Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Hanukkah Posting

This time of year makes me think back to perhaps my first encounter with religious history. Of course, there had been the unspoken rituals handed down in my family for at least a decade or two from which I had imbibed unexplicated lessons, but the first time it all came out in the open, as I recall it (or as my internal Talmudic fabulist scribe chooses to arrange it for maximum moral value), I was, at the age of seven or eight, given a book: The Story of Hanukkah.

Probably a publication of the Golden Books division of Simon & Schuster, source of much of my childhood entertainment (some of their executives were patients of my father's, I believe), it was a very large book with big illustrations and it told the story you all know: the Jews were conquered by nasty Greeks who ordered them to bow down to Greek idols; they resisted; they were oppressed; five brothers named Maccabee led a revolt; took the Temple; couldn't find enough consecrated oil for the proper ritual; a miracle occurred. This was followed by the menorah, the dreidel and other customs later spoofed on South Park. The Hanukkah Bush was not mentioned – just as well, since my parents had a Christmas Tree and called it that, and its colors and lights thrilled me from the first. I never questioned why my grandparents did not have such trees – they lived in Manhattan, in apartments; we lived in New Rochelle, in a house. People who lived in apartments did not have trees; people who lived in houses had children and trees. The logic was clear.

The book told a subtler story, or many stories. Who were these thriftless people with their Temple that didn't have storage space for more than one tiny bottle of oil? Who were the Greeks and what were they doing out of Greece? Who were those annoying kids willing to be put to death rather than pray to an idol, and why was it even an issue? Who were these rather ruthless Maccabees? (The later history of the dynasty was, mercifully, omitted: a bloody bunch.) Does the establishment of a holiday that is all about light, light returning ceremoniously, night by night, at precisely the Winter Solstice, not seem awfully pagan, awfully typical of earth-based rituals throughout the northern hemisphere? (It was ten years or more before I got around to asking that question.) Was the whole Hanukkah business, complete with bush and presents and carols (dear heavens! yes – even in high school choir – no doubt inevitable in so Jewish a suburb as New Rochelle), not a pasty me-too imitation of the great American consumerist Christmas?

My mother said this, early and often – she still does. When she was a child, Hanukkah was almost unheard of, and she had watched its growth and emulation of Currier & Ives custom with disquiet and contempt – but then, when she was a child, there had not been any recent attempt to wipe Judaism off the earth, and that event certainly had something to do with the revived and modernized, Second Coming as it were, of Hanukkah after the war.

So I got the book, and though puzzled, devoured it, especially noting the illustrations (which ancient Jewry so wisely forbade in their books): a bunch of muscular but slovenly men attacking a bunch of rather stiff centurion types, breaking into the Temple precincts, throwing down and demolishing statues of a rather pretty lady with a helmet on her head.

My response was instantaneous: Who was the pretty lady, and why would anyone break her statue? (Only much later did I discover that statues of her can be found all over New York – her family and friends too. I guess the Maccabees didn't get them all.)

Kiddie though I was, I had already been taken by my grandmothers, with great solemnity, in familial rite, to enormous, pervasively silent temple-type buildings filled with wonders and with echoes and with a great sense of awe and tradition. The Met Museum, for instance, was a palace and a temple, and there are lots of helmeted ladies there. (Also naughty pictures of ladies with nothing on at all, but I don't remember visiting those galleries. I wasn't much of one for painting till I was about 20, actually.) (There were also statues of men wearing nothing at all, and I knew I shouldn't look at certain parts of their bodies, but no doubt because of my childish lack of height, I did tend to stare. Being uncut, they didn't look at all like mine.)

Somehow I knew that it was wicked – wicked for those brutal men to knock down statues of that lovely lady. Somehow the book made me curious about her, and her rites, and the Greeks who loved her if not wisely perhaps too well. From my parents and grandparents, I had already imbibed the family religion: beautiful objects should be preserved and gazed at, appreciated and understood, shared with the world. Privately, of course, I wanted to keep them to myself – not the Met, which is a bit unwieldy, but I wanted the whole Cloisters all to myself, and maybe the Frick as well. But I didn't get them, either one, and regular access seemed the next best thing.

My family faith was in the works of human art – or so it seemed to me. The manifestations of all men and women, the arts that inspire and never inflict harm, the statues and buildings and paintings and (later) books and songs and dramas, that we all of us share, that cannot replace themselves and depend on us for their creation and preservation and glory: worshipful as evidence of the glory of human mind and skill, ranking us with the creation of nature itself (if it was created). Nature tends to have better taste, less subject to fashion. That is how one knows it is above art. But by my personal faith, it is possible to worship both. Both are worshipful, and worthy.

Worship is not required by deities; they don't need it. It's good for us, and it's good for nature and for works of art, because the worship inspires us to preserve them. But the deities can get along without it. They did before (if they're real); they will when we're gone.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Ubar: God Punished Them

Part of my wonderful week in Chicago over Thanksgiving -- the part when I was not going to the opera or having rowdy dinners with lively people -- was spent at Renaissance Books in Milwaukee, four (unheated) floors of dusty fabulousness. Among the books I did not buy (because who wanted to carry all that stuff home? AND find a place for it in my bulging flat?) was Nicholas Clapp's The Road to Ubar -- I remember when the reviews came out, licking my lips. Anyway, it was at my branch library when I got home. Now I'm a little sorry I didn't purchase a copy -- would have made a swell present for godchildren.

Clapp makes documentaries and has a thing for the Arabian desert. He'd already published a book on the Queen of Sheba (I've reserved that one, thanks NYPL) when he wandered through Oman (one of the world's two remaining sultanates -- the other is Brunei) and heard legends of the Lost City of Ubar. Ubar, aka Iram, was a city of matchless wealth and wickedness (can't have one without the other) that (insert name of deity here) punished in some mysterious manner at a point a few generations before Mohammed -- he mentions it in the Koran as a city given over to idolatry. It turns up in many Arab geographies and legendaries (including the 1001 Nights) after that, but -- to Clapp's surprise -- Ubar and its inhabitants, the People of 'Ad, turn up in Ptolemy's Geography, too, listed as a thriving metropolis near Oman. Moreover, bedouins had pointed out some ancient caravan trails (ten lanes wide) as "the Road to Ubar" to an exploring Brit in 1930 (but the road promptly disappeared under dunes). Bedouins, like rural folk anywhere, have long memories, but they also let tales grow and are hazy about dates and facts on the ground. (Ask the locals in Britain or France about the origins of the local Neolithic monuments. Ask them before they read scientific articles, as nowadays they probably have. So have many bedouin.)

It was all very mysterious to Clapp except that there had been a source of fabulous wealth in the area: the Dhofar mountains of Oman had been the world's only source of high-quality frankincense, the mana of the gods, once passionately sought from Rome to Egypt to Jerusalem to Mesopotamia. Caravans crossed the desert for thousands of years. (Some of the trade went by sea, or via the kingdom of Sheba -- yes, her. But the direct route lay through the Empty Quarter.) So Clapp gets the coordinates for that British sighting in 1930 and goes to the satellite boys connected with the Challenger, and sure enough ... there are ancient caravan trails all over the place. Most of them seem to converge near an oasis or two (what a surprise), and soon Clapp and a bunch of crazy adventure-and-archaeology types (with help from the oil companies and approval from Sultan Qabus, a notably progressive type -- does his name signify he's the end of his train, I mean line?) approach an oasis city (pop: 36) that has been built by a ruined fort beside a still-fertile spring that was once a huge oasis (history of the region, once lakes and rivers and savannah, is traced back 100,000 years). The kicker is an enormous sinkhole with the spring in the middle of it. Was this once a city? Did they grow fabulously rich and not too friendly (high prices for passing tourists) on the caravan trade? Did they use so much water that, as the water table sank, it hollowed out a huge cavern under the city? Did the cavern fall in one night, to the shock of everyone in the region -- a shock still reverberating a century or two later, when Mohammed produced the Koran? And are the people of the region, who speak languages unlike any other and only very, very distantly related to Arabic, the ancient wicked people of 'Ad? They say they are, and they still harvest frankincense.

But read the book. It's a very good book, cleverly arranged, a fine mixture of adventure story and scientific report, study of ancient manuscripts and the latest scientific understanding. (You can get a copy from Amazon for two bucks, plus shipping.)

