Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Die Meistersinger

Long ago I was given the sage advice "Never meet your heroes."

I did meet a few of my heroes and it went well. Ray Bradbury was one of the nicest and most wonderful people I've ever met in my life. But, I also knew that the few I'd met I had met on good days in controlled environments, and that just because I liked what a person was known for did not mean that I would like the person or that the person would like me (The converse also holds - just because I didn't like what a person was famous for didn't mean I might not get along splendidly with the person.) Some monsters make great art; and some saints create mediocre art. So I stopped seeking them out and I still think that that's wise. With eBay and a little bit of wisdom, I can have autographed copies of books without leaving this chair.

Once again, I had a news story for my Thursday News In Review which I thought I could write a whole blog entry on. But then it morphed inside my brain and turned into something I've wanted to write on for a while now. The story in question is the arrest of Roman Polanski who, as I'm sure you all know by now, drugged and raped a 13 year old girl about 30 years ago. He was convicted and fled the country before sentencing because he claims he was afraid the judge was going to make an example of him. He fled to Europe and spent the bulk of my lifetime living like a prince.

Look, Rosemary's Baby, and Chinatown are classics. There's no question in my mind that he has produced some fine films. The Pianist deserved its Oscars. I even kind of liked The Ninth Gate, although the book was astronomically better and a completely different galaxy of a story than the weird thing Polanski directed. But it's not about any of that. It's about raping a 13 year old girl and fleeing the country to avoid whatever the US Justice system deems an appropriate punishment. I'm sure there are other pedophiles in prison now who are capable of making great art. Some of these hypothetical pedophiles may even have had loved ones brutally murdered in their lives. None of that changes the pedophilia that they committed (which was the eventual actual charge by the way. The rape charge was dropped and he pled guilty to sex with a minor) which we as a people correctly agree is wrong. We also correctly agree as a society that fleeing justice is wrong. It doesn't matter if the now-grown girl forgives him. Doesn't matter if the mother tarted up her daughter and pushed her on him (in fact, doesn't that make it worse?)
I can't take anyone who defends Polanski seriously.

Although admittedly my artistic regard for Polanski is limited to a moderate appreciation of a handful of films which I'd gone years without thinking about even once. That's really all I have to say about him and all it's done has reignited something I've been thinking about for some time now. What this whole story has me thinking of is a book that if I turn my head slightly to the left right now I can see on my shelf taunting me. The book is titled My Life, and it is the autobiography of Richard Wagner. I've not read it yet, but I will, and probably will very soon; but I'm a little afraid to. I hold Wagner in very high artistic esteem, and it's rare that a day goes by that I don't at the very least think about The Ring Cycle, or mention Hans Sachs or Tristan or The Flying Dutchman (or, at the very least, leitmotifs) in conversation. And Parsifal I can only speak of in the hushest of tones and, were I one who wore hats, I would have to remove it whenever the opera is mentioned. I think he was one of the greatest artists in the history of Western Civilization. It would be a high watermark in my life if I ever am able to make a pilgrimage to the Bayreuth Festival. In spite of everything I just said, I probably wouldn't call myself a Wagnerite as I am also definitely and outspokenly a devotee of Johannes Brahms. I have no problem with loving both.

But personally, as I understand Wagner's life, he was a horrible man. He was strongly and outspokenly anti-semitic. He played with sort of proto-themes of the uber-mensch and was strongly nationalistic. Although he had some very close Jewish friends, he published many anti-semitic pamphlets and highly nationalistic pamphlets on what it means to be German. On one level it's fortunate that he kept this aspect of his worldview from being explicit in any of his operas. However, in case you didn't know, and as you can well guess from the direction of the rhetoric of his pamphlets, there is much heated debate over the responsibility of Wagner for the Nazis. I could point out that Parsifal was one of the operas banned by the Nazis. I could also point out that Wagner was not by any means anywhere near the only artist that the Nazis cannibalized. But, when it comes down to it, yes, I have to agree that the question arises as to artists' responsibility over what they incite.

To a large extent, you cannot blame the artist for the actions of the fans any more than you can blame the fans for the actions of the artist. We all have personal responsibility for our actions. Wagner was not a Nazi and it's hard to imagine if he had by some remarkable circumstance survived (he would have been 120 at Hitler's rise to power) if he ever would have been a Nazi. Still, there is no excuse for some of the atrocious things he said in his pamphlets. I tend to think of him as a heinous man who happened to produce some of the most beautiful works in the history of western civilization (a bit like how Salieri saw Mozart in Peter Schaffer's masterpiece Amadeus.)

But, then, on the other hand, the work of art lives outside of the artist in history. We should be able to fully enjoy the work without knowing a single thing about the artist (and, in some cases, we might be happier if that were the case.) If I were to despise every work of art by an artist who I found some flaw in their character, the only art I would enjoy would be by Anonymous (although art does exist which advocates horrible, foul and evil behavior, we're not talking about that right now.)

However, the individual is accountable and responsible for his behavior. If one does something evil, doing something wonderful does not nullify the evil action. One is still accountable for the evil action while the something wonderful floats away from the artist into the world to have a life of its own. All of which I suppose is a very long winded way of saying that I have no problem saying the following two statements with equal enthusiasm:

1) If you've never seen it, do go rent Chinatown. It is one of the greatest films in the history of film. It is a wonderful work of art and a masterpiece in the medium.
2) It would be entirely appropriate and just if Roman Polanski spends the rest of his life in prison.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


"To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man." - Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 3

When I worked in a Shakespearean theater company there was a type within the ranks of the subscription ticket holder whose path I would occasionally cross. All of the subscribers were not like this, but this type existed. Often I would talk to them, and a good deal of the poor little dears didn't have the sense to be ashamed of what I'm about to tell you. Some, in fact, were proud of this. The type was as follows: They went to Shakespearean productions to be more cultured. When I put that way it sounds fine, possibly even admirable. But, don't miss this, they felt as if becoming more cultured was something that happened to them by sitting in a room where Shakespeare was happening. It didn't matter if they paid attention or even stayed conscious. Shakespeare was cultural detention for them instead of a passion, a love of language, an unquenchable thirst for the greatest dramatic works ever penned. Unfortunately this reinforces the common (and misguided) perception that Shakespeare is too high fallutin, too esoteric for the common people to understand or enjoy. That's the real crime: people using Shakespeare to authenticate their sense of superiority eclipsing people who find Shakespeare's works so marvelous that they want to share Shakespeare with everyone.

I don't know why people fall for it. I have to assume that it is out of ignorance. I mean, we're talking about plays where men's heads turn into donkey heads; fat drunken men with adulterous intentions hide in the laundry basket. There are spells and monsters, ghosts and fairies and sometimes even bears onstage; villainous hunchbacks and virtuous heroes swordfight; pranks are played; Puritans and fops are lampooned; fortunes are gained and lost; people get murdered; people fall in and out of love; songs are sung; great wars and mighty storms happen; great men are born, made or sometimes have greatness thrust upon them; and, occasionally, there are witches and cannibalism - all to some of the most beautiful poetry and prose ever written in the English language. The appeal is anything but obscure. The appeal is universal. It is the very stuff of life.

