An Extraordinary Early American in Europe

By Susan Russo

Portrait_of_Ira_Aldridge,_by_Taras_Shevchenko_(1858)Ira Aldridge was born in New York in 1807 to free black parents: Daniel, a clerk and preacher, and Luranah Aldridge. Ira was schooled at home until 1820, when at the age of 13, he was enrolled in the African Free School Number Two. In the 1820s in New York City William Alexander Brown, a West Indian, started four “backyard” or public garden theatres, with plays followed by musical entertainments. During the same period, Brown founded the first all-black “African Theatre,” presenting Richard III, followed by an opera and a ballet. City officials closed all of Brown’s and others’ similar enterprises shortly after each opening following complaints, the last closing culminating in a riot.

At 14, Aldridge found a job in New York as a dresser at the whites-only Chatham Garden Theatre. His employer was a touring Anglo-American actor, James William Wallack. It is not known whether the connection with Wallack played a part in his decision, but, in 1824, Aldridge embarked for Liverpool, England, on his way to accept the award of a scholarship to study theology at Glasgow University. (During this period, a number of religious institutions and anti-slavery societies in England, Scotland, and America were active in supporting advanced education, but in limited subjects, for Africans and African-Americans.)

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World Cup 2014: Enough Info to Get by in Conversation

By Brianna Caszatt & A Gerald Martini, football masterminds 

480px-WC-2014-Brasil.svgTemperatures are rising and flowers are in bloom: summer is practically here. And for one month this summer, people around the globe will be riveted to their screens watching all the drama unfold in Brazil at the 2014 World Cup—the football (yes football, but soccer if you must) tournament that 32 countries have spent the last three years qualifying for. Remember how excited you were to watch the Olympics? Well double it, and that’s how the rest of the world feels. But if you can’t muster that much enthusiasm, this handy guide we’ve created should at least help you keep up with all the cool kids watching. So muddle some limes for a month’s worth of caipirinhas and grab your contraband caxirola, Brazil’s noise-making answer to the vuvuzela (imagine if a rattle and brass knuckles had a baby—they’ve since been banned from the stadiums after being used by fans as missiles), and let’s tuck in.

For those of you who are total World Cup novices, there are eight groups of four teams each. Each country will play all three of the other teams in their group, and the top two teams from each group will advance to the knockout rounds. The top two from the group are determined by awarding three points for a win, one for a draw, and zero for a loss. Google “World Cup 2014 Bracket,” print one out, and make your own predictions!

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Culture Corner – The “Exotic Foreign” of Wes Anderson and Haruki Murakami

By Bernie Langs

There is much made in some classical and modern philosophies of the concept and ambiguity of what is termed “the other.” In addition, one can find obscure musings on the idea of “the stranger” from the pens of philosophers as far afield in time and thinking as Plato and Camus. I’ve been avoiding, of late, the more difficult works of such trained thinkers and their non-fictions, opting to glean life lessons from those more akin within the arts to current travails. What I continue to discover is that I draw great pleasure from the belief that ideas originating from lands abroad that I will most likely never visit, appeal to my sense of intellectual adventure, offering to me, and perhaps to others, the mystery of the “exotic foreign.”

I offer, by way of example, two works of art extremely different in nature appealing to this sense. Wes Anderson co-wrote and directed the film The Darjeeling Limited in 2007 and Haruki Murakami wrote the book “Sputnik Sweetheart” in 2001. In Anderson’s movie, we follow the travels of three brothers on a train through India, a trip they take in an attempt to bond and heal a year after their father’s untimely death. The brothers are played to absolute perfection by the actors Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman (Schwartzman has frequently appeared in Anderson’s films and he is also a co-writer of this movie). The viewer identifies with these foreigners since we can relate to the notion of Western individuals seeking spiritual solace in the East as visitors. We discover India as they do, as enlightened tourists hoping to catch a glimpse and some meaning from something new and completely alien to our routines.

