Josh Ritter: “I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had in my life”

What happens when a creative person gets happy? The work suffers. Josh Ritter now has the love of a good woman, a child and a backyard that he measures in acres, and yet he sang 17 new, unrecorded songs in a row at City Winery that were simply impeccable. He’s still Josh Ritter — there were goofy stories (“I learned a lot about spray paint the first time I used it”) and wry lyrics (“If you’ve got to cry, cry softly”) — but the music was different in a way that’s hard to describe. These weren’t just new songs but a new kind of songs, like he’d found 17 pages from the Great American Songbook written in invisible ink and decoded them. (Of course he and Zack Hickman ended the show with rousing classics, and in the Church of Ritter, we screamed and screamed.) There are two more shows in this mini-tour, in Denver and Los Angeles. Strong suggestion: Do not tarry.

The Grand Bar and Grill: A treat grows in Brooklyn

My stepson now lives and works in Brooklyn, so we find ourselves going across the bridge to the city’s trendiest borough. It’s not easy to find a restaurant that isn’t terminally hip, so it was a pleasure to learn from Pamela Miles — our Reiki master and dear friend — that her son and his friends have launched a restaurant, The Grand Bar and Grill, that lives in the sweet spot between cool and appalling. It’s an American bistro — in the lineage of the original P.J. Clarke’s and the Old Town Bar in Manhattan — that serves comfort food with a twist, offers City Winery varietals on tap from repurposed antique fire extinguishers, and observes the modern requirements (jazz brunch on Sundays, comedy every other Tuesday night) The service is laid back without being comatose — in Williamsburg, that’s worth an extra star.

Kevin Sessums on ‘The Normal Heart’ (Sunday, 5/25, HBO, 9 PM)

Kevin Sessums, a colleague from long gone Vanity Fair days, is now editor-in-chief of FourTwoNine Magazine. We’re Facebook friends, which is where he posted this. You’ll need Kleenex.

I finally watched “The Normal Heart” last night. I will wait to write about my aesthetic impressions about the film since I don’t feel comfortable writing any sort of review about it because it hasn’t been aired yet on HBO and folks there were kind enough to send me the DVDs to watch it early.

I had a lot of personal emotions come to the surface while watching it though apart from my critical faculties.

In my role as a kind of Zelig in my life, I even had a very small part in shepherding this film into being. Larry and I back in 2010 went together to the premiere of “Rabbit Hole,” a film beautifully directed by John Cameron Mitchell who played the young version of Larry in his other autobiographical play The Destiny of Me. To this day, John gave one of the most nuanced and stunningly heartfelt and heartbreaking performances I’ve ever seen. Larry called me up before the premiere of “Rabbit Hole” and told me we had to make a plan for him to talk to Bryan Lourd from CAA at the party because he had finished another draft of the screenplay of “The Normal Heart” and wanted to get it to Bryan. The premiere was at the Paris and the party afterward was at the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel. I emailed Bryan to let him know that I was going to introduce Larry to him and that Larry was going to talk about his push to get “The Normal Heart” made one more time. Larry was convinced that Bryan was the person who could do that. And he was right. I put them together at the party and Larry went into his pitch and sent Bryan the script the next day. Bryan loved it and he, as much as (or more than) anybody else, was the person behind making sure this time the film got made. So I’d like to thank Bryan for his support of Larry from the very beginning in all this. Bryan, being the consummate macher, doesn’t like public thanks but sometimes he just has to get used to it. He deserves one here.

What struck me about the film was the depth of the love story even more than the politics of it all. “Heart” is in the title after all. But I’m not sure why I was so surprised by the depth of the love depicted in the narrative because that is what has always driven Larry more than his anger: the depth of his love for his gay brothers and sisters. I think it scares him sometimes how much he loves us all. I will say this about the two main performances. Matt Bomer as Felix is giving the performance of his career so far. He is extraordinary in the film. And Mark Ruffalo as Ned — the Larry character — captures something that is at the essence of Larry: how perplexed he is that not everyone can love as deeply or be as politically engaged or get as enraged by injustice as he can. It is Larry’s bewilderment more than his righteous anger that Ruffalo rightly burrows down into so deeply and comes up with something very true to the man.

Not everything in the film worked for me — as I stated, I won’t get into specifics about the film — but what it did was get me in touch with memories that I had been able to shut down for so long. Those telephone calls I got – as so many of us got – from friends shut up alone in their apartments back during the darkest days of those plague years because they didn’t have the strength or the will anymore to walk outside to be stared at and feel the silent horror at their appearances. Many of them were monstrously eaten up with KS legions as well as being emaciated. The cruelty of how that disease could steal one’s beauty and youth as well as one’s health is hard to describe to those who didn’t witness it.

Last night, I recalled one specific phone call I got from a dear friend of mine during that time. We had met at an audition for a regional theatre production of “Streamers” and had a short affair that turned into a deep friendship. He lived down Bleecker Street from me on the corner of Perry and I thought of him when I saw that was Felix’s address in the film last night.

