterson: The Grown-up Version
By Owen Lipstein

Best known for her roles in “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Benny & Joon,” we were very excited to speak with Mary Stuart Masterson about her directorial debut, life on the other side of the camera, and the allure of the Hudson Valley. “The Cake Eaters,” Masterson’s new film, was shot in July of 2006 in Hudson and Catskill. The story revolves around three men dealing, in their own painful ways, with the loss of the matriarch of their family. Easy (Bruce Dern) confronts a long-standing affair he has been having with Marg (Elizabeth Ashley), Beagle (Aaron Stanford) gets involved with a teenager (Kristen Stewart) with a rare neurological disorder called Friedreich's Ataxia, and Guy (Jayce Bartok) attempts to reconnect with an old flame (Miriam Shor) and atone for his absence. The film will be screened at the 2007 Woodstock Film Festival in October.

InsideOut: What inspired the name “The Cake Eaters”?

Mary Stuart Masterson: [The writer of the film] spent time in a town in Pennsylvania where it’s a regional term for the people who “have” vs. the “have-nots” — the people on the hill. The way it suits the movie is that every character in the movie has the belief that their dream is just out of their reach, or that it’s for someone else. They come to realize that they actually do have, rather than have not. Sort of “The Wizard of Oz,” in your own back yard.

IO: Was there any particular reason why you chose to use Catskill as a location?

MSM: The producers were interested in exploring shooting within the zone of Manhattan. I went rogue, got in the car and drove north, just looking for the perfect place. Catskill was perfect for the forgotten town, the town that time didn’t really touch. I saw a house on a hill and took a picture of it. It happened to be a house we ended up using as Stephanie’s house. It was just completely random. And then I met the most wonderful location scout named Michelle Baker, who actually lives in the Woodstock area, and she found that house and talked to the owners, and we ended up being able to use it.

IO: Do you see this area as being a productive, fruitful place to shoot?

MSM: Absolutely. I would hope to do many films in this area. For one thing, it’s just beautiful. But for another, the people are so accommodating in the best way it’s not out of ignorance; it’s out of warmth and interest. It’s not like some hick area, as small towns are sometimes portrayed.

IO: One of the things that I found very attractive about this movie was how convincingly most of the characters are trying to make their lives work out. It’s really nuanced. Would you talk a bit about that?

MSM: [The film is about] the people who get passed over, and that’s very appealing to me because that’s the majority of the world. I think the actors are all tremendous, and did not always make the attractive choices. It’s easy for an actor to always try to make a character look good, but without making fun of any of these characters, I think [they] very lovingly treated their flaws. I think a lot of small-town stories turn some people into clowns, especially old people.

IO: And the idea of having a story revolving in part around a disabled person [who is] allowed to appear selfish …

MSM: I think Kristen [Stewart] is amazing.

IO: She is amazing. Is she disabled?

MSM: No, she’s not. She’s just really gifted. [Friedreich's Ataxia, a rare neurological disease] is kind of sketched into the story, and I didn’t really know much about it. It was kind of vague, but it’s kind of a big thing.

So I was doing research and ended up chatting online with a bunch of people through a Web site, and met this one woman in particular who volunteered, when I asked people if they would be interviewed. Because Kristen was in California and I was in New York, I interviewed these people on the Internet and eventually we met. This woman Mary, and her two daughters Sam and Alex, came to my apartment and were willing to be asked incredibly personal questions in the name of raising awareness. They turned out to be the most amazing people, and the interview was largely the basis for what Kristen used as research, because I sent it to her out in Los Angeles. Then she also met another person off of the same Web site who was willing to have her basically follow her around for a day, through her physical therapies and her life at home. So Kristen had about four months before we shot to do research and spend time with these people.

IO: What drew you to this story?

MSM: I think the simplicity of it. Not a lot happens, but I liked the characters. I thought they were sweet. There was a heart at the center of it that was really kind of sweet and baldly innocent, especially in this day and age, and especially with an independent film, which is unusual. Everything is so cynical and dark and intentionally grungy, and there was something about it that I thought was very simple and true. Then we worked on the script for a very long time to get it where it needed to be, but I thought it was an opportunity for good actors, and again it was slightly challenging. Another thing about it was it was already mostly financed.