Laurie and I were talking this morning about how the Christian church in America, in our experience, is full of non-Christians. This takes many forms that we've noticed in the many churches we've attended. There are those who are at church kind of like one would go to The Rotary Club, those who actually go there to actively sell things to people who have to listen because you're supposed to be a fellow Christian (this has happened to both Laurie and I multiple times), those who go there because it's supposed to be the religion of the Republican party, those who go because their parents went, those who go because they like to show off how they are anti-some other group of people who are not at that particular church because of their beliefs and/or lifestyle choices, those who go because the pastor is kind of a local rock star, those who are there because their boss is there, those who go because they are afraid of Hell, those who go because they want to let everyone know how superior they are (I think the Higher Life/Second Blessing/"sinlessness while we are still alive on Earth" from the Keswick crowd is one of the most evil theologies within the church today. It's tailored for people who want to look down their noses at other "lesser" Christians. What pain and meanness the Second Blessing lie has unleashed within Christianity, not to mention how those people treat unbelievers. How strange to turn Christianity, of all things, into a form of snobbery. Give me someone who admits to their glaring flaws readily any day! That's the person I can believe to tell me the truth.) or wag their fingers at others, those who go because they have a crackpot worldview and the church has to listen to them and the church is supposed to be too nice to tell them that they are barking mad, those who like to be right about everything and use correct biblical doctrine as a means by which to stroke that urge, those who go because churches give stuff out and sometimes serve meals, those who go because the rest of society has marginalized them, and on and on and on. Often one finds such churches have a low view of Scripture, salvation, God and Christ. Often one finds such churches would suggest that if you repeat a little prayer in your head and raise your hand while no one is looking, your salvation is assured no matter how much you continue to live like the Devil. As George Bernard Shaw so aptly put it "Christianity never got any grip of the world until it virtually reduced its claims on the ordinary citizen's attention to a couple of hours every seventh day, and let him alone on week-days."

True salvation comes through faith alone in Christ alone. While we were dead in our sins, God removed our hearts of stone and replaced them with hearts of flesh, so that those given the gift of faith (by no work of their own) in His atonement - God's Son on the cross, enduring God's wrath for our sins, dying, and rising to life again, a living Savior, after three days in the tomb - should abide with Him forever. This new heart produces an earnest desire in the believer to repent of sin, focus on God, to draw nearer to Him and do what is pleasing to Him, to know His Word and to glorify Him in all that he does. That is the meaning of life. We are no longer citizens of Earth, but citizens of Heaven and it should burn brightly in every aspect of our existence.

In my experience, those who have true conversion (become new creatures, catch fire for the Lord, become zealously passionate about His word and glorifying Him) have one of two things happen to them. Either they are run out of the church or they are made associate pastors. Which one happens, I think, has to do with whether the church thinks they can control the person or not.

A lot has been written on Matthew 7:21-23 which is the passage that reads "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'" It can be a scary passage because it begs the question, how does one know if one is authentic? Actually, Jesus speaks to that directly before this passage "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits."

I think we ought to be passionately concerned about our salvation. I think that we all ought to be self-examining at all times, tossing that which has wicked motivation or is wrongheaded, seeking to draw closer to a life which bears good fruit. I think it's a good thing to have constant awareness of why we are doing what we are doing (although at times I would settle for awareness of what I am doing.) It is promised that the gate is narrow and hard. Don't do things out of a sense of social duty or fear of man. I would really rather see huge masses of rank heathens and a handful of the saved, than mega-churches jammed full of those unable to hear the gospel because no one can convince them that they aren't already Christians.

I tend to gravitate toward the honest and the admittedly flawed. I like it when people admit who they are regardless of what that may be, or, more to the point, I find that preferable to those who pretend to be something close to what I am.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


My folks were in town this weekend which ought to explain my relative internet silence this weekend. On Friday Laurie and I, my brother's family, and my folks went out to dinner at Original Pete's (where I had never eaten before. I know from my delivering days that they have a very clean kitchen though. The food is excellent.)
All of us in our assorted permutations of Mathers families are going through rough patches right now.
Long time readers of the blog know the last time I saw my mother an emergency room doctor had just told her to say her goodbyes. She pulled through and this weekend they came up to visit.
But there is a strength when we are together. We have a very strong family and a very loving family. At that dinner there was so much laughter and so much love. I've said it before, but I won the family lottery. Not only do we love each other in the kin/blood way, but we actually really like on another. We are friends as well.
A long time ago when I was going through a rough period of my life (when my ex-fiance left me) I was hiking one day in the Modjeska Canyon area. I remember sitting by a creek in an obscure, esoteric portion of the canyon. It was a minor tributary, but I sat there for a long time listening to the trickle of water and watching the creek. I remember thinking while I was up there "Remember, when you get back, when you're in the midst of all your troubles in the city, remember that this is still going on up here. This still exists."
I think this weekend had a little of that same feeling for me. Anyway, it was wonderful to spend time with my family and good for my soul.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Answered Prayers

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal's Weekend Journal section this morning on works by authors published posthumously. There are a lot of them about to be published this autumn and the article brings into question what the authors would have thought about those works being published.

I have a few reactions to it. One is that it must be taken on a case by case basis what they would have thought. I have a hard time imagining Kurt Vonnegut being too upset about a couple of collections of unpublished short stories being published after he died. At worst, if they are horrible, it's not really going to destroy his reputation as one of the greatest authors in American history. And more likely they will probably be pretty darned good. Mark Twain, on the other hand, had scads of works and fragments unpublished at the time of his death. For a long time they were locked away and suppressed. Now most of them have been published and a good deal of Twain scholars claim that we probably didn't ever really need to have sub-par Twain. Others argue that it's a valuable look into his mind. I think it's probably safe to say that those works were one-off publications while Huckleberry Finn will be in print 500 years from now. At worst they are novelties for the completest Twain fan.

It gets a little dicier with David Foster Wallace who had two manuscripts for a novel when he hung himself. His editor has no idea which one Wallace preferred, so they're just going to run with one. Similarly, Vladimir Nabokov's novel The Original of Laura was left in manuscript form to his family when he died with the strict (and strange) instruction from the author to burn it after his death. By no means did he want it to ever be published. Guess what's being published this fall? Not to be too harsh to Nabokov, but, in my opinion, you lose your vote by dying. History will cull the material. The crap will fade into obscurity while the gold will remain.
One of the more exciting ones for me is Carl Jung's, The Red Book, to be published next month. It is his journal of his waking hallucinations from a part of his life when he was having hallucinations. It's been in a safe deposit box for a century and his family has greeted any suggestion of publication with downright hostility. Until now. By a lot of accounts I've been reading, it looks like it very well may end up being an instant classic and a key work in the field of psychology, as well as a smashing good read. I would be planning to camp out in front of Barnes and Noble were it not $105. Thank you very much, Norton, but I've been waiting 100 years, I think I can wait a few more for the Penguin Classics edition.

Currently, I'm reading a collection of interviews of Truman Capote. When Capote died he had published in magazines three parts of a supposed larger work called Answered Prayers. After he died the manuscript still hasn't shown up aside from those fragments to this day. There are various stories from the end of his life. One is that he left it in a cab. One is that a lover of his stole the manuscript. One is that he threw it in the fire, as we know for sure he did with another of his mid-period complete manuscripts. One is that he never finished it beyond the three fragments, and, indeed, some of his statements back this up, while some statements of his claim that it was completed. Added to the mix is that the man spent the last 15 years of his life drunk about 23 hours a day, so his testimony is suspect.

The fragments of Answered Prayers have been published anyway (for quite some time now) and they are amazing. It is like Schubert's Unfinished Symphony. It is a classic in itself; but one aches to know that once there was probably more to it. There is still hope though. Lost literary manuscripts are sometimes found and sometimes wonderful. Sometimes they are awful. But, again, I think there's nothing wrong with publishing them. Time and the people will decide if they endure. Besides all that, indulge the curious, a wonderful group whose ranks I am proud to be a part of.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Thursday News In Review

Chess News:

Garry Kasparov and Anatoli Karpov are having a rematch. You all know of their famous face off from 25 years ago and their few rematches in the time since. They are playing 12 blitz games of about an hour a piece to avoid a 5 months long game. As of my writing this, Kasparov is owning Karpov without mercy.

Also in chess news, I am now on Chess. com with the username Fafner. I welcome all challengers.

