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Dave Barry on Ballet

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From Sunday's Miami Herald (and syndicated around the country):

The Lord of the Dance doesn't have anything on me

I am not a fan of ballet..

Now, before you members of the Dance Community get your leotards in a bunch, let me stress that I KNOW I AM WRONG. I know that ballet is a beautiful artistic form that requires great dedication and skill. I'm just saying that I, personally, would rather watch a dog catch a Frisbee.

Anything we could say to Mr. Barry? [Please read the whole article. There are parts that are quite funny.]

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I loved the story about his daughter signing autographs in "the lobby." It is funny, but unfortunately I think he does reflect the opinions of many men, at least American men, about ballet. And it is ignorant -- and hard to combat.

A delicate question, but why do men go bezerk at the sight of men in tights? Women are confronted with naked and half-naked females day and night and we don't run out of the hall screaming. Is that the reason? That women are conditioned to it throughout a lifetime, and men are not, and so are either outraged, or horrifically uncomfortable, or both? He asks the men to grab a pair of shorts -- not knowing, I think we can be confident in saying, that this was exactly what men used to wear. If not shorts, a costume over the tights.

Really, guys, what is it? And how do you/did you get over it?

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Originally posted by Alexandra

A delicate question, but why do men go bezerk at the sight of men in tights?  Women are confronted with naked and half-naked females day and night and we don't run out of the hall screaming.  Is that the reason?  That women are conditioned to it throughout a lifetime, and men are not

Alexandra, I think you've hit on something that is very horrible but true -- it's a man's world.

Regarding the idea of the average man and ballet, I try to tell the men in my life that being a real Man is liking what you like and not caring what other people might think or say. At work (I work with all men in sports), they believe that liking ballet is effeminate (they have a long, horrible list of other things). And I'm not sure it is really the tights -- football players practically play in tights (very tight lycra pants). I think that some men don't know why they don't like ballet. Sometimes they have a preconceived notion of what it is - snips of old ballet, usually - but have never really watched it. They just know that they shouldn't like it. I have noticed that the men I come into contact with (outside of people who post here) that enjoy ballet (or at least won't feign illness to get out of seeing it) are people who enjoy the arts and were exposed to art and high culture from an early age.

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Hmm... I could easily write just such an article about me and baseball. Sorry guys, I just don't see what the big point is about the National Sport. Nor do I have the patience to sit around for 3 hours eating cotton canding and getting a sunburn while people I can barely see throw a miniscule ball around the field. I'm absolutely serious here. I've been to a couple baseball games, and I've never been so bored in my life.

I don't write articles like that because they're rather annoying.

As for the tights... he didn't mention that women's costumes, as well as many women's fashions, also leave little to the imagination.

I think it's ultimately a power issue that conflicts with a central tenant of ballet. Ballet is one of the few art forms in which you not only CREATE the art, but you ARE the art. I tell myself that every performance; "I AM the art."

Also, ballet requires an openness of the body. Simply the act of turning out and facing the audience makes one vulnerable. It is body language. In fact, it's the opposite body language of, say, martial arts. In martial arts, you present the smallest profile possible to your opponent; in ballet, the largest profile possible to the audience.

Women in America are conditioned to the idea that they are art, that they are to be open to someone else coming in. Men are contitioned to the idea that they are to conquer art. You can't conquer something of beauty if you ARE that something of beauty; consequently, it is seen as "less than manly" to engage in something in which you are open to others, and in which you are the art.

To say in America that men can be a work of art is somewhat taboo.

There is a widely held belief that a man to do something "feminine" diminishes the person (whatever the definition of "feminine" is for the moment). The same standard of intolerance is not held towards women. This fact has been batted around by many people for a long time. The ONLY conclusion I've seen on it that makes any sense is that if one really believes this, then one believes that men are better than women. It is therefore an incredibly anti-feminist viewpoint.