IO: Are you allowed to say what a movie like that cost to do?

MSM: Well, not really. It was definitely low-budget. I can tell you that.

IO: This is your debut as a director.

MSM: Yeah, my feature.

IO: You’ve done huge amounts of work. Your credits are astonishing. How do you describe your body of work?

MSM: Exhausting.

IO: Do you enjoy being an actor? Do you like being on the stage?

MSM: I do. I love being on the stage more and more. It’s all part of one thing to me. It’s all connected, but as I grow and age, I get more excited about writing and directing not to say I don’t love acting, but there are fewer opportunities that are exciting. I don’t know if directing is a more grown-up version of acting. I think it’s also a culmination of bringing together all of the knowledge or experience that I had so far, and not being limited to my age, my type, or whatever. I can use the breadths of my experience and even my connections, like I end up with this incredible crew, which is a huge blessing. I think my experience also lets me have access to some pretty great people that make me look good.

IO: Talk about the experience of directing such a diverse cast.

MSM: I think that certainly there’s a vast difference in experience among the cast. I tried to set the tone of respect for everyone. There was no pecking order. Nobody got preferential treatment. I think every single person has a different way of working no matter how much experience they have. There’s no one right way of working, so it’s all about trying to learn what language each person is speaking, and making sure that they can speak to each other and not step on each other’s toes. Sometimes you have a scene where one person likes to improvise, the other person likes to have a script very precise and rehearsed, and what do you do about that? That’s tricky, making sure that the one person gets enough rehearsal, and the other person feels free enough to not feel stifled in the same scene. Actors generally know what they need and when they don’t, it’s your job to figure it out.

Generally speaking, most people, and everybody on the movie, was extremely game. You’d have to be to do this movie. There wasn’t even a honey wagon or a wardrobe trailer or trailers for any of the actors. They were sitting in church basements behind a makeshift cloth, like something out of “It Happened One Night.” It was really not glamorous.

IO: I’m very touched by, for instance, the bedroom scenes — how the awkwardness was so well-acted and well-lit, and you just really felt it.

MSM: Kristen is very, very special. When I was acting at her age, I was not remotely as comfortable in any way in my life as she is right now. She is truly one of the most self-possessed (in the best way) women I’ve ever met. She doesn’t buy into any of the smoke that’s being blown at her. She is ridiculously beautiful but she’s just got her head screwed on right, and she’s one of these people who is fiercely loyal.

IO: Tell me about the occupational hazards. You were a child actor and have been a well-known actress for all your life. What has it done for your life experience? I am sure lots of smoke has been blown in your direction.

MSM: It’s a strange thing, I have to say.

IO: Are you glad to be a celebrity?

MSM: I don’t trade on it. I don’t have any interest in promoting myself. I am very grateful that some of my work or things I’ve been in have been successful, because it’s definitely allowed me a lot of opportunities. I’m kind of strange because I like to work with all these great people, but I don’t necessarily enjoy the fame part. Obviously, there are so many benefits to it that you have to be so grateful for, but there are certain prices that come along with it as well. Just like everything else, there are trade offs, but I’ve had a lot of great opportunities.

IO: What is it like to have friendships with other celebrities?

MSM: Mary Louise Parker and I were very close and we haven’t talked in a couple of years, because the difficult thing about working as an actor is that you end up not ever being home, or your other friends aren’t home, and it’s really hard to stay in touch with all your friends. It’s not to say that we wouldn’t consider each other friends and hug each other if we ran into each other on the street, but in terms of our day-to-day social lives, I don’t know how people do it unless they live in Hollywood and go to a bunch of events, and I tend to stay away from both. So I’m not really part of that scene. But you can get into places, or get a good table at a restaurant. I could certainly take advantage of situations, but I tend not to.

IO: You generally live in the Hudson Valley, right?

MSM: Yes.

IO: What’s country life like for you?

MSM: Oh my God. Heaven. I just love it so much. I garden. We had our first full-on tomato sauce last night because the tomatoes were ripe and the basil [was ready]. We had Swiss chard out of the garden. Everybody that we’ve met up here has been so cool and gracious and easygoing and warm.

