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Check out Neil's blogs at, including his encounter with Lady Gaga -- and his new thriller, The 25th Protocol

Remembering (With a Smile) Wendy Wasserstein, 10/18/1950-1/30/2006

When I woke up this morning and glanced at the date on the front page of the newspaper, I realized with a start that my friend Wendy Wasserstein died two years ago.

Well...could I really call her a "friend?" She had so many people who were much closer to her than I was; but whenever I was with Wendy, she treated me as if I were the only other person in the world.

I came to meet Wendy Wasserstein about a dozen years ago when I was executive director of the National Book Foundation and we were seeking a high-profile master of ceremonies for the National Book Awards dinner at the Marriott Hotel in Times Square (think "Golden Globes for books" to get the general picture.)

A theatre-friend suggested the legendary Wendy. I was quite nervous, but gave her a call. Wendy agreed to meet me for breakfast at a spacious coffee shop on the east side of Broadway diagonally across from Lincoln Center. I recognized her immediately -- big hair that she kept brushing back behind her ears with no success, big eyes, cherubic face, luminous smile -- and the greatest high-pitched giggle I had ever experienced.

I ordered an egg-white omelette. Wendy liked that choice. "I'll have the same," she said to the waiter, who knew her well. "Need to watch what I eat!" He nodded and turned away. "Wait a minute," Wendy called out after a moment's thought, "Would you mind putting some melted American cheese on that?"

We laughed. We laughed alot that day and for many days thereafter.

Now I'm thinking I should have entitled this piece, "Meals with Wendy."

Anyway, the next time we got together was for a cup of coffee in a bustling cafe diagonally across the street from Carnegie Hall to talk about the program for the Awards ceremony and go over her hilarious script, all of which I can remember now was that she threatened to assemble a chorus line of her women-writer pals, Judith Thurman and Honor Moore among them, and sashay across the Ballroom stage. Wendy purportedly wanted to be sure she wasn't going to offend any of the publishing industry CEOs in the black-tie audience. I could tell by the twinkle in her eye she meant just the opposite.

Moving up in the world...Wendy asked me to have lunch with her at the "W" Hotel in the West 40s, back when it was nicknamed the Conde Nast cafeteria -- before the company moved to 42nd Street and built their own. The maitre d' led Wendy to her special reserved banquette on the left all the way toward the back of the oblong space. She drank a glass of red wine, nibbled on some cheese, talked about making the movie "The Object of My Affection," and then something about how she had just come back on the red-eye from CAA in LA where she was supposed to have met with Madonna to discuss a project, but Madonna had stood her up -- all the way to LA and back, for what? Yet Wendy never got angry, at least on the surface. When she gossiped, it wasn't in the least acerbic. It was more like she was conjuring up a mellow equanimity about show biz. She seemed to roll along with the vicissitudes.

After she gave birth to her beloved daughter, Lucy Jane, Wendy preferred that I come over to her apartment on Central Park West for our chats. She was spending alot more time writing at home, unabashedly being a working-mom, taking Lucy to school and dancing lessons and so on. As her two immense furry cats enjoyed free range of the kitchen table, Wendy proudly "made" bagels for me, and a fruit plate, fresh orange juice, and coffee. I say "made" because she pulled everything out of a white takeout bag delivered by the doorman.

By this time, Wendy had joined the Board of the National Book Foundation and managed to convince none other than Steve Martin to take over her Master of Ceremonies responsibilities -- "This will be my legacy," she told me. "That I got Steve Martin to do the Awards for you!" She expressed this as if she had gone on a deep-sea fishing expedition and returned to port with the biggest catch of the day.

Our last time together was three years ago now, early February, 2005. We were both coming out with new books and Wendy felt it was cause for celebration. And so, we exchanged bound galleys in the Parlour across the lobby from the Cafe des Artistes around the corner from her building. Wendy did not look well; her color was bad, her face was tensely-drawn. She managed to sip some pea soup with difficulty. "Dearest Neil," she inscribed the title page of Sloth, her contribution to the Oxford University Press series on The Seven Deadly Sins, "Embrace your inner sloth -- It's time! XXX Wendy." It was an awkward chat. She had been approached about taking on the administrative position at the O'Neill Theatre Center in Connecticut. Her heart was not in it. She was working on another play.