More Crashing Things Into Other Things News:

The probes have confirmed it. Water has been discovered on the moon. Or, more specifically, a thin layer of hydroxl molecules (no, it's not what the cookies are made from) on the surface, but water none the less. It's not going to be a viable solution to the ground water problem on Earth as one football field worth of surface on the moon would yield less than a quart of water. The more interesting part is that it isn't supposed to be there. Scientists are as of yet uncertain why there is water on the moon.

Unemployed People Rule! News:

An unemployed man in England was walking around with a metal detector in a field in Staffordshire and found what he rightly called "what metal detectorists dream of." He stumbled upon the largest haul of Anglo-Saxon treasure ever found (nearly 1,400 items.) It's believed to have been stashed around the 7th Century. Of course, the hoard has been claimed by The Crown. But how cool is it for an unemployed guy with a metal detector going out one morning and changing history, becoming an important figure himself in archaeological history. It should give each of us hope for each new day. We have no idea how important today might be.

Vaccine News:

Another piece of very good and potentially history making news is the promising HIV vaccine news released today, greatly upstaging the UN speeches (and thank God for that pleasant side effect as well!) A group of scientists in Thailand have tested an HIV vaccine which appears to reduce the spread of the virus by 1/3rd. Which may not sound all the great at first, but do bear in mind that this is the first vaccine of any efficacy against the virus ever.

UN Weirdness News:

World leaders are gathering for a UN conference in New York and, as usual, many of the world leaders are barking mad. Obama opened with a re-commitment of the US to the UN (after, you know, 8 years of the US flipping the UN the proverbial bird) and a call for nuclear disarmament already. Then there were speeches by other world leaders, many of them madder than an old hooty owl.

Gambian president Yahya Jammeh, who rose to power through a coup in 1994, said that he will have interfering human rights workers killed. "I will kill anyone who wants to destabilize this country," he said. "If you think that you can collaborate with so-called human rights defenders, and get away with it, you must be living in a dream world. I will kill you, and nothing will come out of it."

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, straight from a recent monstrous anti-Semitic Holocaust-denying rant, gave a speech denouncing the "Age of Empires" which was a fairly thinly veiled saber rattle over larger nations' actions to prevent Iranian nuclear proliferation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu devoted most of his speech to rebutting Ahmadinejad's speech and, indeed, his very presence. He called Ahmandinejad's speech a mockery of the United Nations, and said people who listened to the Iranian leader gave " "legitimacy to a man who denies the murder of 6 million Jews, while promising to wipe out the state of Israel, the state of the Jews."

"Yesterday, the man who calls the Holocaust a lie spoke from this podium. To those who refused to come and to those who left in protest, I commend you. You stood up for moral clarity, and you brought honor to your countries.

"But to those who gave this Holocaust denier a hearing, I say on behalf of my people, the Jewish people, and decent people everywhere, have you no shame? Have you no decency?"

And then there was Libya's leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi (or Gaddafi. I don't know.) whose rambling 90 minute speech included: tearing up the UN charter, claiming that swine 'flu is man-made, losing his place on his tiny sheets of handwritten note cards surprisingly often, talking about his jet lag and speculating on the killer of JFK. UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown noticeably avoided Qaddafi. As you well remember, Scotland's release of the Lockerbie bomber... didn't go so well. Brown, however, got up after Qaddafi and changed his speech off the cuff to reaffirm and defend the UN charter. Points to Gordon Brown, for a change.
All of which could be viewed as a really depressing mess, dashing hope for unity and world peace. Which leads me to end on:

Fashion Week News:

Fashion Week happened this past week. I've been following it closely on the news, Youtube and Twitter. Fashion Week gives the major houses of fashion the opportunity to show new collections and trends with lavish runway shows. New York, London, Milan, and Paris (in chronological order of their shows) are all the hubs of some of the major fashion weeks although they take place worldwide (Chico doesn't have one yet though.) So, you're probably asking yourself why I, a man who just went outdoors in a Grateful Dead t-shirt and basketball shorts, am so interested in Fashion Week. I suppose there is an element of being fascinated by something I am so removed from, although at one time in my life I was very fashion forward to the point of extreme eccentricity.

But really, it's because, make no mistake, the fashion industry is one of the most innovative and exciting art forms of our time. From the top there are innovators like Betsey Johnson, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Tam, Jean Charles dr Castelbajac who bring freshness, whimsy and joy to their work. Karl Lagerfeld has become sort of an unlikely hero around our house with his stark, stunning style and his tendency to bring technological advances to his work. Actually, it may have more to do with his sense of humor, charm and high quotability, but whatever. The quiet elegance of Vera Wang. There are fresher faces like Alexander Wang, Prabal Gurung, and probably a few hundred others I've never heard of. And these are the heavy hitters. These are the top designers. These are the old guard of haute couture at this point. I've seen things in sketchbooks by college students who haven't broken that glass ceiling yet that would turn your hair whiter than Lagerfeld's (I would also point out that that is how Gaultier got his start, with no formal training, just an awesome sketchbook passing before the right eyes.) It is one of the most exciting art worlds I know of, and one of the industries that happily marries champagne and fun with hard business.

Having said that, times being what they are, sometimes things like Fashion Week look a bit Masque of the Red Death to some. The fine arts are the first to suffer in times of economic free fall. If I were to report "lots of biker shorts, peach and purple lipstick (also some clean, no makeup looks), and goddess hair to come this spring" while struggling to keep my house and daily looking and failing to find work for the past 5 months, you might see the cognitive dissonance. And by "you" I guess I mean me in my darker moments. In those moments I need to remember to lighten up. The sun still rises, I still have life and a family that loves me. Even if I lose everything, what does it matter if I maintain my soul. So often I have argued that art is probably even more essential for the poor. Otherwise the world is entirely ugly. That's the thing about fashion week. It is entirely a luxury and therefore necessary. As Camus wrote "Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time. " Or, as Karl says below, "beyond practical."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Shabby Little Shocker

I was going to lead with this story in tomorrow's news roundup, but decided that I could do a whole post on it. The opera world caught fire this past week when the New York Metropolitan Opera opened with Giacomo Puccini's Tosca and the director and designers were booed to scorn by the audience at the curtain call. Just the production team were booed, which is good because this would be a whole different kind of tirade if I ever caught people disrespecting conductor James Levine. By all accounts, the musicians and singers were fantastic.

Tosca is one of the more heavily rotated operas in the canon. Briefly, it's about a singer named Tosca, her lover, and a cop who tries to threaten Tosca with her lover's execution to get her to sleep with him. It's Puccini, so by the time the curtain falls all three of the leads are dead. Tosca kills the police officer; the painter lover is executed; and Tosca kills herself by throwing herself off of the ramparts of the castle where the execution took place. It's one of the greatest operas in the history of the form; and you probably know some of it whether you realize it or not. The boos came because of some of the forehead-slappingly poor directorial choices by Luc Bondy. Previously the Met had a production by Franco Zeffirelli (who non-opera folk may remember as the director of the 1968 Romeo and Juliet film, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Mel Gibson Hamlet.) They might do well to go back to that production so that future audiences can hear the music over the sound of Rudolf Bing spinning in his grave.

Bondy's production takes liberties with the story. He tried to cut out as many religious trappings as he could. Tosca is a religious woman, but not in this production. Instead of Tosca attacking Scarpia with a knife, she lays on the couch with a knife hidden and he kind of... lays on it. In the text, the highly religious Tosca places candles around Scarpia's body and a crucifix on his chest, and then flees the scene horrified by what she's done. In Bondy's production, she looks out the window and then goes and sits on another sofa, hanging out with the corpse as the scene ends (and the first round of boos started). Apparently Tosca's suicide was very awkwardly staged as well. I guess there was hesitation in Tosca's suicide as well. It seems to me you don't improve Italian opera by making the dramatic tension weaker.
NY Met director Peter Gelb said of the booers that they are "perhaps too rooted in the past."

