For the Love of Lemurs

April 15, 2014 9:59 p.m. ET

Dr. Patricia Wright considers the Central Park Zoo’s Tropic Zone a refuge for herself and other New Yorkers.                             Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

Whatever its challenges, this column hasn’t required trekking through tropical rain forests. Until a few days ago. It wasn’t really a rain forest, but the Central Park Zoo’s Tropic Zone.

Nonetheless, it sufficed. And in a heavy coat, I wasn’t dressed for the occasion. Also, the humidity was so intense that droplets of water kept falling onto my reporter’s notebook, blurring my notes and making my handwriting even more illegible.

My companion—Dr. Patricia C. Wright, a primatologist and a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stony Brook University—displayed none of my discomfort. Perhaps because she spends much of her time in Madagascar studying lemurs, and has since the 1980s.

I’m tempted to describe Dr. Wright as the star of a new 3-D IMAX film called “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar.” Except the lemurs earn top billing with several Oscar-worthy performances.

We visited the zoo because that’s the location closest to my office where lemurs can be found.

I neglected to ask Dr. Wright whether lemurs make good house pets. But I suspect not, unless your apartment includes a flourishing tree canopy.

“This is beautiful,” Dr. Wright said in a mellifluous, almost dreamy voice, as parrots and golden weavers watched us from overhead. “I think it’s a refuge for all of us who live in New York.”

Her demeanor may be the result of spending lots of time in the wilds of Madagascar with lemurs, the only place on Earth, except at zoos or primate study centers, where lemurs exist.

One of zoo’s black-and-white ruffed lemurs passes the time hanging out on a vine.                Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

By the way, the lemurs at the Central Park Zoo are black-and-white ruffed lemurs. They were mostly just hanging on vines and dining on blueberries.

“Aren’t they beautiful?” Dr. Wright intoned. “They look like panda bears.”

There are more than 100 species of lemurs, 90% of them threatened, endangered or critically endangered because the vast majority of Madagascar’s forests have been destroyed.

Part of the film’s mission, besides selling tickets, is to draw attention to this peaceful animal’s plight before it’s too late.

“I first went in the early ’80s,” Dr. Wright remembered. “There were all kinds of lemurs I’d never seen before and most species had never been studied before. I was amazed at the variety.”

Indeed, in 1986, Dr. Wright discovered one unknown to science—the Golden Bamboo lemur—on a trip where she was searching for the Greater Bamboo lemur, which hadn’t been seen in 50 years.

“I got up really early in the morning and was looking for this other one,” she recalled, of the Greater Bamboo lemur, which she also spotted. “We were just walking along and this animal as big as a cat came this close to us. It was orange. In the sunlight it was gorgeous. It made this sound I hadn’t heard before—like a growl, almost a roar.”

I wondered what it felt like to discover a species. The hair on the back of my neck bristles when I spot a bird I haven’t seen before. And obviously this is way more impressive than that.

“I almost thought I was going to faint,” Dr. Wright said. “It took my breath away.

“It was on a stalk of bamboo,” she continued. “I knew it had to be a bamboo lemur, but it didn’t look like it was supposed to. I knew I’d never seen it before and it wasn’t in any of the books.”

Unsurprisingly, “Island of Lemurs,” narrated by Morgan Freeman, is visually stunning. But it almost has to be—a balloon-mounted camera took some of the footage—because many lemurs tend to live in inaccessible locations, such as the rock fortresses of Anja Community Reserve in southern Madagascar, where filmmakers Drew Fellman and David Douglas shot Ring-tailed lemurs.

One of the film’s more memorable scenes involves a family of the Ring-tailed lemurs—females are dominant in lemur society, by the way—sunbathing atop a cliff in the early morning sun.

“They are very Zen animals,” Dr. Wright noted. “They’re very peaceful.”

The Anja Community Reserve is also an example of the way people and lemurs can coexist, indeed how the local population can prosper through lemurtourism.

“We have to work with the poverty, helping with their health and assisting with their education and giving them jobs,” Dr. Wright explained. “I have 85 local people working on research. We teach them how to read and write. We teach them how to take data.”

The Sifakas may be my favorite lemurs, with mouse lemurs, the world’s smallest primate, coming a close second. Sifakas are arboreal, built for leaping between trees in an upright position. When they travel along the ground, and somewhat out of their element, they do so by jumping from side to side.

I thought the filmmakers were employing special effects to make them appear to be dancing—the vivid soundtrack, including Madagascar artist Hanitra Rasoanaivo putting her own spin on “I Will Survive,” only reinforces the impression—but Dr. Wright assured me that they move that way.

Not too long ago—within the last 500 years—there existed lemurs the size of gorillas. I proposed that given the remoteness of some of Madagascar’s landscape, perhaps there are still a few lurking and waiting to be discovered, or rather rediscovered.

Dr. Wright acknowledged such a discovery would be delightful. But it isn’t a priority.

“We’re not going out there to discover the extinct ones,” she explained. “But to find out how many are left of the living ones.”


Pass the Butter, Please

Updated April 14, 2014 10:37 p.m. ET

Tasters at the New York International Olive Oil Competition, are served samples in blue glasses—so their judgment isn’t colored.         Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

Something strange, disappointing and, most of all, pretentious happened on the culinary scene about a decade ago. Or maybe it was two. Restaurants started serving olive oil with bread instead of butter.

I like olive oil. As a salad dressing. In a pinch—say, I can’t get out of the driveway and to the supermarket because of a golf ball-sized hailstorm—I’ll reluctantly dip my bread in the stuff.

But does anybody honestly believe that olive oil, or any other condiment or spread, tastes better on bread than butter? Like Astaire and Rogers, Lennon and McCartney, or Fig and Newton, it’s an unimprovable combination.

If you go to Italy, you don’t find olive oil on restaurant tables—at least not to dip bread. Then again, Europeans don’t serve butter with bread either. What’s that about? I suspect it’s a conspiracy to make Americans look foolish and pay extra when they ask for butter. But that’s never stopped me.

“Olive oil on the table: It’s a very American thing,” acknowledged Paul Vossen, an olive and olive oil expert with the University of California’s cooperative extension in Sonoma County.