I walked her to the corner of 67th and Central Park West and we embraced in the chilly night. "I have to tuck Lucy Jane into bed and get back to work," Wendy said.

Fast-forward to this fall, and it was time for me to select the syllabus for my dramaturgy course at Montclair State University. The chair of the Theatre and Dance Department insisted that at least one of the plays should be by a woman.

Here on my desk as I write these words is a copy of The Sisters Rosensweig by Wendy Wasserstein.

I imagine Wendy coming out here on the train -- or, more likely, we would send a car service for her -- and then traipsing into my classroom with a jokey/squeaky, "Hi, Neil!" and sitting down to tell us all about Sara, Gorgeous and Pfeni, and what it was really like to work with Jane Alexander, Madeleine Kahn, and Frances McDormand.

Those were the days, weren't they Wendy?

The MSU history professor's final 'handout' on the last day of class

'What I learned in History 110'

I spent the semester teaching this class, and now I would like to tell you what I learned. This is not a complete list, just the main things I thought of this morning.

  • Just because someone doesn't speak up in class that doesn't mean they aren't intelligent or that they aren't engaged mentally in the class discussion.
  • Just because someone doesn't know the answer to one question that doesn't mean they won't know the answer to a subsequent question.
  • Teaching is a two-way street. You cannot teach unless you are willing to learn, and vice-versa. This applies to 'teachers' and 'students.' So, I could be a teacher one moment in this class and a student the next.
  • History is not about learning or memorizing facts from the past. It is about learning the connections between the present and the past.
  • History does not have to be 'boring' if students are willing to open their minds and the teacher is willing to be flexible in his methods and adjust them as he goes along in response to his perceptions of class behavior.
  • Students know a lot about how to shape a curriculum and a class. So even though the curriculum is already decided upon at the beginning of the semester, it can still be improved by asking the students to take part in the discussion about it.
  • Young people are idealistic but they are also realistic about the world around them. A respectful history teacher will recognize this attribute, not assume that his students are 'innocent' or 'ignorant,' face the uncomfortable facts of national and world 'current events' squarely and honestly, and be willing to discuss them...
  • ...because yesterday's current events are today's history, and today's current events shape tomorrow's history.
  • Students are not afraid to speak their minds if they believe that the teacher respects what they have to say.
  • It is sometimes difficult for restless students to listen to the opinion of someone else in the class, but if you remind them that that person has listened to them, they will understand the need to be reciprocal.
  • Sometimes you might learn something in a class and not realize at the moment how 'relevant' it is to your life, but then later in life it might pop back into your mind and have some deeper, legitimate significance.
  • Our History 110 class took up 2 ½ hours out of a 168 hour week. That's 1.4% of your time. But real education happens all day, every day, if you keep your mind open.
  • Finally: Historical facts are important, but learning how to learn is more important.
-- N. B., 12/12/07

Only 1.5% of their week is spent in my classroom

On the first day of classes at Montclair State University, I always ask my predominantly freshman and sophomore General Education undergraduates about "the rest of their lives" outside of my particular course -- in other words, the 98.5% of the time that I do not see them.

I emphasize these percentages because, I tell the students, it's important to put things in perspective. Of course being in college is important, especially when you want to graduate and embark upon a respectable career; and furthermore, when you are the first person in your family to attend college, alot of people are counting upon you to succeed.

Speaking of "succeeding," all you had to do in order to tell this was midterm week was walk around campus or sit in Cafe Diem and eavesdrop on students' conversations about how hard it was to tell "what he/she [the professor] wanted," and "how noisy my roommate was so I couldn't study," and "how late I was at the library last night," and "how many questions I left blank," and "what other people got on the test..."

Yesterday was midterm day in Prof. Baldwin's class. I sat at my desk at the front of the room, pretending to read a book but actually looking out over the 40 young people scribbling away, tearing sheets out of notebooks, coughing, clearing their throats, drinking Red Bull, eating health bars, and scribbling some more, and my mind wandered back to that survey on the first day of the semester seven brief weeks ago.