IO: You just mentioned Mary Louise Parker, and a lot of people know you from “Fried Green Tomatoes,” which you starred in with her. A lot of people feel that the movie had a different take than the novel did.

MSM: You mean in terms of the lesbian theme, or in terms of the shape of the movie?

IO: In terms of having to play a character that had such an intense connection to another one, and having to sort of tone it down or adapt it in a very different way.

MSM: I think it was never something the filmmakers were shy about or worried about. There were a couple of scenes that were cut out that seemed more obviously a little more intense, but there was no love scene or anything, and there wasn’t in the book either. In a book, you can get inside a character’s head. In a movie, it’s a visual medium, so without voice-over, there’s no real way to express beyond what the actors can convey through what they bring emotionally. I don’t think it was avoided. I do know that the book itself would not be a two-hour movie if it was all put on the screen. I think there was talk for a while of doing sequels, in fact, because so much of Troutsville the African-American part of the story that was across the river and was so rich and textured was actually written in a different voice. It was a whole other point of view.

The relationship between the two women is pretty much as it is in the book, except there was just a little more intensity in the fight scene that they cut. I wondered why they did, but that’s the only thing that was tempered down slightly, and for all I know, it’s because we sucked at the scene. I think it might be on the DVD extras. I should check that out some time and see if it ever saw the light of day.

[[ No tagline for Owen, right? ]]

InsideOut Interview: Jill Neimark May 2007

American Health

“How to Get Good Karma: A Conversation with Jill Neimark,” author of “Why Good Things Happen to Good People” (Broadway Books, May 2007. Co-authored with Stephen Post, Ph.D.)

by Owen Lipstein

Weaving current scientific research with common-sense wisdom, Jill Neimark and her co-author Stephen Post have presented another reason to do the right thing. We were delighted to have an opportunity to speak with her.

INSIDEOUT: What inspired this book?

Jill Neimark: My co-author Stephen Post runs an institute that has sponsored over 50 studies from universities on giving. One of the more remarkable ones takes place over 50 years. This study began looking at folks when they were born in the 1920's, and followed them over their lifetimes, collecting incredibly in-depth data. Stephen sponsored psychologist Paul Wink of Wellesley to pick up the study and go back and interview each one of those people, and then analyze their entire lifetime of data to see if giving predicted health and happiness. Indeed it did, very powerfully.

I thought the message itself is ancient wisdom. Everybody sort of senses it. When you give and another person feels good, you feel good too. You don’t know if it’s going to affect your long-term health or whether it’s going to delay your mortality, which it does. Even if you start at old age, it delays your mortality. You could be in your 70s and start helping others and volunteering, and you’ll extend your lifespan. The message itself needed to be heard again, especially in this completely fractured world we are living in now. It’s not a healthy society. It was backed up by science that was valid and interesting. That is why I decided it was worth a book.

IO: It’s worth saying that most of us automatically assume that what you are saying is true. What is remarkable is that there is some science that backs it up.

JN: And it shows things we don’t know are true. We don’t know that giving can protect the body and the soul that much.

IO: You literally go down the list and talk about ways of giving, like humor, courage, respect, and forgiveness:

JN: Yes, forgiveness is a big one. That was the toughest for me. One has to be careful there, because people often interpret forgiveness as saying what the other person did isn’t wrong, and that’s not really it as much as letting go and moving on. In some cases, forgiveness can be active and you can repair relationships, especially if the other person has a sense of truly apologizing from the heart. Really, it’s about letting go. There is an exercise in there where if you think of everybody you are annoyed at, are mad at, or feel has harmed you, and each one is a potato and you are carrying a sack of potatoes around each day. You start thinking about it, and it’s a great weight. Instead of holding grudges, you just come to peace with it and move on.

IO: Have you forgiven all the people who have wronged you in your life?

JN: No, I haven’t, and that was the hardest chapter for me to write. I thought a lot about it, and that is why I said you do your best. Top forgiveness researchers say it’s a tough one. It’s not easy to have been deeply hurt and it’s hard to let it go. You do your best and sometimes come back to it again, and let it go bit by bit. I don’t think we have to be too Pollyanna about it, but if you really nurse a grudge, you are only hurting yourself.

IO: What about courage?