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New York State of Mind

To celebrate 10 years of Natural Selections, this month we are reprinting an interview with Zach Veilleux, Executive Director of Communica- tions and Public Affairs. Country of origin: USA. The original interview was published in the April 2004 issue.

How long have you been living in New York City?

I moved to the city in the summer of 2001 from Allentown, Pennsylvania, where I had lived for five years. I needed a change of scenery.

Where do you live?

Just off York Avenue on 75 th Street.

Which is your favorite neighborhood?

It depends. To live in, the Upper West Side, Brooklyn Heights or Battery Park City – I like being near the water. For eating dinner and walking around, I like Tribeca and the West Village. For character, Canal Street. For architectural flavor, the Financial District.

What do you think is the most overrated thing in the city? And underrated?

Overrated: They call this the city that never sleeps, but it’s hard to find a video store open past midnight, and you can’t get decent sushi later than 10:30 p.m. Underrated: The Roos- evelt Island Tram. Most people don’t even know it’s there and even those of us who work a few blocks away rarely ride it. Take it at night. It’s the best $2 you can spend in the city.

What do you miss most when you are out of town?

The energy. Just standing on a busy street corner in New York City is both exhilarating and exhausting. Every so often I need a break from it, and yet once I leave I start to wonder why everything seems so quiet and slow.

If you could change one thing about NYC, what would that be?

Trash on the sidewalk. We’re the most evolved society in the world but we put our rotting food on our front doorsteps and let our dogs use the sidewalks as open sewers.

Describe a perfect weekend in NYC.

A long bike ride along the Hudson; a round trip on the Staten Island ferry; walking over the Brooklyn Bridge at night; eating at a sidewalk café I’ve never been to before, will never go to again and don’t bother to notice the name of; visiting the gorillas at the Bronx zoo; a long nap – in no particular order.

What is the most memorable experience you have had in NYC?

The first night I moved to New York I spent in the Lenox Hill emergency room, waiting four hours to get a tetanus shot after cutting my thumb on a metal fan blade. I made friends with a girl who sprained her ankle. She turned out to be crazy. I hadn’t even lived here 12 hours and I’d had the entire New York experience–danger, perseverance, romance and heartbreak, all of it totally superficial.

If you could live anywhere else, where would that be?

I’ve always thought my own tropical island would be nice. Beyond that, I’m not picky.

Do you think of yourself as a New Yorker? Why?

I pay the exorbitant rent; as far as I’m concerned, the title comes with it.

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Puerto Rico in March – Summer at the tip of Winter

By Natalia Ketaren

El Yunque

Puerto Rico, “the rich port,” is an unincorporated territory of the United States. To us travellers from the US, that means that the currency is in dollars, our cell phones work and we need only a valid US license to travel there. San Juan is the capital. It is one of the most important ports in the Caribbean, situated on the northeastern side of the Island. Aside from its beautiful beaches, Puerto Rico is home to the US’s only tropical rainforest, El Yunque. We took a seven day trip through this lovely island, and here’s a little of what we saw and did.

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Take Me Out to the Ball Game

By Aileen Marshall

It’s springtime in New York, and that means the start of baseball season. There is still hope in the air for the Mets, and great expectations for the Yankees, the two New York teams.

Baseball is known as the “Great American Game,” illustrated by a commercial from about 30 years ago, which ran with the tagline “baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.” It is unclear exactly how American the game is. For many years it was a common belief that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in 1839 in Cooperstown, NY. The belief comes from the Mills commission, a 1905 report by the National League. This was the basis for the location of the Baseball Hall of Fame. In recent years it has become known that this origin is a myth. Abner Doubleday was a Civil War general, but he was a cadet at West Point in 1839, and his family had moved from Cooperstown the year before. When he died, he left many papers and letters, none of which even mentioned baseball.