Mr. Vossen happened to be in town last week as a judge at the second annual New York International Olive Oil Competition, the NYIOOC. The competition attracted 650 entries from 23 countries.

He and Steve Jenkins, who is vice president, master cheesemonger and olive oil specialist at Fairway MarketFWM -2.94% one of the event’s sponsors, tried to pinpoint when olive oil first found its way onto restaurant tables in place of butter.

“In the aughts,” Mr. Jenkins estimated.

The steady hand of expert Dan Flynn pours the liquid gold.      Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

My skepticism regarding olive oil as a bread accouterment aside, I joined the attendees at the International Culinary Center on lower Broadway last Wednesday, the competition’s first day, to blind test some of the olive oils in contention. My goal was to determine whether all the fuss surrounding olive oil is overblown, or whether it’s justified and I’m just a bad person.

We tried three kinds: one delicate, the second medium, the third robust. The samples arrived in small, dark blue glasses meant to disguise the color so that the judges wouldn’t jump to conclusions based on appearance. There was also sparkling water, apple slices and Greek yogurt to cleanse the palate between entries.

We tried the first sample.

“Grassy,” was the instant consensus.

“It’s not just fresh cut…” Mr. Vossen said, as he swilled the liquid around his glass and then slurped it over his tongue.

“Celery,” Mr. Jenkins proposed.

“Celery is a good one,” Mr. Vossen agreed.

Apparently, slurping is integral to the olive oil judging process. You’re supposed to simultaneously taste and suck in air through your mouth so that the aroma travels through your throat and into your nostrils. At least, I believe that was the purpose, even if it wasn’t especially appetizing.

Then again, neither was the olive oil. I agreed it smelled grassy. And as part of a salad that included, say, fresh arugula and endive; ripe heirloom tomatoes; avocado; garlic; pepper and onions (both red); a golden, free-range, hard-boiled egg; and tuna—the whole thing drizzled with croutons or walnuts, and, of course, a dependable balsamic vinegar—I’m sure it would have tasted great.

Dan Flynn slurps olive oil.                  Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

But when imbibing olive oil all by itself, the dominant association isn’t with freshly mowed grass, apples or green banana peel (two other flavor notes it sparked in Mr. Vossen’s imagination.) Or with even dinner, for that matter. But with oil. As in 10-40 motor oil. As in Valvoline.

“Olfactory Sensations,” where the grassy associations were registered, was but one category on the score sheet. Another was something called “Gustatory-Retronasal Sensations.”

I assume that’s what all the slurping was about. And then there were “Final Olfactory-Gustatory Sensations,” which addressed complexity and persistence.

I struggled to describe the supermarket olive oils I try to avoid and why, describing them as “metallic.” I wasn’t a fast learner. I was reading from a list of possible “defects” on the score sheet. Others included “fusty,” “musty,” “winey,” “muddy” and “rancid.”

Mr. Vossen thought rancid might be what I was aiming at.

“They’ve been there a long time,” he proposed of some of the common supermarket brands.

Mr. Jenkins agreed.

“It’s not like living and breathing any more,” he said. “It’s dead.”

As Fairway’s olive oil buyer, Mr. Jenkins is as responsible as anybody for my olive oil buying habits. It’s possible to get a perfectly unobjectionable bottle of the stuff there for under $14. The gentlemen agreed that from about $13 a liter to double that sounded the right price for olive oil. Certainly no more.

Most people base their purchase on the label, which can be totally misleading, the experts lamented.

“I’ve seen people that put a gold medal they’ve made up on a label,” Mr. Vossen said.

At Fairway, I typically buy the “Trevi-Umbria” unfiltered extra virgin olive oil. But that’s mostly because I have pleasant associations with Umbria.

While Italy takes top honors for marketing its olive oil, Mr. Vossen said, excellent olive oil also comes from Spain, Greece, France, California, Chile and Australia.

“I haven’t had a bad bottle of olive oil from Australia,” he reported.Despite the pomp and circumstance surrounding olive oil, according to Mr. Jenkins the average American consumer’s palate remains largely ignorant.

I asked what distinguishes virgin olive oil from extra virgin.

“The bottom line is that it has no defects and has a little fruitiness to it,” Mr. Vossen explained.

“I thought extra virgin meant it looked greener,” I said.

“See what I’m saying,” Mr. Jenkins said with a sigh. “They don’t know anything about olive oil.”


The Wisdom of Salomon

April 13, 2014 10:29 p.m. ET

Centenarian William ‘Billy’ Salomon, whose father and uncles founded Salomon Brothers investment bank, remembers a more civil Wall Street.       Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

New York City teenagers have been finding ways to break the rules since long before the current crop. Even though parents today might think the challenges of child rearing have never been quite so steep.

“We grew up at the end of the speakeasy era,” recalled William “Billy” Salomon, reminiscing the other day about his after-school activities during the early ’30s.

Mr. Salomon was referring to himself and Virginia Foster, his high school girlfriend and future wife.

“We went to speakeasies every now and then. There was a place near here—at 60th between Park and Lex—called the Gallant Fox. They were willing to serve drinks to minors. We’d go there every Friday afternoon.”

The Gallant Fox, though, wasn’t their only watering hole.

“There was a beautiful Central Park Casino, where Peter Duchin’s father was the orchestra leader,” remembered Mr. Salomon, who celebrated his 100th birthday this month, a son of one of the three brothers who founded Salomon Brothers.

“Where the playground is up on the hill. A beautiful old house. I think they tore it down because Mayor Jimmy Walker took his mistresses there all the time.”

I was able to ascertain that the Casino stood on what became the Rumsey playground, where I played as a child and where SummerStage concerts have been held in more recent years. The playground didn’t make sense to me until Mr. Salomon enlightened me about its history. It was a large, windswept expanse with a few swings that I associate with blustery autumn days and gray skies. The city must have turned it into a playground less for the delight of children than to pave over the memories of the bawdier playground that once occupied the spot.

It’s a privilege to spend time with someone who has lived an entire century, especially when his mind seems as sharp as it was in his 20s, and he’s a repository not only of his memories but also of the city’s.

