Monday, December 29, 2008

Nathan the Wise vs. Eleazar le Juif

December 28, Feast of the Holy Innocents, patrons of all fictitious victims on whose account we grow sentimental while ignoring those at risk but too familiar.

I felt in the need for jollification but not for spending much money. Looking through the Village Voice theater listings, I found that the Pearl Theater Company, a tiny rep co. on St. Mark’s Place (I’ve seen them do The Rivals and Maria Stuart and Philoctetes), were giving Gotthold Lessing’s Nathan the Wise (1779), and to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the company, were charging $25 a ticket. That seemed very reasonable (there were lots of families speaking foreign tongues in the tiny house), so I biked on over.

I do not know, but I know of the play – though I did not know it was the first play staged in Germany after Nazi surrender (and one of the first banned when they took over). I also knew Lessing, the son of an Evangelical minister, had been a bright light of the Berlin Enlightenment under Frederick the Great (idea for a musical: On the Fritz, the happy-go-lucky adventures of Prussia’s gayest prince …) and that his best friend was Moses Mendelssohn, whose candidacy for the Royal Academy Lessing advanced, only to be vetoed by the king, though he admitted MM “possessed every qualification for membership but a foreskin.” I also heard a lovely story from old Baroness de Popper, of how a friend of her father’s, learning she had never been to the theater (she being then nine or ten), too her to the Burgtheater to see Nathan, and they sat alone in the imperial box (the gentleman being a friend of HM’s), and she was utterly enthralled (it’s a pretty damn well-made play), and sat staring at the stage, not even seeing anyone come into the box, until the lights went on at the interval, and she looked around and there was Franz Josef. (“And was he wearing his crown and everything?” asked her granddaughter, when she told her the tale.) And he said, “They get younger and younger,” shaking his head, and then took her to the buffett, and got her everything she wanted.

I also knew Lessing had put into the play the medieval fable about the sultan (in this case Saladin) who challenged the richest Jew in town to say which of the three great religions was the true one (figuring to get at least a huge contribution if not a conversion out of him) and the Jew responded with the fable of the three identical rings, one genuine, two imitations, that a father gave to his three beloved sons, each of whom believed he possessed the true one, “but as to which was the true one, that would only be revealed by the example of the one who loved his brothers most.” Whereupon Saladin repents his blackmail and offers the Jew his hand and friendship. Nearly everyone turns out (after an explosion of ill temper) to be a nice guy in this play: Jews, Muslims, Christians, and furthermore all the young people turn out to have been born into a group other than the one they believe is theirs. Only the patriarch is bloody minded, and Nathan outfoxes him. The plot is very mathematical, and would not work if the actors did not make the figures threatening and pardoning each other human, and the company were all quite good, and a mix of races to boot (with no great logic to it as far as putative ancestry goes).

At the end, when (contrary to most such plots) the young people who have fallen in love discover they are brother and sister (oh well), and far from being a Jewess and a Prussian Templar are both children of Saladin’s dead brother (and a Christian girlfriend slain by her relations for having an affair with a Muslim), Nathan turns to us and says, “You may think this extraordinary, a fable, a miracle – in fact it is the common tale of our lives: for whenever we meet other humans, we encounter our kin.” (I daresay it says “men,” not “humans” in the German, and in older translations, here and throughout the text. Lessing, like Moses Mendelssohn and Mozart and Beumarchais and most of the Founding Fathers of America, was a Mason.)
The mystery about this, is that at the end – and also several times during the play when such sentiments are invoked by other characters – I found myself close to tears, and this happened again when trying to describe the plot to others that night or the next day. I mean, it’s not like I’ve changed my medication or anything. And I’m not usually so affected by the plots of plays or operas, even when well acted (or sung).

However, the back-story of Nathan and his “daughter” struck me another way: Nathan explains that his wife and their sons were burned alive while hiding in a factory from anti-Jewish Christian riots, that for three days he prayed to be saved from his hatred of the Christians, and on the third day, just as reason reasserted itself, a groom accosted him (as in Sophocles’ Oedipus, the groom turns up of course, 19 years later, as a hermit friar), having been sent from his Christian friend Wulf (who turns out to be the Muslim Assad) who was going to war (to be killed), and wished to entrust his Christian baby daughter to Nathan. Nathan soon loved the child, named her “Rachel,” and raised her in ignorance of her birth (but Nathan’s Christian housekeeper knows the truth). When the Patriarch learns of this, he wants Nathan burned at the stake for distracting a baptized soul from the true faith, and we’re actually worried until Saladin saves the day.