Everybody -- and I mean everybody -- worked. As my surreptitious gaze travelled down one long row and up another, the jobs clicked in my mind: waiter/waitress (of course), restaurant hostess, valet parking manager, pet store assistant, shoe salesman, construction worker, physical therapy aide, bookstore cashier, funeral directors' assistant, lifeguard, supermarket checkout clerk, dry cleaner, babysitter, stock clerk, girl scout counselor, salesperson at Gap, Hot Topics, J. Crew, etc. etc. etc., juice bar at gym, security guard, secretary, house-paint specialist, car wash, party planner, personal trainer, bank teller...

Back in the days of antiquity, when I went to college, that was all we did -- went to college. What would it have been like -- I wondered -- if, right after I took an exam, I dashed back to my car (for which I paid my own gas and insurance) and headed out to my job; then returned to campus, perhaps that same night at 5:30, for another class until 8:00 p.m., and then another one until past 10:00?

As the students came up to the front of the room and, one by one, relieved, bleary-eyed, half-smiling or shaking their heads in disbelief, handed me their exam papers, I thanked them, not only for doing the work required.

I was also thanking them for having the stamina, drive and determination to be here, day in and day out.

It's party time in Rutherford this Sunday: Happy Birthday William Carlos Williams

The William Carlos Williams Poetry Symposium (WCWPS) is hosting a special reading to commemorate its annual celebration of WCW's birthday -- and to acknowledge 25th anniversary of the renaming of the Williams Center.

The reading will take place Sunday, September 16, 2007 on the Terrace of Rutherford's Williams Center from 1:00PM to 4:30PM. A champagne reception will follow and poets will be available to sign books. Four of WCW's family members will be attending and sharing reminiscences.

Featured authors include Alicia Ostriker and Laura Boss, both of whom read at the WCW Centennial at the Williams Center in 1983; Lewis Warsh, a featured poet at the 2005 Symposium; Urayoan Noel; Jim Klein, WCW Poetry Cooperative member; and Tina Kelley, award winning New York Times reporter. Bill Zavatsky, poet and Williams scholar, will open the reading with a discussion of WCW's works.

Next year at this time, September 20 & 21, 2008 the town of Rutherford will celebrate the 125th birthday of its most famous resident, the father of modern American poetry who achieved a fresh form of language that centered on the daily lives and speech of ordinary people.

William Carlos Williams lived in Rutherford his entire life and practiced medicine in his home at 9 Ridge Road for forty years. "Doc Williams" often scribbled down poems and ideas that came to him throughout his workday on a handy prescription pad, producing some twenty-five books of poetry, including his National Book Award-winning poem Paterson, and Pulitzer Prize-winning Pictures from Brueghel. He also wrote nine books of short stories, novels and other fiction, a collection of plays, an autobiography, a memoir of his mother, and books of essays.

For the 125th gala birthday celebration in September 2008, the WCWPS Committee intends to mount a Williams play and produce one of WCW's musically related works, along with poetry readings, panels, and presentations. Youth involvement will include art and music projects as well as more poetry. A popular historic bus tour of the town will be reprised. "Williams loved this town and the people who lived here," Rutherford Mayor Bernadette McPherson says. "Rutherford and its citizens inspired his poetry and we want to acknowledge him with a town-wide festival. In addition to the symposium events we're going to have a parade and birthday activities for the entire family."

On a personal note, I would be remiss if I did not mention that early in 2008 my vintage, critically-acclaimed 1984 biography, To All Gentleness: William Carlos Williams, The Doctor-Poet, will be reissued in a special $14.95 paperback by Black Classic Press/InPrint Editions of Baltimore. The book will feature a brand-new Preface in which I bring WCW's enduring legacy firmly into the twenty-first century.

All in all, we're on the verge of a big, important twelve months for Williams fans, poetry enthusiasts of all ages -- and, of course, (last but never least!) proud New Jerseyites.