Mr. Salomon, who would go on to become Salomon Brothers’ senior managing partner from 1963 to 1978, spent his early years at 101 Central Park.

“The seventh floor,” he remembered. “We had a duplex.”

His family moved to the East Side when he was 7 or 8. The address: 35 East 84th St., he said.

Mr. Salomon attended the Columbia Grammar School and Horace Mann. I assumed Harvard, Princeton or Yale would be next on his list of academic institutions.

“I didn’t go to college,” he explained. “I went to work. I wanted to get married. My father said, ‘You’re not getting married unless you have a job.’”

“It was a childhood romance,” he said of his 71-year union to Virginia, who died in 2008. “I took her out from the time she was 16. She was married at 20. I was 23. Our families knew each other. She went to Dalton. She was great looking. We had a wonderful marriage.”

In the couple’s Park Avenue apartment, there’s a black-and-white photograph of Mrs. Salomon, shown in profile, by Lord Snowdon.

“It’s awful,” Mr. Salomon said of her passing. “We were inseparable. We went on vacation with each other. Once we went with another couple. Never again. ‘Meet for cocktails at 8 o’clock.’ The other couple arrives at 8:30. It didn’t work out.”

Mr. Salomon sounded more than a bit wistful for the Wall Street of an earlier era.

“When I started out, I started peddling bonds,” he remembered. “I’d go to the Irving Trust, the New York Trust, Morgan Guaranty. I’d go there at a certain time and you’d see the head man.

“It’s no longer a game of handshakes and gentlemen meeting at their clubs and negotiating a deal,” he went on. “It’s dog-eat-dog and they’re doing it very well to each other.”

Among his hires at Salomon Brothers was a young Harvard Business School graduate named Michael Bloomberg.

“I supported him and still do,” Mr. Solomon said. “He was very smart. He came up with the greatest money-making scheme developed in centuries—all those boxes.”

I assume he was referring to the Bloomberg Terminal.

Mr. Bloomberg was laid off from Salomon Brothers in 1981 after it merged with the Philbro Corp., a commodities trading company. By that time, Mr. Salomon had retired from the company.

“He wouldn’t have been fired if I was there,” Mr. Salomon said of Mr. Bloomberg.

The banker celebrated his birthday at the Council on Foreign Relations, the former mayor among the guests.

Mr. Salomon still goes to the park, in his wheelchair, “at every opportunity,” he said. His son and daughter live in Tucson, Ariz., and Los Angeles, respectively, but visit frequently: “I go in at 61st Street, go wandering around; now I’m pushed around.”

His favorite spot is along the benches that line the path that leads to the entrance of the Central Park Zoo. “I donated a bench on 62nd Street to my wife and myself,” he explained. “Most of the time, it’s occupied.”

“Old age isn’t for sissies,” he said, paraphrasing Bette Davis. “But New York City is a wonderful place.”

Mr. Salomon shares with many centenarians an inveterate optimism and a talent for finding the sunshine among the clouds.

“I think over a period of years in the U.S. you’ve been better off being optimistic,” he said. “I used to tell people in the office when the market was going south, ‘Don’t sell America short.’”


Where the Matzo’s Made in New York

April 9, 2014 10:51 p.m. ET

Sheets of matzo as they emerge from the oven at Streit’s Matzos on Rivington Street.     Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal

I think we can agree that Passover matzo isn’t the most flavorful of baked goods. It’s not supposed to be. It’s meant to commemorate the exodus from Egypt and to symbolize what life was like in servitude.

Nonetheless, I have pleasant associations with it. It reminds me of a lifetime of family Seders, and also the cash envelopes the children received after we’d stolen the afikoman and successfully negotiated its return with my uncle Simon so that the service could conclude.

But I’ve always been impressed—no matter how hungry I am by the moment in the Seder that we finally get to enjoy a piece of matzo—by how much it looks and tastes like parchment, and how little like food.

None of this explains why, for the first time last week, I picked up a box of Streit’s dark chocolate-covered matzo at D’Agostino’s. I suspect it was a case of morbid curiosity. To my mind, chocolate can improve the taste of anything. But might it have met its match in matzo?

Michael Stern stocks boxes of packaged matzo.     Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

I was cautiously optimistic about the combination. I think one of the great breakthroughs in baking of recent decades was the decision to coat pretzels in chocolate. It now seems like a no-brainer. But at the time—whenever that was—it must have felt totally counterintuitive. Like Newtonian physics or the Copernican solar system.

One was sweet, the other salty. Who would have thought chocolate and pretzels go together so well? I’d go so far as to say that Hershey’s Take 5 bar—pretzel, caramel, peanut and peanut butter coated in milk chocolate—is the only worthwhile advance in candy bar technology since my youth.

So, how does chocolate-covered matzo taste? When I pressed a piece upon my wife last night, she described the experience as that of eating chocolate-coated paper. I think that’s slightly unfair. It’s a bit more refined than that. It makes you feel virtuous because you can tell yourself it’s a dessert treat, while simultaneously avoiding the guilt that comes with having, say, a chocolate-covered cherry, swimming in sweet liquid fondant, explode in your mouth.

In fact, I was satisfied enough with the experience that I decided to pay a visit to Streit’s on Tuesday afternoon—in their final hours of making Passover matzo, as it turned out. I was coming to offer my compliments and also hoping to learn something about the process of making matzo in general, and chocolate-covered matzo in particular.

One might assume that journeying to its factory would require boarding a plane or at least taking a bus to a distant industrial suburb. But Streit’s is on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side—where it’s been since Aron Streit opened his first matzo bakery in 1925. These days, it’s run by the family’s fifth generation, among them my guide, Aaron Gross, who handles the company’s sales and marketing.

Chocolate-covered matzo. Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Gross seemed less interested in discussing chocolate-coated matzo than in his family’s history and the different forms Streit’s matzo takes in addition to matzo sheets: farfel, which can be used to make stuffing; matzo meal, whose uses include breading chicken or making matzo balls; and cake meal, essentially matzo flour.

“We ship our matzo to a place that enrobes it for us and ships it back,” Mr. Gross said of the chocolate matzo, which comes in both dark and milk.

