Dear friends:

 

I've decided to finally continue the tradition we established from 1989 to 2002 but then interrupted for a few years: an annual letter. It is no longer in print format but electronic, for obvious reasons.

 

2006 has been a good year for us.  Here are, month by month, some of the highlights:

 

January: Rita began the year in Bill Clinton's arms (with me watching :-), while Aviva considered becoming Hillary's campaign manager but then deferred her political ambitions until after her Ph.D. (in 2008, hopefully -- maybe in time for a new career? Just kidding...)

 

 

  

 

February: We saw a very good shoe-string production by a company called "Take Wing and Soar!" of Rita's play The Darker Face of the Earth in New York, directed by Trazana Beverly, who had played Scylla at the Kennedy Center nine years ago.

 

 

March: After Rita's reading in front of a large crowd at Cal. State in L.A. we visited our friend Lori McCreary, movie producer and Morgan Freeman's business partner, on the set of Ten Items or Less, a new movie starring Morgan. It was a night shoot in a Target store, and Rita was recruited for a nanosecond appearance as a shopper.

 

                 

(Ten Items or Less: shopper Rita walking past in the background)                         (Rita & Fred with Lori McCreary)

 

The next day we set out in our rental car for a 9 day cross-country drive back to Charlottesville -- our first cross-country drive in 17 years! Luckily, the rental car turned out to be one of the best sedans I've ever driven -- certainly the best American sedan: a brand-new Chrysler 300 Hemi AWD. (There's a new fun career waiting for me: automobile reviewer!) The weather was spectacular (sunny, cool but never very cold, to warm but never really hot), depending on the particular areas we were passing through: Palm Springs, Flagstaff / northern Arizona, Albuquerque / New Mexico, northern Texas. In Plano near Dallas we visited Rita's sister Robin and her family, then detoured south into the wrecked ghost city of New Orleans, where we found a semi-functioning hotel in the French Quarter and walked to dinner at our favorite oyster place in the world, the Acme Oyster Bar. We spent a day driving through the devastation of the Ninth Ward:  In the Lower Ninth, traffic around and through the obstacle course of ruined houses and junked cars consisted pretty much of us, a few salvage trucks and the rare inhabitant who had dared to venture back  "home" -- i.e, to live out of a Fema trailer. Services were non-existent. As if this had not been horror enough, we continued our drive into Mississippi and Alabama along the smashed remains of the Gulf Coast.

 

  

 

Finally we headed north again to spend a day in Birmingham, Alabama, where Rita gave the keynote address at an annual literary festival, and made it back to Charlottesville just in time for me to fly to Germany for my 40th "Abitur" (high school) class reunion; in fact, we had planned this so tightly that I dropped off the Chrysler at Charlottesville airport on the way to my plane. 

 

  

     (summer 1963 on our way to England;                                                                                                  (In the old school -- Köln, March 2006)    

                                                                                                            3 of the 4 are also in the reunion picture on the right)           

 

I returned 8 days later for the Virginia Festival of the Book, where Rita read together with John Hope Franklin in UVA's Culbreth Theatre and had a cameo appearance during John McCutcheon's concert at the Paramount Theatre; John performed songs from his new CD, Mightier Than the Sword, which contains one track he wrote with Rita.

 

 

         

(Rita with John Hope Franklin before their joint reading)                                                      (David Baldacchi, Rita Dove, Barbara Kingsolver, John McCutcheon)

 

April: On the first day of the month Rita received the Common Wealth Award -- together with Queen Noor of Jordan, CNN's Anderson Cooper, director Mike Nichols and former astronaut and U.S. senator John Glenn -- at a lavish dinner in Wilmington, Delaware. Aviva and her partner April and several other dear friends came to revel with us.

 

 

 

 

Later that month the Washington Post commemorated the 10th anniversary of its weekly Book World column Poet's Choice, which Rita had written from 2000 to 2002. Her successor Edward Hirsch and the current columnist Robert Pinsky also participated in the event.