The reason this struck is that, in 1835, 56 years after Nathan was first printed (and long after it had become a classic), Halévy presented his opera, La Juive (to a libretto by, inevitably, Scribe – who surely knew Nathan well). And though set in 1415, not 1190, La Juive is oddly similar/dissimilar to Nathan: Eleazar, a goldsmith, lost his wife and sons during riots in Rome many years ago, but rescued a Christian infant he has raised as his own daughter, “Rachel.” As in Nathan, a Christian has fallen in love with Rachel – but it is the sneaky Prince Leopold, disguised as a Jew, not a hot-tempered Templar who turns out to be Saladin’s nephew (and Rachel’s brother). Again the church demands that the Jews burn (because an interracial love affair is anathema), though Rachel, broken-hearted, agrees to spare Leopold’s life. The emperor does not appear – no Saladin ex machina here. The one voice of reason and tolerance is not Eleazar’s – he hates all Christians – but Cardinal Brogny’s – and he is ignored, except by Eleazar, who taunts him: before he took holy orders, Brogny had a wife and a daughter, who vanished in the fire that killed Eleazar’s family. “I happen to know your daughter lived, and was raised by Jews,” he says. Brogny misses the point we get – he begs for the missing info; Eleazar enjoys refusing. But, alone, sentenced to die, he wonders if he can take his adored Rachel with him to death – thus the opera’s most famous aria, “Rachel, quand du Seigneur.” Usually omitted: An offstage chorus of bloodthirsty Christians, and Eleazar’s cabaletta, resolving to keep Rachel from those awful people. So to the climax: Eleazar asks Rachel if she would live, without him, as a Christian; her heart broken by Leopold, she says she would never abandon her faith, and leaps into the caldron of boiling oil. “With your last breath, tell me where my daughter is!” cries harmless Cardinal Brogny. “She is there!” Eleazar cries, pointing – and then leaping after her, as the Christian crowd exults.

This opera was a major hit until Nazi times – it was the fourth of the great grand operas. Eleazar became, rather than Nathan, the symbol of the Jew, his feelings tender only for his own, hating the rest of the world (howsoeverbeit justified). I feel a great distaste for him when I see the opera – impressed by his heroic perversity, but not admiring, or affected, by him and his predicament. The Cardinal and Rachel are the only likable characters in the opera, and their principles do not triumph. What did people think when they saw Tamberlik and Viardot sing it – or even Caruso and Ponselle? (Tucker begged Bing to revive it for him; Bing flatly refused.) Halévy was a completely secularized Jew, the head of the French Conservatory – he wrote ten other operas, none of them remotely as successful. His daughter married Bizet (who boasted on their wedding eve that neither of them believed in any religion), and later was the first hostess to admit Marcel Proust to her salon (he was at school with her son). When I wrote about La Juive for the Met program, and for Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (another Scribe script), which premiered the next year (Meyerbeer was a Berlin Jew, who continued to practice all his life – he had promised an elderly relation in his youth – but whose daughters married into the Christian nobility), I suggested that these spectacles of religious persecution and massacre were as popular as they undoubtedly were (in Paris, and everywhere else, for a hundred years) in part because they flattered the audiences that such events were of the past, that they could not happen again, people having become so enlightened.

But why did hateful Eleazar and his Rachel supersede lovable Nathan and his Rachel in the popular mind? Is this more of the phenomenon of the rise of the New Anti-Semitism during the nineteenth century, when conspiracy theories began to proliferate, and every wicked tendency in society that could not be traced to the Freemasons or the Communists or the Anarchists or the Nihilists was freely ascribed to the Jews?

And why does it bring tears to my eyes to see actors (even damned good actors) playing the earlier, we’re-all-human-kindred message of the Enlightenment presented 130 years after it was written, and in the one city in the world where the war seems to be going the right way, 9/11 or not?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

U.S. politics explained to a Canadian

ME: There was an audible collective sigh of relief from above the border after November 4th – all my Canadian friends knew that I would not be packing my bags, moving north in quest of refuge, complaining about the mediocre opera and theater and the size of mixed drinks, ignoring hockey, marrying some poor sacrificial person to gain citizen status.

Perhaps we should be careful what we tell our Canadian friends about American politics. They might begin to think they’re missing something. The only flashy Canadian politician was Pierre Trudeau, and none of the Canadians liked him. (I did, but am not Canadian, and spent his administration hating Nixon and Reagan.) But a dear Canadian friend, a very brainy lady, wrote me after the elections, and I attempted to clear things up:

SHE: I was just this side of distraught thinking that McCain and that female might get into office. If Obama hadn't won, we might as well have packed our bags and headed for the farm. Give up on civilization. Pack it in. Go home. Whatever. We could forgive the American people for electing Bush the first time. Everyone makes mistakes. But when they elected Bush the second time... I lost faith. If they were stupid enough to do that, they were capable of electing McCain and associated bimbo. Thank GODS he won. Whatever Obama does or does not do, he'll make better choices than those two. I watched Obama the night he won the election. Almost brought tears to my eyes. I'd like to think there is something to be hopeful about here.

Why did they dig up that Palin thing? How did she end up behind a podium? OH DISGRACE! OH WOMEN HANG YOUR HEADS! Please tell me there are better Republican women around. Condaleeza Rice was nothing to be ashamed of. At least she could be trusted in civilized company and has a passport. Why didn't the Republicans make her their vice-prezzy candidate? I am gravely ignorant about US politics, so there is probably something I am missing here, and I only get whatever snipets show up in the local news. Still, surely the Republicans could have found someone better than that stray cat Palin. EXPLAIN! How could Palin have been allowed to happen?

I like Hillary. Did Obama make her his Secretary of State?

ME: What a splendid distraction from having a wretched cold all week, and the ghastly sci-fi novel I am proofreading.

“I was just this side of distraught thinking that McCain and that female might get into office.”

Me too. I kept thinking, “The Republicans got us into this mess; maybe they deserve it. Like 1929. It could guarantee the Dems the government for the following 20 years again. But no, another Rep admin was too awful to contemplate.”