But first a word about the plain-matzo-making operation, which is still slightly magical. After the matzo leaves the oven, it’s placed in metal baskets and sent to a separate floor for packing. It’s part of Streit’s old-time process, which relies on baking and packaging equipment, much of it dating back to the 1930s.

Thus, there’s matzo traveling on conveyor belts all over the building, almost as if on wings. Mr. Gross explained that the journey serves a double purpose: It gets the matzo where it needs to go to be boxed (25,000 boxes in a 12-hour shift), and the trip, which takes approximately 20 minutes, allows it to cool in the meantime.

“In a modern factory, it would be shot into a cooling tunnel,” he observed. “We let it meander around. It’s like ‘Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’ but with matzo.”

Another nice touch is that Streit’s has a store on the premises that includes a window where customers can watch large sheets of matzo being cracked by hand. (By the way, where are candy fruit slices mentioned in the Bible, and when did they become a Passover tradition?) “We have people come to the store and we give them a brown paper bag, and they take it right home for their Seder,” Mr. Gross explained.

I invited him to compare his matzo to that of Manishewitz, one of his competitors. I’d meant it as a joke question, my suspicion being that all Passover matzo tastes pretty much the same. There are only so many liberties you can take with flour and water.

But Mr. Gross claimed there’s a big difference—actually three of them: New York City water; an antique sheeter that layers the dough multiple times, creating air pockets and making it less dense; and convection ovens from the ’30s that make Streit’s matzo browner than the competition’s.

I haven’t had time to perform a taste comparison. But apparently there’s no rush. According to Mr. Gross, matzo stays just as fresh and edible for two years in your kitchen cupboard as it did during the Exodus.

“If you keep it dry, it will last for a long time,” he said. “If you throw it in the oven, you can make it new again.”


Another New York Bookstore Reaches Final Chapter

April 8, 2014 10:19 p.m. ET

A view of Rizzoli from above Keith Bedford for The Wall Street Journal

An email arrived a couple of days ago from Rizzoli, the handsome, oak-shelved bookstore at 31 W. 57th St., announcing that it will close its doors this Friday. Rizzoli is optimistic about finding a replacement location. In the meantime, it encouraged me to take advantage of the 40% discount on the books, including the splendid coffee-table books, that are its hallmark.

About a week earlier, my brother sent me a couple of slides he found while cleaning out his house. The two events are related. The slides, taken in June 1984, show “Young, Gifted & Rich,” a book of profiles I wrote about entrepreneurs in their 20s such as Steve Jobs, sharing pride of place at Doubleday Book Shop among such business best sellers of the day as “In Search of Excellence” and “Iacocca.” The store, which closed in 1997, stood not far from Rizzoli, on the west side of Fifth Avenue at 56th Street.

My suspicion is that prior to taking the photo, my brother transported my book from the bowels of the store and placed it up front among the best sellers. But Doubleday had treated me well. It displayed copies of “Young, Gifted & Rich” at its checkout counter and invited me to autograph them—hence happily making them unreturnable.

A sign pointing to the bookstore’s imminent closure Keith Bedford for The Wall Street Journal

Such an experience would have been a thrill for any first-time author. But it had special meaning because it occurred at that particular bookstore. Doubleday was my local bookstore, so to speak. My father’s office was just up the block and one of my rituals, come late June, was to stock up on summer reading at Doubleday. Indeed, a visit to the store seemed the spark that set in motion the excitement of wherever the family happened to be going on vacation.

I observe that ritual—of stocking up on books prior to an extended trip—to this day, now with my own family. Unfortunately, Doubleday, as I said, is no longer around. And shortly Rizzoli won’t be either. (I’d like to share its optimism about relocation efforts: “…we very much plan—and expect to remain—a vital part of the city’s cultural fabric for many years to come,” its email read.)

I’ve since taken my business to Crawford Doyle, a small, lovely bookshop on Madison Avenue in the 80s, and the less jewel-like Barnes & Noble at 86th and Lex. I remember, not that many years ago, when B&N was considered the local ogre, threatening the independents. But from what I read, it’s not in the greatest financial shape these days either, being under relentless competitive pressure from the likes of Amazon. Perhaps in not too many years I’ll be recalling Barnes & Noble wistfully, too.

If you’ve lived in New York City for a certain time, Rizzoli’s closing has special resonance. That part of Manhattan used to be book country. Rizzoli had been at 712 Fifth Ave., within feet of Doubleday, before it moved to 57th Street in 1985. And there was a second Doubleday location at 53rd and Fifth. Most majestic of all, perhaps even a bit too much so for my taste, was Scribner’s, that Beaux Arts cathedral of book selling at 48th and Fifth (and now a Sephora). And across the street from that was Brentano’s.

Some of the remaining books on the shelves Keith Bedford for The Wall Street Journal

I’m not going to suggest that entering Abercrombie or Hollister, the sort of establishments that have replaced the bookstores of old on Fifth Avenue, isn’t a transporting experience—especially if you’re a tourist with euros to burn. And the spacious avenue hasn’t squandered all its charm.

Visiting Bergdorf’s, Tiffany or Cartier can be refined experiences, even if you can only afford to window shop. But there’s something special about books. They’re interactive in a way that clothes and jewelry aren’t (though I realize I should speak only for myself). I don’t just mean the reading experience, the relationship between author and reader. Visiting a bookstore fills you with a peculiar kind of anticipation. It’s not dissimilar from stepping through the doors of the Louvre or the Met.

There’s a nobility about bookstores. They embody what’s best about ourselves. You can almost hear the books’ authors calling for our attention from the shelves and tables, like the crackle and pop of organisms on a corral reef.

There’s no way Amazon, despite its algorithms, delivery drones and fulfillment centers, will ever replace that.

It was heartening to watch my children devouring books over spring break, and not on a Kindle, Nook or iPad, either. And I suspect the experience of reading, in whatever form, will never go extinct. But book browsing and buying is an experience distinct from reading. It triggers some synapse in the neurological neighborhood of avarice, but avarice of the most harmless and sociable kind. That’s why bookstores are irreplaceable and why the death of one seems the death of us all.