 

 

May: In mid-May we flew to London (Heathrow), picked up first our rental car and then Aviva, who had flown into Gatwick at the same time, then proceeded to Dover and by ferry to Calais; by early evening we reached my mother's house near Köln. I've driven both left-hand steering and right-hand steering (including a large Australian motorhome) on the left side, but had never driven with the steering wheel on the right on the right side of the street. Since, however, Hertz has discontinued its Swap program where one could trade in the British rental for a French one right at the Eurotunnel, I happily rose to the challenge -- and actually had a blast for the next two weeks.

 

The three of us spent a week with my mother and her partner Karlfried. Aviva then flew from Köln to Paris, where April arrived at the same time from Rochester, while Rita and I drove to Berlin to participate in the International PEN Congress -- I was one of the official delegates representing the PEN Centre of German-Speaking Writers Abroad, on whose board I've been serving for a while now. If you know German, you might enjoy the article I wrote about this week in Berlin; you can find it at http://www.henryk-broder.de/forsicht_freddy/penner.html . (And if you cannot read German, you might at least enjoy the photos that accompany the article.)

   

 

   

                                                   (Chocolate Museum in Cologne)

 

  

(with German Chancellor Angela Merkel & Mexican writer Homero Aridjis

at the government reception for the International PEN delegates, Berlin, May 2006)

 

June: The last weekend in May we drove from Berlin to the docks of Southampton, England, where Aviva and April joined us for our return voyage to the U.S. aboard the Queen Mary 2 -- our second QM2 crossing and our eighth Transatlantic cruise in the past dozen years. Our friends Peter Norton and Gwen Adams also happened to be on board. As always, it was relaxing and fun.

 

 

  

Relaxing and a lot of fun were also, to our surprise, the three days in the middle of the month we spent at the Cave Canem retreat for promising African-American poets on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. It was amazing and very gratifying to experience such a wealth of extraordinary new talent -- burgeoning poets who, had it not been for the foresight and tenacity of Cave Canem founders Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady ten years ago, might have gone undeveloped and unnoticed.

 

 

July: For about a year now we have been taking lessons in Argentine tango -- which is quite different from the ballroom tango in which we had already acquired some proficiency over the past eight years. So, what could be more logical than experiencing this new passion at its roots? Consequently, in early July we and our dance friends Frani and Ed Demaio hopped on a plane to Buenos Aires, where we had a wonderful time taking tango lessons for several hours each day, exploring this grand and sometimes endearingly shabby city during its mild and mostly sunny winter days, devouring the best steaks in the world, watching spectacular shows...

 

 

   

 

August:  Rita's dad turned 85, so we drove to Akron for a couple of days. Otherwise, this was our quietest month of the year.

 

 

 

Meanwhile, Aviva and April (and their springer spaniel Fargo) drove from Rochester, N.Y. across the continent to Calgary, Alberta -- camping along the way -- to visit April's parents.

 

September: Two weeks after Akron we were in Ohio again -- this time for the Anisfield-Wolf Awards ceremony in Cleveland. (Rita has been a member of the awards jury for about 15 years, together with Skip Gates; the other jurors are currently Joyce Carol Oates, Steven Pinker and Simon Schama.) The British novelist Zadie Smith, now 31, received the fiction award for her latest book, On Beauty -- a literary tour de force I cannot recommend strongly enough. It is only matched by her first novel, White Teeth, which she published at the age of 24!

 

The morning after the Awards ceremony, Rita gave the Anisfield-Wolf lecture at Severance Hall / Case Western University -- an annual event that had been inaugurated by Skip Gates in 2005.

 

 

 

                    

 (with Simon Schama and Zadie Smith, Cleveland, Sept. 2006)                              (with Skip Gates, Cleveland, Sept. 2006)

 

Just a few days after Cleveland Rita and I flew to Anchorage. The weather was considerably worse than in the spring of 2003, when we took a motorhome to Alaska -- and yet it was exhilarating to see nature raging in its down cycle. Two days later we dropped off our rental car in Whittier and boarded the Sapphire Princess for its 15-day voyage to the Far East, anchoring first at Kodiak Island, then crossing the Bering Sea to Kamchatka Peninsula, Siberia, then turning south towards Japan, where we got day-long glimpses at Sapporo, Yokohama, Tokio and Nagasaki before "sailing" towards China. There would be so much to tell about this trip ... well, another time. Suffice it to say: We won the on-board ballroom dance competition!