Peter Gelb is not one of my favorite people. He famously watered down Sony's classical label when he was in charge, seeking a more mainstream audience. When he became director of the Met he said, “I think what I’m doing is exactly what the Met engaged me to do, which is build bridges to a broader public. This is not about dumbing down the Met, it’s just making it accessible." Translation: It's about dumbing down the Met.

This kind of thinking about serious music leads to things like this, which embarrass both the classical and the mainstream music world (I love Pavarotti; and I love Barry White; and I love My First, My Last, My Everything. This was a train wreck.) Frankly, I think I can speak for all people passionately devoted to classical music when I say we are so sick of this crap.
Gelb also said "But after 25 years of the old Tosca, in order for this theater to continue to stay vital, we must move forward by offering new productions that will stimulate our imagination and that will demonstrate that our art form is not locked in the past.” Locked in the past?!!? We're talking about opera here! You can't get much more archaic in your art forms! We like it that way.

Look, I'm all for fresh takes on classics if done properly. A slick, modern, Matrix style Hamlet (which I spent about 2 years as an Assistant Director, and then light operator, on) or a minimalist The Tempest, or even a gender reversed Waiting for Godot can all be fine ideas if they are done well. It adds to the timelessness of the piece and our connection to it while allowing for personal artistic style. But never at Shakespeare Orange County did we change the plot; and always we sought excellence in stage direction. At no point did we try to shake things up by saying "maybe we could downplay Falstaff's drinking" or "let's make Shylock a Frenchman in this version." This production of Tosca seems to have been by all accounts a double whammy of tampering with a classic poorly and inept stage direction.

I am a poor man and my wife has only recently come to love opera through DVDs from our library. Suppose we won a trip to New York and, as would likely be the case, one of the most exciting prospects for us would be to see an opera at the Met. We would scrimp and save for tickets; and suppose we pinched enough to afford to see Tosca. Then suppose what we ended seeing was not Tosca per se, but some pompous director's reinterpretation. Imagine the conversations that would follow of, "No, I'm telling you that scene is usually one of the more moving scenes in opera." Someone should tell Bondy (and Gelb) that "innovative" is not a synonym for "poorly executed."

Bondy is peddling elitist crap (I know! "Elitism at the opera? Now I've heard everything!") with the goal of rattling the season ticket holders, with no regard for the art, the piece, and the people who earnestly desire to experience Tosca for perhaps the first time. And he won, as the NY Times (and my blog) are talking a blue streak about it and the run has already sold out. Gelb's rhetoric leads one to expect Bizet's Carmen with Taylor Swift in the title role (complete with "Carmen, I'ma let you finish, but Aida had the greatest aria of all time!")

Although in fact next up is Mozart's Die Zauberflote staged by the awesome Julie Taymor, which if I were offered tickets in return for a finger I would seriously think "well, I don't use my pinkies that often..."

Just because we can do something does not mean that we should. If you're looking to do edgy, let's see the Met do the new Doctor Atomic opera or Howard Shore's opera based on Cronenberg's The Fly. I can't speak to the quality of either as I've never seen or heard either, but quality seems to have fled the day anyway. I don't see the Met doing Anthony Davis' Malcolm X opera. That one would raise some eyebrows. What I'm driving at is when they say they are looking to be innovative and to breathe life into the opera, they are bald-faced lying! If you want to do new, you can do new. There are starving composers walking the Earth as we speak. It's laziness.

But, in conclusion, this is a disappointing beginning for the NY Met season and a sad commentary on the state of the arts in America. Appreciate the classics and seek to find (or, better yet, create) the contemporary works that will be future classics. Cheap tricks don't fool anyone.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Odd Volume- Volume 2

After two aborted blog attempts (one on college degrees and one on Richard Wagner) I decided to do another one of these posts on weird books in my personal library.
A note to new readers, this blog is not entirely about books (just mostly.) Also, once again, you can click on the pictures to make them bigger.

On the left is a book that probably should be called an encyclopedia rather than a dictionary. It's a book of information a la the Encyclopedia Britannica except that it is entirely focused on imaginary places like Oz, Neverland, Lilliput and so on. There are maps and drawings of flora. For some reason I've always loved books that break down the fourth wall of imagination and treat the fantastic as one treats the scientific. It's far from exhaustive, but it is a rip-roaring fun book to take down and spend a few hours in. The writers did a fantastic job. The entries have history, geography, economics, and other information on the imaginary place followed by the work of fiction from which the place comes.
As interesting and on a similar note, A Natural History of the Unnatural World deals with crypto-zoology which is to say the zoology of creatures which are most likely mythological. This one's design is far more compelling although slightly less information rich with photographs, drawings, biological information, testimonies, geographic information, and so on. There are entries on dragons, Basilisks, elves, trolls, kobolds, kelpies, sea serpents, mermaids, minotaurs and on and on and on. Both books play it very straight. Both are the kind of thing that I would have carried with me at all times as a child.

Philip K. Dick was a science fiction author who one day found himself living in one of his plots against his will. For those of you who don't know, he had a strange experience in the 1970s where reality went all funny on him, he saw ancient Rome superimposed on modern times, he saw visions of fire, flashes of works of modern art, and much more. One of the stranger bits was he "received" the information that his son had an uncommon life threatening hernia which, while not easy to detect, was easily solved with surgery. He took his son to the doctor to check and, indeed, he had that very condition. The vision saves his son's life. This sort of visionary oddness lasted several months and then stopped. PKD spent the rest of his life (about a decade) trying to figure out what had happened to him.
But he didn't come up with any concrete answers. He wrote three novels on the subject (which I think are his best work. They are Valis, The Divine Invasion and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.) But he also wrote thousands of pages of what he called his "Exegesis" speculating soviet (or Nixonian) mind control, theophanies, anamnesis, schizophrenia, messages from aliens, or any mixture of those. When PKD fans hear about this, they tend to say "my gosh, I wish I could read that." For a short time they could because Lawrence Sutin put together a highly abridged version in the early 1990s. It's now extremely rare. There are very few people in the world who would be interested in such a volume, but those who are are VERY interested.

Sparrow is a poet in New York. On the left is an account of his "run for president" on the Pajama Party ticket in 1992. He lost. Mainly he stood outside political events with a megaphone and read poetry.
The volume on the right is Yes, You Are A Revolutionary! It's an instruction book for revolutionaries and it is hilarious. It gives advice like "train yourself to leave a movie in the middle" or "infiltrate the Boy Scouts" or "draw with your foot" or "study the hula." It also has some striking bits like this "Begin taking long walks, through a city. Notice the CEOs and limousine drivers and toiling waitresses and laughing children. Look at the children carefully. What will they become when they are large? Will they still be laughing?"
It also has recipes for Revolutionary Fortune Cookies, The People's Polenta, and Victory Ice Cream.

This book is many lists of dead celebrities. It has how and when they died, but more importantly it has where they are buried. I used to live in Southern California and you'll notice the book has a lot of wear to it. That's because I used to organize groups to go to Hollywood on cemetery trips to visit the graves of celebrities. I cried at Truman Capote's grave by the way.
One time we went to the Hollywood Memorial Cemetery and I wanted to go into the mauseleum where Vincent Price and Peter Lorre and Rudolf Valentino were buried, but it was closed. I was dejected and an older man came up and asked if we had come to see River Phoenix. I said, "No, I wanted to see Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Rudolf Valentino." The man was thunderstruck that kids our age even know who those people were and he was so impressed that he (who was an off-duty tour guide) gave us a free walking tour of the cemetery (which included Douglas Fairbanks, Mel Blanc, Tyrone Power, and Virginia Rappe who was the girl that Fatty Arbuckle killed.)
It's an old edition so I think it only goes up to about 1998, but I'm sure there are even more recent editions.