Becoming Shakespearean

April 7, 2014 10:27 p.m. ET

Rhona Silverbush teaches Shakespeare at her New York City home. Ramsay de Give for The Wall Street Journal

You can’t say you’ve lived—certainly in New York City—unless you’ve taken evening classes at a place such as the New School, the Alliance Francaise or the Institute of Culinary Education. Signing up for one serves as testimony to the typical New Yorker’s relentless ambition and quest for self-improvement. Or as a commentary on the tedium of their day jobs and the desire to change the score of their lives. Or maybe they’re just looking for romance, and a class on making sauces is far more civilized than prowling pick-up bars.

My own experience with continuing education—I was probably searching for all of the above at one point or another—has been checkered. I took a screenwriting class many years ago and am still waiting to break into the motion picture industry. I also studied Italian for several semesters, but my command of the language is no better than it was before. And I never dated anyone I met in any of my classes.

I don’t blame the results on my teachers, who seemed professional and enthusiastic. I think it was more an issue of my body clock. Come 6 p.m., my brain is telling me to party rather than hit the books.

That uninspired history made me reluctant to accept the Shakespeare Society’s invitation to audit actor and Shakespeare expert Rhona Silverbush’s introductory five-week course, where students learn to better understand the bard’s work and also to speak it with “confidence and pleasure.”

That last part is from the course description. And if there’s anything more aspirational and optimistic, more brimming with purpose and promise, than an adult-education course catalogue, I haven’t found it.

Yet there would be something to be said for becoming comfortable with Shakespeare. You wouldn’t feel obligated, even after graduating from Ms. Silverbush’s intermediate or advanced courses, to rent a hall and mount a one-man show. But it might tempt you to stay tuned, rather than switch to sports, throughout Masterpiece Theater the next time Kenneth Branagh appears in “Hamlet” or “King Lear.”

Come to think of it, wouldn’t night school be more fun if there was alcohol involved? Whatever might be lost in mental acuity or to slurred speech—admittedly, a liability if you were assigned the St. Crispin’s Day speech from “Henry V”—would be more than compensated for by the temporary sense of well-being, melting inhibitions and false confidence that is liquor’s calling card.

Absent those enhancements, Ms. Silverbush did as well as anyone could at making me and the four other students who showed up at her art-filled Flatiron District loft (three others were absent that evening) feel welcome and at ease. She was assisted by Juno, her labradoodle, who, after greeting each guest individually, settled down among us with a chew toy.

“I normally take her to run with the wolves,” Ms. Silverbush explained, apologizing for Juno’s sociability, and adding something about a cough. “The vet said I’m not allowed to take her out for two weeks.”

Earlier classes had addressed context and meaning in Shakespeare’s work. “You’d be amazed how many people don’t know what they’re saying,” she stated cheerfully.

No, I wouldn’t.

The session I attended was to explore, through meter and sounds, several Shakespeare monologues the students had taken home to study and brought back to speak. Ms. Silverbush is a human-rights lawyer, and she studied theater at Brandeis University and performed with regional theater and Shakespeare companies.

She’s also the co-author, with Sami Plotkin, of “Speak the Speech! Shakespeare’s Monologues Illuminated.” It’s an extremely useful and fun book, taking more than 150 of the poet’s speeches, annotating them, providing commentary and exploring how meter, sounds, word choice and even pauses reveal character and guide performance.

In her affectionate hands, Shakespeare becomes more accessible, less intimidating and even more awesome. “He’s tucked into every line,” she said.

“I miss acting,” she admitted. “But it’s even more exciting when people have ‘Ah-ha!’ moments.”

Alan Harris reads Polonius’s ‘Hamlet is mad’ speech in the course. Ramsay de Give for The Wall Street Journal

The class included Corrina Bain, a performance poet and social worker; Felicia Castaldo, a Hunter College student; David Murray, a Jersey City fireman; and Alan Harris, a software company sales manager. (However, Mr. Harris’s spirited reading of Polonius’s speech from “Hamlet”—the one where he shares with the king and queen his misgivings about Hamlet as a suitable mate for his daughter Ophelia—suggested he must also have acting in his blood.)

Ms. Silverbush said some take her course to get over their fear of Shakespeare; others to develop a richer appreciation for his work; and a few because they’re actors honing their craft, or just because they like to read out loud. “The next week they want to read something else,” the instructor explained.

She argued that through Shakespeare’s word choice (such as perpend; and gather and surmise), Polonius brands himself a long-winded, self-important prig.

“How did that feel for you?” Ms. Silverbush asked gently.

“Better, less nerves every time,” Mr. Harris said.

“I loved you getting upset at the white bosom. You’re finding all the things to play with.”

The teacher was referring to a line—”in her excellent white bosom”—in a love letter, recited by Polonius, from Hamlet to Ophelia. Although the bosom in question apparently referred not to the maiden’s alabaster breast, though perhaps to that, too, but, according to Ms. Silverbush’s book, to a practical pocket sewn into Elizabethan women’s clothing at the bosom to store handkerchiefs, letters, purses, etc.

Ms. Silverbush announced she’d be addressing Shakespeare’s imagery in the next class, and the clues it offered to character and state of mind. I was sort of sorry I’d miss it. But there’s always next semester.

Corrina Bain reads Constance’s ‘I am not mad’ speech. Ramsay de Give for The Wall Street Journal


Putting Science in a Swing

April 6, 2014 10:56 p.m. ET

Jordan Baltimore, founder New York Empire Baseball, works with 8-year-old Ari Litt, left, and Callen Murphy, 7.                        Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

It’s baseball season again and at our house that means—well, actually it doesn’t mean much. We’re Mets fans, so we’re ready to cut our losses, even though the season is only five games old. We’ll probably attend one of the team’s games sometime in July, but that’s more out of tradition and a sense of obligation than excitement over the Mets’ pennant prospects.

Another reason we may not be a baseball family is because I have daughters instead of sons. I realize that’s an unforgivably sexist thing to say. Except that I can count on the fingers of one hand the times they’ve wanted to play catch. And it certainly wasn’t because I tried to dissuade them. There are few other outdoor activities where you can readily summon the best, most heroic version of yourself than shagging flies.