I see these same kinds of views not only in ballet-hating columnists and football players, but also in male ballet dancers. The result is that the men don't engage themselves in the kind of training necessary to make a beautiful line, instead over-focusing on big jumps and big turns (at the risk of increased injury). To these men, wearing tights is OK (on stage at least), but clean lines makes one "effeminite" (and hence less of a human). It's all so stupid and arbitrary, really no different from the attitude you get so often from football players. It hurts the artform in the end.

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I'm uncomfortable with the kind of generalizations a discussion like this engenders. I don't know why certain men are uncomfortable viewing the ballet "package." Very deep psychological stuff is involved, I imagine.

I think that very often a satirical piece like Dave Barry's is predicated on incomplete knowledge of a subject. I know I had some humor published in the sixties and seventies that was embarrassing to reread after I learned more about the subjects.

But I don't see why it's necessary to pick between ballet and baseball. I've always loved both. I do hate football, however.

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Alexandra, You'v certainly pulled up the hot quote...

It seems to me that this is a fashion we're going to have to get used to -- manly men are back, and they're kinda loud about it. (They practice saying what they don't like and wouldn't ever ever do; they rehearse in private and in public; it's a variant of just saying 'no'). They're "true to their code" -- and until here's a cure for AIDS, there's probably some justification for it. It may be a hundred years before we return to the latitude the culture gave to all sexual-fantastic possibilities back during hte the 70's, which was NOT CINCIDENTALLY the era of the dance boom. During that time, casting your fate to the wind was something you were regularly being asked to consider. ("What has reality done for you today?" screamed a poster on hte door of a young English prof when I first came to Berkeley in 1973; it also showed a rock star in very tight jeans and a huge electric guitar.)

In fact, codes of behavior and dress codes are back -- thinking for yourself is out, there are procedures for everything.... Some of it is necessary, but it's really getting out of hand.....

HE's got a point about watching dogs with frisbees -- it IS a beautiful sight. In re football, baseball, bird-watching, basketball, me, I'll watch anything that's got interesting movement -- kids on skateboards, the dance-teams practicing their funk moves on hte sidewalk in front of Zellerbach hall (I know, I know, thye're going to destroy their feet, not to mention their knees, flinging themselves about like that on concrete, but they're fun to watch....) I ESPECIALLY like watching basketball teams do their warm-up exercises before a game -- the choreography of those drills is extraordinarily tight, the geometry is BEAUTIFUL, but they're moving like release dancers, the momentum is glorious.... OK, I admit it, I like watching a room full of people dancing, I go watch Lindy hop and contact improv in gyms and ballrooms and find it beautiful. I love to watch a bunch of contact-improv adepts making it up as they go -- in fact, I find it exquisite, and also much more interesting than the dances that get choreographed using movement-phrases that have been mined from such sessions..... Similarly with Lindy, exhibition lindy is not nearly as marvellous as a real improvised dance....

Choreographed frisbee throwing, further by hte way, lay at the heart of a wonderful contemporary dance by Scott Wells we saw a few years ago -- very inventive, highly disciplined, floating floating floating, a perfect fit for the soprano duet from Lakme... We were just giddy with glee. Barry might like Scott Wells.

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Yes and no, dirac :) I think there are instances of looking at something and saying, "Oh, how stupid" and then, as farrell fan indicated above, coming back to it a few years later when you know something about it and understanding it

I took one look at demolition derbies and decided I didn't like it I don't think that digging deeper into the culture and mores will make me like it any better, but I avoid it, I don't mock it.

From where does the urge to mock what we don't understand come? There's something about ballet -- and opera -- that seems to threaten some people. Dance, too, generally; no matter what the costumes, modern dance and modern music can make people like Barry squirm -- and attack it in writing, or cartoons, or just nastiness around the water cooler. Art is threatening?