You have NO IDEA (no Canadian who has never been American does) how constantly and overtly and relentlessly the Bush boys have done their best to destroy the best things in our Constitution. They really hate democracy, and ours above all – and then they accused anyone who objected to their actions of lacking patriotism. Scum below the slimiest lizard. Gerald Ford was the last honest or honorable Republican. And he’s dead.

“If Obama hadn't won, we might as well have packed our bags and headed for the farm. Give up on civilization. Pack it in. Go home. Whatever. We could forgive the American people for electing Bush the first time.”

But we DIDN’T. Gore won by a million votes. They miscounted Florida and then the Supreme Court (stuffed with Republicans) voted Bush in.

“Everyone makes mistakes. But when they elected Bush the second time... I lost faith.”

That was illusion, too. True, Kerry ran a godawful campaign, but even then it was so close that one state – Ohio – would have tipped it. But Ohio had a Republican state gov’t, and had just installed new electronic no-paper-trail voting machines. This method was also used by Louis-Philippe when he was king of France – he sent the voting totals to be recorded to all the regional prefects BEFORE the elections, to save time you know. (1845 – life was rush, rush, rush!)

“If they were stupid enough to do that, they were capable of electing McCain and associated bimbo. Thank GODS he won. Whatever Obama does or does not do, he'll make better choices than those two. I watched Obama the night he won the election. Almost brought tears to my eyes. I'd like to think there is something to be hopeful about here.”

My friend Nancy in Chicago, who was raised white in Alabama, was in Grant Park for the speech, openly blubbering and hugging strangers. She calls it one of the greatest nights of her life. I hope Mr. O can live up to it. (I did notice, with pleasure, he mentioned “straight or gay” in his speech - not making a thing of it, just casually including us in the family, as we deserve.) I’m already disappointed that he’s kept on terms with Senator Lieberschmuck.

“Why did they dig up that Palin thing? How did she end up behind a podium? “

Now, Tina Fey I’d have voted for. (And I’d never heard of her before September.)

“OH DISGRACE! OH WOMEN HANG YOUR HEADS! Please tell me there are better Republican women around. Condaleeza Rice was nothing to be ashamed of. At least she could be trusted in civilized company and has a passport. Why didn't the Republicans make her their vice-prezzy candidate?”

Because the only people who despise Bush near as much as the Democrats and the foreigners are the Republicans – to have been associated with him and his policies was seen as utterly toxic. That won’t last, unfortunately. We’re rid of Bush and (maybe) Cheney (who was far, far, far worse, a genuinely evil man), but the other names will come to have a reassuring sound, just because they are familiar.

“I am gravely ignorant about US politics, so there is probably something I am missing here, and I only get whatever snippets show up in the local news. Still, surely the Republicans could have found someone better than that stray cat Palin. EXPLAIN! How could Palin have been allowed to happen?”

Palin was the best thing a party with eight ghastly years behind it can find: a totally new, unknown face. (AND they hoped she would appeal to disaffected Hillary-ite feminazis – which she emphatically did not.) That she was plug-ignorant appealed to the core red state audience. It was a while before her gaffes began to show her up (fortunately, you can’t say anything in private any more, if you’re at all notorious – the pope has learned that the hard way), and it was a while (and I was freaking out) before one of my brainier political friends said, “How brilliant of John McCain – to choose as a running-mate someone who appeals only to people who already would only have voted for John McCain.” In the end, Palin alienated a lot of brainy, centrist Republicans (like Colin Powell) without picking up many votes. But Biden didn’t pick up many votes for Obama either. (He talks too much, as I often point out to him.)

A US presidential candidate chooses his running mate for one of two major reasons: to win enough votes to put him over the top by appealing to people who might not otherwise go for him, or to choose a competent successor in case things go wrong. In the former case, terrible mistakes can happen (e.g. plug ignorant Andrew Johnson succeeding Lincoln at a very delicate moment, but in contrast LBJ succeeding JFK), but the latter is not foolproof. FDR chose Truman, a little-known Missouri senator, in his fourth run because the party leaders refused to support him with a radical, Henry Wallace, in line for the presidency – everyone (but the public) knew FDR was a dying man. Truman made a fine president, to everyone’s surprise. McKinley chose uncontrollable Teddy Roosevelt largely to keep him from getting into MORE trouble as Sec’y of the Navy. I have no idea why TR accepted the thankless job of VP, but, great day in the morning, McKinley was shot. With a pistol not an elephant gun – if the latter, TR would have been a prime suspect. JFK chose LBJ because (a) he would guarantee Texas, which JFK needed (had he not got it, Nixon would have won), and (b) LBJ had long ruled the Senate with an iron hand. As VP, notoriously, LBJ had nothing at all to do, and was bored (and JFK wanted to drop him); as president, he could get Congress to do anything (as JFK never could). So we got the Voting Rights Act and the war on poverty and lots of other great liberal legislation people now wrongly ascribe to JFK – but we also got the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. (Oh, and LBJ also appointed the first black Supreme Court justice, the GREAT Thurgood Marshall. JFK would never have done that.)

- and now that I’ve bored your ear off …

(As you should know: Be careful asking me questions with historical or cultural context; I might answer them.)

“I like Hillary. Did Obama make her his Secretary of State?”

Such is the scuttlebutt. It used to be traditional to offer the job to the leading opponent for the nomination (e.g. Lincoln, Wilson, etc.), but that is no longer done, and the job has lost a great deal of prestige since the Nixon-Kissinger age. We could use a president who was at least INTERESTED in foreign policy (we haven’t had one since Nixon), and at least Obama is not unaware that other countries exist.