Perhaps the final reason batting practice isn’t a priority in our household is that I always stunk at the game. Baseball isn’t solely to blame for my insecurities. But it played a formative role. I’m thinking in particular of the time at camp I played outfield—the refuge of the athletically ungifted—and misjudged a fly ball, allowing 17 runs to score, or whatever.

Trevor Mulvey, 7, gets in some practice.        Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

Those seminal failures came roaring back last week as I made my way to an Upper West Side public school gym where Jordan Baltimore, the founder of New York Empire Baseball, had offered to review my swing.

Undoubtedly, one reason why I’ve always had trouble making contact with a baseball is a jaundiced attitude toward coaches and coaching. Indeed, earlier that day Woody Allen’s observation in “Annie Hall” popped into my head: “Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym.”

“Luckily we’re not ‘Family Guy,’ ” Mr. Baltimore told me when I brought up the quotation. “I’m teaching linear and rotational mechanics as they apply to baseball.”

Mr. Baltimore is a Goldman Sachs alum who grew up in Brooklyn and attended Hunter High School. After he left Goldman about a decade ago he founded an equity research firm and also started coaching a travel team of 8-year-olds. Baseball now seems to consume most of his time.

Baseballs at New York Empire Baseball.       Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

So I’m asking myself: What kind of person goes from Goldman Sachs to coaching second-graders for a living? But within a few moments something became apparent to me (perhaps because of all the well-heeled parents milling about the school hallway waiting to pick up their kids). That was that the “Empire” in his organization’s name might just as well describe Mr. Baltimore’s flourishing business—started in 2009—as to New York state.

“One of the dads, a Goldman guy, said, ‘You’re the Moneyball of baseball training,” Mr. Baltimore recalled. “It’s the nicest compliment we ever could have received. We’re steeped in physics and analysis, not in convention and tradition.”

In addition to his stable of coaches, Empire Baseball boasts state-of-the-art equipment, such as “the world’s only indoor baseball simulator,” according to its website. Some 700 kids, from as young as 3 to as old as 17, pay up to $1,700 a season—approximately $3,500 a year to emulate Albert Pujols or Derek Jeter.

“The kids are here every night for batting practice,” explained Mr. Baltimore, as he pointed at Callen Murphy, a 7-year-old who the coach said was working on his “pick off moves and poise under pressure.”

Mr. Baltimore contends that many conventional coaching admonitions, such as “Keep your eye on the ball,” are meaningless. The reason a kid is whiffing the ball is more likely due to factors such as “incomplete rotation of the thorax.”

Callen Murphy winding up for a pitch.           Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

I’d come equipped with a few questions, based on personal experience, no matter how ancient. For example, how does one overcome what seems to me the perfectly logical fear of a projectile as hard as a rock traveling at your head at 70 or 80 miles per hour?

“We teach how to get out of the way of the pitch,” Mr. Baltimore explained as he stood up and turned his body against a hypothetical fastball to present the smallest possible target. “If you realize you’re going to get hit you protect the large areas, anywhere there’s exposed bone.”

“We’re very realistic,” he added. “It’s going to hurt. But you’ll be prepared. That sense of preparation minimizes some of the fear.”

A more debilitating fear, the coach observed, was fear of failure. I could relate to that, too. Part of the reason I took up singles tennis is because I wouldn’t be disappointing anybody else if I was awful.

“We teach, don’t go up thinking, ‘I hope I don’t strike out,’ ” Mr. Baltimore explained. “I want you to go out swinging. Nothing good can happen if you don’t swing. That’s my approach to life.”

The moment had come for my lesson. It didn’t help my self-esteem that Jack Casciato, the 6-year-old I replaced in the batter’s box, was pounding line drives without miss while cameras and computers whirred away, analyzing information such as the exit velocity and elevation of his hits. “He understands the kinesthetic sequence,” Mr. Baltimore explained proudly, though I had no idea what he was talking about.

“Process is more important than outcome,” Mr. Baltimore told me gently as I whiffed every pitch. The coach encouraged me to adopt Empire Baseball’s mantra: “Step, snap, spin, swing.”

But nothing seemed to help. Life can be harder not only when you’re bad at sports but also at following directions.


A Soft Spot for Belgium

April 2, 2014 9:23 p.m. ET

A 3-D body scanner at BelCham Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

An invitation to the opening night party at the chamber of commerce isn’t the sort of thing that has you scrambling to RSVP, lest you be left out in the cold. And with no disrespect intended, that perhaps goes double when the chamber in question is “BelCham,” the Belgian-American Chamber of Commerce—even if the invitation to “The Atelier,” its new business incubator, was marked “exclusive.”

For some reason, a trip to Belgium doesn’t arouse quite the same excitement as to Italy or France. I’ve been twice, I believe, but have few strong memories. From a trip many years ago with my parents, I seem to recall Brussels’ main square as picturesque and the city’s food excellent. I saw some of the rest of the country—Ghent, Bruges and Antwerp—on a subsequent visit. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much. But that’s not Belgium’s fault. I blame my younger brother, who has an obnoxiously macho attitude toward sightseeing. He believes in hitting several cities in a single day.

But I also have a soft spot for Belgium, and suspected that’s why I was being invited to the party: I’d written a column a couple of years back about a revue of Jacques Brel’s work at an Upper West Side cabaret. Along with chocolate, Mr. Brel is a leading Belgium export.

On that occasion, I met Herman Portocarero, the Belgian consul general in New York at the time; imbibed a complimentary Stella Artois or two (beer being another of Belgium’s leading exports); and was impressed by the attractiveness and bonhomie of the expatriate Belgian crowd.

I suppose Belgium doesn’t get a lot of recognition in the American press. So my one column probably qualified me as something of a liaison between our two nations, perhaps even a cultural ambassador.

Nonetheless, I resisted when Adriaan Hoogmartens, who works for the chamber, reached me on my cellphone—I’d apparently shared my business card with a colleague of his on Jacques Brel night—to invite me personally.