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Culture Corner: book review “Seiobo There Below” by László Krasznahorkai

By Bernie Langs

I would bet that it is safe to say that anyone reading these pages is more than busy in this life and that many of you who continue to read for pleasure are overwhelmed by the truth that there are “so many books and so little time.” You may also feel, as I do, that at this point, if I’m going to commit to a book that is both challenging and difficult, it sure as hell better be worth the effort. Keeping this in mind, I have found such incredible joy in chancing upon the works of the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai (b. 1954). I have had the pleasure of reading three of his works of fiction. Last year in Natural Selections I reviewed his book The Melancholy of Resistance and interviewed its translator. Subsequently, I completed his War & War, a book so powerful that I would read it in dumbfounded awe, and recently I have just finished his Seiobo Down Below.

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New York State of Mind

To celebrate his retirement, this Month Natural Selections reprints an interview with Patrick Griffin, former Manager of the Faculty and Student Club. Country of origin: Ireland. The original interview was published in the April 2009 issue.

Screen Shot 2014-05-11 at 19.32.56

How long have you been living in New York?

50 years
Where do you live?

Which is your favorite neighborhood?

Woodlawn, Bronx.
What do you think is the most overrated thing in the city? And underrated?

Tavern on the Green Restaurant is the most overrated thing in the city. NYC Transit System is the most underrated.

What do you miss most when you are out of town?

Convenience of the transportation system.

If you could change one thing about NYC, what would that be?

Traffic congestion.
Describe a perfect weekend in NYC.

Staying at the Regency Hotel; eating at top rated restaurants; visit museums and dancing at the Regency Ballroom in the evening.

What is the most memorable experience you have had in NYC?

Closing a bar one summer night. My last two customers were leaving. As I got to the door to let them out, they put a pistol at each of my temples and robbed me. Before they left, they handcuffed me to a steam pipe, with regular police handcuffs. Somehow I was able to break loose and call the police.

If you could live anywhere else, where would that be?


Do you think of yourself as a New Yorker? Why?

Yes, because I think NYC is the greatest city in the world.

For Your Consideration – Cannes Preview Edition

By Jim Keller

Now in its third year, this instalment of For Your Consideration takes a look at those films set to cross the Croisette this month. While the Cannes Film Festival is not primarily known as an Oscar launching vehicle, in recent years it has revealed a glimmer of Oscar’s gold. Last year’s fest premiered eventual Best Picture nominee Nebraska, as well as critic’s darling Inside Llewyn Davis, which only earned cinematography and sound mixing nominations. While details were slim, both films were discussed in this column. This year Jury President and director/producer/screenwriter Jane Campion, will oversee the bow of Olivier Dahan’s Grace of Monaco, which will open the Festival and screen out of competition.

So let’s see what lies across the sea, ready to seize the hearts and minds of the attendees of this film industry exclusive and possibly jump-start the 2014 Oscar race. As always, my list is comprised of highlights and films with considerable pedigree behind them, to wind up in the throes of Oscar come February:

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Mistaken for Strangers – A Rock Star’s Brother Peeks Out of His Shadow

By Jason Rothauser

In the film’s opening sequence, Matt Berninger, nattily dressed in a three-piece suit, fusses with a beach umbrella before finally settling down for an interview in the park. Berninger is the lead singer of The National, an indie rock band who toiled for years in obscurity before making it into the spotlight and to the top of the Billboard charts. His interviewer is his brother Tom. He starts with a few odd questions (“Do you ever get sleepy on stage?”). Things are not going well.

“Do you have a notebook?” Matt asks his brother. “With questions written down? Do you have any kind of organisation and plan for this film?”

Thus begins Mistaken for Strangers, a documentary that began as a behind-the-scenes look at The National before morphing into something very different. The filmmaker is Matt’s brother Tom. While Matt has reached rock stardom as the lead singer of one of the most successful indie rock bands, Tom still lives at home with his parents in Ohio. Matt is tall, thin, composed. Tom is overweight, disheveled, and an amateur filmmaker whose efforts have been limited to zombie schlock-fests on homemade VHS tapes.