Citibob, I think your comments about effminacy are right on, and despite several decades of "consciousness raising" and "equality for all" it persists. Little girls are given boys names; boys named Sue are still rare :)

(FF, when I was growing up, my aunt would come in, look at the television when my father had a football game on, sniff, and say, "Silly little men chasing that ball up and down the field." However, her take on ballet was equally sniffy: "Look at those silly people jumping around." Her idea of culture was sitting still and reading or listening to music :)

As for sports, I saw one baseball lgame. My father took me to see Ted Williams because he was "the greatest player." He was with the visiting team. We sat near some horrible men who yelled obscenities at him throughout the game, trying to unnerve him. I've never liked baseball since. I used to like football, though, before TV ruined it. )

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The attitudes about what is "manly" etc. obviously start at a young age. Both of my boys are figure skaters. Last week a hockey team made up of 9 year olds came into the arena during the last part of our club competition. They called my 12 year old and the sport several names of which I won't repeat. I can only believe that because of their young age that they have heard this type of thing at home(from their hockey-playing dads).

My son handles it by walking away and thinking, " Little do they know.......I'm the one that gets to share a changeroom with 20 girls"


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It occurs to me that maybe Barrie is a Texan - -it's manly there to give everybody a hard time, all the time -- on principle, it 's part of your seasoning.... Women do it too, but in Texas, the women are so manly the men have to double up....

It's a vestige of the pioneer spirit -- it wasn't easy raising cows there on land so dried up 40 acres wasn't enough to sustain 2 heifers and a bull. My great grandfather amassed a lot of land in north Texas by lending money to German immigrants and then foreclosing on them when they couldn't pay him back; he had it down to a science.)

So these guys tease you. But ballet and opera do sort of ASK to be parodied... since they are such extravagant arts in the first place. I just watched my old tape of the Trockaderos again yesterdayand found myself rather chastened by the wisdom in both hte swan and the Taglioni portraits; I doubled over every time Taglioni did that little "my back is killing me" walk around hte stage; she does it several TIMES, which only makes you realize that this is funnier than you can explain, it's funny every time, it's just as funny every time -- I laugh till I cry.... but WHY?????

Ballet and opera are fair game, like Socrates is fair game, because they claim to be telling us the REAL TRUTH about the things that REALLY MATTER. If so, say the satirists, why do you get so fixated on all this rigmarole? what do 32 fouettes have to do with the truth about love?

Well, there are plenty of choreographers who ask that question.... But Tamara Boumdieyeva, she knew.......

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Well, figure skating, like ballet, is identified with straight women and gay men. So is opera (as a spectator sport, so to speak). As with ballet, there is some empirical justification for this, although that of course never justifies bad jokes, harassment, and worse. Barry mentions eyeliner. The sight of men in makeup, blouse-like shirts, and tights – any gear identified with women – makes men and some women nervous. (This phenomenon can also apply in reverse to women, as Martina Navratilova could tell you.)

It's too bad in one sense that a Ted Williams game was your introduction to the sport, Alexandra, because Williams was probably the most disliked player of his era, as you may know, and he would make Barry Bonds look like Miss Congeniality. There are a variety of reasons for this, which I won't go into here, but Williams got the kind of reception you describe in Boston, too.

Paul is right, the cultural atmosphere is much more conservative now, and it's really too bad.

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I don't know whether Dave Barry is Texan or not -- he writes from Florida now, I think. :)

Do opera and ballet really cry out to be parodied? This is one American instinct that often makes me cringe -- Robbins will almost do something beautiful, and then have to put in a handstand to let you know he really didn't mean it; a lapse in taste -- the beautiful part, not the handstand. Or Eliot Feld, in the same case, will have his dancer step in something (snicker snicker) nasty. Why?

I've always loved the Trocks -- mostly because they are the only company, when they're at their best, that cares about some of the same stylistic niceties in ballet that I do, but I have friends who will only go to the ballet with me when it's Trocks time. The rest is boring, or silly, or whatever.