I wouldn’t commit, both because a future column on the Belgium-American chamber didn’t exactly spark the imagination, and also because I’ve discovered through depressing experience that even though I’m one of those sad souls who will happily show up at the opening of an envelope, there’s little enjoyment in socializing with perfect strangers. Especially if many of them are speaking Flemish or Walloon.

However, I started to backtrack when I spotted the gift bags at the Belgium-American chamber’s incubator. Each contained what appeared to be a substantial ballotin of Neuhaus chocolate. “We have unlimited chocolate,” Mr. Hoogmartens boasted.

I’d showed up the afternoon of the cocktail party because Mr. Hoogmartens buttonholed me yet again over the phone to remind me of that evening’s event. His call came while I was on my way to The Wall Street Journal’s offices—a mere hop and a skip, no jump required, up Sixth Avenue from BelCham.

A figurine from a 3-D print based on a body scan Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

I was further impressed when I spotted the bar with its taps of Leffe, Duvel and Stella Artois. Mr. Hoogmartens informed me that the bar, installed the previous day, wasn’t just for show or for the party, but a permanent attraction. “Access to the incubator is 24/7,” he explained. “You can have drinks and invite people here and have meetings over beer.”

He added that the beer was also available in bottles.

My interest in Belgian-American comity was further aroused when I spotted a little man statue in sandstone sitting on a table in one of the incubator’s offices. For reasons even I don’t understand, I have a fascination with statues of people in drab business garb; rather than, say, of Roman gladiators or Coldstream Guards.

Indeed, I have one on my mantelpiece of Mikhail Gorbachev, forehead birthmark included, acquired several years ago from a sidewalk vendor in front of the Met.

The office where I discovered the statue looked like some futuristic, padded cell, with lights and cameras, from Woody Allen’s “Sleeper.” Mr. Hoogmartens explained that opening night guests would be able to step into the space and, in only a few seconds, receive 3-D body scans courtesy of, a scanning technology company that is one of BelCham’s tenants.

The data could then be shared through Facebook—though why anyone would want to, unless with a paramour, I don’t know—or use it to order a 3-D likeness from a company such as Materialise, a 3-D printing company with headquarters in Leuven, Belgium, and also an office just down the incubator’s hall from

I persuaded Michel Brull, IIID’s COO, to break away from his work and scan my body. My family might disagree, but even more festive than a statue of Mr. Gorbachev, I think, would be one of me in sweater and khakis.

Mr. Hoogmartens also introduced me to Bieke Claes, BelCham’s managing director. Ms. Claes observed that it was only fitting that Belgium establish a beachhead in Midtown. “The Belgians were the first settlers in New York,” she asserted.

I was under the impression it was the Dutch. “That’s a big mistake,” Ms. Claes said. “In Battery Park, it was the Walloons.”

Then why, I persisted, do we associate the Dutch rather than the Belgians with Manhattan? That’s been a perennial problem for her country, Ms. Claes acknowledged, and one she hopes the Belgium-American chamber’s incubator will help rectify. “The Dutch are more outspoken,” she explained. “The Belgians are a little bit shy.”


Hitting the Apogee

April 1, 2014 8:47 p.m. ET
April 1 marks my fourth anniversary at The Wall Street Journal. My first column, about MetroCard swiping technique, didn’t appear until April 26, 2010, the day the Greater New York section hit newsstands. But I consider April 1, when I reported to work, picked up my employee ID and was assigned a desk, the more significant milestone.

I was admittedly apprehensive of being capable of five columns a week. (Happily, that was reduced to a balmy four columns a year later.) But more questionable was my ability to fit into a corporate culture after spending most of my adult life as a freelancer. The last time I had a respectable job was back in the late ’70s, at the New York City Department of Correction—where, after a couple of years and the firing of most of my superiors, I achieved the esteemed title of acting director of public affairs.

Rob Shepperson

Needless to say, the cultures at a national newspaper and at a municipal jail system bear scant resemblance, even though I did edit the Department of Correction’s in-house newspaper, a publication called “The Pen.”

My new colleagues at the Journal—I was temporarily assigned a seat among the national news desk editors—couldn’t have been friendlier. And I marveled, come approximately 5 p.m., at their grace under pressure; at the way they conferred over the phone with far-flung reporters and helped ready their stories for publication.

But working normal hours—in the newspaper business that’s approximately 10 or 11 a.m. to 7 or 8 p.m., when the first edition goes to bed—proved onerous because I had an early-afternoon deadline. To have produced a reasonably coherent column on time would have required reporting to the office around daybreak.

Also, after years of working alone, it was a pleasure being surrounded by intelligent people with good senses of humor. Unfortunately, their companionability cut into my productivity. I much preferred socializing to working.

So, after several weeks of missed deadlines, I realized that the only logical strategy was to start writing the column from home as soon as I awoke. I might be able to make my deadline and still conceivably have time in the afternoon to report future columns.

My return to the apartment undoubtedly proved a rude shock to my wife, who works from home and assumed that I was finally out of the house after several decades underfoot. I try to be as unobtrusive as possible—after gathering the newspapers at the front door and securing a cup of coffee and glass of orange juice—by returning to the bedroom, closing the door behind me, and pounding out a first draft.

I’m sometimes asked what has been my favorite story or the most fun to report. That’s hard to say as I approach the 800-column mark. And the answer would probably be unsatisfying to anyone except a writer. I’m rarely happier or more at peace, at work or in life, than after having produced a serviceable first draft (some mornings, there’s even time to fit in a run) and knowing that the pleasure of fine-tuning a second draft lies ahead.

I once read a line from the novelist Martin Amis that I’ve never been able to locate again but that resonated with me. He said, far more eloquently than I ever could, that the most thrilling part of a writer’s day occurs when he’s sitting stumped in front of his computer and suddenly an unfamiliar thought, or turn of phrase, materializes out of the ether, surprising and amusing him as much as he eventually hopes it will his readers. He’d be a fool and a scoundrel to take credit for it, but somebody has to.

That’s as good an explanation as any I’ve heard for why one pursues a writing career. I like to compare it to having the run of a playground—and climbing to the highest rung of a jungle gym, teetering at the top of a seesaw, or hitting the apogee of a swing—especially when you reach an age when entering a playground, particularly unescorted by a child, would be frowned upon.