Teaching 9/11: lest they forget

I don't like what I've been reading in the past week or two leading up to 9/11/07 about how "maybe it's time to move on" and "stop commemorating" the tragic events of six years ago "in such a public way."

Rather, as a college teacher whose daily constituency is predominantly age 17-22, I concur with my colleague Joanne Meyerowitz, professor of American studies at Yale, who has edited a superb book I am using in my classes this year, "History and September 11th."

"For historians, history is never set in stone," Dr. Meyerowitz told Janny Scott of The New York Times. "It's written and rewritten in each generation. The events of the present, of the contemporary age, always help us reframe the events of the past. And the events of the past always help us to reframe the age we're living in."

When my MSU courses meet tomorrow and Wednesday, I am going to ask them to engage in an in-class exercise inspired by the cogent sentiments of Dr. Meyerowitz. It goes like this:

Imagine and try to describe yourself on that day, 9/11/01, as compared to yourself now, 9/11 and 9/12/07. Is the 'you' of now different from the 'you' of then? In what particular ways? In what ways do you think the events of 9/11/01 have had an influence upon your personal changes? And secondly, in what ways do you think the events of 9/11/01 influenced your present experience of life in the USA?

On the one hand, I will tell my students, when historians strive for accuracy when they write, they need to separate themselves from descriptions of the past; yet, on the other hand, they also realize they could very well have an emotional connection to what happened, insofar as it relates to their present contexts on personal and national levels.

"Until September 11, 2001, I never knew about any American affairs in the Middle East," one of my freshmen wrote last year. "When I think about my education in the South Jersey schools I hardly remember any discussion about Middle Eastern affairs...But now, I've come to the conclusion that you need to get the facts and research the possibilities before you take action in life. And we need to pass on our knowledge to others so that their emotional ignorance does not push them to think and act irrationally."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

News is the first draft of history

All is in readiness around Glen Ridge High School, as it is indeed at every NJ suburban school today: hedges trimmed, grass cut, windows washed -- and on the white and black Welcome sign upon the green slope facing Ridgewood Avenue, a heartfelt quote inspires tomorrow's reluctant students: "THE JOURNEY OF A THOUSAND MILES BEGINS WITH A SINGLE STEP."

OK, fine, I think, driving by...that works (for them)...But the inaugural mantra for my MSU American History classes this fall semester is the same as it was last year: "NEWS IS THE FIRST DRAFT OF HISTORY." I cannot claim authorship of this pithy declaration most often attributed to Washington Post publisher Philip L. Graham.

My first assignment this week, before we get into the details of syllabus -- reading lists, exam schedule, grading criteria, and so on -- is non-negotiable: Everyone has to choose a news source and check it every single day of the semester.

I don't care what "platform" or "format" or "media" it is -- it can be print, of course, like this newspaper or The New York Times. It can be electronic, like It can be a browser, like It can even be (yes, it can) a TV station, like Fox News.

The point is that you cannot embark upon an academic study of the past -- American or otherwise -- without understanding what is going on in your world this minute, this day, this week, this semester.

Talking about the dilemmas America faces in extricating from the Iraq morass illuminates the waning days of the Viet Nam War. Examining the statistics of the growing gap between rich and poor helps explain the Great Depression. Understanding what drives Warren Buffett and Rupert Murdoch gives insight into Gould, Morgan, Carnegie and Rockefeller. Discussing the wall bordering Mexico reminds us of the immigration scares and quotas of the early '20's. Comparing the decline of nation-states with the rise of borderless ideologies recalls the idealistic birth of the U.N.

The best way that we as conscientious educators can help prepare our students to become contributory citizens is to teach them that the "Real World" is not going to wait four years until they graduate.

Back to school (for real)

Last year at this time, it was a whole different feeling. I was on the verge of starting my new job as the distinguished visiting professor of history at Montclair State University. To say I was apprehensive would be a vast understatement...tortured dreams, night after night, of losing my way along a twisting path strung between countless grey buildings...standing in front of a roomful of freshmen, and forgetting my lesson plan...sitting in my office during office hours, and nobody wants to visit me...all alone...