JN: There is some interesting research about whistleblowers, and they all are glad they did it even if it caused some problems at the time. Think of the guy who blew the whistle about Abu Ghraib — they had to put him under the witness protection program because his buddies were so mad, but I am sure he feels really glad that he did it. In the end he helped the world in a way. Sometimes in relationships, you need to, what Stephen calls, “care-front” another person. You confront them not in an angry way, but in a courageous way about their own destructive behavior and in the end, that’s an act of giving.

IO: What public figure is bravest?

JN: I’m stumped. Rosa Parks.

IO: What about humor?

JN: What’s interesting about it is how it can change and diffuse a situation instantaneously. People can be fighting and one can tell a joke and then they’re laughing. The whole thing is diffused. Someone can be depressed and then you tell a joke and they’re laughing. It’s interesting. I didn’t know [this, but] there are people who are clowns for Alzheimer’s patients.

IO: And respect?

JN: I realize how stratified our society is, so sometimes for me, it just means I talk to the doorman like he’s a friend, or if the cable guy comes I ask him about his life. I don’t just box people into their roles but instead see them as fully human. A lot of times it’s just in small things like that.

IO: How does compassion work?

JN: That one has been written about a lot. It’s kind of self-evident, but there’s some interesting work that’s being publicized a lot now. It’s in Dan Goleman’s book “Social Intelligence” about the neurons in the brain — that we are hard-wired to steal what we see. When we see something happening, our neurons mirror it and we actually go through a version of what’s happening inside ourselves, which is the basis of empathy. Empathy is actually a brain activity. It’s real. It’s not just an amorphous feeling. We suffer with compassion, and it’s what is right in front of us that moves us the most. It’s hard to have compassion, even though intellectually you could, for example, for an AIDS orphan who you imagine exists across the world. You know that if you didn’t buy this pair of shoes [for yourself] and you donate it, maybe that would help, but it’s much easier to have compassion for what’s right in front of you, whether it’s someone injured in an accident, or if someone you love is hurting. Your brain is hard-wired to feel it too, and you want to help.

IO: Loyalty is a good one. Tell us about that.

JN: I was really interested in the fact that if married [couples are interviewed] when they are extremely unhappy and thinking of breaking up, but they stick with it and [are interviewed] five years later, 85% are happy. I think that’s one of the biggest lessons for this culture, because it’s not a loyal culture. You gain a lot by sticking with stuff and sticking with people through difficult times. You are enriched by it. Loyalty is really commitment, and commitment to something, and the longevity of something and its constancy, frees you from anxiety. That can be loyalty to a place you live, your community, a relationship. That doesn’t mean you should be loyal to them to the complete detriment of yourself, but people are too quick to discard things.

IO: Can you tell us about listening?

JN: People don’t realize how powerful it is to really sit still, look at someone and let them tell you how they are feeling. It is really hard to do that. We tend to want to interject with our opinions. A lot of times people just really want to be heard. They want someone to know what is going on deep inside them. I think that’s why people seek out therapists. All you have to do is say, “Tell me how you’re feeling,” and then have the patience to truly sit still and look at the other person. You are going to have the impulse to interrupt within about three sentences and give your opinion. That isn’t what’s needed. It is to really hear another person. People want to be felt and seen deeply.

IO: And, finally, creativity?

JN: That is my favorite. When Beethoven was writing the Ninth [Symphony], he wasn’t thinking about how many people he would transport and who would just be moved deeply. It is one of the greatest pieces of music of all time. He was connected to the divine in his own way. Here was a man in pain; he was deaf and may have had syphilis, and he created this incredible masterpiece. When you listen to the “Ode to Joy,” he took these sort of trickily words and made them so incredible. It could lift anyone out of despair and move anyone to rapture, and that’s down through the ages. That was one of the greatest acts of giving of all time, as far as I am concerned. Creativity is a gift in itself.