The kicker for me is the myth the disaster aroused: God punished them (because a natural disaster could not have been explained any other way in 350 CE), ergo they were unspeakably evil, not merely rich and inclined to stay that way at your expense. Were the people of Sodom and Gomorrah any more evil than that? (Genesis suggests they were inhospitable, which would annoy bedouin.) Or, to take more modern instances (when people should know better, if people ever learned from experience), have you ever read or seen a fictionalized or filmed version of the end of Pompeii that did not attribute the eruption to immoral behavior, idolatry and all? And say very little about continental drift? How about such American disasters as the Johnstown Flood, the Chicago Fire, the San Francisco Fire-Quake? Yes, they were all attributed to the Almighty's personal intervention to punish the wicked. New Orleans and the WTC? You bet.

If there are gods, they really don't care about idolatry and ill will of men towards men. They've got other fish to fry. They're keeping the natural forces coming and going. They don't speak to us in our own language either. "I told you not to build there! What did you think that lightning bolt meant? No one in his right mind (except a human) would build a city there. It's below sea level. It's right on a major fault line. That mountain smokes, you fools. It's not because it's had a hard day and wants to relax." The book God (or the Gods) writes is the geology of the earth, and we should be able to read it pretty well now -- some splendid minds have been deciphering it, ever since Agassiz and Humboldt. Some of my favorite parts of Ubar concern the piecing together of the ecological history of Arabia, which was verdant and populous before the Red Sea began to widen, pushing Arabia steadily upwards and its water table down and the mountains too high for the monsoon to get over them.... (Clapp mentions that the Red Sea once had a land bridge at its mouth, and Homo erectus could easily stroll across to settle in what is now Yemen.)

People love to project their personal morality onto deity. Don't trust yourself when you do that. Don't trust anyone else who does it, including authors of books hundreds or thousands of years old. Trust geology. Trust scientific evidence. Reinterpret that all you like (by damn, those dinosaurs and their wicked, idolatrous ways), but ... make sense of it ... and you'll find you're reading the real Gospel.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Armageddon Begins at Home

Yesterday: charming couple from New Brunswick (Canada), their first trip to New York, "but we can't wait to come again. We've never done so much walking. And the people are so friendly!" We do tricks for spare change too.

I recommended, as I usually do, walking the Brooklyn Bridge and visiting the Cloisters.

They'd read some commentator or other who said Britain's future, thanks to global warming, would have to include, within the next fifty years, defensive measures against - what two nations? (I was asked to guess, and couldn't.) Spain and Italy - because both are semi-arid and will soon lose what ability to feed their populations they possess. Their people will go abroad in droves, heading for the greener pastures of dank Albion.

No time to refute them there (the Cup Room), so I'll do it here. First, Spain and Italy have the lowest birth rates on earth; their rural regions are depopulating even faster than they are dehydrating; Spain is importing scads of Romanian and Bulgarian peasantry to fill up their emptying landscape (where resident males cannot find females willing to marry them and live in the countryside anyway, per Int'l Herald-Trib). Romanians, it was thought, whose language is not all that different from Spanish would be a better bet than Egyptians or Moroccans as capable of being absorbed into the Spanish fabric. But Romanians are, after all, Romanian - a lady from Barcelona was telling me the other day that crime in that city has reached epidemic proportions since the policy went into effect. (Egyptians would be far more law-abiding, I think. Moroccans ... perhaps not.)

Italy, which I visited in April 2006, is now primarily inhabited by Chinese, Indians, sub-Saharan Africans, North African Arabs, Poles and Croats anyway. Those Italians who have not taken jobs in Germany are living at home with Mom and not getting married or reproducing.

As for Britain - its subContinental influx is only daunted by the enormous breakin of Poles who make up most of the crowds in rush hour London these days (November 2006 visit). (A Pole has regretted this to me: he says the young and liberal are leaving for the West and the old and conservative keep right-wing parties in power back home.)

So who's left to keep a finger in the dyke?

Today I had a tooth filled, and my dentist assured me that the world will have ceased to depend on oil before we run out of it, that only big moneyed interests is preventing the technology of post-petroleum from sweeping the world even as we speak. (And he was doing the talking; my mouth was otherwise engaged.) "They won't get away with it this time," he assured me - we were both expecting oil to fade away thirty years ago. His conspiracy theories are more optimistic than mine.

Slogan for a T-shirt: What would Jeeves do?

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Samhain Full Moon

Feeling good. Makes me suspicious. Too used to depression. It could be all the vitamins Mark has been recommending to me. Much better than anti-depressants. My body dislikes anti-depressants. (I never could handle drugs.) But vitamins - or just that I tell myself they're vitamins not drugs - those I handle well.
I'm back from Istanbul. I'm writing up the trip, preparing the photos, concocting the narrative, wondering which blog to put it on, where else to send all this material. I had a wonderful time. I didn't do all the things I wish I'd done. 17 day trips wear me out. I got a bad cold in Edirne and it lasted through the flight home and well into another week. But it's over. I feel healthy. I could almost lift weights if I still belonged to a gym. (And I should, since I lost 15 pounds walking around Istanbul and eating only fresh Black Sea fish.)
Feeling good. Waltzed into town and everyone called me up and began offering me free-lance jobs. I even had to turn one down. They're all getting themselves done on time, and none of them are even distasteful. DVDs reviewed. Manuscripts copy edited. Magazines proofread on line. Checks arriving. (Or they will arrive.) Tickets to everything except "Rock and Roll," for which I may have to pay full price just because I have a crush on Rufus Sewell. This is not a catastrophe.
All my jobs will be done (it seems to me) by Friday sennight - so I can in good conscience fly to Chicago the following Monday. Ideally, someone or three will offer me other jobs before I go, and I shall be able to work on them while away.
I did magic with the Full Moon just before Samhain. I did magic for health and prosperity and inspiration and peace of mind, and Ronald's health, and my mother's health. The Samhain full moon is the mightiest of all full moons; if you do moon esbats and magic, that is the time to send your wish to the Lady of the Lune. She is in the giving vein, more now than elsewhen. Remember that. Then I look Her in the Eye and say, "Lady of Silver Magic, come into my life." (As Leon taught me.)
It's my theory that Witches gathered at the Full Moon because, not wanting to attract attention, they wandered about at such times and could see their way. When the moon was dark, they couldn't see a hand in front of them in the woods or on rural roads, so (my inference is) they did their private magic then, with the home coven crowd. This is all my practical interpretation - I didn't get it from books or Books or traditional lineage or secrets passed in Circle - I thought it all out, and up, for my own self. You don't have to take it seriously if you don't wanna.
I'm reading books about Istanbul: Orhan Pamuk, Graham Greene, Barbara Nadel, Lord Kinross, Stephen Runciman, Freya Stark. There's no point in doing this after coming home, no prospect of a repeat any time in the foreseeable. But because it fascinates me. And I didn't do so much reading before I went (except in guidebooks to places I never did visit) because I was having so many anxiety fits about the trip. None of the horrors came true of course.
(Or very few: the Hotel Tria DID forget to send a car for me to the airport at midnight, when it was far too late to catch a cheap bus to Sultanahmet. My ancient hiking boots did fall to pieces at last, in the mud of Edirne, like some soggy veteran of the Balkan Wars in which that weary city last changed hands, twice.)
But somehow it seemed necessary (necessary? to whom? or what?) that I have the anticipatory ghastlies before I went. Then everything seemed so much easier, pleasanter, better once I was there. And now it all seems so long ago - certainly more than a couple of weeks.
And life is good. Sort of good. Time to anticipate the next disaster.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Where Would They Be Now?