 

   

 

  

 

October: We disembarked near Beijing on October 2, the day after a most important national holiday (celebrating the founding of the PRC on Oct. 1, 1949) and during the Mid Autumn Festival. Again, I'll refrain from delving into issues that become obvious the moment one opens his eyes and mind in this ravenously exploding society -- like pollution, unbridled capitalism despite the communist veneer, rampant consumerism... not to mention workers' exploitation, which tourists, however, do not get to experience first-hand but can only read about and imagine.

 

From a purely touristic point of view, we were very pleasantly surprised. We had booked our inner-Chinese travels through a Chinese travel agency we had found on the Internet, and they did a very good job. All the hotels were excellent and ideally located, the private drivers and tour guides awaiting us in every city were always on time and courteous, and except for our guide in Beijing, who spoke English but had a hard time understanding it, we had few communication problems. We travelled by train from Beijing to Xian and from Xian to Shanghai and from Shanghai to Hong Kong -- little adventures in themselves. We visited all the usual places -- from the Great Wall to the Terracotta Warriors and Shanghai's Bund -- and some more. In Xian we had a strange encounter when we ended up in a crowded restaurant sharing our lunch table with Israeli interior minister Roni Bar-On and his wife, who were travelling privately, quasi incognito without body guards nor, seemingly, any Chinese political involvement. We all avoided politics -- who wants to argue about war and terrorism in the face of the tremendous artistry and sacrifice on display in Xian's vast excavations, an artistry that went hand in hand with the murderous cruelties of an ancient Chinese regime? Instead we mused about friends we have in common, like former World Bank president Jim Wolfensohn.

 

 

   

 

The train from Shanghai arrived in Hong Kong on the minute as scheduled -- quite a feat! We were kind of wistful upon leaving our comfortable private compartment, in which we had spent 26 restful hours while choo-chooing past agricultural cooperatives and factories and misty landscapes and junks on yellow rivers and little reed-covered houses and giant skyscrapers with large holes in the middle to let the dragons fly through. Hong Kong was our original destination, and our last -- the University of Hong Kong had invited Rita to give this year's Edward Blunden Lecture, an invitation that had triggered all the other plans from Alaska to Siberia to Japan and the People's Republic. And we couldn't have wished for a more gracious hostess than English professor Page Richards, who took care of us in Hong Kong.

 

It's only an hour by hydrofoil boat from Hong Kong to Macau, so we explored the former Portuguese colony for a day (and deep into the night) -- on foot and by renting a Moke, an open jeep-like vehicle that took us all over the peninsula and two islands that comprise Macau, whose Mediterranean ambience is being usurped and destroyed at wreckless speed by an amazing construction boom in casinos, turning what just a few years ago was a sleepy European fishing and trading outpost, into the Las Vegas of Asia.

 

 

     

(Yeah, it was hot in Hong Kong!)

 

Barely back in the U.S., I accompanied Rita to her first annual meeting of the Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets in New York. Those of you who followed the events surrounding this board eight years ago, where I played a pivotal role, will appreciate the irony of time and place.

 

 

November: Aviva and April flew to Maui for ten days to attend the wedding of friends -- and to snorkel a lot. They came back convinced that Paradise does indeed exist.

 

For Rita and me, after the six blissful weeks of our Far Eastern travels, being home also meant taking care of obligations. Not that it was all hardship; Charlottesville's ambitious Music Resource Center, which is supported in part by our local boys made extremely good, the Dave Matthews Band, had recruited Rita and DMB violinist Boyd Tinsley as judges for a public poetry and songwriting contest. In general, I found the songwriting more promising than the poetry, and wished some of the gifted Cave Canem poets had gotten wind of this competition and submitted their work.