One beautiful spring day my friend called in tears to tell me that he needed me to come over but please don’t be shocked. I knew he had contracted KS and by this time this young man — one of the most handsome I’ve ever known — was a kind of monstrous version of what KS could do to you at that point. His eyes were almost completely shut with lesions and his nose was one huge one hidden under them somewhere. He told me he needed someone to help clean him and his apartment because he couldn’t. I arrived to find him lying in his own vomit and shit — as so many of us found our friends or our lovers back then, I am not special in this story at all, so many of us did this for others back then. I cleaned him up — trying not to vomit myself at the smell — and then he suddenly projectile vomited all over my legs. It looked like he had thrown up blood and I began to freak out. He started screaming at me that it was the grape juice that he couldn’t keep down and began to scream at me to get out, all his pent-up anger directed at me. I let him scream and rant as I continued to clean up the mess, wrapping my hands in towels since I didn’t have gloves, before using more towels to clean it all up.

His apartment’s curtains were drawn against the day’s beautiful spring sunlight since he said the light hurt his eyes, which were but creases there in his face between the lesions. I put him back to bed after he stopped his ranting and covered up his shivering body and walked back out into the light of the beautiful spring day. I stopped at a drugstore on another corner of Bleecker and bought a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and knelt at the corner and in a panic poured it all over my hands, hating myself for feeling such panic but doing it nonetheless.

I stopped off in Father Demo Park and sat down in the spring sunshine to gather myself. I watched all the people that day so happy and going about their lives seemingly so unaware of how many of my gay brothers were shut up in their apartments on such a beautiful day waiting for others to come and visit them and maybe clean them up where they lay in vomit and shit. I remember sitting there that day thinking the world had no idea what we are all going through, what a war we were living through and how we could not leave our brothers to suffer alone on that battlefield of decimated bodies in their loneliness even if it meant having a panic attack and pouring hydrogen peroxide on ourselves while kneeling on Bleecker Street.

And then, sitting on that park bench, I put my head in my hands and sobbed, not caring who saw me. Sobbing in the light was as much a part of the plague years as keeping it together in the darkened apartments of friends.

That is what The Normal Heart last night did for me. It brought back up that memory, one I share with thousands of others who helped friends in just such ways over and over and over back then. We all took care of one another and didn’t ask for any appreciation for it. We did what we had to do. And now years later we have all, so many of us, locked those memories away where they too are now curtained off from the light of day in so many ways because they are so painful to revisit. But sometimes revisit them we must to remind ourselves what we all went through and to honor those who didn’t make it.

I am so grateful that this latest generation of young gay men does not have to live through such a time. And I am grateful that I have lived long enough to be grateful about that.

And I love Larry for not letting us forget.

Workin’ for the man ev’ry night and day

You pump your own gas. Check out your own groceries. Book your own plane tickets. Essentially, you work for large corporations — for free. How that came to be is the subject of “Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day,” by Craig Lambert. I’m too conflicted to review this book: Craig’s not only a close friend and my editor at Harvard Magazine, but he thanks me profusely — too profusely — in the acknowledgments. I can assure you the book’s a winner because it’s reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Sunday Book Review by the estimable Barbara Ehrenreich. To read more about it, visit Craig’s web site. To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition. click here.

Surprise! I am reading a 531-page novel.

“All the Light We Cannot See” was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award and a #1 New York Times bestseller. Despite the praise, I didn’t rush to read Anthony Doerr’s book — the last time I read a 531-page novel the author was Russian and dead. Then I saw this video — and immediately one-clicked a purchase. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.] Sometimes a picture-with–words really is worth more than just words. The Pulitzer committee thought so — “All the Light” won for fiction. Do watch.

New goodies from Louise Fili: delicious Florence, yummy Tutti Friuti

You bought so many boxes of her Perfetto Pencils that Amazon was out of stock for weeks. You went on to binge on her “Quattro Parole Italiane” note cards and envelopes. Now the indefatigable Louise Fili is back with “Tutti Fruiti” — Perfetto pencils in 6 delicious colors. [To buy Tutti Fruiti pencils from Amazon, click here]. And she’s served up another idiosyncratic guidebook: “The Cognoscenti’s Guide to Florence: Shop and Eat like a Florentine.” [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Is Thomas Keller’s Roast Chicken The Greatest Ever?

a two to three pound farm-raised chicken
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons minced thyme (optional)
Unsalted butter
Dijon mustard

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Rinse the chicken, then dry it very well with paper towels, inside and out. The less it steams, the drier the heat, the better.

Salt and pepper the cavity, then truss the bird. Trussing is not difficult, and if you roast chicken often, it’s a good technique to feel comfortable with. When you truss a bird, the wings and legs stay close to the body; the ends of the drumsticks cover the top of the breast and keep it from drying out. Trussing helps the chicken to cook evenly, and it also makes for a more beautiful roasted bird.