It also facilitates the writing process when your subject is New York City, with its inexhaustible energy and stories around every corner. A few weeks before I joined the Journal, my wife spotted at a stationery store a tiny Moleskine notebook, small enough to fit unobtrusively in a shirt pocket, and suggested I buy it to warehouse ideas for future columns.

I still own the notebook, but retired it after a week or two, most of the pages left blank. It turned out I needn’t have worried about coming up with story ideas; the city would take care of that.

Which reminds me: There’s a playground on the west side of Central Park in the 60s that I used to visit as a small child. I recall little about it, except that it had a good sandbox. The last time I passed by, the playground was closed for renovations; it was being updated to 21st-century standards—undoubtedly with fun, safety and lawsuits in mind. I’ll have to circle back to see whether it constitutes an improvement or if they’re missing the point completely.


Beverly and Dereck Joubert Are Out of Africa

March 31, 2014 10:18 p.m. ET

The wildlife filmmakers and conservationists Beverly and Dereck Joubert at their event at ABC Carpet Home in Manhattan.          Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal

Comparing lions to elephants is like comparing apples to oranges. At least, that’s the impression I got from Emmy Award-winning wildlife filmmakers and conservationists Beverly and Dereck Joubert. I cornered them just before they gave a talk last week at ABC Carpet & Home on Broadway about elephant poaching in Africa and what can be done to stop it.

“I’m a lion person,” Mr. Joubert admitted. “But I have to say I’ve spent 30 years around elephants.”

“Lions are fantastic to be with,” he went on. “You’re watching a killing machine.”

Hanging out with elephants, on the other hand, sounds more like a family gathering at Thanksgiving or Passover—if everybody knew how to get along. “The time we spend around elephants is almost like a meditation,” Mr. Joubert said. “They embody all the things we find noble about ourselves and none of the things we hate about our species.

The crowd at their event at ABC Carpet Home in Manhattan. Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal

“For example, they have language, compassion, altruism. They’re able to solve problems, to think in past, present and future—all these things we once thought were uniquely human traits. The one thing elephants don’t have that we have is the enjoyment of killing for pleasure.”

“It’s so profound to be in direct connection with an elephant,” Ms. Joubert added. “You want to assist them and be their voice. We’ve had elephants in front of us and they could squash us like a bug. They were calm and respectful because we were calm and respectful back to them.”

Unfortunately, sociable elephants are becoming the exception to the rule. The average African elephant is skittish, if not downright hostile, around humans because of poaching, habitat destruction and big-game hunting. That’s another symptom of their intelligence. In 1970, there were 1.3 million elephants in Africa. That number has dwindled to 350,000.

“We’ve lost 95% of the elephant population in our lifetimes,” Mr. Joubert said. “It’s wholesale slaughter.”

Six years ago, the Jouberts decided to try to do something about it by taking over the 320,000-acre Selinda Reserve in northern Botswana and turning it into a tented safari camp where elephants have nothing to fear. (Another reason for Botswana’s success in maintaining its herds while they’re being decimated across much of the rest of Africa, according to Mr. Joubert, is that since the ’90s the Botswanan military has had a rather unequivocal shoot-to-kill policy regarding poachers.)

One of the couple’s photos of elephants              Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal

“Six years later, we have some of the most relaxed elephants in Africa,” Mr. Joubert boasted.

These days, the filmmakers can drive a jeep between a mother and her calf without negative repercussions. Usually. They can count on the fingers of one hand the number of bad experiences they’ve had with elephants—some of which they detailed to the capacity crowd that came to hear their elephant stories and watch intimate footage of the species as the animals went about doing things such as saving a calf from drowning in mud and mourning their dead.

“It’s usually our fault being in the wrong place at the wrong time—coming across elephants after poachers have been there,” Mr. Joubert said.

For example, there was the time they were charged by an elephant who had been wounded by poachers and associated the sound of their jeep with danger. Another time, they unknowingly camped for the night where an elephant had just given birth. “This baby elephant got up and imprinted on us,” Mr. Joubert remembered.

Its mother wasn’t pleased. “She smashed the hell out of us. She hit us three times on the front, smashed the windshield, bent the chassis. We were still in our sleeping bags.”

They survived by flashing a spotlight in her eyes—elephants apparently don’t like bright lights—and after she moved away, leading her calf back to her.

As riveting as their stories (the Jouberts also showed gruesome footage of a pride of lions attacking a lone elephant; the elephant survived), the animals serve a larger purpose: lions, elephants and rhinos are majestic creatures that capture the imagination and make the case for the Jouberts’ mission: to preserve Africa’s wilderness, or what’s left of it.

“There are certain species that are iconic and people will pay attention to,” Ms. Joubert explained. “If we can’t protect them, we’re going to lose vast tracts of wilderness.”

Some species are already at a tipping point. “Rhinos in particular,” Mr. Joubert reported. “One is being shot at a rate of once every eight hours. They’ve just reached the point now that we’re losing more rhinos than are breeding. We’re in deficit this year.”

“Next year, we’re going to be moving 100 rhinos from South Africa to Botswana,” Ms. Joubert added. “We have to raise a lot of funds to make this happen.”

She said they’re all privately owned rhinos. “People have gotten to the point they’re fearful for their own lives and the rhinos’ lives,” she said.

That’s because of poachers, of course. And the reason poachers are so busy is because there’s a vast market for ivory, especially in China. Regarding the Chinese, the Jouberts struck a surprisingly optimistic note. They said that most Chinese are misinformed about the origins of the ivory they covet for everything from status symbol to aphrodisiac.

Most Chinese don’t know ivory comes from dead elephants, they said. “Seventy percent of people in China believe tusks fall out and grow back,” Ms. Joubert told the crowd.

“We’re talking about setting up a Chinese-language film company,” Mr. Joubert added. “So we can talk directly to that market that does the most damage.”

There may be something to be said for one-party rule. “In a country like the U.S., it’s hard to get anything done,” Mr. Joubert said. In China, “If we can get to the leadership and convince them, they can outlaw ivory in 24 hours.

“We’re not going to do it by demonizing the Chinese. They need to be our partners.”