When Matt invites his brother to join their European tour as a working roadie, Tom jumps at the chance, and takes along a handheld video camera. He keeps it rolling for much of the tour. At first, Tom’s only ambition is to perhaps produce some documentary footage for the web, but he soon latches onto the idea of creating a full-length feature film.

While Mistaken for Strangers does in fact feature plenty of backstage footage of the band as they tour Europe, this is not a concert documentary or even a documentary ultimately about The National. It quickly becomes clear that Tom doesn’t know what he’s doing, either as a roadie or as a filmmaker. Tom, decked out in plastic sandals, Motörhead t-shirt, and ubiquitous drink in hand, is ready for a party. He’s expecting rock-star debauchery, but he’s quickly brought down to earth by the business-like efficiency of the consistently professional band. His drinking becomes a problem (“Remember your allergy!” brother Matt scolds as he grabs a beer out of Tom’s hand), and it’s only a matter of time before Tom is fired. He keeps the camera rolling for his painful exit interview.

But the story doesn’t end there. Instead, Tom turns the camera, and the focus of the film, on himself. How does it feel to live in the shadow of the limelight? To live in your parents’ garage while your big brother becomes a rock star?

Tom’s stint as a roadie shoves this disparity right in his face, and he lives out every painful bit of it on camera with unflinching (and endearing) honesty. A highlight moment features the band playing for President Obama (their song “Fake Empire” was a campaign theme and the band has played at various campaign rallies). Tom is corralled backstage by Secret Service agents while the rest of the band meets and has a photo taken with the president. Tom is crushed that he’s not included. “Do you think its because of my DUI?” he wonders.

Ironically, Tom’s failures elevate what could have been a routine concert documentary into something much more. And while the film has something serious to say about ambition, family, and failure, there is never any danger of it taking itself too seriously. The filmmaker’s entirely guileless personality and bizarre questions replicate the absurdity of This is Spinal Tap, and Tom even manages to ask some questions that music fans might be curious about, but thought were too dumb to ask. “Do you carry your wallet when you’re up there performing?” he asks the band’s bass player. The answer is “yes.”

Documentary filmmaking is full of happy accidents. The brilliant Capturing the Friedmans, which examines a sensational case of child abuse and its effects on the titular family, had its origins in a documentary about children’s entertainers (family member David Friedman is a professional clown, and the filmmaker came to learn his story when getting to know him in that capacity). Mistaken for Strangers similarly rises from relatively humdrum origins to add up to something much more than its original ambitions. You don’t have to be a fan of The National, or even know who they are, to be profoundly entertained by this warm, human film. And if you happen to be an underachieving younger sibling, photos of a smiling Tom Berninger presenting his (much-lauded) movie at the Tribeca festival may just give you some hope.

Scientists Decide: No interesting stories in Science

By John Borghi

First Flight of a Liquid Propellant RocketOn March 16, 1926, Robert H. Goddard launched the first ever liquid-fueled rocket in Auburn, Massachusetts. Though this test did little to silence the mocking editorials and harsh criticisms that had followed Goddard since his 1920 proposal that liquid-fueled rockets would eventually reach beyond Earth’s atmosphere, it was a major breakthrough in modern rocketry. Collecting the pieces of his rocket from a snowed over cabbage patch late in the afternoon on the 16, Goddard probably could not have envisioned that his harshest critics would eventually turn to avid supporters. On July 17, 1969, the day after the launch of Apollo 11, the New York Times published an apologetic retraction of its criticisms of Goddard and hailed him as “the father of modern rocketry.”

Eighty-eight years almost to the day after Goddard’s launch, a group of scientists working at the State Hospital at Montpelier (SHAM) released a statement that no interesting stories could possibly emerge from science. “Science is serious business, obviously,” reads the statement, written primarily by the SHAM’s director of communication, Dr. P.H. Ony. “An engaging narrative requires interesting characters, a conflict, and a resolution. Unfortunately, science just doesn’t include any of those things. Have you ever read the methods section of a scientific paper? Pretty dry, am I right? I’m speaking as a scientist myself; there are just no interesting stories in science.”