Idly comparing the Tudor sisters, Mary and Bess, with the Stuart lassies, Mary and Anne – the latter do not come off well, do they? The former are such formidable figures, politicians and cultural arbiters, women who scared most of the men they met and didn't hesitate to sign death sentences when they thought fit; the latter domestic and not too bright. I mean, what would they be doing if they were alive now? thought I.
Mary Tudor would be chancellor of a university; charming on social occasions and master of academic trivia in all disciplines, but her smile would grow tight at any sign of insubordination or unethical behavior, and the quality of her mercy would be – strained. She would drive a Mercedes, not too recent but kept in the best condition. There would be gossip about romantic entanglements that did not work out; she would discuss them with no one, even her confessor. (Of course she'd be Catholic; she'd have had audiences with several popes.)
Elizabeth Tudor would have devised some software revolution before she was 25, taken her company public, sold out to Microsoft for enormous stock options and gone on to master any number of other companies, where she would be adorable but ruthless and mercurial. She'd always have a dashing escort, as the years went by ever younger but always hip, and she'd dance till dawn in discreet but expensive clothes in boites where she might be conspicuously the oldest person present, but the one with the most tireless feet, the strongest stomach and the clearest head; she'd never marry. She would drive a Porsche during the week, a BMW motorcycle on weekends and on jaunts to her flat on the Costa, daring but safe.
Their cousin, Mary Stuart, would be an actress. Adored by both sexes in her youth (despite – or because – of several unwise romantic entanglements), she'd remain beloved by women, both housewives and adolescents, well into middle age, though criticized in the press for taking on ever less challenging roles and doing far too many cameos in crusty movies and TV series. She'd drive a Triumph, pausing before she arrived anywhere to take the top down and unpin her hair, so as to show up giving the impression (for paparazzi who love her as much as she loves them) that she has been driving that way the whole route.
In contrast, Mary Stuart II would drive something large and comfortable, in case she stumbles on the perfect antique for the large and comfortable home designed entirely with her man in mind (and room for children too), or perhaps the other house in Holland, which will be flawlessly decorated in a more modern style. She'll never read a book and her musical taste will be cheerily pop or light classical and twenty years behind.
Anne Stuart would never willingly go abroad, except briefly to visit her husband's family in Denmark. She'd drive something dumpy and practical and never go more than 5 km over the speed limit, and she'd restrict public appearances to asking questions at local open meetings with her MP or the school board, and then only when she was outraged. She'd watch soap operas without paying much attention except to hem lines, and she'd never miss church. (Anglican – even Methodist would appall her.)

The sixteenth century was a great one for brilliant women, if you like them. (John Knox didn't.) Where would they be now? Not sunk in obscurity, I'd bet.
Catherine des Medicis would be a public figure, with a talk show where she would resolutely ignore those rumors about her husband's wandering eye or her children's madcap misbehavior. Her blurbs for movies and books would spell instant success; her homely, comfortable face would be familiar from a thousand magazine covers.
Diane des Poitiers, a social figure and a sought-after patron of charity causes and couturiers – until those awful stories about stock options hanky-panky turned out to be true, whereupon she'd settle out of court and retire with becoming dignity to St. Bart's.
Marguerite of Navarre, inheriting the fortune her mother, Louise of Savoy, made from careful investments in blue chips and real estate, would endow libraries and early music festivals until at some point she announced a desire for privacy and withdrew to spend her time writing poetry for obscure but prestigious journals.
Her daughter, Jeanne d'Albret, would devote herself to some very little known but intense cause – a New Age meditation technique to cure drug addiction, perhaps, or birth control by positive thinking and tribal medicine – and ignore all scientific and political opposition until she worked herself into an early grave from anxiety-related heart condition. She wouldn't drive at all, for environmental reasons – or eat meat, for ethical reasons, or smoke (though privately she adores it) because of thinking it the height of rudeness to bring others into contact with her second-hand smoke.
Margot de Valois, Catherine's youngest daughter and Henri IV's first wife, would pose nude for rock videos in her teens, have famous affairs with persons of every age and sex, be arrested for drunken driving or indecent exposure or possession of controlled substances fourteen times by the age of 20, turn her life into best-selling memoirs written while in detox (or low security prison), and eventually become a top-dollar screenwriter with a wicked ear for snappy and obscene epigram.
Marie de Guise, the Tall Duchess, would run a very exclusive school for girls in Lorraine – her strictness belied by her enjoyment of the girls' theatricals.
Gabrielle d'Estrees would be a fashion model, eventually the mistress of a major international figure and the hostess of his less official dinners and weekends.
Anne of Brittany would be teaching school or running an academic department (from a secondary, non-executive positions).

Lucrezia Borgia, inheriting a major position in her father's foundation and ignoring those awful stories about the sources of his money, would roam the world giving it away to organizations devoted to cross-national harmony and alleviating poverty. Her actions would often be misunderstood by a press that had not forgotten her family history.
Isabella d'Este would start her own fashion house and be ruthless in demolishing the competition – whom she would nonetheless ecstatically kiss three times whenever they met. She would chain-smoke and her sympathy for runway models and gofers would be nil. None of her close friends would be women except her sister-in-law, Elisabetta Gonzaga, a professor of some obscure cultural discipline whose unreadable essays would be considered an intellectual peak.
Beatrice d'Este would wear clothes beautifully – often those of her sister's rivals, on occasions when her picture would be sure to be taken so that her sister would see them. She would be an events planner of the most exclusive (and well-paid) variety, on air-kiss terms with popes and prime ministers.
Margaret of Austria-Parma, "Madama," would not get the Pritzger. Despite her considerable ability and renown in the architectural field, she would never quite achieve the first rank.
Christina of Denmark-Lorraine would be content to manage her husband's upscale career, plus encouraging her children in whatever endeavors they attempted. She would also be the principal confidante to her aunts, in-laws, sister, father and neighbors. She would be charmed and flattered by many discreet invitations to have an affair, and she would decline them all exquisitely. She would also turn down invitations to model (in her youth) or run for office (in middle age). She would be famous locally for her green thumb.
Bona Sforza (Queen of Poland) would spend years as an especially annoying commissar for health in that country, criticizing and improving everbody's diet. After the fall of communism, it would be discovered that she had cooperated with the secret police to denounce several colleagues and she would withdraw from public life in disgrace.
Isabella Zapolya would be a pain-in-the-ass journalist, publicizing causes and injustices of no interest to anyone.
Sultan Valide Roxelana would become an influential minister in the Turkish cabinet until rumors of her peculations and coziness with certain corporate execs turned out to be all too true.
Sultan Valide Noorbanu would meddle with all her son's marriages and liaisons until he committed suicide or died of a drug overdose. She would publish a statement: "I suppose these rats the newspaper columnists have to write any garbage they can to earn their bread, but none of them can ever truly understand the pain in a mother's heart."
Archduchess Margot, having won all the literary prizes in college, would enter the diplomatic service due to her gift for languages and work her way up from the lowest level (file clerk? secretary?) to president of the EU.
Between hospitalizations, Juana la Loca would write a series of best-selling denunciations of the psychiatric profession for each of its fashionable methods of treating schizophrenia in turn, plus the perennially best-selling "The Love Trap: How to Let Go of the Man Who Thinks He Owns You."
Her sister, Catherine of Aragon, would be a CEO, taking over after a bitter property dispute divorce and remaining in command despite a broken heart.
Anne Boleyn would be a politically ambitious attorney with a penchant for saying tactless but witty things just when a judge or jury or electorate might be leaning her way.
Catherine Parr would head a major research foundation.
Lady Jane Grey would have tenure but would lose her book contract due to the dryness of her publications.
Lettice Knollys would marry everybody and end up rich, famous, passionately hated, and ambassador to Paris.
Elizabeth Hardwick would build tasteless glass skyscrapers in the middle of historic old cities that do not need or want them.
Giulia Farnese would be a movie star.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Ankles Away

Be careful what you want: you might live to see it. Men are now expected to be as luscious as women were once expected to be, not merely in choice of fashion (which was plainly industry and advertising driven) but the body itself. The option to be sloppy - rarely permitted to hetero females (or those afraid of being thought otherwise) in my youth, and a major barrier to my entree to the gay male world in the clone era - is now denied to high school boys who don't yet know what they want. Their only escape these days is behind a computer screen (in my boyhood: into a good book). The latest absurdity ( is stark naked and hot while singing three acts of a Vivaldi opera. (I thought Hercules was not only bearded but uncut. Is that costume or makeup?) When I was a lad, even Salome never bared all - and since she was usually Birgit Nilsson, neither she nor we wanted her to. (Nilsson's naughty bits were always verbal. Remember?)