But today, ahh, today -- as I polish, revise, and amplify the syllabi for my two courses, Intro to American History and American Society in the Twentieth Century (surprise content will not be revealed herewith, because who knows if my enrolled students at MSU might read this?) -- and refine reading lists, and play out ideal class discussion scenarios in my imagination -- I am filled with hope and anticipation.

My admittedly good mood was brought on in large measure by a wonderful piece in today's Weekend Wall Street Journal, "Prof in a Box," by Dr. Wilfred McClay, humanities professor at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga.

Much of his article explores the benefits of the audio curriculum products being churned out by The Teaching Company in Chantilly, Virginia: DVDs, CDs and tapes of master classes and erudite, charismatic lectures on all manner of subjects, designed for those baby-boomers who feel a deficit of intellectual stimulation in their hurried lives, and want to "go back to school" while driving their cars, jogging, working out, or sitting in a comfortable chair in their living rooms.

However -- and this is a big however -- toward the end of the article, Dr. McClay comes back around to the essential reasons why it's still so important for students to actually come into the classroom, "...for something that a tape or a TV or even the best virtual connection cannot ever provide -- the presence of others...a flesh and blood human being standing there before you -- someone responsive to your questions, attentive to your particular concerns, capable of cracking jokes about the events of the day, someone with a full range of human quirks and oddities, for whom the subject forms a living and present reality..."

To which I say a silent "Amen," as I pull out from last spring's History 110 folder a list I put together at the end of the term of "Things I Learned from My Students," among them:

- Just because someone doesn't speak up in class doesn't mean they aren't intelligent.
- Just because someone doesn't know the answer to one question that doesn't mean they won't know the answer to the next question.
- Teaching is a two-way street. You cannot teach unless you are willing to learn, and vice-versa. I could be a 'teacher' one moment in this class and a 'student' the next.
- Students are not afraid to speak their minds if they believe that the teacher respects what they have to say.
- Students know alot about how to shape a curriculum and a class. So even though the curriculum may be decided upon at the beginning of the semester, it can still be greatly improved by asking the students to take part in mid-course corrections.

And last, but decidedly not least:
- Our History class took up 2 1/2 hours out of a 168 hour week.
That's 1.4% of the students' time.
But real education happens all day, every day, if you keep your mind open.

You say you want a revolution

I collect black T-shirts (how's that for a provocative lead sentence?)

Yesterday, for my grocery-shopping excursion, I decided to wear one of my cherished favorites. It was given to me last year by renowned scholar Dr. David Kohn after a personal guided tour of his phenomenal Darwin exhibition at the Museum of Natural History in NYC.

I need to describe the shirt for you before we get to the moral of our tale: it displays a schematic notebook drawing of Darwin's first intimations about the origin of species, a crudely-sketched multi-branched "tree" with the scribbled words "I think" in script at the top.

And along the bottom of the sketch is the word REVOLUTIONARY in all capital letters, with the beginning "R" and ending "ARY" in red -- and "EVOLUTION" in white.

So -- I push my cart to the checkout counter. The young woman ringing up my purchases was twenty-something, tall, thin and pale, with dreadlocks barely-concealed under a blue-checked kerchief.

She: "Do you have a Kings card?"
Me: "No."
"That's OK. I won't try to make you get one."
[Pause/hesitation, then She again]: "I like your T-shirt."
Me [ingenuously] "Oh, you mean Charles Darwin?"
"No. I mean 'revolution.' We were talking about it last night - some friends and I..."
"What did you say?"
"Well, everybody was remembering what we've read and the movies we've seen about the sixties, and all the protests and stuff, and people getting up out of their seats and marching and making a statement about the conditions of society. It must have been something."
"Yes, it was an exciting time."
"I'm at the tail-end of Generation Y, or whatever they call it, and it seems like nobody wants to do anything."
Me, smiling, "It's still not too late!"

She: "Total comes to $20.01"
I handed her a $20 bill. "Sorry, I don't have the penny. I owe you one."
She shook her head. "Forget it," and handed me my receipt. As I began to wheel the cart away,
she stepped out from behind the counter and held the door open for me, looking at me with what I can only describe as respect.
"Maybe you're right," she said, "maybe it isn't too late... Well, nice to meet you."