But I’m not sure she is capable of serving Obama’s interests first – perhaps she can – she’s shown in the Senate that she can change to fit circumstances. My problem with appointing her, brainy as she is, and adept at soothing former enemies, is that it opens up her Senate seat in New York to an interim appointment (by the governor) and there is no obvious choice to fill it. (The Voice said, “What they need is a Hispanic Democratic congresswoman from upstate New York – unfortunately, there are no Hispanic congresswomen from upstate.”) That means whoever gets it will not have made a secure impression by 2010, when there will be a special election (for the last two years of Hillary’s present term), and I am TERRIFIED Giuliani will give it everything he’s got. One thing he’s got is money, and sources for more. I loathe that man, but outside Manhattan, he’s still “America’s Mayor.” I know a queen in Brooklyn who wanted to vote for him this year.

The tragic figure in all this year is really John McCain. He was once an honorable (if hardly brilliant) moderate Republican, but he saw where that got him in 2000 – Bush’s machine creamed him with slanders and assaults in the South Carolina primary. So he gave up being “independent” and largely toed the Bush line in all things – in 2004, at the Convention, he said that on 9/11, he “thanked God Bush was in the White House.” Once you’ve decided to eat shit, I don’t suppose the spices matter. The Bush platform – speak FAR RIGHT and act economically irresponsible and govern FASCIST – was artificial. The fundie Right (which can never get a true believer in – they would alienate far too much of the center) had no one in the race but Mike Huckabee, and the center would never have accepted him. They liked McCain’s war record, but they never quite trusted him – he’s been rational on many social issues, a leader on campaign reform. So he felt he had to kowtow to them, say all their disgusting crap, figuring his old friends in the Center would know he didn’t mean it, and he also figured he had to choose a total rightwing nutjob as his running mate. (After all, if she became president, HE wouldn’t have to worry about it. He’d be dead.) This happens when you’re THAT close to power – it happened to Hubert Humphrey, for example. They lose their heads, they forget what values they ever held dear. I’m afraid it’s happened to Hillary, too – that’s why I voted for her dubiously in the primaries. I no longer feel I know what Hillary believes in – what she would fight for. I knew in 1992 (when I voted for her and Bill), but I don’t know now. She’s made too many deals just to acquire power.

Did you know Kerry nearly took on McCain as running mate in 2004? I wish he had. It might have swayed some votes, and left Edwards (a moderate Democrat) in the Senate, a seat that went perforce to a Republican. (Edwards turned out to be a dope, but his wife is FABULOUS. We all adore her.) McCain, for that matter, wanted to take Lieberschmuck as his running mate this year but the far right nabobs nixed him. I’m so relieved – aside from loathing the schmuck, such a ticket (catnip for Jews other than myself and my family) might well have put him over. And what choice DID the rightwing nutjobs have, when you come down to it? There’s no Nader on the Right (alas).

I wouldn’t object to McCain as president but I would be hysterical and in shock at the thought of every single person around him, actually running things – they’d be the same folks as surrounded Bush. McCain isn’t bright enough or strong enough to control them. So McCain was absolutely out.

HER SECOND LETTER, responding to above, FOLLOWS:

SHE: You know, I thought I might be getting paranoid, but I’ve felt all along that the Bush boys must be out to ruin the constitution, and, well, civilization as we know it. I thought the constitution was something Americans could justifiably be proud of. And yet, if one opposes them, as you said, one is accused of being unpatriotic. The kind of country they want, and the kind of citizen they idealize, is really terrifying.

Thanks for clarifying about Gore. I knew there was a recount and suspicious circumstances, but I didn't realize that the margin was so wide (a million votes!). I thought it was only a few thousand. Are those electronic voting machines still legal?

One of the things that confused me most about Palin was that it seemed obvious that she would alienate anyone one with any brains, including Republicans. Surely there must be some smart Republicans, Republicans who would function a hell of allot better than Bush and his gang. Or are Bush and his gang IT? Surely there must be Republicans that are somewhat educated and worldly? I get shivers whenever I think about Bush and foreign relations. (Do you really know Joe Biden?).

I just loved your abbreviated history of some presidencies. In the past I have puzzled over why JFK picked LBJ. Did you know that LBJ reputedly peed in front of Trudeau (one of our former and better prime ministers)? They did not get along very well. Trudeau called him a barbarian. They did not agree on Cuba. Castro was a friend of Trudeau’s. Your observations on Hillary are interesting. I would be terrified of Giuliani too. What is with him? What do you dislike about him? So he really does have a better image outside New York than in…

I found myself deeply disappointed by McCain too. I had read about him long before the recent spotlight that made him a household name in Canada. I expected more, or better. So he just sold out. That’s it. Up here, he just appears to be another Bush boy. Sad.

I really enjoyed your political low down. I've sent it to everyone I know and even posted sections of it on the cork board here at work. I think you missed your calling ... political commentator. People keep asking, "This is a friend of yours?" Our politics in Canada is so boring we mostly just ignore it.

I have been thinking about writing a book. I even have a title, Insolences, and yes, the plural is on purpose. It’s about a Mennonite girl who gets excommunicated. You know, stuck on a bus with 50 dollars and shipped to the city and a Pentecostal foster family (brrrrrr). Must have been a really BAD girl.