One sees evidence of this (if one reads as many old books and plays as I do) in the gradual roving of the focus based on what was visible or, rather, what was not quite visible. In 1900, women's ankles still raised temperatures more than breasts did - breasts (and shoulders), after all, had been at least on half-display since the mid-century. (Queen Victoria never wore evening gowns after Albert died; her sole reason for wearing them, she said, had been for him to admire her shoulders. Anyone stared at a lady's shoulders, lately? Men's shoulders, sure; but that too came later.) Even in my father's youth, men were forgetting the ankle - they knew a thigh when they (almost) saw one, and they lived for those moments. Today, the thigh is almost passé - literally - time has passed it by, heading ever higher towards (as it were) the empyrean.

Men's fashion has been slower to pursue, perhaps because women did not have (and men did not admit) the wealth to command and the will to desire bare male flesh. (Victoria fell in love with Albert when she was walking down a staircase and he was walking up, in full court uniform - beauty used to mean the face - which seems so quaint to us now.) (Today, she'd be walking up the stairs and he'd be coming down dressed only in tighty whiteys and a Prince Albert.) Consider: before the invention of the bathing costume and the rise of swimming as a family sport, only men (as a rule) jumped in, usually bareass. That includes kings like Charles II and presidents like John Quincy Adams. Since the men were naked, there was no reason to look - there was nothing secret to glimpse. Adams couldn't have looked much more preposterous nude than he did clothed, or much less either. Women were not supposed to swim - in ancient times, only the Empress Agrippina ever had (thereby thwarting, but not for long, son Nero's attempt to kill her); it was Leander who swam to visit Hero, not the other way around. If a girl was in the surf back then, she was usually a nautical deity of some sort. No wonder Ophelia drowned - she'd never had lessons.

Then Clark Gable took off his shirt in "It Happened One Night" and undershirt sales famously dropped. By 1936, it was a giggle for a Rodgers & Hart character to observe of a man, "When he would swim, he would always wear the top." Real men had chests. Not good chests - those came later - but chests. And women had legs, even thighs - so why look at their ankles or shoulders? Been there, seen those, got the sarong and Dorothy Lamour within it.

Or such is my theory. I had a thing for nipples as a pre-sexual youth - men's nipples - they gave me a frisson when I had no idea what "tingle" truly meant. My guess now is that the nips have reasons that the mind knows not - mine were already sensitive before anyone (even I) had properly played with them. I thought classical statuary was rudely nude too. And yet I stared. As I was a pious believer in the classical gods, this seemed sacrilegious as well, but I got over that - like any good religious, I was able to find rationalization: the gods probably like it when they turn us on. Why not? They're very sexy if half the tales be true. It's a fecund planet. The whole system wouldn't function if the sex urge didn't occupy a considerable part of the brain - everything's brain. Why should they care if, perversely, we desire them or their representations? (As Goethe and Schubert suggest in "Ganymed," such lusts could merely be a metaphor for the yearning of the soul for union with the supernal. Yeah, right. Okay, when the song is sung right, I believe it.)

But nipples ("the windows of the soul," as Andrew Holleran once said) will no longer do: they are too constantly on display, indeed, suggestively enhanced on dummies in gay men's shop windows. Now we're going for primary sex organs on both genders - by primary, I mean the organs that used to be kept primarily for private acts but are now public enough to enhance Vivaldi opera revivals and are seldom not on display in Terrence McNally plays. My problem with that is: if the primary sexual organs have become ornamental, non-functional, secondary in fact, what is left? What acts remain private enough to be worth waiting for with bated breath, will give us a frisson, will inspire the next generation of fashion designers with filthy, sensational minds?

When did you last kvell at an attractive pair of ankles, eh? I vaguely remember the last time I did. And they were ... looming ... out of the darkness ... over my own head. An attractive pair of ankles! Ooops, wait - those are my own. How did they get there?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Columbia hosts Ahmadinejad

Comment posted to the NYTimes forum:

Louis Brandeis put it well (as usual): Freedom of speech includes freedom for the thought we hate.

We make Ahmadinejad look good back home every time we revile him here. On his own, he looks lousy at home -- like a tinpot bigot and the marionette of the mullahs. The urban and educated classes of Iran detest him. But every time America attacks him, he becomes a little stronger back home, can ignore the economic implications of his policies a bit longer. (The same is true of OUR tinpot bigot president: when did overseas Muslim opinion of him ever hurt him with the American electorate?)

Let the man talk. Who's he going to convert? I'm proud my alma mater gave him a podium. And delighted with the recent Times article about just how powerless he really is back home: very clear, very accurate.

Iran is a nation state, almost the oldest one on the planet. They may detest their government, but they'll fight for it if it's attacked. They used to be our best friends in the region and they would be again if we offered them half a carrot. For 2500 years (read the Books of Daniel and Esther) they were the world's best friends to the Jews and they might be that again too. But not if they're pushed into a corner and threatened with bombs.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

A Happy Reflection upon the War in Iraq

(This is a comment posted to Times blogger Kurt Campbell about Bush's -- really our -- "Siberian dilemma" in Iraq.)

Bush doesn't have to get out of Iraq and there's no reason for him to try. He'll be off the hook on Jan. 20, 2009, which is not too far away. Other people's bloodshed doesn't harm him in the least, and in retirement he can snipe at whoever's in office as much as he likes. Some people may even believe him. As Mencken said, so long ago, "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people."

If the war goes on for a few more years and our country is near ruin and civil war over it, maybe it will be a lesson to future generations not to start a war just because we CAN; to wait until we're under attack (or credible threat of attack); to wait on war until we HAVE TO. That would be a good rule to follow.

Look on the bright side! Maybe we'll learn! Austria-Hungary started a little war in 1914 out of sheer whimsy, and it got way out of hand, and sure enough -- Austria-Hungary hasn't started a single war since.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A letter on Iraq to the New York Times

To the Editor:

What will Iraq look like when it is sufficiently at peace for us to leave? Granted we should never have gone in (I was demonstrating against that when we did), and our original vision was absurd, and the folks who planned and carried out the invasion were as ignorant as they were arrogant. If we could just shoot them and make an end, I'd be all for that. But it wouldn't help anything now.

We can't just leave, no matter how much the American people want to leave -- the situation we leave behind will become an aggressive civil war, and the winner will breed terror for all our friends in the region, and in Europe, and in the U.S. To leave now (unlike Vietnam, where cutting and running was the wisest thing to do) would just produce greater disasters down the road.

I would like to know what the administration (not that I expect them to care) and the military (who do care, because they will have to fact it) and the candidates for the presidency (one of whom will also have to face it) is the Iraq we are hoping, realistically, to achieve, and how will we know it has been reached and we can leave. Benchmarks don't cut it; I want a comprehensive vision.

How will we know we are getting there? It is just turbulence and escalating disaster and more and more refugees (for whom we are morally responsible) now. What would be a step towards improvement? What would be success? Is there any possibility of that? Or has Bush really given us eternal war?


John Yohalem

Monday, September 3, 2007

The flat with the 40-foot ceilings, ocean vu

She was impossibly glamorous, a famous actress, so renowned and so rich and so in charge and still handsome at her age. How I ever got a gig to house-sit for her is difficult to explain. I think the dream began after I was already ensconced. She professed herself charmed by my writing, by my personality. (People are, now and then.)

But never mind all that - let me tell you about the flat. Forty stories up in the air, off a small urban boulevard but high enough to realize that for 360 degrees there was nothing on view but ocean and sky and a few other similar towers. The ceilings were easily forty feet high. Great gauzy draperies hung down to shield us from dazzle. (How did they clean the windows?) The ballroom (nothing but a grand piano and a couple of sofas - I wouldn't swear I remember the sofas) gave onto her grand bedroom at one end (I barely glimpsed that) and her "office" at the other, which was much lower but still large -- and that view! And that was where I was to stay. It was much too distracting to get any work done, I can tell you. Not too much art on the walls, but what there was low down and classy and very elegantly spaced.

