Post-Chase, a Qualified Sense of Relief

What does it say that we felt so vulnerable about two convicts on the loose?

FBI agents conducting a search for convicted murderer David Sweat on Sunday near Duane, N.Y.ENLARGE
FBI agents conducting a search for convicted murderer David Sweat on Sunday near Duane, N.Y. PHOTO: SCOTT OLSON/GETTY IMAGES

What does it say about human nature—my human nature, in particular—that I’m relieved that David Sweat, one of the Clinton Correctional escapees, was shot, while Richard Matt, the other one, was killed?

Not that I wish death on anyone, except in self-defense when they’re coming at me with a knife or a gun.

But one could conceivably construe this to be a case of self-defense in the loosest, most imaginative sense of the term.

Because who among us, for at least a fleeting second or two, whether urbanite or rural resident, New Yorker, Californian, or anywhere in between, didn’t watch the news fearing those two desperados would show up on our doorstep and kill us for our weapons (those of us who have weapons) cold cuts, or what have you.

The chances of that happening, obviously, were slim. But in the heat of the manhunt it felt as if they could have showed up anywhere from Sitka, Alaska, to the Upper East Side. If they were slick enough to cajole the prison’s staff into supplying them with power tools, they would know how to hail a cab or download the Uber app on a purloined cellphone.

Self-involvement, not to mention hubris and self-pity, is the American way. All you need to do is look at the arc of your own life to realize that having a couple of sociopaths on the run show up in your apartment lobby has a sort of perverse logic.


That’s got to be at least part of the reason the story—with everything else going on in the world—had legs, becoming this month’s missing Malaysian airliner on CNN.

And while I doubt anybody was rooting for them, except for their fellow inmates, you had to admire their ability to evade capture for so long. In some warped way it seemed a small, if transient, victory for the individual over the system.

I can’t say I was paying especially close attention, though.

While the story about Mr. Matt’s romance with prison seamstressJoyce Mitchell and his alleged endowments was mildly interesting—though I was more impressed with his portraits of Julia Roberts andAngelina Jolie—what kept me refreshing my news apps was the fear that, with any luck—and out of the approximately 123 million households in the U.S.—he’d show up at mine.

Of course, some of us had more reason to fear than others—those closest to the upstate prison where they made their break and the nearby vacation cabins where they were said to be hiding out, most of all.

But I would come next.

While my home is well over 200 miles from the scene of the escape, we’re at the end of a dirt road, and the only house on it.

I’m not a big gun-rights advocate and don’t own one. But had the murderers somehow managed to hitch a ride south on the Northway, or maybe score a couple of seats, unrecognized, on an Adirondack Trailways bus, and showed up on my front step—Jehovah’s Witnesses do all the time—I’d have quickly realized that I’m the entire police department.

If it looked as if the tide was turning subtly toward criminal background checks in the wake of the church killings in Charleston, I suspect the story of Messrs. Matt and Sweat served to reverse the course of public opinion, and then some, toward the virtues of sleeping with a Beretta under your pillow and having a shotgun handy lest anyone misinterpret the meaning of your “No Trespassing” signs.

Of course, the chance of me hitting a target is remote at best, even though I achieved the distinction of Marksman First Class at summer camp and have the parchment and shoulder patch to prove it.

For years, I’ve been trying to get my children to read “In Cold Blood,” perhaps for some of the same reasons the recent manhunt had us riveted. You could also argue, as my wife does, that it’s further proof, lest any were needed, that I’m a bad parent.

The book’s potency came from Truman Capote’s prose poetry and the fact that it was a true story. I remember reading it when it came out and being both enthralled and terrified, though I don’t know how much of that was because it was great literature and how much because it wasn’t hard to imagine myself in the shoes of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kan. They lived blameless lives out in the middle of nowhere, and yet were marked for death, almost at random, by a couple of losers.

Come to think of it, perhaps my wife was right. It’s not for children.

A Musical Career With No Coda

Ursula Oppens, a celebrated pianist, at 71 still tries to practice four or five hours a day

Ursula Oppens in her Upper West Side apartment, where she tries to practice piano several hours a day. ENLARGE
Ursula Oppens in her Upper West Side apartment, where she tries to practice piano several hours a day. PHOTO: ANDREW HINDERAKER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

When Ursula Oppens heard that I’d met her father, Kurt Oppens, in the 1960s, she asked innocently whether he’d come to my house to tune my piano. Ms. Oppens is one of our most vital pianists, and a four-time Grammy nominee. Her program at Brooklyn’s Bargemusic on Friday night ranged from contemporary music written for her byFrederic Rzewski and John Corigliano to Schubert’s Four Impromptus, Op. 90, and sonatas by Beethoven and Scriabin.

Mr. Oppens was a piano tuner by trade.

But that wasn’t the context in which I met him, probably when I was in my mid- to late-teens. It was at a friend’s family’s annual Christmas party—an often stuffy Park Avenue affair where you never quite felt you belonged—and I happened to find myself sitting beside him on a couch in the living room.

I’ll never forget our conversation, though I have no recollection what the conversation was about. Music perhaps—he wasn’t just a piano tuner, as it turns out, but a brilliant musicologist who for four decades wrote annotations for the works performed at the Aspen Music Festival—but more likely life in general.

He seemed completely open and interested in the thoughts of a teenager whose insights probably weren’t all that interesting. Again, the setting might have had something to do with it. He shone like a welcoming harbor in a room filled with bluebloods and CEOs who would decide whether you were worthy after they heard where you went to school and had determined your relationship to our host.

There was an utter lack of pretense about Mr. Oppens, an infectious sense of wonder that left you feeling that age, whether young or old, was no impediment to discovery (born in Hamburg in 1910, he was probably younger than I am now.) More importantly, he made you feel exhilarated about the exchange of ideas for their own sake.

His daughter believes the fact that he was a refugee from the Third Reich—he and Ms. Oppens’s mother, Edith, also a musicologist, fled the Nazis, arriving in the U.S. in 1938—had something to do with his life-affirming spirit.