InsideOut Interview: Hudson Talbott

by InsideOut Staff March/April 2009

Children’s author Hudson Talbott, actor/director Casey Biggs, and composer Frank Cuthbert are some pretty accomplished artists. Talbott’s book, We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story (Dragonfly Books, 1993), was adapted for an animated film by Steven Spielberg; Biggs has appeared on virtually every prime-time TV show since 1980, from “Ryan’s Hope” to “Without a Trace”; and Cuthbert is a musician, singer and art gallery owner. Here at home, they are three good buddies collaborating with students to bring Talbott’s newest book, River of Dreams: The Story of the Hudson River (Putnam Juvenile, 2009), to life on the stage.

InsideOut: How did this project come together?

Hudson Talbott: It started with a dream I had, growing up in Kentucky. I wanted to go to the great city on the great river that happened to have my name. And I did it. I came to New York, and I made a career. I ended up living in the Hudson Valley. And eventually I became aware that there was this 400th anniversary [the Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial] coming, and that somebody ought to do a book about Henry Hudson and the whole thing. And who better than me? I do kids’ books. So I pitched it to my editor. She jumped on it.

IO: Who’s the target audience for River of Dreams?

HT: Seven-year-olds to everybody. I tried to make the book as interesting for adults as for kids, so that parents don’t get bored reading the book to their child. The concept of the book is great moments in the history of the Hudson River.

IO: How do you craft books for children?

HT: I operate from the little 7-year-old Hudson inside me—what things made me wonder and be curious, and so forth. If there are any set rules, it’s that I have to honor and respect that children have a limited vocabulary and a limited attention span.

IO: Much like the adults I know.

HT: Exactly. That’s why children’s books do well for adults. I mean, this is like the CliffsNotes version of the history of the Hudson River. And I know a lot of adults buying it for that very reason.

IO: How did Casey and Frank become involved?

HT: Very simple. They’re my buddies, and they took pity on me.
We were all at a party discussing the quadricentennial, basically asking, “What’s Catskill doing? What’s Greene County doing?” We hadn’t heard anything. I toyed with the idea—wouldn’t River of Dreams be wonderful to stage?

Casey Biggs: I knew that the quadricentennial was coming up. And I had gone to Kate Farrell, the school superintendent here in Catskill, and said, “Let’s do something with the students that is somehow generated by the students.” At this party, it’s like a light bulb popped over my head. I went, Frank’s a composer. We’ve got a children’s book, and we have students. We have a professional director and choreographer to work on it. So I asked Hudson, “Could you give us the rights to do this?” And he got very excited about it.
And then I prostrated myself in front of Frank, because he’s a terrific composer, and said, “Frank, would you be interested in doing this?”
And he thought about it for 10 seconds and said, “Yeah.”

Frank Cuthbert: When Hudson gave me one of the early galleys, I thought it was just terrific how effectively he was able to distill and compress the history of the river from its geological inception to the modern day. I thought that the way the chapters were divided, they lent themselves very easily to the development of a musical, because of the dozen or so very apparent themes that Hudson very well discusses and illustrates in the book. And I thought it would be a lot of fun to work with these guys on a project that recognized how important the river is, and what an historic place we live in.

CB: We’re very fortunate also that we have a set of designers who have just moved up here from New York City—Rita and John Carver, who have Dragonfly Productions. They’re designing the lights and the set and the costumes, and in their warehouse, they have just about everything we need. I said, “I want miles of China silk.”
And they said, “Oh, we just happen to have that.”

IO: How is this going to play out?

CB: Frank is now writing music, and he keeps unfolding these fantastic tunes to us. I run The Greene Arts Foundation, which is sponsoring it in conjunction with Catskill High School. We now have three or four school districts that are involved. Any kids from fifth grade to 12th grade can be engaged. Now we’re running a series of eight workshops with the students.
Our first workshop had 56 students. Next week, I think we’ll probably have more like 75. The director and the social director are running one workshop a week, for eight weeks, in which they are putting the students through a series of theater games, improvisations and writing exercises. In one exercise, they took a line from one of the songs that Frank wrote and said, “You’ve got 10 minutes to write. Write anything you want on this. Just write.”
What we’re hoping to do is to have the students come up with their own concept of what their dreams are, and what their experience is living on the river, and somehow winding them together into this piece, into this show.

HT: One of Frank’s tunes is called “Inspiration.” It’s about how the river inspired Thomas Cole, Washington Irving, James Fennimore Cooper—and how it still is a source of inspiration for all of the artists who are living here now, and will go on being for our students and for the people who are going to be putting this together. So that’s a real important thread. It’s an exquisite song that he’s written.