The months passed, the house-sit concluded, my hopes for a live-in job as her secretary, amanuensis, butler, stableboy, whathaveyou were in ashes, and I had returned unexpectedly to pick up my things. A cocktail party was in progress. I wasn't dressed for it. (At least I wasn't naked, which has happened in other dreams.) She was grand and elegant and polite; she introduced me around the room; everyone was someone you've heard of; I couldn't quite recall where I'd heard of them, but they were famous; not exactly my crowd. And something about the way she introduced me implied to them, "I'm just being polite; you don't have to notice this person at all." Whereupon they didn't. Even the servants were snooty. I got into a conversation with someone quite interesting in the office, my old room, but when the Lady returned I hit behind the drapes as I was supposed to have left. I did everything gauche and everything wrong, and she was exquisite about it, if at each time with a greater degree of "why doesn't he just GO?" behind her exquisitely tinted, weary old eyes. But I couldn't tear myself away from that fabulous view -- not at sunset. (It was winter now; it had been summer when I first saw it. But also with a thunderstorm happening, I now recalled. That thunderstorm through those windows, a I got off the elevator -- "That usually captivates them," she had smiled.)

A brief reflection on her career, rise from poverty, change of name (though she proudly admitted her original, Italian peasant name), and so on through journeyman to grande dame on everybody's short list. And now, that flat.

Downstairs, in the street, I overheard two women talking as they went past me towards the front of the building, and realized one was Carol Burnett and that I had something important or at any rate amusing to say to her. She appeared to be going into the building, so I dashed around the back and realized I could get into the elevator from there. I did so -- the elevator too was forty feet high and eighty feet wide -- this is all very Bruce McCall, isn't it? or just a memory of my own childhood when all the interesting people were enormous and inexplicable and I was trying to charm them and not be too destructive -- and Carol Burnett wasn't there. The two women in the center of the elevator were -- you guessed it -- my late hostess and someone she was chatting with. Again the faint, charming repression of annoyance. I couldn't escape. We rode up. The door to that ballroom opened again, once again with a magnificent thunderstorm (on cue, or perhaps she had ordered it up from room service) out the window. Only I had no right at all to be there now. A stranger. An intruder. An outcast.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Depeche Melba

My name is John and I am addicted to caffeine.

This has been a sickly week for me: nine days ago (Thursday) I developed an ear ache not unlike having an icepick jabbed into my brain for an hour or two at a time (until the hydrocodone kicked in). The pain throbbed down from my ear to my teeth and was plainly an infection of some sort, but having put off visiting the doctor on Friday, I had to wait till Monday to call him, and he couldn't see me till Tuesday. (This is cash on the barrelhead medicine by the way -- think how long I'd have to wait if I belonged to an HMO?) My doctor gave me eardrops and a lot of free samples of very expensive medicines I take daily (he is a nice man, if very busy; I never get the sense with him -- that I got with my late father -- that the patient in his office is getting the total focus of attention -- but my father was a doctor in a different time and he loathed the new, race-against-time-and-charge-a-fortune doctoring he all too accurately foresaw).

The eardrops worked in a day or three, but meanwhile I had two jobs to finish, two books to copy edit: one of them rather interesting (novel about Chinese immigrants), one of them awful (presidential trivia). Mercifully the editor of the latter let me postpone it. (The author identified Dorothy Parker as the author of the Lord Peter Wimsy mysteries. And misspelled Wimsy, to top it off. When editors really hate an author, they are tempted to leave that sort of statement untouched, but I can't quite do that. I'm supposed to be checking facts.) Anyway, I can barely edit while in pain. And the pain of the ear infection was soon replaced by a belly ache and nausea due to all the Tylenol with codeine I'd been gobbling. So I gave up painkillers and I gave up going out and I ran low on groceries, which included caffeinated coffee. And the belly ache was followed by a low-grade but persistent headache, for which I dared not take pills.

My body is unbalanced, y'hear? It is old and unkempt and ill-cared for and nobody wants it, least of all me.

The ear cleared up and the belly cleared up but the head remained in pain. I needed sleep (universal cure-all), but I wasn't going to get it with low-grade head pain vying for position. My neck felt impossibly stiff and my body woozy from inactivity and any attempt to read anything was making my head pound. I studied five tour guides to Istanbul -- am I insane with this sort of health problem to think of traveling, on my own, to a city of 14 million people five weeks hence and I don't even speak the language? -- yes, but remember how energized I felt on my 16 days in Italy in April 2006 -- but that was Italy -- I can handle Italy -- Istanbul is much larger than Italy -- and just as full of interesting sights -- how many countries can say that?

So I fell asleep over the guidebooks, regretting for the umpth time that I didn't go to Istanbul when I was a kid whose back and feet worked properly and it had only about three million people and was dirt cheap, even though it will be more convenient perhaps now that some restoration work has been done and the ATMs will take my bank card.

I fell asleep, head athrob, and found myself in the (London?) tube, small cramped narrow cars packed with people, mostly Polish, who wanted directions. I love to give directions but this was not New York and I wasn't sure I was giving the right ones. (Two guys stopped me on the corner of Waverly and Gay the other night to ask where the West Village was. "All around you," I said. Really -- it's hard to get more West Village than that. You're blocks from anyplace else. "We mean the gay part," they said. Another time I'd have loved to help them, but my belly was unhappy and my head throbbing -- no, the big one. I suggested Chelsea or the East Village, which seemed more age appropriate for them (and they were slim and pretty); then I relented and ushered them towards the Monster where someone would point them someplace.)

But back to my bad dream: I knew it was London because everyone was Polish. And I studied the makeshift signs (trackwork, delays, new routes, sameold) and they got on one train and took off, and then I tried to figure out where I would spend the night, and the signs did not get any more helpful, and a pretty blonde said, "Do you need a place to stay? 'Cos I know a place -- I mean, the bathroom's rather a mess -- and you'd have to buy me something to drink --" It was clear what sort of financial transaction she was suggesting, and I had no idea how I could afford it (in pounds sterling no less!), never mind the fact that I doubted very much that I could accomplish the Act itself (it's been years; no doubt women's bodies all take different hardware upgrades now), and really she was very sweet but I just wasn't in the mood for company, ta and all that. and I thought of neighborhoods in London with cheap hotels (in the very old days) and wondered which train went to them (the 2? the 229W?) and if I had money and why my head was aching, and then I was awake and for once glad to be so. In my own bed. Dawn approaching over Chinatown on little bound feet. My head pounding. No coffee in the house but decaf and black tea just wasn't going to cut the mustard.

I put on some clothes and went to Dunkin Donuts, open all night half a block away, got a large coffee, feel really much better but obviously will not sleep till mid afternoon.

I guess I'd better take some coffee with me to Istanbul, eh? I hear splendid things about Turkish coffee, said to be strong, sweet and heavily mustached (the way I like my men), but I dare not risk the possibility that they do not do filter, they only have Instant (as in Croatia and Amsterdam) in the misapprehension that Americans like that garbage. In both places (and Italy) I survived on cappuccino.

If I am bedridden, who will come bring me coffee when my head is splitting? Bunny would have but he died last winter. I am still grieving and still blaming. "I can't die; I have things to do!" he cried to me from his hospital bed. I thought at the time, "You should have thought of that three years ago when you stopped taking your hepatitis meds, buster." But didn't say that aloud. Now who can advise me on electronics, or computers, or bring me food or first aid when I need it, as I brought him last winter when he finally admitted he needed it. And who is going to introduce me to Depeche Mode, eh? I never even had him cut me a CD or two of them. I've still never (knowingly) listened to them. I'm going to die alone and decrepit of something stupid like tripping on a cord to something electric, and dying slowly.

All of this anet: decision to go to Fire Island for a week to try to finish some writing on the laptop I should really have repaired before the warranty runs out. I enjoyed the Belvedere so much when a bunch of us went there in late June to scatter Bunny's ashes and talk about Depeche Mode and other rock bands I'd never heard (or even heard of) that I and Guy and Mario decided to return in September. But they acted promptly and got the rooms with bay views; I could not make up my mind as usual. But I have. But it may change. Are Depeche Mode worth it? Should I get an iPod? If I do, I will fill it with Rodgers & Hart and rock will remain a dead letter. That would not be bad. There are too many Mercadante operas to worry about rock bands, don't you agree?

Tim Page describes me in The New Yorker

In the August 20 issue of The New Yorker (yeah, them), music critic Tim Page has an article about Asperger's syndrome, a form of mild autism, and he includes this description:

"The symptoms of this developmental disorder include early precocity, a great ability to maintain masses of information, a lack of ability to mix with groups in age-appropriate ways, ignorance of or indifference to social norms, high intelligence, and difficulty with transitions, married to a preternatural ability to concentrate on the minutia of the task at hand.