But I've never thought that opera and ballet -- or serious theater, or any of the other high arts (I know one isn't allowed to say that any more, but I do, and I don't care :) ) claim to tell The Truth? It's much easier to mock than to create, and it's very, very hard to create excellence on a high level within the restrictions of high art. When what's produced is good, I don't think it evokes parody. When a production is pretentious, then it does. But parodying it just for the sake of poking fun -- why? I don't think ballet and opera are inherently pompous, but I think that the Barries of the world do. I've always assumed it's that they grew up in a world where art had no place. If you grow up in a world where it does, all the suspicion, and urge to deflate, and mock, etc. seems odd.

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I think Citibob's phrase: "Women in America are conditioned to the idea that they are art" whereas "men are conditioned to the idea that they are to conquer art" speaks so much truth about some men's attitudes towards ballet and opera. These men are terrified of ever appearing to like something identified as a woman's realm to enjoy.

We also still have that Puritanism here in America where "prancing bodies" make some people nervous. Such things are meant for the bedroom only, they think, although they'll happily go to all kinds of "adolescent humor" sorts of movies and watch tv shows like "Friends" - loads of prancing bodies in both cases but they're meant to be laughed at, I suppose, whereas ballet is, as Alexandra mentioned, "high art".

I wish I knew the answer. I know one part of the answer is education. For the last 14 years, my husband and I have been parents to a ballet student. I'd already liked ballet prior to that time but my husband didn't. He's not the athletic sort either, in fact he's an Irish dancer, but he certainly didn't care one bit for ballet.

But then he started attending ballet performances (Dave Barry: I pray it's in your future too) because his daughter performed in them. Initially he looked forward to seeing his daughter on stage but was bored by the rest of the performances. Eventually, though, ever so slowly through the years, he said he'd catch himself thinking, "I wonder if they're going to change "Waltz" this year" or "How will so-and-so choreographing Prologue affect the mood?" Boom, he was hooked.

Now he says he looks forward to ballet performances regardless of whether or not his daughter is involved. He knows what he likes and what he dislikes, he has certain favorite dancers and styles and choreography. He can't wait to see this or that ballerina's variations and he's thrilled when he's seen a stellar performance. Against his will. without his consent, he's becoming a ballet afficionado.

I see this repeated in countless other fathers of students who've continued to study for many years. They get hooked without ever realizing it. They talk knowledgeably about this or that dancer's line and they get excited when they see a really great performance. Not one of these men would've chosen an interest in ballet had it not been for their daughters or sons love for dance.

But I don't know how to get the average man, with no dancing offspring to introduce him, to spend time at the ballet.

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I must say that you can't take Dave Barry's article too seriously. I laughed so much that tears came out of my eyes. I think that he set himself up in his article by saying those manly-man things so that he can make us laugh at his expense. It will only serve him right if one day Sophie, his daughter, will become a ballerina like she wanted. :)

P.S. Has anyone seen the cartoon on Barry's article? It was hilarious.

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Dave Barry is usually funny, but I consider this particular column a flop. In order to successfully parody something, one must have a somewhat decent knowledge of the subject. Barry doesn't know enough about ballet to succeed in this. His lack of insight on ballet means that instead of coming up with something clever and funny from his insights, he relies on the same old stereotypes as the source of his humor.

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Maxi, I thought it was funny too -- but it does raise stereotypes about ballet that many who love dance hate, and what's disturbing is that there are many more Dave Barrys out there than there are guys who go to the ballet.

vagansmom, I agree -- it's education. The older men I know, men who were boys before World War II (so now, very older men!) all went to the ballet when they were kids, and they love it now. Post-War men -- maybe it's televised sports, maybe it's that the arts aren't taught in school, but they don't go (and many women don't too, of course, but women aren't usually writing the articles and complaining about the tights :) )

dirac, haven't ballet and opera have been high art since the de Medicis? Dancers don't have respectability -- and no art has respectability in America, except among the dread "elites" -- but I think that's a different matter.