“His most important philosophical point of view,” said the pianist, who has both her parents diplomas hanging in her Upper West Side music room, “was to think how fortunate he was to make a new life. His father died in a camp.”

She generously gave me a book of her father’s Aspen Music Festival notes and essays, “Kurt Oppens on Music,” published in 2009. Opening to the page about Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, the “Pastoral,” he displays the breadth of his knowledge, offering examples of pastorale elements in music, from the Middle Ages to the shepherd’s pipes in “Tannhäuser” and Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.” He goes on to describe the “Pastoral” as “a ‘monument’ (how could it be otherwise) in its very denial of monumentality.”

Ursula Oppens hold a photograph of her father, Kurt, a musicologist who was a piano tuner by trade.ENLARGE
Ursula Oppens hold a photograph of her father, Kurt, a musicologist who was a piano tuner by trade. PHOTO: ANDREW HINDERAKER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Despite her musical provenance, Ms. Oppens, who grew up on the West Side and attended the Brearley School and Radcliffe College, said her parents didn’t push her in that direction.

“They were very strong about making sure I had other options,” she recalled. “I wasn’t sure about being a pianist until some years after college.”

She said she contemplated going to law school.

Nonetheless, she could read music before she could read words. “When I was 3½, I had my tonsils removed,” she said. “You stayed in bed for a really long time. To amuse me, my mother had me learn to read and sing. You would think that’s odd if you’re recovering from a throat operation.”

Ms. Oppens sat down at her piano and started to play. At 71, she still tries to practice four or five hours every day. “Sometimes I can do more. It’s something I’ve done so long it’s part of what keeps me in balance.”

The neighbors don’t complain (she sound-proofed her music room) but they used to when she lived in another West Side apartment withJulius Hemphill, a jazz composer and saxophonist who died in 1995. Her current partner is the American classical pianist Jerome Lowenthal.

“They said when I interrupt a phrase in the middle they can’t stand it,” she remembered. “That was a very accurate complaint.”

We moved into the living room of the simply furnished apartment, with its view of Columbia’s Low Memorial Library—an unframed, yellowing front page from the New York Times of Nov. 5, 2008, bearing the headline “OBAMA” is taped to the wall in her foyer.

There, Ms. Oppens sat down at her second piano and played the first of Schubert’s Four Impromptus that she planned to perform at Bargemusic Friday night.

“I’m as excited about things as I always was,” she said when she paused; she’s a champion of American composers, many of whom she’s commissioned works from. “I’m still learning music, and I hope I never stop.”

Given her background, I was curious whether she knew how to tune a piano. She didn’t.

“I would call Daddy,” she said.

Dealing a Crushing Blow to Poachers With Beverly and Dereck Joubert

The wildlife conservationists discuss their efforts to save Africa’s rhino population

Officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service destroy confiscated ivory items in New York’s Times Square on Friday.ENLARGE
Officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service destroy confiscated ivory items in New York’s Times Square on Friday. PHOTO: ANDREW BURTON/GETTY IMAGES

In Times Square, with government officials, guests and tourists looking on, an industrial rock crusher pulverized a ton of confiscated ivory.

Ivory crushes, what the rallies like the one last week are called, are meant to raise the public’s awareness about the illegal ivory trade—to get people to stop buying ivory and to end the killing of the tens of thousands of elephants and rhinos that are being driven toward extinction.

Among those watching Friday were Beverly and Dereck Joubert, filmmakers and wildlife conservationists who have a special distinction: In late April, from Botswana, they spearheaded the largest rhino airlift to date.

The couple flew the first 10 of 100 rhinos from South Africa, where poaching is soaring, to neighboring Botswana, where elephants—and now rhinos—are as safe as anywhere in Africa.

And for one simple reason: “The policy in Botswana is shoot to kill,” Mr. Joubert explained, referring to the poachers, when we met in Midtown the afternoon before the rally. “They take this very seriously, from the president and the minister of the environment, wildlife and tourism on down.”

Wildlife photographers and conservationists Beverly and Dereck Joubert in Manhattan's Bryant Park on June 18.ENLARGE
Wildlife photographers and conservationists Beverly and Dereck Joubert in Manhattan’s Bryant Park on June 18. PHOTO: JULIE PLATNER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Because of that policy, according to Mr. Joubert, Botswana holds a third of all of Africa’s elephants. An average of 34,000 elephants are killed every year to support the ivory trade, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told the crowd at the rally.

According to the Jouberts, a rhino is killed every 7.5 hours. Today, there are only an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 white rhinos and 20,000 black rhinos left in Africa.

For that reason, the Jouberts and the Botswanan government took no chances after the rhinos arrived in Maun, the town that serves as the gateway for the safari trade in the Okavango Delta. The animals flew in specially designed crates aboard the largest plane ever to land at Maun’s airport.

“Once they were off-loaded we had to cart them in 10 trucks and drive about six hours,” Mr. Joubert recalled. “That’s where we knew we were going to be vulnerable. The extra security of the military was key.”

The Botswanan military provided a 60-member security detail, “a highly trained, dedicated team of soldiers,” Mr. Joubert explained. “We had a helicopter to scout ahead in case there were any ambushes.”

There were also regular stops so the veterinarians, who were part of the entourage, could examine the animals for stress. All were in good condition.

I expressed surprise such precautions were necessary, given Botswana’s zero-tolerance policy.

“The value of these animals is so high,” Mr. Joubert explained. “Even though there were only 10, their value is $5 [million] to $8 million just in the horn value.” Those who covet the horn, particularly in Asia, believe it can cure everything from cancer to a flagging libido.

The Jouberts recently visited China, where they were interviewed by celebrity TV talk show host Yang Lan about the mass destruction of wildlife associated with the importation of ivory. The segment attracted 200 million viewers and Ms. Lan’s social media forum on the subject drew 195 million followers.

The conservationists sound optimistic that China will ban ivory imports, once more of the public understands the impact on the environment. Mr. Joubert cited research he said showed that the vast majority of the Chinese people have no idea ivory comes from dead animals.