"The Asperger’s spectrum ranges from people barely more abstracted than a stereotypical “absent-minded professor” to the full-blown, albeit highly functioning, autistic. Symptoms of Asperger’s have been attributed ex post facto to successful figures, but these are the fortunate ones—persons able to invent outlets for their ever-welling monomanias. Many are not so lucky, and some end up institutionalized or homeless. (In the late nineteen-seventies, I saw a ragged, haunted man who spent urgent hours dodging the New York transit police to trace the dates and lineage of the Hapsburg nobility on the walls of subway stations.) For some—record collectors with every catalogue number at hand, theatre buffs with first-night casts memorized, children who draw precise architectural blueprints of nineteenth-century silk mills—a cluster of facts can be both luminous and lyric, something around which to construct a life."

As it happens, I may or may not mix well with other children in age-appropriate ways (can I give you my card? can I form yours into a paper plane and hurl it across the street?) and I certainly get down and dirty with the minutiae of pointless tasks (let me show you my mandala art work sometime), but I have never been homeless or institutionalized (not even close) (unless you count college as an institution) (or the Democratic Party and that joke was old in Will Rogers' day) but that was definitely ME back in the late 70s scrawling the genealogy of the Habsburgs, the Capets, the Hohenzollerns and the Comneni on the blanker spaces of the New York subway walls.

Hey, man, this was the age of Keith Haring.

I was not oblivious to the world at such times. In fact, I welcomed commentary. (I only got ticketed once, a mere four generations into the royal house of Aragon.) Every now and then someone would say, baffled, "Is all this TRUE?" and I'd reply, "Yes, but if I were making it all up, you'd never know." Ah, but this is New York -- someone would, you know. One guy used to annotate my Habsburgs with the names of the artists each one patronized -- quite a list. Back and forth we went. At last we met, spent a charming afternoon together -- and never met again. The magic was gone. (Hey, it beats airport rest rooms.) Once, as I drew the royal Capetians while waiting for the no. 4 after a very late Next Wave concert at BAM, a guy said, "What's dat?" I told him: the kings of France from 987 to 1328. "And who's that?" "That's John Ist -- his father died before he was born, in 1316, and he was born already king and died five days later." (An event that led to the Hundred Years' War, indirectly.) "Well then, he don't count, man. He cancels out." "No he doesn't. He's still John the First," I fought back, peeved. (I feel a kinship with kings named John, a misunderstood lot by and large.) "No man. You can't include him. He cancels out."

Well the point of all this is that I can relate to people (unlike Aspies) and much as I would like to blame certain unsuccesses in my life on a mental affliction, those friends of mine (usually teachers and parents) who have studied the thing say I just don't make the grade: I am alive to signals from those with whom I attempt to relate. Sometimes I'm even good at it, though it took a while to emerge from adolescent isolation. I once related the complete history of the Byzantine Empire to a girlfriend in a Greenwich Village coffeehouse. Took six hours. She put up with it. Women are terrific that way. Why did I ever switch to men? (Digression; ignore.)

Another event that comes up in the Tim Page article is the world premier of Steve Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians" at Town Hall in 1976. As it happens, I was there, too. Everyone tranced out, stoned or unstoned. I was impressed, but preferred (and still prefer) his "Music for Mallet Instruments." (Always liked Reich better than Glass anyway.)

What I recall more fondly is a later performance of "Music for 18 Musicians" at the former New York Customs House (now the Museum of the American Indian). On the ground floor of this beaux arts confection is (or used to be) a huge rectangular room with a huge oval in the center of it, walled off by a low balustrade-railing. The musicians set up there and played, and the fans lined the walls, trancing out. Except for one, who spent the time dancing around and around the central space, happily oblivious of looks (but most people had their eyes closed), just doing what seemed to him the right thing for that music and that space and that time.

Yes: It was I. The self-conscious, can't perform on a stage or improvise a ritual to save his life, quasi-Aspie me.

I've always remembered it as one of the great moments in my life, a time when I just didn't give a hoot what anyone else thought or did: I did it my way, and all was right with the world. Don't know where that guy went, or why I cannot access him at will, or why he so rarely appears, but -- there you have it. He's part of me, too. He can still reel off the Habsburgs if you are interested. (No one is interested.)

I've always wished the Philharmonic or Carnegie or the Met would install a mosh pit but so far they have ignored my suggestions. I'd enjoy the experience so much more.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Big Town; News Travels Slowly

Last night I suddenly realized it was a quarter of ten and, having unwisely missed Mark Morris's last night at Mostly Mozart, I had just a few minutes to make it across town for an evening of Romanian avant-garde theater a the Fringe Festival. I've been Fringing all week, with pretty fair results: Bukowsical! (terrific), The Penis Rising from the Flames (very good but didn't live up to the title -- it couldn't, eh?), Sustained Winds (a bunch of New Orleans performers acting out living through Katrina and its aftermath -- had moments but also a weak cast member or two, and dull spots that perhaps were intended to mimic spending a weak in a sweltering mudbath without power, food or water), and I wanted to hit this East European reflection on the times changing.

Hopped on the bike only to run into blocked traffic on Sixth Avenue going north -- very odd at 10 on a Saturday night. The reason soon appeared: thirty cars and trucks in front of the local firehouse (Sixth and Houston), turning half the road into an obstruction. There were also firetrucks speeding all over, sirens blaring. It was work to get to Bleecker, then easy enough to reach Lafayette. At midnight, back across town to my regular pub; more fire trucks all over. Curious. Where, as the saying goes, was the fire?

But I didn't turn on the TV; I never do.

This morning the Times answered many (not enough) of my questions: The Deutsche Bank building, a tombstone when it was new at the south end of Ground Zero, worse after the attacks, when it received much collateral damage, worse still under cloth wraps for years as people debated whether it was salvageable, and now at last coming down as was surely inevitable (and small loss to anyone, visually) -- caught fire yesterday at about 3:30. No one knows how, but a workman's cigarette is suspected. Fire raced around the 17th floor; 495 fireguys showed up -- and two suffocated. They were both assigned to my local firehouse, which had lost 11 guys on 9/11 (out of 12) -- which explains the cars. My local house is one of the more modern in this region of the city and so is often picked to HQ disasters and the like -- it was HQ on 9/11 and thereafter for several security agencies and I was nearly expelled from my home in consequence. (I live a mile and more north of Ground Zero.)

Like Katrina and the Holocaust and the Bush presidency, real disasters never end -- they just -- evolve.

The Romanian play -- Bucharest Calling -- was engrossing due to five excellent Romanian actors fluent in English. The story was something of an old-fashioned "well-made play" (an odd thing to encounter at the Fringe Festival): five people who do not believe they are connected, but they are, in ways that gradually emerge; a talismanic 60,000 euros that keeps moving from person to person and symbolizes hope and renewal, "your second chance at life!" to all the characters and somehow never gets put to any purpose but dissolves -- as (almost) does hope; aspirations and ambitions dashed, horrors survived, guilt murky, relationships formed and, just as abruptly, dispersed. Drugs, sex, porn, theft, murder, hatred of the authorities (who are more corrupt but probably not doing any better), the roots of life forgotten or denied (a girl trying to get someone to murder her paralyzed mother remembers how great that mother was before the hit-and-run), the next step ... visas to America? a film contract? a real job? true love? always disappointed.

And it occurred to me that there was nothing very Romania-specific about it. (A few street names, maybe. And that was just one or two scenes in two hours.) It could have been the same or similar five people in any weary, crumbling city in Eastern Europe. No, make that Europe. No, make that the entire West. And since the West now includes Moscow and Istanbul and Mumbai and Dubai and Bangkok and Seoul ... and Shanghai? Lord, that's the CAPITAL of the West these days -- well, then, what city could this not have been?

So that is the bleak news from Romania: it's no longer a separate country; it's part of all of us. Corrupt and depressed and not very democratic or prosperous as it is, it has reached out and absorbed us all. Or has Los Angeles done that? Or Sao Paulo? Or Manila? Or Toronto? Nothing is exotic, nothing is strange, all the world is globalized. If you really want to get away to a place where you can go native, hear the local music and eat the local food and escape the world ... there are a number of ant colonies and caribou herds I can recommend. Otherwise forget it.