I loaded up the car, turned the key in the ignition, glanced over at the market entrance.
She was standing there by the display of house-plants, waving.

Perhaps dreaming, like I once did, of how to help make the world a better place.

Brooke Astor (1902-2007)

It was difficult for me to type that headline just now, because she was always and forever "Mrs. Astor" to me.

Like so many who are paying tribute to her this week, I cannot claim to have known Mrs. Astor well; and yet, when I flip through my remaining snapshot-memories, I feel a sadness akin to when my grandmother passed away.

My first snapshot, sepia at the edges, dates from three decades ago, when my career in the New York City nonprofit world was getting underway. I worked for a wonderful organization in Union Square called Teachers & Writers Collaborative that sent authors into the public schools for residencies to teach poetry and creative writing to kids.

We came up with an idea to pursue the same artistic goal with NY's senior citizens, and called it the "Artists & Elders" program. Our resourceful executive director, Steve Schrader, was able to get us a fundraising appointment at the Vincent Astor Foundation, uptown on Park Avenue. I remember clearly Steve telling me to "get very dressed up" because we were going to meet "a legendary woman."

She sat behind a spindly, antique desk, more like a writing table, in the far right corner of a spacious, light-bathed office. When she stood up to shake my hand, all apprehension disappeared. Mrs. Astor was an impeccably-dressed older lady in a tweed Chanel suit and pearls; but her most important accessory by far was what I can only describe as a "twinkly" smile.

Her involvement in our mission went far beyond the truly astronomical sum of $25,000 we received to launch the Elders project. One day, her limousine pulled up outside a community senior center out in the nether reaches of Queens, and she spent half the day there, sitting and talking to the old folks and reading their manuscripts.

Mrs. Astor was a writer, too, as I would eventually discover.

During the early to mid '80's it was my privilege to work in the Development Office at The New York Public Library in Manhattan -- between the lions. On monthly Board Meeting Wednesday afternoons, I caught occasional glimpses of Mrs. Astor walking down the long marble corridor on the second floor, arm-in-arm with President Vartan Gregorian (short, quick, energetic) and Chairman Andrew Heiskell (tall, patrician, deliberate ) -- or maybe, I thought, she was guiding them. Mrs. Astor always sat at the head of the table in the Trustees Room, saying little but listening utterly.

One gala autumn evening, I was asked to help staff a "Literary Lions" black-tie dinner and welcome guests as they arrived for cocktails in the vaulted rotunda outside the Public Catalogue Room. This must have been 1986, when Mrs. Astor's novel, "The Last Blossom on the Plum Tree" was published. It seems to me now as if she arrived at the reception alone, (although that couldn't be so...could it?) I found myself standing opposite Mrs. Astor. She was dressed in a shimmery, pale silk gown, white gloves up to her elbows. I convinced myself she recognized me. For the second time in fifteen or so years, I conquered my fears and shook her hand, and told her how much I liked the new book.

Mrs. Astor looked me right in the eye -- and I mean straight into my eyes. There again was that bemused sparkle. She tilted her head slightly to one side, and said, "Thank you, dear, but did you actually read the whole thing?"

Flash forward several years later. I had left the Library to start a new organization called The National Book Foundation, sponsor of the National Book Awards. "Organization" is a misnomer. There was no office, no staff (except me), hardly any Board members except for a few really dedicated 'believers' -- and last but certainly not least, no money. One day, desperate to get our fledgling program off the ground, I called Mrs. Astor's long-time Foundation President, Linda Gillies.

Knowing full well that Mrs. Astor steadfastly made it her business to visit each and every institution she supported, I ruefully confessed there was nothing as yet to visit; but, I pledged to Ms. Gillies, I was determined we would be launching all kinds of community outreach writing programs in disadvantaged schools, settlement houses, branch libraries, and senior centers around town. One day, I said, The National Book Foundation will be an active, valued citizen of the City's cultural life.

"I'll talk to Mrs. Astor, and see what I can do," Ms. Gillies said.

When that $5,000 check arrived in the mail, I cried with relief and gratitude.