You know, I thought I might be getting paranoid, but I’ve felt all along that the Bush boys must be out to ruin the constitution, and, well, civilization as we know it. I thought the constitution was something Americans could justifiably be proud of. And yet, if one opposes them, as you said, one is accused of being unpatriotic. The kind of country they want, and the kind of citizen they idealize, is really terrifying.

ME: They reached power and held on to it by appealing, aggressively, to the worst instincts of the stupidest Americans. At times I have felt, maybe some limit on the electorate would be a good idea. (Like E.A. Poe, who wrote it should be limited to aristocrats like him – which is a laugh, as he was nothing of the kind, and poor to boot.)

I see it as starting with the twenty years the Dems had a lock on the White House after the Depression, and then they won the war on top of it. The Republicans were desperate – how could they return to power? Having a principal general for a candidate helped, but Ike was not an ideologue of the right – he knew the military so well he distrusted it. (He also would have preferred to sidestep Civil Rights, but that was the attitude of nearly all white politicians then – Humphrey got his start in ’48 by being the first white man who stood up for black equality and wouldn’t shut up about it – a fact the black electorate never forgot.)

But what the ideological Republicans decided was to blame the Dems for every foreign policy debacle after the end of the war. That included the sacrifice of Eastern Europe to Stalin (which went over well with Polish, Hungarian, et al. voters) and, later, the “loss” of China. The sacrifice of Eastern Europe was indeed sad, and they’re still angry at Roosevelt and Churchill and Truman for selling them down the river – which they did – but it was very much a case of: what choice did we have? Roosevelt, having seen the collapse of the League of Nations (he had been in Wilson’s administration, and was candidate for VP in 1920), was desperate to get Stalin to agree to join the U.N. He sacrificed a lot over that, such as letting Ukraine and Belarus in as if they were separate nations, and he gave the Russians one-third of Germany and one-fourth of Austria (they were astonished). But the alternative would have been continuing the war – with nukes – against Russia, and for one thing, that still wouldn’t have ended it, and for another, the Americans and Brits had NO will to keep fighting – they just wanted it all OVER. And FDR was a dying man, and Truman a hopeful one. (And Churchill was losing India and he knew it.)

So the Poles and Czechs and Romanians suffered that we might prosper, yes, and we owe them, but – that was a long time ago. (I’ve met East Europeans in New York – though they’ve lived here all their lives and did not suffer under the Soviets – who think we picked the wrong side in World War II, should have joined Hitler against Stalin. There were plenty of people in the U.S., Canada, U.K. and France – rich fascists, anti-Semites – who thought so at the time, too. But what promise to an ally did Hitler ever keep?)

Anyway, FDR got his UN, with Stalin in it, and that was what he cared about, for a world bequest. Who knows if any of us would be here if he hadn't?

China fell because we backed the small, corrupt, fascist horse of Chiang Kai-shek, and the communists, not yet visibly corrupt, had the peasants and the idealistic intelligentsia (who lived to regret their choice) and Soviet support. But the Republicans in D.C. accused the Democrats of having their ranks full of Communist spies, and did find half a dozen of them, and electrocuted two. Even Ike was afraid of McCarthy, and Nixon of course hitched his wagon to McCarthy’s star. It was an ugly time, very few fearless folk in Washington. (The cartoonist Herblock was one.) So when Vietnam came along (originally from Ike), everyone was scared to admit it was a no-win situation, though (we know from private papers since published) everyone knew it. LBJ feared that if he pulled out and let it go, the Republicans would destroy his New Deal programs, such as the Voting Rights Act, and he figured the Dems would stick by him for that. He was wrong – it was no longer the get-along ‘50s, it was the sing-and-demonstrate-until-they-listen ‘60s, and he was destroyed by it, and his reputation has never recovered. Nixon got in, and (like all Republicans) blamed everything wrong on the Democrats, but he couldn’t figure out how to end Vietnam except by expanding it (thereby causing Pol Pot in Cambodia), and the riots got worse, and (everyone forgets) our army in Vietnam was on the brink of mutiny – officers were “fragged” by mysterious grenades tossed in their tents if they were too eager to attack the enemy. And even the Republicans in Congress turned against the president, and then Watergate hit, and we had to “cut and run” (a very successful policy, I think).

Rightwingers today infuriate me by saying, “The people who demonstrated ignore the boat people, the sufferings of the South Vietnamese.” No we don’t, but there wasn’t a goddam thing the U.S. could have done about those sufferings. THEY forget the two or three million innocent North Vietnamese murdered by our heroic bombers (like McCain), who were suddenly very depressed when the Viets finally got decent anti-aircraft weapons and could fight back. Was that a fair fight? But they licked us. We could pardon anything but that.

Anyway, the lesson the Right learned from Nixon is: Never nominate an obvious s.o.b. It’s too easy for the public to begin to doubt him. No one ever liked Nixon (except Alice Roosevelt). When the truth came out, no one was very surprised. After that, the Republicans nominated only “good guys” like Reagan and Bush to be their figureheads, guys you’d enjoy a beer with, guys who were cheerful in front of the public. Television had conquered the electoral process. Neither party has dared nominate a bald candidate since Adlai Stevenson -- a great man on foreign policy, my parents’ hero, who couldn’t have beat Ike anyway – but JFK SHOULD have made him Secretary of State – he didn’t because he didn’t like or trust someone brighter than he was – so he gave State to Dean Rusk, a diehard cold warrior, who refused to abandon Vietnam and created the blockade-Cuba policy – and LBJ was afraid to fire him.