The crisis of 9/11 is STILL GOING ON. The reason we can't distinguish our friends from our enemies is that they're the same people, viewed from slightly different angles. (This, too, was a moral of the play, in which all five characters were pitiable but, morally, deeply compromised , four of them habitual liars.) (The axis of evil is not a proper vector.)

So at midnight, ducking fire engines (one of them even asked me to stop so they could zip by my bike), I went to Ty's and encountered Orlando, gloating at Hugo Chavez's latest betîse -- we do appreciate anyone who makes the Bush junta crazy -- and also at Hurricane Dean, now slated to miss Cuba, hit Jamaica dead on, and then slam Houston. Orlando identifies Houston with Bush Power, so he wishes it deep-sixed. I recall a pleasant week there last autumn, the snazzy opera house, the pleasant neighborhoods, the bumpersticker that read "Co-exist," the C being a crescent, the X a mogen David, the T a crucifix. They can't be all bad. Besides, my friend Jean is flying there on Tuesday. (Politics is always local, and personal.)

Today the weather is gray but there are two more plays to see and two volunteer shifts (which earn vouchers towards free plays): the Festival runs another week. Maybe there will be time to take a flower or something by the firehouse.

A gift from Peter arrived: a little statue of Hermes he has made for my altar, to preside (it is to be hoped) over happy travels to Istanbul et al. and perhaps defend the flat against break-ins (not that there's much to steal).

Friday, July 27, 2007

Pickup Lines you may not have heard

"That tattoo around your (extremely impressive) bicep -- it's in Kufic script, isn't it?"
Okay, I did not actually say that to the extremely impressive torso with tattoo, sculpted beard, plucked eyelashes and broken, Arab nose on the E train tonight while heading home from "The Day Before Spring" (Lerner & Loewe's first musical, 1945, flopped -- NO SIGN that these guys would come up with "My Fair Lady") at the York Musicals in Mufti series.
But it was what I would have said if he had given me so much as a glance. He was giving glances only to much younger men. Well, if THAT'S what you're into, I thought (sour grapes, sour grapes)....
But you do agree with me, don't you, that it would have been a most original, however unsuccessful, pickup line, had I had the balls to attempt it?
He got off at 23rd Street in deepest Chelsea. Well, if THAT'S what you're into, I thought.
Nice view of wasp-waisted, big-chested torso in one of those fashionable square-cut undershirts, as he strolled down the platform.
Too tall for me anyway. (Like you believe I mean that.)

"The Day Before Spring" was not a good show (you could easily understand why it failed), but Lerner & Loewe recycled quite a lot of it over the years -- one recit turned up in the movie "Gigi." Others (a guy told me as we left the theater) are in the stage version of "Gigi," which I do not know. There are several very pretty songs in DBS worthy of cabaret recycling: The title tune, and "My Love Is a Married Man" (the somewhat well-known one), "A Jug of Wine," "This Is My Holiday." (I'd heard the second and third of these at Broadway-By-the-Year's Musicals of 1945 at Town Hall.) There's a splendid little scene in which Plato, Voltaire and Freud sing different advice (in different pastiche styles -- did young Stephen Sondheim see this show?) to a wife considering whether to leave her husband for her lover -- this is the sort of thing that could be excerpted for variety performance very well indeed, and it brought down the house tonight.

Not to change the subject, in "No Man of Her Own" (not to be confused with the Stanwyck weepie of the same title), Carole Lombard plays a small-town librarian and Clark Gable (this was years before they married) is a gangster from the city who is lying low in the small town. She is affronted by his appraising look -- or at any rate, it makes her kind of breathless. But he seems to have vanished, and she's turning out the lights, row by row, in the dark library -- when out of the stacks he emerges, looming over her with THAT smile. She falls back, and he says,
"What do you DO with all the hearts you break?" --
whereupon she gives a great big Carole Lombard gasp. And falls for the lug.
I loved that scene when I saw it at an impressionable age (I'm still impressionable, actually), and I have often used the line. Well, not often, because the first five or six times it did not get anything like Carole Lombard's reaction ... in fact guys tended to edge to the other side of the bar. So I cooled it. I only use it now on guys so hot I know they're not going to respond no matter what I say. It breaks the ice. Sometimes it's even worked.
You never know. But that's a Cole Porter show, come to think of it.
What would you say to a really stunning muscular Arab with a tattoo in Kufic script around his bicep on the E train on a Friday night?
("It's Friday night. Shouldn't you be in the medrasa?")

DBS was not the best thing I've seen at Musicals in Mufti by a long chalk (it was the opening night, true) -- I think that title goes to Rebecca Luker in "Darling of the Day" -- but the show would be infinitely more likable if the cast -- especially the ladies -- would project their lyrics, sing them louder and e-nun-ci-ate. (Like, say, Rebecca Luker.) Todd Adams, who had the best voice, had nothing to sing; Robyn Kramer, who was the funniest performer, did not project her songs. Daniel Levine was amusing as Voltaire, Hunter Bell as a valet, Tia Speros as a confidante (the Eve Arden role), Mark York got laughs where there weren't jokes and played piano good. Pleasant show to finally see. (Next in the series: Zorba.)

P.S. In the Barbara Stanwyck "No Man of Her Own," which is mercifully rare, Ruby is knocked up by a lout, Lyle Bettger, who gives her a train ticket to get rid of her. Naturally, as so often happens in real life, she's just trying on the wedding ring of another pregnant woman when the train crashes. The other woman and husband are killed, and his family mistakes Ruby for their unknown pregnant daughter-in-law. For the sake of the baby, she goes along. But Lyle Bettger turns up and blackmails her into marrying him. The whole flick's deadly dull until the moment the Justice of the Peace says, "until death do you part," and then the famous Stanwyck eyes light up. All the while, on the drive home, she is staring at oblivious Lyle, and it's perfectly obvious what she's thinking: "I'm Barbara Stanwyck. I'm married to a man I despise. I know how to handle THIS." Those five minutes are the only reason to watch the picture.
Truth to tell, I don't recommend either movie. Or "The Day Before Spring." Or musclemen with plucked eyebrows and tattoos in Kufic around their biceps.
York Theater Company, however, I approve.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Celebrity Hug

Perpetual search for clean, well-lighted, quiet and civil places to sit, write, edit/proofread undisturbed; lately these have been literally fading in the West Village (Café Henri dims the lights in the evening, Risotteria has got all snarky about people sitting alone at their cruddy tables, but I do love their food), but I think I shall start spending much time at the new Whole Foods on Bowery. However, they close at 11pm.

So, after an evening chez Chris, who lives over a hetero leather bar beside the Billyburg Bridge (what a weird neighborhood), listening to his matchless collection of obscure musicals (Foxy anyone? Drat! The Cat! or Juno or Nymph Errant or Hannah in 1939 or Her First Roman?), I biked about midnight up to the Odessa on Avenue A to edit a bit. In walks a familiar face – because I’ve been sending her youtube video of “Yolanda at the Bottom of the Stairs” to everyone I know and watching it every day for weeks. (And here it is: )“Are you Lorinda Lisitza?” I said, for once not tongue-tied in the face of fame. (Well, it’s not like she’s an opera singer.) “I saw you sing ‘Yolanda’ at the Night Life Awards,” I babbled (she stole the evening). “So then I went to see you in Happy End.” “Well – hug me!” she cried. And then she took my email and introduced me to her dinner companion, Joe Iconis, composer of “Yolanda” and “Blue Hair” (q.v. on Youtube), who looked very Greek and spoke very dudely. “Besides,” I told her, “we have the same hairdresser.” “Giovanni! When will he be back in town? I need a cut!” (So do I.)

“Blue Hair” is a remarkable mating of words (what it’s like to be a teenage girl in the U.S. in the 21st century) and melody, because the latter recalls the sort of semi-tuneless taunting chant of kids on playgrounds everywhere: Niener, niener, nie-ner (as they voice it out West). That sing-song fits the lonely girl in the song to a T -- to an iron cross even.