“They’ve heard elephants grow six sets of teeth,” Ms. Joubert added, and many believe elephant tusks and rhino horns also grow back. “We were saying, you have to know it’s blood ivory. Animals are being killed for you.”

However, China isn’t the only culprit. The illegal ivory trade also has been robust in the U.S. The ivory crush was held only blocks from the Diamond District, where three years ago the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seized $2 million worth of ivory.

A rhino released in Botswana by Rhinos Without Borders.ENLARGE
A rhino released in Botswana by Rhinos Without Borders. PHOTO: BEVERLY JOUBERT

The 10 rhinos rescued from South Africa all have radio-tracking devices and microchips and were taken to the same, undisclosed location. “We’re trying to create a breeding nucleus,” Mr. Joubert explained. “It takes 10.”

They arrived at their destination around dusk.

“One of them at a time stepped,” out of their crates, the conservationist continued. “Some charged off confused. Others started eating immediately.”

“As each crate opened we could feel the exhilaration,” Ms. Joubert recalled. “It was quite emotional.”

The couple spent the night sleeping on the ground, surrounded by the rhinos. “In the pitch black, we would hear the rhinos moving all around us,” Ms. Joubert reported. “To hear the snorting and wheezing and communicating was amazing for us.”

Fundraising for the project is ongoing at; the cost of relocating each rhino is about $45,000. Based on the success of the inaugural airlift, the Jouberts have expanded their mission.

“We will get to the hundred by the end of next year,” Mr. Joubert said. “Our new target is 250.”

Invasion of the Water Chestnuts

The invasive plant is slowly spreading throughout New York state’s waterways, lakes and ponds

Ralph Gardner Jr., left, and Nate Davis of Columbia Land Conservancy on Meizinger Lake.ENLARGE
Ralph Gardner Jr., left, and Nate Davis of Columbia Land Conservancy on Meizinger Lake. PHOTO: RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

As the temperature soars with the humidity not far behind, thoughts tend toward fleeing the city. I like to think of it as a health issue, sort of like giving up soft drinks, though I refuse to do so.

That’s why one morning last week found me looking for an excuse to work outdoors and finding it on Meizinger Lake in upstate Columbia County. I was performing community service of sorts—plucking water chestnuts from the lake.

These weren’t the crunchy kind you find in Chinese stir fry or wrapped in bacon. They belonged to the genus Trapa natans, a nasty invasive native to Europe, Asia and Africa. The plant’s so-called fruit is a thorned nut that looks straight from science fiction and can pierce the skin, even when you’re wearing thick, protective gloves. And it’s slowly spreading throughout New York state, taking over waterways, lakes and ponds.

I was there at the invitation of the Columbia Land Conservancy, which runs the property, part of the 433-acre Hand Hollow Conservation Area. And I was accompanied by Bruce Shenker, an old friend whose sense of public spirit is far more robust than mine—and apparently than lots of other people.

The seeds of the invasive water chestnut have sharp spines. ENLARGE
The seeds of the invasive water chestnut have sharp spines. PHOTO: RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“They used to get 10 volunteers,” Mr. Shenker reported as we headed through the woods down to the lake that, despite its struggles with water chestnuts, remains a beautiful and inviting body filled with largemouth bass and pickerel. “This year, I’m the only volunteer.”

Now there were two of us. Or three—if you count Nate Davis, the conservancy’s public lands and volunteer manager.

Mr. Davis’s attitude toward the poor turnout seemed more philosophical and resigned than disappointed. “When people come up here on the weekend, they’ve got stuff to do on their property,” he explained. “When there’s bugs or wind or rain, it scares people away, too.”

Under normal conditions, I’d be one of those slackers. If I’m going to remove weeds from a pond, it will probably be my own. Indeed, I used to get perverse satisfaction from pulling cattails up by the roots—at least until the day I felt something give in my hand and not too long afterward found myself undergoing surgery.

I subsequently enlisted grass carp to do the chore. And while their overall performance, at least those that weren’t picked off by predators, was underwhelming, they do seem to love cattails and I haven’t seen a plant in years.

I could have added another reason for my reluctance to lend a hand. As we made our way across the lake in a canoe and a kayak—Mr. Davis and I were in the canoe, Mr. Shenker in the kayak—to a bay blanketed by water chestnuts, it was obvious that it would take more than three of us to make a dent in the population.

“Each plant produces 12 seeds annually,” Mr. Davis explained as we got to work. “Those seeds remain viable in the muck for 20 years. Do the math. If you don’t do anything about it, it multiplies and multiplies.”

I didn’t need to do the math. Or rather, I’d already done the math.

Volunteer Bruce Shenker removes invasive water chestnuts from Meizinger Lake in  New Lebanon, N.Y. ENLARGE
Volunteer Bruce Shenker removes invasive water chestnuts from Meizinger Lake in New Lebanon, N.Y. PHOTO: RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Nonetheless, there was a peculiar Zen to pulling up the weeds by their long roots, the only sound around the lake that of birdsong. Mr. Davis employed a sort of swirling technique, wrapping the plant around his gloved hand, while I preferred a more straightforward motion. We’d lost Mr. Shenker; he hadn’t capsized but vanished into a small cove where he’d worked before and was intent on removing every last invasive.

When we removed a weed, we deposited it into a contractor-strength trash bag between our legs. And when, after an hour or so, we got tired and bored and the bags and the rest of the canoe were filled with weeds, we paid a visit to a beaver dam, though there were no beavers to be seen.

On the way back to shore, Mr. Davis confided that the lake’s water chestnuts would be treated with a topical solution that shuts down photosynthesis. It’s the second year in a row. “By doing nothing it’s irresponsible of us,” he said. “We do the hand pulling. But we can’t get enough people. So we’re taking the next step.”

Mr. Shenker wondered how well last year’s treatment worked.

“It’s hard to tell,” Mr. Davis confessed. “We’re still dealing with years and years of viable seeds,” that can grow even if the current crop of plants is destroyed.