Ah, fellow hardcore Orson Welles fans know this rare little volume. Clifford Irving, fresh from hoaxing the world with a fake "autobiography" of recluse Howard Hughes, wrote this biography on Elmyr De Hory, the greatest art forger of our time. It's said that if you go to a museum of modern art there is a strong chance that a large portion of the major works you're looking at are actually by Elmyr. It's a tremendous story about art forging and the dishonesty of experts. Orson Welles made a film based on it (but also drawing Clifford Irving's own fakery and, in fact, Welles' own fakery into the story. Even to the point of suggesting that Elmyr may or may not have actually existed and the whole thing may be either entirely true or entirely false or some variation thereupon.) Along with all of that, it's a very interesting and well told story. As with all of these, it's a shame that it's not more widely available.

Well, I don't know about you, but I'm enjoying these posts and plan on doing more. It's great fun for me to do, I get to write about books which I love, and it's something for slow news/opinion days. I have a Religion edition and a Cookbook edition planned in the near future. Ta!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Book Review: The Living End by Stanley Elkin

The book I'm reviewing this time is not a new book. You can probably find it in your local library and might have difficulty finding it in a bookstore (which is fine. The author is 14 years gone and not profiting from the new printing. Don't feel too guilty for reading it on someone else's dime.) I would call it a cult classic, except that the only two places I've ever heard it mentioned before are 1) the anthology where I read an excerpt from it many years ago and 2) myself talking about said excerpt. It was first released in the 1970s and has been out of print until fairly recently. I'm guessing because some publisher noticed there were about a thousand or so people like me around the world asking around at hairy-chinned literary-geek parties "Any news on whatever became of 'The Living End'?"

The other day I found out that a copy has been sitting in the Chico library for about 30 years. I said to Laurie "Quick! To the library!"
Which is something I say often.

I'll get to the material in a moment. The book put me very much in mind of a surprising revelation I had as I became well acquainted and knowledgeable about (and in love with) Scripture. The realization was about how many professing Christians in America know so little about the Bible and biblical doctrine. For a great many, often without their knowing where it came from, their theology comes from little third hand bits of the Bible from a smattering of topical sermons, some Milton, some Dante, Cabin in the Sky, Young Goodman Brown, Damn Yankees, The Horn Blows At Midnight, It's A Wonderful Life, The Devil and Daniel Webster, Warner Brothers cartoons, and perhaps even more disturbingly, Frank Peretti and (shudder) The Shack. When not in mixed company I call it "action figure religion" and I am unnerved by how often I hear earnest talk about "praying the demons out of" somewhere or something - or selling one's soul to the Devil, that sort of thing. Often the same types mix up Proverbs with quotes from Benjamin Franklin.

The Living End is in the idiom of action figure religion. It kind of riffs on that reality tunnel. Demons have horns, the gates are pearly with white bearded St. Peter with keys on a chain, etc.
The book is also squarely in the style of and generation when Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut and Gore Vidal ruled the planet. Even if you removed the Watergate jokes from the book, you could very easily tell that this was a dark comedic novel from the 1970s. This is not a criticism. I'm very fond of that period. But it does bring certain baggage and expectations to the text.

The novel is a triptych. It follows three threads and, as usual, I don't want to give away too much of the plot. It starts on Earth with a man who dies (you would have learned that in the first 20 pages anyway. It is sort of the inciting incident) and experiences Heaven and Hell. The book jacket calls it a "contemporary version of Dante's Divine Comedy." That is very misleading. It has in common rich descriptions of the author's views of Heaven and Hell (no Purgatory) but the similarities end there. There is no lost love, there is no real progress through the layers of those places, there is no coming out the other side.

The label of "dark comedy" falls short fairly quickly as the book takes on some fairly heavy philosophical (and theological) issues. The world of the living on Earth comes across as so petty, mundane, cruel, miserable by our own making, and mean in this book, in comparison to what comes after. Hell is Hell. Elkin does a masterful job at describing Hell; and it is grueling. Most of the text takes place in Hell and it is a terrible place, the stuff of nightmares. He pulls no punches and the book ceases to be a haw-haw book at that point. Hell also has history, continuity, events, and relationships. In fact, in the sections of Hell Elkin turns a mirror on humanity, on our relationships, our misery, and our petulance.

There is a section in the middle which deals with sort of an oblivion/in-the-grave death which was very, very well done. It also struck me that Neil Gaiman has clearly read this book.

The portion in Heaven is very strange. Elkin is apparently not very sympathetic to God (until the end, which I might argue changes everything about everything said in the book. Very well done. It takes you right up to the last few words to get to it and it left me stunned.) Mary and Joseph's unique domestic situation is explored. Paradise ends up being problematic for created beings just like the rest of existence in ways one might not have expected. With the possible exception of God, I didn't get the impression that Elkin was being flip, dismissive or irreverent with any of the material. I thought he sought to really explore the issues through the filter of himself, a middle aged guy in St. Louis in the 1970s. In that respect I think he did a wonderful job, and that it is a fantastic book. His character of God is, as I said, not terribly flattering, but, without trying to make apologies for Elkin's views, I would add that the rift between Creator and creation, Job's impossibility of understanding the ways of the Almighty, may be what Elkin is exploring and, again, I think the final moment backs me up on that.

While the book is very readable, (and only about 150 pages. You could sit down and read it in an afternoon if you ever had that kind of time on your hands) I found it coming off the rails a bit in the middle of the third act. There are some sections meant to be poetic which I didn't find all that helpful or clear. In short, if I were Elkin's editor, it would probably be about a 110 page book, but that's just me. I hope I'm not being overly harsh and now feel compelled to mention again that it is a very well written book. After this admittedly limited experience with his work, I'm not entirely sure why Elkin is not a name in American literature like Vidal or Roth (he's no Kurt Vonnegut though. But who is?)

Finally, would I recommend it? Yes, I think I would with a few caveats. I personally didn't think it was blasphemous as it comes in with the presupposition of speculative fiction, exploring philosophically, sociologically and theologically, Man's Existential Dilemma. I never felt threatened or insulted by the book. Personally, I didn't find Elkin's God any more offensive than Kazantzakis' Christ. It was clear to me that the book was meant to ask "what if." Perhaps this is a rare instance of me being too generous. I really don't think Elkin set out to mock my belief system. I think the book could give an opportunity for so many questions, conversations and exploration of themes such as: salvation, works, damnation, suffering, man's inhumanity to man, the harshness of existence, and forgiveness in its many manifestations. There are some heartbreakingly beautiful passages in this book. There are also some laugh out loud passages. There were even a couple of moments when I teared up. I think it was a profitable little diversion for me and one that will stick with me for years to come.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Against Vandalism

I think I can come out as being entirely opposed to vandalism in any form. Last night we had vandals focus the activity which makes them vandals on our street corner. When I woke up this morning there was trash in our yard (not all that uncommon, but this time it included a plunger.) Our neighbor across the street lost a For Sale sign on her truck and part of her fence was torn down. The duplex next door is up for sale. The realtor's sign was missing and the fliers were strewn all over the street and wet grass. It also looked like they messed about in the Ag Mart parking lot across the street. So, I picked up the fliers and put them back in their holder. I threw away the plunger. We called the police and the realtor and talked with our neighbors.

I have a friend in San Francisco who I used to visit several times a year. My friend was very much into the concept of "culture jamming" and the nature of that city is such that there are ample examples. You can take a walk and see fine examples of the differences in what is known as culture jamming (often changing the messages of the ubiquitous advertisements. Here's an example of one made of from the new Pepsi logo), graffiti art (which is graffiti but artistic, lovely, or with a specific message aside from just an obvious signature. Some examples are graffiti artist Swoon, Banksy, or Shepard Fairey who incidentally also did this), and just plain graffiti (which my friend referred to as "territorial peeing." This is the type which is usually just an illegible signature or number in black spray-paint. This is also the type we tend to get in my neighborhood.)