 

 

 

  

The week before Thanksgiving I took a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course up at the high school, just a mile from our house, and received my motorcycle license. This sudden craziness, more than forty years after my last motorcycle ride, surprised me as much as anybody. It was triggered by my old school buddy Apostolos Tsomplektsis, who has also  taken up motorbiking again recently. (He's my passenger in the b&w photo with the trailer below; in 1964, we travelled like that all the way from Köln to Salzburg in Austria, to Munich and Lake Constance, about 2500 km in four weeks -- some of it on the Autobahn!) Is it a desperate attempt at regaining some semblance of youth? Well, sure -- but what's wrong with that? Of course, everybody is warning me of the direst consequences, in their most somber tones; meanwhile, I'm enjoying myself. The day after the competition at the Music Resource Center, still reverberating with the happily angry onslaught of youthful tunes, I drove over to Shenandoah Harley-Davidson in Staunton and bought myself a Buell Blast -- a Harley-made mid-size (500cc/34hp) sports bike. Kind of an early Xmas present and an even earlier present to myself for my 60th birthday this coming April! (April 16 -- same day as Charlie Chaplin, Peter Ustinov, the current Pope -- who is 5 days older than my mother -- and my paternal grandfather, BTW.)

 

  

(1963-66)

 

  

 

As every year, we spent Thanksgiving in Akron with Rita's parents, brother Tom, sister Rhonda and her family. It was April's third Thanksgiving in Akron -- time truly flies.

  

 

We also took the opportunity to celebrate Rita's parents' 60th wedding anniversary (they got married on Pearl Harbour Day 1946), plus it was the 30th anniversary of my getting to meet them for the first time (Thanksgiving weekend 1976).

 

 

 

As always, we drove over to Ravenna (about 30 miles from Akron) to have lunch and share opinions about the latest books we'd read with Margaret Oechsner, Rita's former high school English teacher. Margaret turned 95 on December 17. She lives and moves about by herself, still drives her car locally, is as sharp as ever...

 

 

The week after Thanksgiving we spent three days in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where Rita received the Stellfox Prize from Dickinson College.

 

 

We then "rounded out" the last week of November and went into December by driving further north to Rochester, New York, where we admired Aviva's latest achievements: continued refinement in horse jumping, her rookie accomplishments in jiu-jitsu, and her recently gained Black Belt in karate:

 

   

   

December: Besides my having a blast on my Buell at every opportunity and on every rain-free day (mostly to the gym and back), Rita and I spent much of this month in "quiet contemplation" -- choosing and decorating The Tree, putting the holiday lights up around the house, shopping for presents, going to parties, dancing. We continued the tradition of presenting a little dance show -- with our friends Frani and Ed Demaio and Roxanne and Collin Hagan -- for the appreciative residents of a nursing home in Orange.

 

   

    

Unfortunately, Rita won't be able to dance for the first few weeks of 2007, since she had knee surgery on December 29. Hopefully, the physicians' promise that this should make her "good as new" by February means she won't have to deal with swelling and pain after every dance evening any longer.

 

But before she went under the knife, we enjoyed the holidays. Aviva and April, plus dog Fargo and bird Jezebel, arrived from Rochester on December 21 and stayed with  us until January 4. Here are a few more or less festive photos:

 

  

  

   

 

Aviva is still enjoying her Ph.D. program, teaching, T.A.'ing, and writing proposals and papers for conferences. Next spring she'll have an essay about the Showtime TV series "The L Word" published in an anthology. Last but not least, she is working on her dissertation. (April is also a doctoral candidate at the University of Rochester, with a dissertation-in-progress on gangstresses in silent movies.) Rita is so totally engrossed in her new book-length poetry project that most travel, readings, and lectures have been put on hold for 2007; besides, she'll be teaching two courses in the spring. And I'm still busy on the board of the aforementioned PEN Centre, as well as with my seemingly elusive multiple literary projects...

 

So far, only two bigger trips are on our books for the coming year: to Germany in May for my mother's 80th birthday party (according to her plans, it'll be huge), and a cruise in September/October from San Francisco down the West Coast all the way to and through the Panama Canal, then north through the Caribbean to Fort Lauderdale.

 

That's it for now! Please stay in touch!

 

All best from the three of us,

Fred