The Bomb made Americans (also Russians) permanently insecure. If politicians tell the voters they're pissing away zillions of dollars on helicopters the size of P.E.I. that don’t function in tests, the voters keep them in, and the zillions go to companies with factories in their state. If politicians tell the voters they’re giving a lousy million to keep people from starving in Bangladesh or keep babies from getting HIV in Mali, the voters accuse them of waste and toss them out. Insecurity became the natural American fallback position, once WW2 had demonstrated that our moat was dry, we were NOT immune to attack from across the seas, as we had been for 200 years. And of course 9/11 revived all that in spades. Precisely one congresswoman (note gender) voted against the Patriot Act – Barbara Lee from Berkeley, Ca (surprise, surprise). I wrote MY congressman to say, “If your predecessor were still alive, that vote would have been double.” Of course, his problem was that Ground Zero was in his district – he had to be seen to be doing SOMETHING.

"Thanks for clarifying about Gore. I knew there was a recount and suspicious circumstances, but I didn't realize that the margin was so wide (a million votes!). I thought it was only a few thousand. Are those electronic voting machines still legal?"

ME: It was a million, but we have this cockamamie electoral college, so it came down to 600 votes in Florida, the state that would have swung it to Gore. And that had nothing to do with electronic votes, but a lot to do with preventing blacks from voting if they possibly could.

Gore could have won with his home state, Tennessee, too. But he never campaigned there, and lost it. I met a guy from Memphis a couple of years later and asked him why (he was a dork, but I wanted an inside view). He said, “Gore WASN’T from Tennessee – he was D.C. royalty, brought up THERE. He wasn’t one of US.” (This is true – Gore’s father was for 30 years a powerful senator.) Gore, of course, has the bonhomie of a dead haddock, but I think if he and Tipper and the kids had spent a few weekends strolling the woods of Tennessee with rifles under their arms (they wouldn’t have had to SHOOT anything), they might have taken the state and Florida wouldn’t have mattered. Bill (not Hill) Clinton has bonhomie out the wazoo, and so does W (alas). Obama might, but he spent a lot of his life making himself the quintessential eager-beaver Harvard law scholar. Those who have met him in such context say he’s a terrific guy, but that doesn’t always play on the street. Clinton was the Rhodes scholar who could keep up with any mind, however brilliant, but also seem a regular guy to everyone on Main Street. It’s a gift, and with TV, they need it alas.

"One of the things that confused me most about Palin was that it seemed obvious that she would alienate anyone one with any brains, including Republicans. Surely there must be some smart Republicans, Republicans who would function a hell of allot better than Bush and his gang. Or are Bush and his gang IT? Surely there must be Republicans that are somewhat educated and worldly? I get shivers whenever I think about Bush and foreign relations."

ME: One thing the D.C. polarization has steadily done is to drive out centrists. Centrist Democrats were folks like Gore’s father, or the old segregationist and cold war guys (Scoop Jackson from Washington, who was all-weapons-all-the-time), but the moderate Republicans have also been told over the years since Reagan that the party has no use for them. Senator Chaffee of RI (after he got tossed out in 2006) told the story that in 2001, Cheney sat down with him and the girls from Maine and Jeffords from Vermont and Sununu from NH and Specter from Pennsy, and said, “This is how we’re going to play it, and you guys are going to toe the line, I don’t want any independent whining out of you.” I wanted to scream at him, “Why did you TAKE that? You’re a U.S. Senator! That used to MEAN something! That meant you had power THEY needed. What could he threaten you with?” Well, it takes so much money to stay in Congress these days, and so much White House pull to get committee chairmanships or whatever, that - they all gave in, despite misgivings (and only Chaffee admitted to those, and only after RI had dumped him) and voted as Cheney wanted. It is NOT what the Founders intended when they gave the Senate so much power, and I am horrified and disgusted. Oh, by the way, Jeffords of Vermont was the only one who said, Screw you. He quit the Republican Party, and as they had a majority of one, that gave the Senate to the Democrats for a year and a half. (He was about to retire anyway; the Vermonters loved him, but his daughter and son-in-law stopped speaking to him.) The Dems let him have his way on the issues he cared about, mostly education. But they didn’t stand up to Bush nearly enough – 9/11 and more Cheney terrorism of the electorate put a stop to that.

Fascism thrives on fear. If they don't fear YOU, you have to convince them to fear something else, and that you will save them from IT. That's the Rove/Cheney fulcrum. They had no other principle.

There was a lot of debate among the Republicans when Specter was up for chair of the judiciary committee – everyone thought him too moderate for the Bush line (which he is), but he ate lots of crow and insisted on respect, and he got it – not that he blocked much that Cheney wanted to do. Biden then took that committee. I don’t know who gets it now. I HOPE this means some decent libertarians on the Supreme Court. I expect Stevens (a happy liberal, appointed by Ford, the last honest Republican) will soon retire – he refused to do so while W was president.

"I just loved your abbreviated history of some presidencies. In the past I have puzzled over why JFK picked LBJ. Did you know that LBJ reputedly peed in front of Trudeau (one of our former and better prime ministers)? They did not get along very well. Trudeau called him a barbarian. They did not agree on Cuba. Castro was a friend of Trudeau’s."