One could make a very strong argument for the former two having their place. Indeed, the presence of, say, a Banksy in one's neighborhood adds a level of hipness in certain circles. In fact I would even go so far as to say that, taken out of the context of location, the examples of the former two I've linked to above are beautiful and clever. On a personal note, I've posted many of the former two in my photo dumps on my other blog , delighting in some of the more clever examples. Upon reflection, while I still have no problem and often delight in making statements with recognizable logos and advertisements on a computer or perhaps on fliers, I think my basic philosophy must needs make me categorically against vandalism in any form. I've heard all of the arguments that culture jamming and graffiti art are taking back the public visual arena and firing back at the ruthless capitalistic structure which won't allow us one moment of unadvertised public sightseeing.

However, needless to say, these generally do not have the permission of the property owners (otherwise we would call them murals, the artist would be paid, and the artist would work in broad daylight). This is not taking back the public arena because the spaces vandalized are all private property. Billboards are not owned by Pepsi. They are owned by some dude, probably locally, who rents the space to advertisers to support their families and employees. Also needless to say, the presence of graffiti encourages lesser elements to commit further vandalism. The ruining of the owner's desired aesthetic of their property encourages a general apathy, indigence, and debauchery.

My step-son tells me that there is an ethic of sorts amongst street artists which states that one ought not tag on private property (as in tagging people's homes and, as I understand it, churches.) He remarked on this with a level of shock when graffiti of the territorial peeing sort appeared on several houses around us recently. The question that came to my mind was "where would one in that mindset draw the line and, more importantly, why would they ever feel compelled to draw a line?" You're already presuming to damage, or at the very least alter, something which does not belong to you. It belongs to someone else and that's one of those visceral forms of ethics, the morality that one can usually argue across the board save with sociopaths. The idea that "if I have something which is mine and you take it from me, that is wrong." Things cost. People devote time and energy to earning goods or credits. When you take that from them in any form you are stealing their life.

I thought about how monstrous it would be if even the greater graffiti artists turned their cans on St. Paul's in London, or The Hagia Sophia, or St. Peter's Basilica. Why is it less so with another building? Or, put another way, you don't see these people with their so-called high ideals, taking back the public space, commenting on the evils of capitalism and a culture of avarice, you don't see them targeting mortgage lenders and HMOs. You see them targeting poor neighborhoods where they will get away with tagging, signing their name, or at least forcing works on a space which will be identified with them them them. There is a glaring hypocrisy inherent in it. Instead of an advertisement in public for Pepsi, you have an advertisement for Banksy (who does have products for sale, by the way. I've held his expensive art books in my hands, flipped through the pictures and the anti-establishment quotations to the $30 price tag on the dust jacket.) And then I thought about the dudes who are just eking out a living putting up billboards, driving trucks, running a bakery, on their feet eight hours a day to keep food on the table and a roof overhead. They come out and find their property tagged, who eats the money? Who suffers from the degradation and depreciation of the collective "value" of their neighborhood? The poor. That's who. It doesn't send a message to the advertisers, it sends the signal to indigents that no one cares if they shoot up in those doorways. And suddenly all of this street art looks like elitist exploitation. Suddenly I see that it boils down to an irreverence for human life. I find myself hating "graffiti art" in any manifestation.

Having said all of that, what we experienced last night was petty mayhem from probably some young people who can't hold their liquor. The irreverence for life thing does still apply though. While I type this, the realtor (who is a guy with a family who was having a yard sale when I called him this morning) is next door putting up a new sign. Those signs aren't cheap.

One of the key points of my theology (or perhaps philosophy might be more apt in this case although I know Schweitzer would have called it a theological point) is Reverence For Life. By that I'm not talking about the political topic of abortion. I'm talking about Albert Schweitzer's concept of applying reverence for life to every aspect of your life. He wrote, "Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.” It leads me to evaluate myself. We have so many choices from day to day to revere or destroy. To fill our own bellies, to feed our own pride or to seek to help others. Compassion or selfishness. Sometimes you have to garden, or take a walk, or chat with a neighbor, or ride a bike, or have a barbecue, or mow the lawn (or clean up any vandalism as soon as humanly possible to prevent copycats and gloating rights for the vandals) to stave off the seemingly endless hoards of evil forever seeking to destroy everything in their path.

Friday, September 18, 2009

While Ye May

I've had mortality in the forefront of my mind recently. I try to keep it in front of me as much as I can in life. I think it's healthy for people to have it in front of them all the time and not off on the periphery so that when it jumps out at times it shakes you to your core. I think it's good to remember every day that you are one day closer. It keeps one focused in the right ways. I don't know if it's because it is Autumn and all the natural glories that are the wilds of Northern California are turning to the red/brown/yellow of sleep/death/stasis. Or maybe it's because our cat just died. Or maybe it's still rattling around from a few months ago when I visited my mother in the hospital right after the doctor told her to say her goodbyes, unable to imagine that she would make it through that part of her illness. Or because Radio Lab just did an episode on the After Life.

I was reading an essay by Sigmund Freud, of all people, about transience. It was the simple story of Freud taking a walk with a poet who was unable to enjoy the beauties of nature around them because all of it was transient, temporary, fleeting. Freud argued that this is all the more reason why it should be enjoyed, why it is important and precious. "A flower that blossoms only for a single night does not seem to us on that account less lovely." In the grand scheme of Time, eternity stretches in both directions and our time in temporal consciousness is but a blip, a blink. Then he went on to describe the process of mourning in early psychological terms, how one replaces the libido in lesser objects, but in the case of greater love one mourns until one is finished mourning. It's not much for a child to switch from the old blanket to the new teddy bear. It's quite a different matter when one loses the person they've shared every aspect of their life with for the past 45 years. He then mentioned the Great War which followed the year after that walk with the poet and how the global consciousness went there to that place of struggling with the apparent meaninglessness of existence.

Laurie and I were talking about Percy Bysshe Shelley's line about the vastness of space pointing to there being no God (which I think got him kicked out of Oxford if I remember correctly.) Of course, he also wrote "I think that the leaf of a tree, the meanest insect ... are in themselves arguments more conclusive than any which can be adduced that some vast intellect animates Infinity." Shelley was a bit tempestuous by most accounts. He was also one of the greatest poets in the English language. But Laurie and I were specifically focused on how the vastness of Universe can point to the lack of a God for some, while for us it serves to color our understanding of God. One interprets the data as one will. It also put me in mind of John Calvin's assertion that there are two kinds of knowledge: Knowledge of God and Knowledge of ourselves.
I'm not claiming a proof one way or the other. In my experience, and in biblical doctrine, there are those who are going to believe and those who are not. I have the experience of having been the latter and reaching a point in life where I became a believer, but I cannot save anyone personally. Mine is only to spread the word. I cannot make it stick. For those of us who are theists, we know that God is the purpose; the glorification of God is the meaning of our lives. Ecclesiastes says:
"Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, "I have no pleasure in them"; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low— they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets— before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity."
I'm only 32 and I've known people from every age group from babies to extremely elderly and everywhere in between who have died. The very nature of our existence tends to keep me in check most of the time. I try not to leave fights unresolved. I try to forgive quickly, to let things go, amend where I can and where I cannot, put it in the past. My gosh, the fact that we wake up each morning is an undeserved gift and it should make us all love one another. I don't know. I seem to be in one of those weird "walking through the woods with Simon and Garfunkel playing in the background" moods.
Maybe it's time I had some ice cream.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Thursday News In Review