IO: When does River of Dreams go into production?

CB: We will open May 15th, hell or high water.

IO: And for how long will the show run?

CB: It depends. We will at least run for two weekends, which is six performances. But this project has legs, so there could be a life much longer than that. And that’s the reason that I wanted to do it, and get engaged: It will reverberate long after it’s over, as opposed to some other events that are being done for the Quad, which are great one-day splashes.

IO: So what you’d like to have is kind of a moveable feast of a production.

CB: Yes. And can you imagine the experience these kids will have if they get to do this in three theaters up and down the Hudson? We’re designing it so that it can move.

IO: The Hudson River has always been an incubator for a variety of life forms, including art.

CB: And one thing that’s interesting in this political climate that we’re in, and I’m involved in this fight—is that this project, this kind of engagement—is not a luxury. This is a necessity, particularly for the generations behind us.

IO: Has it been hard to raise money for this?

CB: Given that this is the first year of The Green Arts Foundation, I have never written a grant in my life. I wrote seven grants for this particular project. And people tell me I should feel lucky when I write a grant for $10,000 and get $1,000 around here, which, I guess, is pretty good. The budget is not that big. We’re going to be underfunded.

IO: Can you tell us what the budget is?

CB: I need to raise $24,000, which is nothing in terms of the kinds of things that I’m usually involved in, which are $1 million or $1.5 million when I’m directing another show for another company.

IO: The arts are not the first thing that should be cut; they’re among the first items that should be funded.

FC: I remember when I was in grammar school. I grew up in the Berkshires. And I remember all of the terrific programs that were available, seemingly, to kids. And at the time, I suppose I didn’t appreciate how valuable they were. Looking back on it, though, I realize the impact on my development—and probably all of us at this table had a similar experience—of being the beneficiaries of a fairly prosperous society that had, I think, a larger recognition of the value of art.
It’s unfortunate that in this economic climate, art is the first thing to go, and has always been the first thing to go. That’s why this project, for me, is so important, and I’m happy to give my time and energy. It’s really, to use the cliché, a labor of love. And the process of writing the songs, and imagining how they’re going to unfold through these children’s voices, is very exciting.

HT: What is always interesting to me is that they can slash art, and trash it, and cut it to pieces, but it will still bubble up somehow. Because no matter what, artists need to express themselves. People need the nourishment of art. And I’m sure people like us would figure out a way to make something happen, whatever the budget is, whatever the available funding is for it, because that’s just the nature of us as humans. We need art. And that will always express itself.

IO: When you’re making art for or with kids, you get an early shot at their spirit, if you will. What is it about children that you think you can tap into?

HT: Corny, but it’s the child within me. I think it’s that sense of wonder and innocence and curiosity that we all still have. You know, the 7-year-old Owen is still there, the 7-year-old Amanda, Frank, Casey. We all still have that child within us.

IO: Frank is still a child.

HT: Yeah, he never left. The great question I always get when I visit schools is, “Where do you get your ideas from? And why do you do what you do?” And it’s that sense of me reaching out, the 7-year-old in me wanting to play with the 7-year-old in you. And this is the way I do it.
Whatever I can put down on a page to say, “This is what’s going on in my world over here; this is the way I’m seeing it. How ‘bout you?”
And you say, “You know, I feel exactly the same way,” or, “Actually, you know, I’ve never thought of that before. That’s really cool.” And that sense of connection, that communication, is ultimately what I think all of us are doing as artists.

IO: What can the people who are reading this do to help you guys?

HT: Send money. Make the effort to show up. Come be part of it.
And just so you know, this is open to all kids. There are no auditions. Any child who shows up for this is going to be included in some way or another. It’s all-inclusive, and it’s free. And we want all the performances to be free, too.