ME: I used to ask Canadians why they hated Trudeau; he seemed such a cool guy to me. The truth is, Canadians do not LIKE flash politicians. He’s the only one who’s ever been P.M. Politics, to Canadians (that Scottish Presbyterian thing!), are not supposed to be in the front of anything up there. I daresay the inpouring of so many livelier minorities will fix that. I am waiting for a Canadian p.m. with an Italian or Chinese or Portuguese name. You will live to see it, my dear.

Trudeau did not get along with any U.S. presidents (he might have with Clinton; two of a kind). He behaved as if Canada was an independent country, and U.S. presidents dislike that sort of thinking.

The Cuban blockade (like the Vietnam blockade) was typically American poor-losership. (How dare the Germans bring their own Wall down without us telling them they could!) Its principal effect has been to keep Castro in power and underline his self-righteousness. The sufferers have been Cubans, with whom I am in total sympathy. But once huge numbers of Cuban émigrés had become citizens, they became a FIERCE right-wing block in Florida, and any politician who dared suggest moderating the blockade drew their venom. So the Republicans used it to lock up Florida, and the Democrats thought, “Oh well, it’s only Cuba, why stand up for principle if it loses us votes?” What will become of the average Cuban if the émigrés (who just want their wealth back, and their peons – which they won’t get, Castro having made all Cubans literate and given them a sense of self-worth) are in charge of negotiating the end of communism there is painful to think of. I am VERY EAGER to see the Art Deco streets of Havana before Donald Trump tears them all down for high-rise monstrosity (not unlike Vancouver, I imagine).

Cuban history (since 1898) has been, even more than Mexico’s, a catastrophe of “so far from God, so close to the United States.”

"Your observations on Hillary are interesting. I would be terrified of Giuliani too. What is with him? What do you dislike about him? So he really does have a better image outside New York than in…"

ME: He’s a two-bit Mussolini. On September 10, 2001, he was the most detested man in New York. Then he reinvented himself – almost enough to secure re-election despite the law HE wrote and shoved through that city pols could not have third terms. He was FULL of his own self-importance. He never walked down the street without an ENTOURAGE. (In contrast, Bloomfield runs around with one or two aides; Koch used to go it alone, standing at subway exits, demanding “How’m I doin’?” of passersby.) He outlawed citizen visits to City Hall (I used to show friends around when touring the city), or even gathering on the steps – there were too many demos against him. Now you have to have an appointment, and go through a metal detector. He refused to meet with any black city politicians, even elected ones, FOR TWO YEARS after he was elected, until his beloved police’s arms were bathed to the elbow in the blood of several unarmed and innocent black men who had been shot down in cold blood. He had black teenagers carded for i.d. when suspiciously a block or two away from school. He spent $23 million of our money to build himself a crisis center to hide out if the city were attacked – and did he put it in City Hall? (A lovely old building, but one no one outside the city knows about.) No, he put it in the World Trade Center, though it had already been attacked once. And when the city Code pointed out he couldn’t put it where he wanted to, in WTC no. 7, because it would undermine the building, he violated the code and did it anyway. Result: on 9/11, it was totally useless, and no. 7, which had not been attacked, caved in as a result of the undermining. Then he had the secret service harass his poor wife and put protections around his girlfriend – at city expense. At opening night of the opera in 2000, when he was introduced to say a few words about his love of opera, the audience booed.

He’s a fascist, tout-court. He thinks it’s all about him, and if it’s not, it should be outlawed. He also thought no one but him should be having sex – he put undercover cops in all the places where gay men fool around in the bushes or smoke dope, and though he knew no court case would stand up, the cops were ordered to pick up anyone necking or smoking, drive them around in the back of a squad truck for a night or so, then kick them out with insults in some other part of town. It was enough to shake them up.

This might play in a small town, but in NEW YORK????

When international gays ask me why New York, famously the world epicenter of gay life in the 70s and 80s, the site of Stonewall after all, is now pretty dead for gay high life, I say, “We were afflicted with a terrible plague: Giuliani. Don't let it spread. Take prophylactic measures.” Yet lots of gays voted for him, twice, in love, I suppose, with uniforms and rising property values. Idiots.

"I found myself deeply disappointed by McCain too. I had read about him long before the recent spotlight that made him a household name in Canada. I expected more, or better. So he just sold out. That’s it. Up here, he just appears to be another Bush boy. Sad."

ME: No, he wasn’t a Bush boy. But if he had made a point of that, he’d never have been nominated – the Republican Party no longer has a place for real mavericks. Of course, he’s not too bright, either, as those who compare him to Obama point out.

"I really enjoyed your political low down. I've sent it to everyone I know and even posted sections of it on the cork board here at work. I think you missed your calling ... political commentator. People keep asking, "This is a friend of yours?" Our politics in Canada is so boring we mostly just ignore it."

ME: As I wrote above: your politicos are never flashy, except Pierre le grand. And people up there loathed him. I was on a train across Canada once with Trudeau (okay: he was in another car) in ’82 – he was bringing his sons home from camp. And at every crossing, the loyal peasantry were waiting – with rotten vegetables. I was in the Bubble car, and each time we got tomatoes et al. smashed on the windows, the Canadians within were in gales of laughter. “But why do you dislike him?” I asked. “He seems so bright – so in touch with the world.” They said, “Oh, but he’s so … arrogant. He made a finger at a reporter….” That was about the size of his crimes, so far as I could tell.