Even More Health Care News

And here's hoping they aren't banking on boring us into submission because, between you and me, it's working. This week Montana Senator and Chair of the US Senate Committee on Finance Max Baucus had the rare distinction of coming up with one of the worst ideas in the history of American politics. Baucus (who, when talking about this to Laurie, I kept calling Jim Backus) revealed a health care reform plan which... I didn't read, but I did look at the 260-some page summary which is probably more than most professional reporters did, enough to know - flashback: remember when my New York professor friend and I both found ourselves at the point where we decided all we can hope for is that whatever reform they come up with, it won't end up screwing over the poor and uninsured which am us? Well, that's pretty much Baucus' bill. There is no public option in the Baucus plan, but there is some weird health cooperative system being pitched. There are some weird fines for people who can't afford insurance, but lip service meant as reassurance that anyone who can't afford it will get a tax credit, blah blah blah.
Although let me stop right here, because not having read the whole dad-blamed thing I really am not qualified to rail too hard on it aside from noting the utter dearth of support for it. So far the bill seems to have found the support of Max Baucus. In short, it sounds like we really don't need to worry about it because it will either 1) fail, or 2) end up unrecognizable from its current form, which sounds like a description of where I expect to be 5 years from now.

Max Baucus also, according to like five different articles, has accepted over $3 million of campaign donations from health insurance companies over the past few years. I hear all of this and I really hope that this isn't one of those things like,
"Laurie, I went out and bought a pony!"
"No, just kidding. I went out and had a chocolate milkshake and a cheesesteak hoagie."
You know, the one where you say something terrible to pass something a bit less terrible?
Although after all of that, just to make sure everyone understands, I still stand behind everything I've written about health care reform before.

Celebrity Death News

Jim Carroll died this week. Jim Carroll wrote The Basketball Diaries, Forced Entries, and some of the most electric poetry of the past century. He also headed the punk rock band The Jim Carroll Band. It's said that he was at his desk working when he died. The literary world is much much poorer from his death.

Also the fantastic jazz singer Chris Connor, a prolific recording artist who performed with a huge number of the biggest names in jazz through the mid- to late 20th century, died this week after a long battle with cancer. Her "Lullaby of Birdland" was sublime.

Crashing Into Things News

In the manner of Babe Ruth, NASA announced this week that they've decided where they are going to crash into the moon. They are going to crash into crater Cabeus A in the moon's south pole in an effort to excavate frozen water beneath the surface. They also announced that they are dedicating the mission to the memory of Walter Cronkite.

Publishing Decorum News

Paris Hilton has a quote appearing in the new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. The article in which I learned this news odiously stated that she would be "joining the ranks of Oscar Wilde and Samuel Johnson." Not to camp too long on the obvious, but the quality of the quote ("Dress cute wherever you go, life is too short to blend in") screams of an editor saying "Look, she has to have said something quotable so we can put her in the new edition."
Also, this may indicate how out of touch the Oxford Press editors are, as Paris Hilton is really about 10 years ago at this point, isn't she? They may have done better with Lady GaGa.
Immediately I'm thinking of Booth Tarkington who, for those who don't know (which is probably most of the world at this point), was one of the most famous writers in the world about 100 years ago. 100 years later, who has ever heard of, much less read, Booth Tarkington? There's an off chance a handful of you have seen Orson Welles' film adaptation of The Magnificent Ambersons which fell into obscurity thanks the the film studio re-cutting the genius out of it while Welles was out of the country. A few of you who are Algonquin Round Table geeks like me may have some 1930ish short story anthologies on your shelves which contain a piece by Booth Tarkington. My point here is that 3 generations ago no one could have imagined that no one would have heard of Booth Tarkington 100 years hence. So, armed with this knowledge and an 80 year old book of quotations, I have to wonder if an institution like Oxford Press might do well to wait a few decades and see if this person has staying power. I have a hypothesis about that in this instance.

Of course, there's precedence for this. Over the past few decades the Oxford English Dictionary has added each year new words, recently including things like "Muggles" and "meh." I wonder why the editors at Oxford think there's all that great of a bleed-over from the Paris Hilton and Harry Potter fan markets and those who patronize the Oxford Press. Actually, I don't really wonder that. I just assume it's a tacky ploy to get the Oxford Press into newspapers.

Also in publishing decorum news, I find myself compelled to pass this little jewel along from @badbanana on Twitter, "The Kindle version of Dan Brown's new book is outselling the hard copy on Amazon. Meaning nobody wants to be seen reading it." And here's a Cliff's Notes version of Dan Brown's new book. You shouldn't need me to tell you that it is doubtlessly utter crap not worth wasting your well earned time and money on; and you really ought to go read Jane Austen (WITHOUT zombies!) instead.

Presidential Decorum News

President Obama used up his one free "publicly call a civilian a cuss word" this week when he called Kanye West "a jackass." Political pundits and the blogs immediately lit up ferociously debating whether or not "jackass" is technically "a swear." This was meant to be an off the record comment, which it would have been had he not said it to a room full of reporters.
Of course, the incident is reminiscent of President Bush who also used his "cuss at a civilian" early when, accidentally in front of a live mic, he called NY Times reporter Adam Clymer a synonym for a "burro burrow" or "cave in which donkeys live." The difference, and remarkably a microcosm of the differences in the two administrations, is that Obama was the one of the two who were actually correct in their statement.

Kanye West News

Look, I don't have anything to say that hasn't already been said about this. Also, I could not identify the music of Kanye West, Beyonce or Taylor Swift if my life depended on it (although I imagine I could probably isolate which one has a male voice.) In case there is someone alive who hasn't heard, Kanye West stormed Taylor Swift's award acceptance speech at the MTV VMAs and said that Beyonce's video was the best ever made.
Why am I talking about it?
There is a larger point here and that is the point of decency, which seems to be in a closed system as we all sit back and watch it spiral in faster concentric circles of entropy. I know on one hand, I'm very late to this branch of the conversation; and it is the zenith of geezerhood to speak of the death of public decency. But on the other side of the coin, what about a society with no regard for abject apology? I am not nor ever have been in danger of giving money to any of the artists involved, but I worry about the state of our collective heart when I hear these stories and see how important they are to a large portion of the country. I worry and then I go take a nap.

Classical Music News

Alan Gilbert is taking over as musical director of the New York Philharmonic. This is very good news. He seems to have a strong desire to balance tradition with innovation. He is the first native New Yorker to hold that position. Magnus Lindberg's composer in residence tenure will begin with the new Gilbert season and, in fact, when Gilbert firsts raises his baton it will be to the music of Lindberg.

Also, this coming week sees the release of the new Renee Fleming album. Which would be exciting and not frustrating if we had money in which to buy such things.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Odd Volume

Today the paint on the bookshelf in our newly painted, gorgeous "office" room of our house has dried and my brother is borrowing my car. This means that I am at home while Laurie is at work today and my task of the day is to move my books onto the new bookshelf (it's a little hard to explain the aesthetics of which books are going on our new shelves. Suffice it to say, the Riverside Shakespeare and collected works of Mark Twain are on the living room shelves while Alan Moore, Philip K. Dick and William Burroughs are on the shelves in my office now. Got it?) So, I'm going through every book I own in my personal library which is kind of fun, filled with memories, and firing a mad amount of desire to re-read almost everything.
In going through the books, I thought it might be fun to take a picture of a few interesting volumes and write a few words on them. These are simply unconventional volumes and there may be more to come. And as I'm sick of writing about current events I thought I might like to blog about something I'm joyful about.