Members of the scientific community have been quick to respond to Dr. Ony’s statement. On Facebook, the famed molecular biologist Dr. P. Seudo wrote “Nope, that’s completely incorrect,” and “Sometimes scientists get so wrapped up in their grants and lab work that they forget the drama of what is happening around them. Of course there are interesting stories. Science is full of people trying to solve problems, often while under a tremendous amount of stress.”

Dr. Ony could not be reached for comment, but a statement on his Twitter account stated his position simply: “Always remember, there is nothing exciting about molecular biology, rockets, or vindication.

For Your Consideration – Crystal ball edition!

By Jim Keller

Last year’s Crystal Ball edition yielded four of nine eventual Best Picture nominees. Gravity, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Nebraska as well as Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave, were all discussed as hopefuls long before they bowed. So if you think spring is too early to talk about Oscars, think again. Here are some films debuting this year that could wind up in the Oscar conversation as the year progresses.

A Most Wanted Man (director: Anton Corbijn):

Why you might like it: Based on John le Carré’s novel, the film follows a Chechen Muslim as he gets caught up in the international war on terror after he illegally immigrates to Hamburg, Germany.

Why I’ve got my eye on it: The film was discussed last year in this column, but its release was subsequently pushed back. Corbijn’s The American (2010) wasn’t able to best his debut, 2007’s Control, but I’m interested to see what he can do with a le Carré novel. Plus it has a lead performance by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman.

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April Fools!

By Aileen Marshall

April Fools’ Day is celebrated on April 1. This is the day when it’s common to pull pranks on friends and false news stories run rampant. However, the truth is always revealed later that day. While not an official holiday, the practice is commonly accepted.

No one really knows when the tradition started. Many cultures going back to ancient times have a spring rite of turning the social order upside down, when unacceptable behavior acceptable just for that day, as a way of celebrating winter’s end. In England, the tradition is that the prank must be pulled and then revealed by noon. Anyone who attempts a prank after noon is considered the fool.

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Spring Breaks in April

By Susan Russo

Special Free Events and Short Excursions


Macy’s Flower Show

When: April 1-6

Where: 34th to 35th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues

Tartan Day Parade, with bagpipes, kilts and dancers

When: April 5, starting at 2:00 p.m.

Where: 45th to 55th Street on Sixth Avenue

“Pillow Fight in the Park,” teddy bears and pillows, but “no feathers”

When: April 5, 3:00 to 6:00 p.m.

Where: Washington Square Park, West 4th and 6th Street between MacDougal Street and University Place

“Easter Parade” wear or admire fancy hats and costumes

When: April 20, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Where: 49th to 50th Street on Fifth Avenue

“Celebrating Earth Day” a three-day event, with family activities, films and performances

When: April 22, 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Where: Union Square, 14th Street between Irving Place and Fifth Avenue

“Tribeca Family Festival” street fair, music, chefs’ demonstrations, crafts and films

When: April 26, 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Where: Greenwich Street between Hubert and Chambers Street

 “9/11 Memorial 5K Run/Walk” Family Day, “to support the memorial and museum”

When: April 27, 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

Where: Church Street between Cortland and Liberty Street

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New York State of Mind : Aylesse Sordillo, Graduate Fellow

By May Dobosiewicz

Aylesse Sordillo

Been here: 7.5 years

Lives in: Central Harlem

From: Outside of Boston

Is there something you do regularly that you could only do here?

For sure. I’m really into underground electronic music shows, and New York is one of the only places where you can pretty much see everyone since they’re not the kind of people who tour super broadly. PS1 has a whole summer series called WarmUp. They have a backyard where they do electronic music shows with music and beer.

Do you have a favorite museum?

The Brooklyn Museum.

If you could change something about New York, what would it be?

It would be less expensive to live here.

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