InsideOut Interview: Rosanne Cash

Writing Her Own Story: A Conversation with Rosanne Cash
A Q-and-A By Owen Lipstein

One day on the road in 1973 Johnny Cash wrote the names of what he considered essential songs on a legal pad, then handed it to his teenage daughter Rosanne. A songwriter herself, Roseanne never thought to do anything with it beyond learning the songs, but she kept his list for over 30 years. While writing her Grammy-nominated 2006 album Black Cadillac, about the rapid loss of her parents, she found his original list. Cash has picked 12 of those songs, and in October the woman responsible for 21 Top 40 country singles will release her 12th studio album—her first of covers—aptly entitled The List.
When we talked, this part-time Hudson Valley resident told us what the list really means to her and spoke about her love, loss, autonomy and hard work with the heart-felt directness that makes her music stand alone.

OL: Why did your father give you this list of songs?

RC: I was 18 years old and we were on a bus going to the south somewhere on a tour and he started talking to me about songs and I said, “I don’t know that one.” He mentioned another one and I said, “I don’t know that one.” He grew alarmed that I didn’t know my own musical genealogy, as it were. Growing up in southern California I was very steeped in pop and rock music. So he spent the rest of the day making this list for me. It was very comprehensive. He titled it “100 Essential Country Songs” but I think it would have been better titled “100 Essential American Songs” because it really had a great overview of American roots music—from country, Appalachian, Southern blues and gospel, to Delta bottomland songs, early folk songs, history songs and protest songs.

OL: I’m sure that you became quite familiar with the songs on it. Did you learn more about these songs in the process of doing them yourself?

RC: It’s one thing to know a song and love it and another to step inside of that song by doing it yourself. Some of them were clearly period pieces, like “Motherless Children” and “Weeping Willow.” Even “She’s Got You” is a period piece because the list of things in the lyrics, like the class ring and the records, dates it. So doing some of them was like stepping into costume, but at the same time I didn’t feel any detachment. It was sometimes emotionally challenging but it was always a satisfying experience to embody these songs, primarily because this wasn’t just a personal legacy. The list has now become what I consider to be a cultural archive, and it was a great honor to get to show part of it.

OL: What were your feelings about doing “Girl from the North Country”?

RC: Well, that was a little scary to me because there are documentaries of my dad and Bob [Dylan] recording Nashville Skyline, which was a really important record to me as a teenager. Those images of my dad and Bob were seared into me, so to record “Girl From the North Country” was a watershed moment because I was thinking, I just can’t do this, it doesn’t make sense for me to do this—it’s kind of sacrilegious to even think about. But [producer] John [Leventhal] very wisely said, “Let’s go back to Bob’s original version,”—which is much more of a straight folk song—so from that perspective it became easy to get inside it.
You know, I also like that gender-bending thing that happens when a woman sings about another woman in these old folk songs—I really love that.

OL: I think that’s fascinating, too. From your perspective, what happens when it’s a guy’s song written to a woman, and now you’re a woman singing to her?

RC: It brings another dimension. Then the woman could be anybody—she could be my daughter, she could be my sister—so many questions arise and it gains another level of mystery.
Incidentally, before we go on, I have to tell you that I have a weekend house up in the Hudson Valley, in Columbia County.

OL: We’re neighbors. Are you a new-comer?

RC: No, after two decades you’re officially not a newcomer.

OL: You know I spent most of my so-called professional life in the city, but even though I’ve been living here full-time for 20 years my house is still referred to as somebody else’s. Someday it will become Owen’s house, but right now I still live in the Paley House.

RC: Right, a hundred years from now. [Laughter]

OL: What’s life up here like for you?

RC: When we go up there everything slows down so much. I was planting geraniums last weekend. I know it’s late to plant geraniums but I hadn’t been up yet. I’ve been working all summer.

OL: You have a garden?

RC: No, we don’t have a garden because the deer eat it up. We’re not up often enough to keep them away from it, but I did plant some hostas, which have bloomed beautifully, and some geraniums and one hydrangea plant. It’s great. Everything is slow. We take walks. We swim. It’s just wonderful.

OL: How was it for you, growing up in California and then coming to New York?

RC: I was one of those people who was always just a New Yorker. You know that story people tell, “Oh, we thought she was so weird, but it turns out she was just a New Yorker”? That’s me! [Laughter]
I was always a New Yorker. I knew it from about the age of 12. It just took me a long time to get my body here. Somebody recently asked me, “Did you have any of those experiences in New York where you thought ‘Oh, I’m in the big city now’”? No! I lived in Los Angeles, London, Munich. I’m a city girl. It feels normal and it feels good.