Caitlin R. Kiernan is a little in literature like Nick Cave or Jim Foetus or Edward Ka-Spel are in music. Similar in tone, sure, but also in that they have amazing, wonderful mainstream works you can get at most major stores (well, Nick Cave anyway. I'm not sure you can get Jim Foetus or Ka-Spel at Best Buy) but then there is a great mass of rare, small press, esoteric works which are just as rich and amazing and seemingly endless once you start poking around for them. It's the joys of indulging in the work of the prolific artist and you can geek out like crazy over them (you'll note the protective plastic sleeves.)
The two books below are limited edition chapbooks in conjunction with her books Threshold and Low Red Moon. Trilobite includes some chapters that were cut, but which are as great (and harrowing ) as the book itself. Waycross follows the Dancy character as a kind of prequel to Low Red Moon. Both are really fantastic, quality little volumes.

You can click the photos to make them ridiculously huge.

Sorry for the tablecloth background by the way.

Ah, this is one of the coolest books I own. It's called From The Forecastle to the Cabin and it is by Captain Samuel Samuels (not kidding.) He was a clipper ship captain in the mid-1800s and I got this volume from the library of his great-grandson (who passed away several years ago.) Within the volume when I received it was a portrait of the captain, a painting of his ship The Dreadnought, the lyrics to a song about his ship, and a handwritten letter from the captain to his grandson which mainly spoke of "the new Chinaman" he'd just hired as a valet.
The book is supposedly meant to deter young men from going to sea, but it reads like such a rip-roaring good adventure story (mutinies, rescuing damsels, seeing the world) that I have to imagine the book had the opposite effect. It's also signed by the captain. It is a treasure and a piece of history.

The most valuable book I own (which I guess only made it on this list for gloating rights) is a leatherbound limited edition of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in America: Volume 2 of the Gonzo Letters (and the one people tend to want as it comprises the prime of his career.) It's autographed by Hunter S. Thompson who is dead now (which, while that makes it way more valuable monetarily, I bought it signed and never met the man. In a way, the less valuable signed editions where I met the authors, like Spalding Gray, Allen Ginsberg, Ray Bradbury, are more valuable to me as they are tied to high point events in my young literary life.)

This is an incredibly strange photography book. It's essays by several famous authors about sock monkeys next to portraits of sock monkeys. And it's even weirder than that sounds. Mine is autographed by Neil Gaiman who has an essay in the book.

Here's a rarer volume by Ray Bradbury. It was published by Cemetery Dance Press in 2001. It's called A Chapbook for Burnt-Out Priests, Rabbis and Ministers. The inside jacket reads "Being a compilation of poems, verse, burial orations, essays, story fragments, notions, fancies and concepts having to do with the Cosmos, the Universe, visitations, annunciations, First and Last Suppers, early Sabbaths, Communion, Bar Mitzvahs, Father and Son banquets that stretch from here to Infinity to try parson, preacher, priest and rabbinical souls."

This is a book by Monica Richards of Faith and the Muse fame. It's called The Book of Annwyn. It was published in 1998 by Neue Asthetik Multimedia. This is one of the harder books to describe. It is a collection of Celtic myths either retold by Richards or made up by Richards. There are quotations peppered throughout the book. But it's also very much an art book. Digital artwork is by, on, under, throughout the text. It's almost a collage of a book. Very much a modern primitive feel to it (which I purchased during the modern primitive portion of my life.) It's not like anything else I've seen and it sits on my shelf both beautiful and ominous.

So, there are a few of the odder volumes in our vast personal library. There are more and considering how much fun I had doing this post I will probably do another one soon. Ta!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Old Friends

This weekend Laurie and I took care of her hairdresser's ranch again. And you know what that means.

I got to visit with my friend Norman the steer! As I mentioned, he has a large pasture in the back of the lot. I get to take him out some alfalfa hay.

He also lives with two llamas.

I'm not entirely sure why I'm so fascinated by the steer. Probably partially because I grew up in Orange County and didn't see a real live cow until I was like 30. But also, and this is especially the case with Norman, there's something kind of wonderful about his existence. He stands in a field and eats. Norman, as I mentioned, is a pet and will never be meat. So, he's just kind of around to stand in a field, eat, in the silent country and gorgeous Northern Californian landscape without a thought in his blessed cow brain.
It's a small thing and a simple thing, but it's such a joy to go out and see peaceful Norman. He's outstanding in his field.

Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11, 2001

I was working in a ticket booth in a live theater (as in a place that puts on plays) in Orange County at that point in my life. I was saving money by having moved back in with my parents after the fiasco of living in Long Beach. I was dating a girl who I was head over heels in love with and planned to marry when she graduated from college, which was why I was saving money. That... didn't work out.

I remember in the days that followed 9/11, work was a mess because the theater canceled two or three night's shows and we had to fit those people into different nights in comparable seats. Strange, stupid butterfly effects. The show was one of those Somerset Maugham "foibles of the upper crust" comedies. The kind where one is expected to chuckle at the butler having to carry the poodle (which I think may have actually been a bit from that particular production. I think I'm not making that up.) I saw it on Friday of that week or rather I saw the first 20 minutes and walked out in tears thinking it was beastly to have such a thing at that point in history. Or any for that matter. I guess events just highlighted that for me.

Anyway, I had Tuesdays off so it's probably safe to assume that I was up until around 3am the night before the morning of the 11th. I remember my Mom opening the door to my room near 7am and frantically telling me that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. I lay there for a moment, I still remember this, thinking "Does this warrant getting out of bed?... Yes, I guess it does."
I went out to the front room and watched for hours if memory serves. I saw the second plane hit the second building and I think that was the moment when we realized that there wasn't just some confusing accident but rather there was a large scale attack. I remember the moment when the first building fell. We saw it and the reporter said, "I think a portion of one of the buildings may have just collapsed." I said to the television, "No, the whole building just collapsed." And another reporter on the television said, "No, the whole building just collapsed."
I remember crying for most of the day. I remember getting on the phone and computer soon after desperately trying to get in touch with New York Rob. He was okay. Jess, his fiance, was in a building a few blocks away. She was okay too. She saw the whole thing from the window in her office. I knew another guy who was right there on the streets a few blocks away, was hit by debris and still suffers from lung problems. All told I knew about a dozen people in NYC on that day. None died that day and many were not anywhere near it.

I remember being in a supermarket that evening with my girlfriend of that time and completely losing it right in the middle of the supermarket, weeping openly. I seem to remember I was trying to describe to Nissa seeing the images of people jumping from the windows. And I remember seeing other people in the supermarket losing it too or looking like they'd been crying for hours. I remember thinking, probably also saying, at the time, "this is important. This is something that's changed. Don't lose this." I meant specifically the unmasked sincerity in public and the public acknowledgment of the weight of reality. Laurie's story is almost the polar opposite.

In the months that followed there was a lot of fear in our culture which I'm not sure has really gone away so much as it's been diverted in other directions than planes and white powders, shoes and gas stations which were fever pitch fear objects in those days. But we've gotten used to it, like when you go to a rock concert and then next day everything sounds like you've got cans over your ears. Two days later that feeling has gone away. Not because you've healed, but because you've gotten used to the hearing loss. In the months that followed we had so many opportunities as a nation and as a species. I kept crying a lot. One reason was I felt we were squandering those opportunities.

But more to the point, I felt the side effect of that day, the Naked Lunch moment in the supermarket, the day where we took off our masks, and I wanted it to extend, to become a norm. Not just in our sorrow but also in our joy. I've tried to keep it myself and failed, but kept trying.

9/11 was something that always feels like I ought to say more about it, but also everything I say sounds trite. I was 5,000 miles from Ground Zero. On the other hand, people just as unqualified as I have spoken at length about that day. This seems to be something that people do. In my own way I've carried my own experience that day with me ever since. I've tried to let the lessons of that day inform my behavior. I've walked around these eight years with crucial and insignificant constantly on top of me. Trying to keep in front of my eyes both how interconnected we all are and, at the same time, how very very alone we all are. And act appropriately.