Apologies to Paul, whose first post I somehow missed -- but I think what you wrote "Manly men are back, and they're rather loud about it" is very true. The fashion turned in the '70s, with my generation. Slender, elegant poetic types were out, beefcake was in. Seven Sisters girls hooked up with hardhats. Why brains and brawn are mutually exclusive I don't know -- it's the male equivalent of Dumb Blonde Syndrome -- but yeah. To be manly, you have to spit in public, avoid the arts, and be, well, loud about it :)

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Oddly enough my husband saw and read this in our local paper and didn't think it was worth telling me about. I thought a bit of it was funny...but I, too, pray fervently that his daughter becomes hooked on ballet - Daddy Dave will succomb soon enough!

He is not uneducated...as are many who are uninitiated to the wiles of ballet... I like to think he's pandering with tongue in cheek... We can only hope!

My own husband did not grow up being exposed to the arts...except what he got in school - which wasn't much, I might add!:)... Nor did his parents have much exposure to the arts,either...they were too busy surviving. Husband played baseball in elementary school and through college, just so you know he's a manly man ;);)...Yet, I've never detected a moment's hestitation when it came to going to the ballet. He is just as spellbound as I am. :) Lucky me!:)

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Alexandra, I think you might've hit on something when you said, "Maybe it's televised sports." Dance ISN'T a televised event. People, most people, don't go out to events regularly anymore (exception being the movies, but that doesn't include dance either) because they don't have to - the events come to them via the TV. And if what comes to their TV's doesn't include dance, well, they don't ever get that experience. No education.

I heartily agree that older men have a broader understanding of and appreciation for fine arts. In their day, people DID go out to museums, dances (both as audience AND participant-most men knew how to dance socially), singing events. Since the advent of TV, it's all changed.

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My dear Alexandra,

First of all, about Barrie-- don't forget, he's a comedian; they also have their emplois. This is one of them. (Seems to me he’s a lot like Hilarion.)

But I am actually kind of nonplussed by your saying that opera and ballet dont tell you the TRUTH. What do you mean?

I know there are a lot of people now who don't have a classical education, but YOU're not one of them.

It's the essence of my education (which is old-fashioned, for sure) that the high arts try to show you the truth about life, or rather Nature, which is larger than life (much of nature is not living). And you’re always aware that this is impossible, but when a work -- say the Last Judgment, or King Lear, or Medea (anybody in New yOrk, you MUST go see Fiona Shaw in Medea), or Sleeping Beauty – gets close, you’re overwhelmed by the righteousness of it all. As Aristotle said, poetry is more true than history, since history is limited by facts but poetry can show you a case more representative than has yet been observed.

From the revival of learning till the 20th century, and with complications through the 20th century, high art has been more or less neo-Platonist. What made an art high rather than merely decorative is not the aristocracy that was paying for it but the aspiration of the artist to pierce through the world of appearances to the world of reality and bring the truth back in communicable form.... For another school, the aspiration was not to pierce -- that's hubristic -- but to be “wisely passive,” worthy to be chosen... and to be granted a vision that takes you to the other side. An image from Seneca which appealed to Renaissance dramatists was the idea of being rapt, caught up, like Ganymede, taken up to Heaven. Per ardua ad astra -- to the stars, to Parnassus, to heaven, wherever, it was always up..... but the work (ardua) was a prerequisite, it only made you ready for when the muse came....

Both opera and ballet are the product of Classical, and neo-classical rationalists, who believed that art has a duty to teach the truth by clothing ideas in beauty (dulce et utile) –

Before the high Renaissance there was a Gothic neo-Platonism -- think of Chartres, and of Abbot Suget recruiting every form of gorgeousness to inflame the soul with the love of God.

The Renaissance neo-classicists proper-- the painters and sculptors, the dramatists and poets and architects.... The creators of opera and ballet claimed theirs was more arduous then most, for they were trying to recreate the concentrated impact of Greek drama, which involved poetry, music, and dancing to concentrate all the senses on a fantastically distilled image of the truth about life....

It IS hard to see Lully as being whole-heartedly into this, since he was so busy making the case for Louis XIV as the Sun King and the propaganda function is hard to stomach. But then, how free was Michelangelo?.... if we HAD Le Ballet de la Nuit to see, it might be as lofty as that.....