Part of the haul of water chestnuts after a 90-minute removal session on Meizinger Lake.ENLARGE
Part of the haul of water chestnuts after a 90-minute removal session on Meizinger Lake. PHOTO: RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“It’s crazy it’s so persistent,” said Mr. Shenker—an observation that could have been made as easily without leaving our respective homes—but who nonetheless seemed unbowed and promised to volunteer again shortly.

Mr. Davis said the best solution was a specially equipped water chestnut-busting boat. “There’s machines that have conveyor belts on them,” he explained. “They suck the water chestnut out.”

Unfortunately, one boat costs $20,000 for a minimum of three days.

I’m more than ready to start passing the hat, and the buck.

Back to School With Marky Ramone

Talking speakers, fashion and ‘Rock ’n’ Roll High School’ with the Ramones drummer

Ralph Gardner Jr. talks with drummer Marky Ramone, whose book, ‘Punk Rock Blitzkrieg: My Life as a Ramone,’ was released in January. ENLARGE
Ralph Gardner Jr. talks with drummer Marky Ramone, whose book, ‘Punk Rock Blitzkrieg: My Life as a Ramone,’ was released in January. PHOTO: MARK ABRAMSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

It would seem that Marky Ramone and I had little in common. When the drummer for the punk rock band the Ramones, whom I met last week, and his bandmates were tearing up CBGB, I was still listening to James Taylor singing about that sugar-frosted turnpike between Stockbridge and Boston. He favors jeans and T-shirts, while my attire tends to khakis and Brooks Brothers button-downs. He has tattoos, I have none.

But it turned out that we did share a couple of passions. The first was a love of the Ramones music and in particular their star turn in the 1979 movie “Rock ’n’ Roll High School.” Indeed, I told Mr. Ramone—born Marc Steven Bell 62 years ago—that one of my proudest moments as a father came when I turned my kids onto the band.

“It definitely bridges the generation gap,” Mr. Ramone agreed when we sat down in a sound room at Brand Synergy Group, an entertainment consulting company off Union Square.

Our second area of common interest was vinyl. I confided that, much to my wife’s consternation, I was still spinning records on my portable KLH stereo, circa 1968.

Of the two, I was more eager to discuss “Rock ’n’ Roll High School,” whose greatness is self-evident yet somehow eludes description. It captures the essence of teenage rebellion in the way “Animal House” does college anarchy.

I was hoping Mr. Ramone could shed light on its absurdist majesty.

“Four aliens that just landed,” he said, describing the scene when the band arrives at Vince Lombardi High School—led by the elongated Joey Ramone—the embodiment of every principal’s worst nightmare. But especially that of the new head of school, Miss Evelyn Togar, more prison-camp commandant than learning specialist, and played by the inestimable Mary Woronov.

Mr. Ramone inside the famous Trash and Vaudeville store on St. Marks Place.ENLARGE
Mr. Ramone inside the famous Trash and Vaudeville store on St. Marks Place. PHOTO:MARK ABRAMSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Mr. Ramone fondly recalled the film’s finale, when the school goes up in flames.

“That’s where P.J. Soles,” who plays the troublemaking Riff Randell, “says, ‘Hit it Marky’ and I start the drumbeat to ‘Rock ’n’ roll High School.’ With the fire you had to get the take the first time.”

Mr. Ramone grew up in Brooklyn and attended Erasmus Hall High School. He returned there while doing research for his memoir “Punk Rock Blitzkrieg: My Life as a Ramone,” which was published in January. He was trying to track down his report card.

The place had changed a lot since his day. “I had to go through three different metal detectors,” he recalled. “And I didn’t get the report card.”

He was more successful at Ditmas Junior High School. “Even a junior high school had metal detectors,” he complained. “At least I got my report card. But they didn’t want to use it in the book for some reason.”

However, assuming I was a fellow student of sound, Mr. Ramone seemed even more eager to discuss the Klipsch speakers in the sound room, on which we listened to the Ramones anthem “I Wanna Be Sedated.”

“They bring out the highs and the lows,” he boasted. “Hear the cymbals crash? The base drum sounds really good. And the mids are great for the vocals. I could take the grill off and show you.”

I frankly had no idea what he was talking about. But I didn’t want to burst his bubble, Mr. Ramone apparently having decided we were kindred spirits—I like to think we were, too—even if our dress code differed markedly.

Did he recall his first record player, I wondered, trying to deflect attention from my acoustical ignorance?

“From Lafayette Electronics,” he remembered. “Behind Erasmus. A gift from my parents: ‘Marky, please finish high school.’”

“Then I got the AR-3a,” he went on. “And the AR amplifier and turntable.”

I noticed his distressed jeans, with gaping holes at the knees. They were something of a Ramones trademark and perhaps responsible for a questionable fashion trend that continues to this day.

“Probably because of no money,” Mr. Ramone said of their genesis. “We just kept wearing them.”

He added: “These aren’t my original ripped jeans, obviously. They’re in the Hall of Fame.”

He was referring, of course, to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum where the Ramones were inducted in 2002. All four of the band’s original members—Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy—are dead. Marky replaced Tommy in 1978.

The drummer told me his jeans once stood between him and ’70s night life nirvana when he was denied admission to Studio 54.

“I went there just to see,” he remembered. “They said, ‘You can’t come in because of the ripped jeans.’ OK Fine. We had Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs.”

While we never made it to the site of CBGB on a brief driving and walking tour, we got as far as Trash and Vaudeville, a St. Mark’s Place clothing store the Ramones patronized.

“What did you think of the Bose?” Mr. Ramone wanted to know in the SUV on the way there. He was referring to the 901 series speakers, whose direct/reflecting technology was said to reproduce the power of a live performance.

I had no opinion on the subject, so I just smiled amiably. Mr. Ramone didn’t seem to notice. “It really interfered with the neighbors,” he said. “I had to get rid of them.”