OL: You come from such a famous, public family. How has that worked for you as an artist, having had this fame before you did anything, just by being who you are?

RC: I’m pretty careful not to let that into the work itself because that’s a real destructive, polluting type of force. I’m a writer and performer, and I think that I would be writing and performing no matter who my family was. People bring this back-story to it sometimes and expect me to fit into their version of that, but I can only be in my own life; I can only just follow my own nose, put one foot in front of the other and do my work to the best of my ability. I have kind of a worker-bee mentality with a very strong work ethic so I think that keeps me sane. I try not to read a lot of stuff about my family or get involved in that. I try to keep my private life intact.

OL: Your discipline is to not think about it, not let that part in.

RC: Well, Johnny Cash is someone different than my dad. Do you know what I mean? They are the same person, but there is a persona that people project all kinds of things onto that wasn’t the man that I know as my father. A lot of the time his rabid fans think they have to protect him from me and everyone else, and that they really know who he is, but it’s all a myth. So I can’t spend any energy supporting someone else’s myth or buying into it or bringing that into my life. I know who my family is and what they were to me and who they are privately, and also respect my dad’s work tremendously, but that’s my own experience and my own life.

OL: On another level, you’ve written many songs about the loss of your parents.

RC: Yes, Black Cadillac was all about that loss. I’m not the first person to lose their parents—also it’s not a tragedy when an elderly person dies of illness. That’s the natural course of events. So people try to implant this idea of great tragedy onto me, this idea that I have suffered so much. I didn’t want to be a poster girl for suffering. I was a woman in middle age who lost three parents [her two parents and her stepmother, June Carter] in a short period of time. It was really hard, but I am certainly not the first person. All of those songs that I wrote about navigating our way through loss and all that entails—not just grief, but anger and also liberation and also longing and fear—all of those things, they are universal. I was not the first person to experience that.
I found that a couple of times hospices would start passing out Black Cadillac to families because it really did talk intelligently about loss. It didn’t matter what the back-story was; it just so happened that my family was really famous so everyone knew the back-story, but that didn’t really matter.
Even a song that is very specific in documentary detail like “House on the Lake” prompted some guy to come up to me after a show and say, “You know, everybody has got their house on the lake.” Even that transcended back-story, and that was the most fulfilling part for me.

OL: What at this stage in your life interests you most?

RC: Music still interests me as much as it did when I was 14. I still feel just as passionate if I find a new record or artist that I love—I’m just crazy about it. I am finishing a book that will be out next year, and that interests me. My husband is endlessly interesting to me. [Laughter]

OL: What is your book about?

RC: It’s a memoir.

OL: Writing seems to be a big part of your life.

RC: That’s who I am. I’m a writer, and sometimes I’m writing songs and sometimes I’m writing prose. Sometimes it’s fiction and sometimes it’s non-fiction. To me it’s all the same water, different pool. I mean, there is a special love I have for songwriting because it’s married to a melody, and it’s a prescribed three-minute playground—and I love that. But I really enjoyed the series I wrote for The New York Times on songwriting because it was very illuminating to me to write about the process of songwriting. I love the piece I wrote for The Nation on Sarah Palin—it was so snarky and so much fun to write. And the memoir, well, I guess anyone who has written a memoir will tell you that to go back in your own life and fit pieces of your puzzle together is deep, and a good process.

OL: My sage advice on memoir is to figure out when you are going to end it because the temptation is to keep going and refine it and you never finish it.

RC: Oh, that is good advice because I thought I was done, but now I’m writing another chapter—and I just thought, OK this is it, this is the final chapter!

OL: This interview is going to run in our Harvest issue. Can you comment on themes of harvest in your songs, and what it means to you?

RC: Bringing in all of the rewards of hard work. I like the period of hard work and the harvest image that at the end you get to rest and bring in the all of the rewards of that. It’s a beautiful sentiment. It almost scares me though.

OL: Why?

RC: Because hard work feels like the norm. Gathering the reward feels like there is going to be anxiety after you do it, like, Really should have I done it? Do I deserve that much? [Laughter]