Salt the chicken. I rain the salt over the bird so that it has a nice uniform coating that will result in a crisp, salty, flavorful skin (about 1 tablespoon). When it’s cooked, you should still be able to make out the salt baked onto the crisp skin. Season to taste with pepper.

Place the chicken in a sauté pan or roasting pan and, when the oven is up to temperature, put the chicken in the oven. I leave it alone — I don’t baste it, I don’t add butter; you can if you wish, but I feel this creates steam, which I don’t want. Roast it until it’s done, 50 to 60 minutes. Remove it from the oven and add the thyme, if using, to the pan. Baste the chicken with the juices and thyme and let it rest for 15 minutes on a cutting board.

Remove the twine. Separate the middle wing joint and eat that immediately. Remove the legs and thighs. I like to take off the backbone and eat one of the oysters, the two succulent morsels of meat embedded here, and give the other to the person I’m cooking with. But I take the chicken butt for myself. I could never understand why my brothers always fought over that triangular tip—until one day I got the crispy, juicy fat myself. These are the cook’s rewards. Cut the breast down the middle and serve it on the bone, with one wing joint still attached to each. The preparation is not meant to be super-elegant. Slather the meat with fresh butter. Serve with mustard on the side and, if you wish, a simple green salad. You’ll start using a knife and fork, but finish with your fingers, because it’s so good.

MACA: Food for Inca warriors

Maca is a Peruvian turnip-like vegetable, processed into capsules. It’s said to increase stamina and energy and delivers what is euphemistically described as “an increase in libido.” From the New York Times article: ‘Some scientific studies claim to show a link between consuming maca and an increase in libido. One historical account says that the Inca emperor fed maca to his troops to give them energy but removed it from their diet after victorious campaigns to tame their sexual desire.’ To buy the capsules from Amazon, click here.

New York Babysitter: If our kid were younger, Louisa would be The One

It feels as if I’ve known Louisa Oreskes more years than she’s been on the planet. And I can’t believe she’s now 18 and a senior at the Bronx High School of Science. Her babysitting history: “I love kids and have a lot of experience with kids of all ages. I’m available weekdays 4-7 PM, flexible on weekends. I live on the Upper West Side and mainly work in that neighborhood, but weekend nights I’ll go anywhere in Manhattan. I have references.” If our small person hadn’t outgrown the need for babysitters — and, some days, her need for parents — Louisa would be my 1st, 2nd and 3rd choices. Contact her at

Brandy Clark: ‘You were lyin’ there with nothing on/ But a goofy little grin and a platinum blonde’

You were lyin’ there with nothing on
But a goofy little grin and a platinum blonde
I can’t believe you’d do that on our bed
I got a pistol and I got a bullet
And a pissed off finger just’a itchin’ to pull it
The only thing keepin’ me from losin’ my head is…

I hate stripes and orange ain’t my color
And if I squeeze that trigger tonight
I’ll be wearin’ one or the other
There’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion
The only thing savin’ your life
Is that I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes

If you watch it, you will download it.

Reader Mail (Advertisements for myself)

From Paul Zengilowski

My children will turn 19 and 21 in a few weeks and the birthday gift choice falls to me. My wife and I bought them books by the bushel when they were young — some they chose, more often though, we exercised our parental prerogative. That stopped as they entered their mid-teens and felt more confident in their choices than in ours.

I’ve not bought them books in years — with two exceptions. The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need, by Andrew Tobias, was a high school graduation gift. Knowing that having the money talk with them would be fruitless, I passed on to them my financial bible. I’d read it when it was first issued and it has served to keep me mostly on the financial straight and narrow over the last 30 years.

The second exception is their birthday present for this year: The 100 Essentials. Should they read only those two books, I’m confident they’ll enter adulthood with important and foundational knowledge that will serve them well.

from Marcie

You recommended Queen’s Gambit to me when I asked for the most grabable book you could think of. I loved it. It’s difficult to articulate precisely what the dark magic of that book is, but I found it fascinating — the characters, all of them, were like no others I’ve encountered. The relationship between Beth and her adopted mother was so subtle. I love that Tevis never capitulates to cliché or sentimentality. Elegant. Thank you for urging me to read it.

The best piece I’ve read in weeks: Maria Bello on her ‘modern family’

I interviewed Maria Bello a few years ago. My male friends drooled — she’s even more beautiful than most Hollywood actresses. I found her smart and quick. Now I find her wise. Here’s how her piece in the Times starts:
When my 12-year-old son, Jackson, asked me if there was something I wasn’t telling him, I replied, “There are a lot of things I don’t tell you.”
“Like what?”
“Adult stuff.”
He persisted: “What kind of adult stuff?”
This was the moment I had been anticipating and dreading for months. “Like romantic stuff,” I said, fumbling for words.
“What kind of romantic stuff?”
“Well,” I said. “Like how sometimes you can be friends with someone, and then it turns romantic, and then you’re friends again. Like with Dad and me. Or romantic like Bryn and me were, and then he and I became friends.”
“So are you romantic with anyone right now?” he asked.

No way would a reasonable person stop here. Click for the rest.