Brian Williams and the Celebrity-Anchor Cult

The trouble started when TV news people became performers

If Brian Williams wants to blame somebody for his current woes—my understanding is that his apology tour isn’t going all that well—I’d start with a decision made back in 1980 to replace Walter Cronkitewith Dan Rather as anchor of the CBS Evening News.

Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor of ‘NBC Nightly News,’ in 2010.ENLARGE
Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor of ‘NBC Nightly News,’ in 2010. PHOTO:MATT SAYLES/ASSOCIATED PRESS

He was chosen over Roger Mudd. But my money had always been onBob Schieffer. Mr. Schieffer seemed the natural successor to Mr. Cronkite, whose authority came from his unglamorous command of the facts rather than his good looks.

While other factors may have been involved in the decision—for example, the fear that Mr. Rather would relocate to ABC News—CBS seemed as seduced by Mr. Rather’s charisma as by his reporting skills.

It seemed the moment when network news decided it was as much an entertainment medium as an information-gathering medium.

Walter Cronkite anchoring 'The CBS Evening News' in 1969.ENLARGE
Walter Cronkite anchoring ‘The CBS Evening News’ in 1969. PHOTO: CBS PHOTO ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Not that Mr. Rather wasn’t a capable and tenacious newsman or that Mr. Cronkite didn’t know how to command an audience. Few were better at it. But again, Mr. Cronkite’s authority came from the belief on the part of millions of nightly viewers that his years of experience—from flying on bombing raids over Germany during World War II as a wire-service reporter, to covering JFK’s assassination and the Vietnam War—had imbued him with judgment and given him the moral authority to hang out in our living rooms.

When he signed off nightly with “And that’s the way it is,” no one doubted him.

We still expect the person holding that position to be trustworthy. And to project that all-important, but largely intangible, sense of psychological equilibrium.


Perhaps the reason the position remains coveted to this day despite the ever-expanding universe of information options, and pays so well, has something to do with the persistent innocence of the American people—the belief that we can hire a father figure (women haven’t succeeded as well in the position) who, in under 30 minutes (including pharmaceutical ads) can assuage our fears that the world is coming apart at the seams.

It’s a tall order, and one that Mr. Williams was actually very good at filling. He seemed to possess that all-important gravitas, even if his physical appearance suggested he came from central casting.

And his frequent appearances on shows such as “Saturday Night Live” and “Late Night With David Letterman” reassured us that he was in on the joke.

So why, then, are we so shocked to discover that Mr. Williams buffed his resume with imaginary tales of derring-do? His instinctive sense of story telling and drama may be the reason he pummeled the ratings competition.

Maybe we hold our news anchors to too high a standard, or rather a double standard. We require that they make the news, an inherently unfunny medium, amusing.

Roger Mudd, whom CBS passed over for Dan Rather in 1980.ENLARGE
Roger Mudd, whom CBS passed over for Dan Rather in 1980. PHOTO: NBC NEWSWIRE/GETTY IMAGES

One of my favorite lines comes from the Declaration of Independence—“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”

You know the rest of it. But what I appreciate about it is the assertion that truth exists; not only does it exist but it’s sitting there waiting to be acknowledged.

It’s not chiseled in stone. It’s the stone itself.

Perhaps we’ve persuaded ourselves that the truth is unknowable. Which may be why Brian Williams had the mistaken impression that we’d give him some slack.

The problem is that every so often reality comes back to bite you—whether it’s the 9/11 attacks, the church shooting in Charleston, or one anchorman’s fake story about the helicopter he was riding being forced down by enemy fire.

At those moments we long for Walter Cronkite, or a reasonable facsimile, serving as the nation’s editor-in-chief and resisting the temptation to describe the latest cat video as “breaking news.”

The only sensible response would seem to be to develop the skill of skepticism. Hence the reason satirical programs such as “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” have played such an important role in the national discourse and become unlikely sources of real news.

They’ve assumed the mantle that Mr. Cronkite once held, as truth tellers.

Mr. Cronkite’s greatest talent may have been to realize that news and entertainment are separate disciplines, that don’t typically overlap, and to give his audience the benefit of the doubt that they could distinguish the two and demand the former.

Brian Williams may still be acquiring that knowledge.

Science Meets Speed Dating

Ralph Gardner Jr. goes to a sort of speed-dating event, where he learns from American Museum of Natural History scientists

Jana Grcevich, right, a postdoctoral researcher at the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Astrophysics, discusses dwarf galaxies with guests at Speed Science, an event hosted by the museum in partnership with Tumblr.ENLARGE
Jana Grcevich, right, a postdoctoral researcher at the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Astrophysics, discusses dwarf galaxies with guests at Speed Science, an event hosted by the museum in partnership with Tumblr. PHOTO:DENIS FINNIN/AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

You’re obviously familiar with the concept of speed dating, even if you’ve never tried it. That’s an event where you “date” new people for five minutes or so until a bell, or gong, goes off and you move along to the next table and your next assignation.

I can’t attest to the success of the process since I’ve never tried it. But I suspect that if there’s any lesson to be learned from Internet dating sites and apps such as Tinder, it’s that love, or at least lust, is a hardy seed capable of establishing itself in the least promising soil.

Last week, the American Museum of Natural History and the blogging and social networking platform Tumblr decided to adapt the speed-dating concept to science.

Instead of getting five minutes with a prospective mate, the allotted time would be spent with one of the museum’s scientists. There were 24 of them, traveling among 12 tables. And instead of sharing your taste in food and music and attitudes toward organized religion (or whatever people discuss on speed dates), you’d get to pepper paleontologists about whether Tyrannosaurus rex had feathers or chat with astrophysicists about the possibility of a multiverse and whether black holes might serve as portals, sort of like the Bleecker-Lafayette subway station, facilitating travel between one universe and another.

(This just happens to be a theory of mine, based on an abundance of ignorance, but one I didn’t get to test, because of the several tables I joined none were led by a cosmologist.)

I might also add, just to set the scene, that the event, dubbed Speed Science, occurred under the blue whale in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, that there were DJs and an open bar, and, for the sake of full disclosure that my daughter Lucy, who works at the museum, helped organize the event.