Thirty years ago (can it have been?), writing book reviews for the NYTimes or whoever, I used to get a cup of tea from an all-night diner and go sit at one of the cement chess tables in the SW corner of Washington Square (park officially closed at midnight, but no one minded quiet me) and write at 4am or something by the light of streetlamps or gathering dawn. One such night, a shadow fell across my manuscript. I looked up to see the New Yorker’s nightmare: a great big black guy glaring down at me, and no witnesses on the lonely street. Me, heart in throat: “Yes?” And he: “You got any … pieces?” He wanted to play chess. (I never have a chess set on me when it would come in handy. Monopoly either.) (This is likelier to happen nowadays, with New York full of Russians.)

New Yorkers: From a Personal Directory

Sunday afternoon, Café Horus on Avenue B, popular for its flavored hookahs and satellite channels of ancient Egyptian music videos – I hear sexy Lebanese music videos are now corrupting the youth of the whole Middle East; Go Team! – but the café also has the best chicken kebab lunch special in town.

At the next table three attractive girls were sharing a hookah (pineapple?). I was attentive when I heard their accents. One, slim, dark-skinned, curly-haired, was from Saudi Arabia – I am fascinated by that society, and asked more. She lives three months there, then three here. “Isn’t it awkward going back and forth?” I asked, meaning socially. She said, “No,” meaning, the visas are all taken care of. “I have a car – I can drive around.” “But can you drive it yourself?” “No – I have a chauffeur.”

“Why do you want to know?” said the second girl, round face, brown-blond hair; not rude, just letting me know: Try anything, buster, and she’s got friends. Very New York; I approved. She was Turkish, from Adana in Cilicia, very impressed that I knew so many classical destinations I wanted to visit there.

The third girl had what I call Persian eyes: eNORmous, ox eyes, Hera eyes, almond-shaped, with long straight black hair. She was from Istanbul but Kurdish; she was playing Kurdish songs on her tape deck for them, translating the lyrics (girl runs from an arranged marriage but she’s pregnant, husband can’t decide whether to kill her or let the baby be born first, love oh careless love). “I wish you could understand it,” she sighed to the others. “It’s so good – the lyrics.” To me she said, politely, “Is the music bothering you?” which must be a first – as it happens, I enjoyed it greatly.

They talked only in English, their one common language. “We all live in New York and we’re best friends,” they told me. Only here, because their three races detest each other. Obviously they all came from good, probably well to do families, but still I doubt if they would have been able to associate – except perhaps at secular universities in Turkey – back home. A hundred years ago, they would never have left their separate communities, would never have met, but the cities had more minorities then – all keeping to themselves – as they do in New York when immigrants first get here.

Dream on a Sunday morning

Dream on a Sunday morning after too much vodka:

Tacoma (a lovely seaside town in Italy), the train glides in and I am attending (with friends) some theater piece at the Pantages. Not an opera. This was miraculously touching. A tropical theme? Perhaps the most amazing thing was the emergence from retirement of Tyrone Power who, in a costume somewhere between a shaman and a white explorer (high topee? Bengal Lancer?), totters through the lead. I am distracted from the drama by trying to calculate how old he must be (97?). The play (or whatever it is) manifests in a visual symbol: some attendant behind the visionary (Power) carries a long stem on which is either some ornamental symbol (like a parasol carried behind a mandarin) or a genuine flowering bush, white blossoms emerging from the white stem. But in the course of the journey, the blossoms evolve (bloom? spring? decay?) into something multi-colored, intricate, patterned, mandalas – or is it merely diseased, decayed, impure? In any case, the play’s end appears to culminate when (though they still have not fallen) the blossoms are all transformed into greens and reds and pale blues and yellows. Touching. But then there is another scene, or final tableau, and the colors have all been restored to their initial white – for some reason this is unbearably poignant (though we argue over the meaning of the image: the ideals are not dead? the soul returns and thrives beneath the creative hurly-burly of impulses resolved?), and our view is obstructed by the antique and elaborate construction of the hall: yet we can see him there, in the limelight, with that symbolic pure blossom behind him (a real flower? a prop? an illusion? a greater, nobler truth?). Though tearing up with it, we argue, and no one shushes us. (Perhaps it’s just a dress rehearsal.) I woke up with the script of the play clear in my head, and told myself to write it down, quickly … and didn’t.

Next night: at a pagan gathering, glad to see so many old friends (Andras and Deirdre conspicuous), hugged a lot but mostly everyone is getting food in heavily timbered shelters and in fact it is pouring, muddy and cold (this is because I sleep with a fan focused on the bed), and I’m not really happy to be there at all. But I am willing to sacrifice to see all these people … half of whom I don’t even know … yet.

Next night: an arranged marriage in medieval times, or is it a theater staging a pageant to recall those times? (a la Bruges, which I was discussing last night with Cedric, who is bound thither), somehow I am to be proxy for the bride, which is okay because the groom is (or is being sung by) Mariusz Kwiecien, which is certainly exciting news, and yet at the same time I have not shaved off my beard (neither, thank heavens, has he) and the awkwardness of appearing thus as a bride (even a proxy bride) in public strikes me as all wrong, even outrageous, not to mention the fact that I am not sure (cannot believe) Mariusz knows who is going to be under the veil (and, concomitantly, in the bed), and I am heartily embarrassed to be presenting my aged, decrepit body naked (or veiled) before his splendor, and at the last moment I try to get out of it. Then I wake up, figure what the hell? and let my drowsy brain complete the erotic fantasy I never seem to get around to when actually dreaming. (Cue: baritone aria from Halka.)

My Taxi Driver Game

New York City taxi drivers are separated from passengers by a sheet of hard plastic on the upper left (passenger's viewpoint) side of which is a photo and the driver's name. One of my New York games is to read the name, study the face, and deduce the country of origin. If I'm right on the first guess, I get a Point. If it takes me two guesses, no point. (Sorry; rules is rules.) I don't keep track of how many Points I have, but it makes me feel good if I get it -- especially if the driver is from an obscure country (i.e., not India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Haiti).

The game's no fun in other towns (Vancouver, Seattle, Chicago) because they do not have their name up, and I have to guess from the face and the accent. The game does not call on my wikipedic (derivation: from enyclopedic, wikipedic means: learned but faulty and incomplete) knowledge of names and geography.

It's also good for starting a brief conversation, which takes my mind off the increments of the meter. The drivers are always delighted at my guess, even if it's wrong, and when it turns out I have heard of their country, even know a little about its politics, they all say, "Where are you from? You can't be American. No one's ever heard of my country in America." (Indians, Pakistanis, Russians and Chinese don't add that second sentence.) This comment always fills me with pride, however unjust (to other Americans) it may be.

The other day, a very pretty young woman was driving me through Midtown, and her name -- first and last, both four letters long, an X in there somewhere, no response at all from my internal database of linguistic roots -- gave me no hint. So, I deduced, West Africa -- but not a very Islamic part of West Africa, or a very Frenchified or Anglicized family. The older generation often got their names -- at least the ones they used on taxi licenses -- from the colonizing culture; the younger generation have made a point of using only names in their own tongues. (All young nations go through an adolescent stage.) Nigeria is the largest nation in Africa, but very few Nigerians come here for some reason. I hazarded, "Ghana," and got my Point. Pleased me all day -- or until the next cab four hours later, when I guessed "Egypt" and he was from Morocco.

Perhaps it's just as well no one else plays this game; competition would ruin it. For one thing, who can afford to take cabs everywhere? In New York, subways and a bicycle are the only ways to get anywhere fast, especially during daylight hours. (At night, buses are just as fast as subways, and much more pleasant.)

Years ago, during the Cold War (aren't we all nostalgic for that?), I had my one instance of a cabbie who didn't want to talk about where he was from. The name struck me as Russian, but he refused to talk about it. "I'm in America now; what does the rest matter?" He sounded suspicious and evasive. Perhaps I was Secret Police; perhaps I was INS; perhaps I intended to deport him. He wouldn't play the game.

Sometimes they're American. Boring. I'm a Xenophile: I like people from other cultures (true, much of America is different from Manhattan culture; my friends in Oklahoma and Missouri tell me about this), I like to compare and contrast. Once an older guy in a heavy Brooklyn accent said, "I'm from Ireland. Coney Ireland. Cantcha hear this brogue?" (The letter R did not occur in anything he said; it appears in the writing down of it for your convenience.) He came, it turns out, from Sheepshead Bay, a part of New York I don't know. "It's great," he said. "Three blocks and you're at the ocean ... you can just walk along hearing the tide come in."