Most modernists quailed before the duty to teach, though Auden didn’t, nor did Balanchine – abstraction made the idea only the clearer. The existentialist novelists used anti-heroes, but not out of cowardice. In my tradition, in Mississippi, especially if you think of myth as teaching, Faulkner and Tennessee Williams were squarely in Aristotle’s tradition and achieved tremendous things.

I know I was taught this, but I really believe it – the high arts are great because they conceive a beauty greater than they can present, and in that beauty they comprehend the good and the true. Swan Lake is as great as Hamlet, and so is DOn Giovanni, so is Tristan und Isolde...... Symphony in C and Agon are not in their league, but are great.

I guess this is my credo.....

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Yes, we're not disagreeing Paul, and I'm very glad to have such an impassioned defense of high art on this board! What I meant is that I don't think high art consciously sets out to tell The Truth (it does it inherently, if it is high art; does that makes sense?) Saying that one is telling The Truth and you'd better listen would be cause for mockery. I thought you were writing from the Texan's viewpoint :)

But the result is Truth, if it's art :) And I agree that there are people -- probably because they're NOT educated, and mistrust something that seems so arcane and that has never been explained to them -- for whom art does raise anger, resentment, and the weapon used against it is mockery. (Next stop, accusations of elitism, then cutting off the funding, then book burning.)

As for Barry being a comedian -- of course. And if you deconstruct his piece, you could read it as an apologia for getting interested in ballet through his daughter, but in Guy terms. I'm not suggesting we all write an email to Barry telling him how ignorant he is, just examine some of the reasons WHY this piece would be written -- he knows his audience. He knows there are more "I like it when the guy dumps the girl in the bushes too" people than those who'd prefer to see beauty.

vagansmom, I hate to blame television for everything, but who else is there? We don't read, our attention spans are 30 seconds long at best, we need everything delivered to us in a jingle. We didn't get that way without help! So I agree.

And of course there are many men who do like ballet and many women who'd rather watch the dog play frisbee (a squadron of dogs doing this, information, might qualify as a ballet). :)

I've read several men on message boards saying they didn't discover ballet until they were 30, 40, 50, etc. because they thought it would not interest them and were angry at the lost years. I think that's a crime (not for the men, but for the schools that didn't teach them). And when read stories like this, I always wonder how those millions of dollars of grants for dance education are being spent!

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Alexandra, your aunt reminds me of a bit in one of Garrison Keillor's News from Lake Woebegone monologues, in which a woman cooking the Thanksgiving meal for her extended family decides she isn't going to let the timing of the game interfere with the timing of the meal next year. So she videotapes the game, cutting out a lot of commercials, and the following year she gets the tape going before they all arrive. They guys are all surprised the game’s on so early, but they fall for the trick, and they’re very impressed when she correctly predicts the plays!

I suspect a lot of guys are just plain bored by dancing, bored by the music, and bored by the pretty sets and costumes. We probably don’t see these guys at the art exhibition or the symphony concert either. And yes, some are made nervous by the apparent homosexuality of some of the male dancers, but others are just turned off by it, and not just the intolerant ones. I think of Balanchine’s asking rhetorically “how much story you want?” -- the word “ erotic” seems way too strong, but isn’t the sexual element an almost everpresent, if often faint, undercurrent in ballet dancing? I mean, this is probably all too obvious, but doesn’t movement highlight sexxuality, especially intentionally expressive movement? Dunking a basketball is a macho form of grace, and attending to one’s line is not. That’s how I see it, at least.

As for the urge to mock, some of that must be cultural insecurity, no? I think Barry really is poking fun at himself as well as ballet. About for the women's costumes being as revealing as the men's … women often wear revealing or tight fitting clothing in public, of course. We don't see men in tights on the street.

Paul and dirac, could you give some examples of how you think the cultural atmosphere is more conservative now? And Alexandra, I thought Woody Allen was credited with making the “sensitive guy” fashionable in the 70’s. I thought 9/11 brought back the traditional types. But I just know what I read in the Times.

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