Speed Science night at the American Museum of Natural History.ENLARGE
Speed Science night at the American Museum of Natural History. PHOTO: DENIS FINNIN/AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

Though I didn’t see much of her as I moved with drink in hand between curatorial associate Jacklyn Lacey, who regaled the four or five of us seated at her table with tales of the use of hedgehogs in medicine, and ornithologist Paul Sweet, who came armed not only with his bird specimens collected in the Solomon Islands but also a belted kingfisher collected on Oyster Bay, Long Island, by future President Theodore Roosevelt as a teenager on July 25, 1876.

“We wanted to make sure the users of Tumblr knew what the museum had to offer,” explained Anne Canty, senior vice president for communications and marketing. “Social media is really important for engaging with our audience directly.”

It was also an opportunity for the museum’s younger scientists, most of them doctoral candidates or post-docs, to shine. Even as I spotted one or two senior scientists in the mix, among them Mark Siddall,arguably the world’s leading authority on leeches.

The crowd, which appeared mostly in their 20s and 30s, seemed to have an easy time relating to young researchers, such as herpetologistSara Ruane, who’d brought along a show-and-tell snake penis in a jar, actually more than one.

The organ is known as a “hemipenis” and male snakes have two of them, as I understand it—I’m hard of hearing anyway under cocktail party conditions—to increase their odds of reproductive success. Even though they use the organs alternately, rather than simultaneously.

“A lot of males all at once are trying to get the same female,” Dr. Ruane said with a level of enthusiasm one could comfortably describe as infectious, an adjective not typically associated with squamates and their copulatory habits. The hemipenis “gets stuck in them, preventing another male from being able to reproduce with her.”

She added, and then I’ll stop, but this stuff is interesting, that a female can get pregnant long after the male dismounts. “Female snakes can store sperm for years and years,” Dr. Ruane explained. “They’re able to wait until the time is ripe climate-wise and food-wise.”

Kate and Ben Adams, who work in book publishing, said the event seemed sufficiently promising that they invested in a baby-sitter for the evening. They weren’t disappointed.

Aaron Heiss, left, a postdoctoral researcher at the American Museum of Natural History, discusses the discovery and description of microbes with guests at Speed Science.ENLARGE
Aaron Heiss, left, a postdoctoral researcher at the American Museum of Natural History, discusses the discovery and description of microbes with guests at Speed Science. PHOTO: DENIS FINNIN/AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

“It’s inspiring to see so many female scientists,” Ms. Adams said.

“We met a woman who discovered two galaxies by age 32,” her husband added.

I even came away with practical information. Eileen Westwig, a scientist in the Department of Mammalogy who brought along a bat in a jar, said my fears that one might land on my head while I’m grilling steaks were unjustified, though 2% are infected with rabies. Even vampire bats are harmless unless you take to sleeping on forest floors.

Guests Laura Garrison and Marina Cockenberg may have learned something even more valuable. Our sun will eventually die, but not through an explosion.

“It’s going to expand slightly but doesn’t have the mass,” Ms. Cockenberg said she learned.

“Ultimately, we’re doomed,” Ms. Garrison added. “But not in the way we thought.”

A Designer’s Creation: His Own Career

Ed Schlossberg has carved out a unique role for himself and his firm

Ed Schlossberg at the Fifth Avenue offices of ESI Design.ENLARGE
Ed Schlossberg at the Fifth Avenue offices of ESI Design. PHOTO: RAMSAY DE GIVE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

In college a friend told me that I knew what I wanted to do with my life, there just didn’t happen to be a job description for it. He wasn’t entirely in his right mind at that moment, but that’s sometimes when you’re at your most profound.

Never mind I had no idea what I wanted to do. It was a comforting thought—that if you were filled with curiosity, ambition and a fleck of intelligence you might be able to write your own ticket.

I’m not sure to what extent I achieved his outside-the-box expectations, but his words resonated anew as I arrived at ESI Design, the Lower Fifth Avenue office of Ed Schlossberg, the designer and artist.

Mr. Schlossberg, whose exhibit and experience-design projects include the Ellis Island American Family Immigration History Center, Boston’s Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate, and work for corporate clients including News Corp and Sony (for whom he programmed a giant LED screen in Times Square), seems like someone who succeeded at creating his own job description.

Mr. Schlossberg models a device that mimics the way a chicken sees.ENLARGE
Mr. Schlossberg models a device that mimics the way a chicken sees. PHOTO: RAMSAY DE GIVE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

And perhaps the best proof of that is that, after spending a pleasant hour with him a recent afternoon, I’m still not entirely sure what he does for a living. However, he seems rather confident that summer camp played a seminal role.

“I went to this Pinko summer camp in the Berkshires,” he remembered. “When you got there as a kid you went into the woods and created a camp—cut down the trees, put up the tent. I loved the experience of making things with other people.”

That’s what he’s doing to this day. In the case of the interactive Edward M. Kennedy Institute, collaborating with colleagues to create an experience where visitors get to play senator and pass bills. At Ellis Island’s new Peopling of America Center, they can immerse themselves in the immigrant experience, the centerpiece a 5-foot globe that projects immigration patterns throughout human history against the interior of the sphere.

“Working in this office with 75 other people is a hoot,” Mr. Schlossberg said.

I suppose if I were more energetic I’d have asked him to take me around and introduce me to his co-workers—ESI’s small army of programmers and game and graphic designers, so that they might help me craft a richer picture of the organization’s function.

But I got the sense that I’d have as much fun accepting Mr. Schlossberg’s offer of a bottle of mineral water, and sitting at the conference table in his office—the views extend all the way south to One World Trade Center—shooting the breeze.

The designer, who grew up on West End Avenue and graduated from Columbia and Columbia graduate school, where he studied physics, English and American literature—“My thesis was an imaginary conversation between Einstein and Beckett”—seems one of those relatively rare individuals who has thought through just about everything and is unintimidated by questions out of left field, and occasionally from over the fence.

He didn’t require props or the trappings of a corner office to make himself interesting, though he had both.

The prop looked like a pair of binoculars made of plumbing equipment. “It’s a mask,” he explained. “When you look through you can see how a chicken sees the world.”

The device was created in the early 1980s for Macomber Farm—a combination of farm, petting zoo and educational facility in Massachusetts, now sadly defunct.

It was also embossed with this explanation: “I’m seeing like a chicken.”

“Whereas, if people saw it as a piece of plumbing, they wouldn’t put it on their face,” the inventor explained, sounding plausible.

More to the point, chickens have terrible eyesight. So do sheep. Mr. Schlossberg had a companion contraption designed to display a sheep’s-eye view of the world.

These simple devices changed my entire attitude toward farm animals—I suppose that’s the point—which I assumed saw the world, at least optically, much the way I did.

We also discussed business cards, which I confessed I have a hard time throwing out, regarding them almost as organic extensions of the people who exchange them.

Mr. Schlossberg marveled at their role in Japanese society. He’s gained some insight into that nation, and its citizens’ affectations, since his wife, Caroline Kennedy, started serving as ambassador to Japan in 2013. He travels back and forth and teaches a design course at Tokyo’s Keio University.

“My wife gets 100 to 200 cards a day,” he explained, and recalled their first reception at the U.S. Embassy, which started at 6 p.m., some guests having arrived 20 minutes early. “They exchange cards for 20 minutes and eat and drink, and are gone by seven.”

“It’s confounding and inspiring,” he said of Japan, a place where a company such as his might have a hard time flourishing. “The whole idea of making mistakes is frowned upon,” he said. “For me, it’s my lifeblood.”

Outside his office stood, or rather lay, a model that might fit that description. He made it for the Smithsonian in 1978. “It’s a replica of a human being, but the size of a football field,” Mr. Schlossberg explained. “It never got built.”

I can understand why. But you can’t spite the guy for trying.

Leaping Into the Future, With Young Talent

Ralph Gardner Jr. catches up with retiring Alvin Ailey dancer Kirven Douthit-Boyd

Kirven Douthit-Boyd of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater rehearses at Lincoln Center.ENLARGE
Kirven Douthit-Boyd of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater rehearses at Lincoln Center. PHOTO: PETER FOLEY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

It’s almost more amazing to watch a rehearsal of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater than the real thing.

Not to take anything away from the company, which is in the middle of a two-week engagement at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater, but when the lights dim for a performance, the audience grows hushed, and the curtain rises, you expect miracles to happen.

But it’s in rehearsal, with no one watching except fellow dancers sitting on the sidelines and stretching, where it’s easiest to appreciate the combination of sophistication and athleticism, of subtlety and explosive power, of the whispered gesture and full-out joy the performers bring to their work.

That’s how it was Friday afternoon ahead of that evening’s performance of “Chroma,” a work by British choreographer Wayne McGregor.

And frequently in motion was Kirven Douthit-Boyd, who even those who don’t follow the company regularly may recognize from his signature leaps. It was a picture of him soaring through the air that Ailey used on a poster a few years back that seemed to be everywhere you looked in the subway.

In that ad, Mr. Douthit-Boyd is caught in mid-jump. What makes the image arresting, besides his sculpted physique, is the sense from his body language that, like some cartoon character, he’s exempt from the laws of physics and gravity; he’s surmounted the obstacles to self-propelled flight.

So it was with some surprise that I discovered Mr. Douthit-Boyd, who I wrote about in 2012 when the poster came out, is retiring at the end of this season.

Kirven Douthit-Boyd backstage after rehearsal.ENLARGE
Kirven Douthit-Boyd backstage after rehearsal. PHOTO: PETER FOLEY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

I assumed that, while at 30 years old the dancer may not be growing decrepit, he must have lost a step, that he could no longer will his body daily to do the outrageous things a work such as “Sinner Man,” the one he was executing for the ad, demands of it.

That is even though, were he a civilian, the lifts and leaps I witnessed in rehearsal, could be accomplished only with the assistance of some heretofore undiscovered magic pill. The physical remorse the following morning be damned.

But I had it wrong. “I definitely feel I can dance for many more years,” Mr. Douthit-Boyd told me as he sat in his dressing room after the rehearsal with Antonio Douthit-Boyd, his husband and fellow dancer, who also will be hanging up his ballet shoes at the end of this season. “We got a great opportunity to do something special.”

That opportunity is for the performers to serve as co-artistic directors of dance at COCA, St. Louis’s Center of Creative Arts. That’s also where Antonio, now 34, was discovered and began his dance training at 16.

“Every year in January since 2005, we’ve been going back there and doing workshops and choreography with the students,” Kirven explained.

Looking at his partner, who was snacking on trail mix, Kirven added, “Antonio was one of those kids pushed in all the right directions.”

The implicit promise of their new jobs is being able to work with other talented teenagers on a full-time basis rather than for only a few weeks in the winter—COCA students are a socioeconomically and racially diverse group—and seed the dance world with the results.

“We want to foster a whole lot of talent,” Kirven said with the unembellished passion he brings to his own dancing, “to show them what they’re capable of.”

The duo believe they’ve learned the fundamentals of running a dance company from Robert Battle, Ailey’s artistic director, and before him the legendary Judith Jamison.

Kirven Douthit-Boyd rehearses with another dancer at Lincoln Center.ENLARGE
Kirven Douthit-Boyd rehearses with another dancer at Lincoln Center. PHOTO: PETER FOLEY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“She knew all our strengths and weaknesses,” Kirven recalled, as well as skills that don’t typically fall on the shoulders of dancers—such as fundraising, energizing a board of directors and balancing the books.

“She’d throw us something totally different than what you think your strength is,” Antonio added. He was referring to the way Ms. Jamison coaxed dancers to stretch not only physically but artistically, to find talents they didn’t know they possessed.

During rehearsals, Antonio and Kirven took turns partnering Linda Celeste Sims, the lithe dancer who holds the record for most Ailey subway posters. And like Antonio and Kirven, who have been together 10 years and married for two, Ms. Sims is also married to a fellow dancer, Glenn Allen Sims.

“It’s been good,” Kirven said of marriage, both on and offstage. “I get to see him every day. If we get into something at work, a disagreement about a step, we tend to leave it there.”

The couple plans to build a house together in St. Louis—something they said they couldn’t do in New York City’s overheated housing market.

However, their new, perhaps slightly less physically demanding careers as artistic directors, might require other lifestyle changes.

“I love Snickers,” Kirven confided. He was referring to both the candy and ice cream bars. “I really do.”

“We’re going to have to cut down on those,” Antonio agreed.

Revisiting a Family’s Mafia Roots

Taking a Mafia walking tour of New York with Meyer Lansky II

Meyer Lansky II, grandson of the infamous Jewish gangster, photographs the Bialystoker Synagogue during a tour of Manhattan’s Lower East Side on June 9.ENLARGE
Meyer Lansky II, grandson of the infamous Jewish gangster, photographs the Bialystoker Synagogue during a tour of Manhattan’s Lower East Side on June 9.PHOTO: ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

It would be an exaggeration to say that we considered Meyer Lansky, the notorious Jewish gangster who died in 1983, a member of the family. Then again, he wasn’t a total stranger either; family members made his memorable acquaintance while on vacation in Israel in the early 1970s.

I never got to meet him because, by that age, I was traveling on my own. But my mother and two younger brothers were staying at a resort hotel outside of Tel Aviv—no one seems able to conjure up the name of the place four decades later—where my siblings befriended the underworld figure, who apparently had sought refuge in Israel when things got too hot in the U.S.

His grandson, Meyer Lansky II, whom I met last week, confirmed his relative’s two-year Israeli residency.

My brother Peter, who was around 12 years old when he met Mr. Lansky poolside with our other brother James, described Mr. Lansky as grandfatherly.

Eric Ferrara, of the Lower East Side History Project, at the current KGB Bar at 85 E. Fourth St., site of a speakeasy run by Lucky Luciano and one of the stops along the Mafia Walking Tour.ENLARGE
Eric Ferrara, of the Lower East Side History Project, at the current KGB Bar at 85 E. Fourth St., site of a speakeasy run by Lucky Luciano and one of the stops along the Mafia Walking Tour. PHOTO: ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“He asked me questions almost as an older family member would do a young child in the family, along the lines of did I know how to swim…”

They recall that Mr. Lansky was accompanied by a female companion whom James, probably around 10 years old at the time, described as “bosomy,” and a dog, perhaps a shih tzu, named Bruiser.

Peter asked for the gangster’s autograph. “He said as gently as possible, so as not to disappoint me, that he was not a movie star, and so declined to give me an autograph.”

Meyer Lansky II and his wife, Dani Porter-Lansky, conferred as we stood in front of 80 Second Ave., an address that figures in Mafia history, and decided that his grandfather’s poolside companion couldn’t have been his second wife “Teddy,” whom they described as slight of build.

“He had a couple of girlfriends,” Mr. Lansky acknowledged.

“There was a redheaded nurse,” recalled Ms. Porter-Lansky, who met her husband when they both worked Caesar’s Tahoe in 1991. She seems as well versed in Lansky family lore as her husband.

Meyer Lansky II checks out the interior of the KGB Bar on the Lower East Side.ENLARGE
Meyer Lansky II checks out the interior of the KGB Bar on the Lower East Side.PHOTO: ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The Mafia Walking Tour, led by Eric Ferrara of the Lower East Side History Project, was part of the festivities surrounding the debut of the AMC series “The Making of the Mob: New York” about the rise of the Mafia in New York City. We learned that 80 Second Ave. was the residence of the gangster Joe “The Boss” Masseria and the scene of an unsuccessful 1922 assassination attempt where he was said literally to have dodged bullets. Meyer Lansky was instrumental in a more successful 1931 assassination attempt of Mr. Masseria on behalf of Lansky associate Lucky Luciano.

Mr. Lansky II, who was interviewed for the eight-part miniseries, said he and his grandfather, who died when the younger Lanskywas 27 years old, never discussed his underworld past. “Every time I’d touch on that,” Mr. Lansky II said, referring to his namesake’s career choices, “he’d steer it away from that. He’d never get into things like what he did.”

He said he got his first inkling his granddad was unconventionally famous when he overheard his name mentioned by Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News. Apparently some unpleasantness having to do with Mr. Lansky trying to get off a plane in Argentina and getting put right back on.

“That’s when I started to learn what he was about,” his grandson remembered. “I thought he was a restaurant owner.” Actually a self-described “kitchen director.”

Eric Ferrara, of the Lower East Side History Project, points out details from ‘Lucky’ Luciano’s police sheet. ENLARGE
Eric Ferrara, of the Lower East Side History Project, points out details from ‘Lucky’ Luciano’s police sheet. PHOTO: ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Mr. Lansky II grew up in Tacoma, Wash., about as far from the Mafia as one could get. His own father was an Air Force pilot. However, he was attracted to the world of casinos and hosting as a career, his famous name apparently opening more doors than it closed.

“When I went to get a gaming card,” so he could work as a Las Vegas croupier, “they wondered what was going on: ‘You’re the grandson?’ But they were pretty cool about it.”

Among our stops was the former Delancey Street site of the Lansky-Siegel garage (that would be Bugsy Siegel) where the teenagers got their start in the early 1920s in the bootlegging business.

“According to the family, it was 75 steps from the police station,” the 7th Precinct, Mr. Lansky said.

We also dropped by the Bialystoker Synagogue, an Orthodox synagogue between Grand and Broome streets, where Meyer Lansky’s father worshiped and where I was told a plaque lists one Benjamin Siegel as among the temple’s benefactors, though we didn’t enter.

Meyer Lansky wasn’t observant. “He wasn’t traditionally Jewish,” his grandson said. “He had Christmas trees. We celebrated Easter.”