But arrogance does not play in Canada.

"I have been thinking about writing a book. I even have a title, Insolences, and yes, the plural is on purpose. It’s about a Mennonite girl who gets excommunicated. You know, stuck on a bus with 50 dollars and shipped to the city and a Pentecostal foster family (brrrrrr). Must have been a really BAD girl."

ME: Yeah. I’ve heard that you, a mere girl, actually SPOKE in high school and in Sunday school, saying dirty words like "Why?" I’m sure they washed your mouth out with soap.

Love to B. and all my Vancouver friends!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Cock's Comb

Sometime in September, I took the plunge and shaved my head, the better to conceal my balding pate. But I noticed that, though the back of the head is bald (more or less), the forelock is still growing, so I cultivated that and it turned into a sort of oddball Mohawk. The “faux-hawk” is currently fashionable among the young, so when the weather got colder, I let the sides grow back but did not chop the “hawk” down. This gave me a frankly eccentric look for the sort of places I frequent, opera houses and such. No one has actually spoken of their shock, but I feel I am an oddity, a Picasso in the Rembrandt gallery.

This look has produced the most astonishing reaction, though, in gay bars, where suddenly I am something to look at, flirt with, proposition. It’s rather a pity that this has happened just as my fires are failing – I often feel I’m leading them on, flirting because I’m lonely and want a conversation (which is the fact of the matter, when I go to bars), and have no intention of responding to their evident point of interest. (Although there have been exceptions to that rule.)

The question is: what is turning them on? I don’t think the look has made me handsomer (it wouldn’t appeal to me, for example). Perhaps the hairlessness draws attention to my thick muscular neck, another red herring: the once-hunky rest of me is no longer so muscular, and I work out seldom. Or is it that my eccentricity implies sexual wildness (as my wearing full leathers used to, back when I could fit into my leathers) that, in fact, is also misleading? Or does it imply “don’t-give-a-fuck,” which again is not true, but might arouse the latent sexual outlaw every gay man is expected to nurture in his bosom? (Maybe every man.) Or is the coxcomb effect somehow a trigger to lustful reflex, much as (for gay men) a well-proportioned, bulging, neatly outlined basket certainly is?

It’s maybe a pity that I’ve discovered this phenomenon at so advanced an age. When I was young and constantly horny, I had enough hair to cover my skull, and that stolid look is what I went for, complete with “clone” mustache.

I’m afraid to remove my goatee because I fear I have more chins beneath it than I had growing in. No: I'll be honest. It's a handsome goatee. I keep it because I like it, as well as because others seem to.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The hot spot on the melting pot expands

In today's NYTimes, there's an article on Europeans making themselves at home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This underscores my belief that while home prices may plunge everywhere else on earth, they will remain stable in New York because everyone on earth with a little cash wants at least a pied-a-terre in the Apple. But the article tells other tales as well, the tale of the expansion of (shall we say) the griddle under the perennial fondue pot of New York. (Also: the kind of cheese that gets melted in it: the couple at the article's heart are named Patel, him English, her Swedish - unmentioned, the fact that "Patel" is an Indian name, that his family can't have been in Blighty all that long, that perhaps they came there not from India but from East Africa ... Obama says we're all mutts; I prefer to say "mongrels.")

Another change in traditional New York is, however, demonstrated by this article:

I once unwarily boasted of New York as the mingler of nations; a guy at the next table in the (Polish) restaurant (himself of Italian deriv.) laughed in my face. "I live in Jackson Heights," he said. "There are 18 nationalities on my block. And none of them mingle. They won't even speak to each other. Different grocery stores, different restaurants, different social groups at the park." "But what happens to their children? They go to public schools together, right?" said I. "Oh, they grow up and mingle - after they move to Manhattan," he admitted.

A few years ago, it was fashionable to say the Great American Melting Pot did not actually melt, that immigrants remained in their separate enclaves. That's true - for a while. In my family (who arrived in the decades before 1900 from Russia and Austria-Hungary), everyone married, and before World War II, everyone married only other Jews, and Ashkenazic Jews at that. (Scandal in my grandmother's family when their Hungarian daughters married Russian Jewish men - but they all did anyway.) In the generation after World War II, the first marriages to gentiles, gradually reaching and passing fifty percent of the mizpochah. Not until the seventies and eighties were marriages interracial as well. (One marriage to an ethnic Chinese in the 1950s.) Now we're getting into interesting religions and far corners of the earth, never mind same-sex unions and unusual adoptions. And of course we live everywhere. But we're still Ashkenazim. I think.

Used to was, the New York melting pot was Manhattan, and only lower Manhattan at that (and only parts of lower Manhattan – my neighborhood, South Village-SoHo, used to be pure Italian). Everyone grew up in an ethnic enclave of one sort or another, then moved and married and joined the middle class, and sent kids to mixed schools, and - then the pot melted, Irish married German Catholics, their kids married Italians or (horror on both sides) Jews, their kids married WASPs or (horror on all sides) blacks or Puerto Ricans, their kids married Chinese or Koreans.

But now the region where the melting goes on is much much larger, and the enclaves are diluting and gentrifying and vanishing: no unmelted Jews on the Lower East Side or Italians around here or Irish in Hell’s Kitchen or Inwood (it’s all Dominicans now in Inwood) or even blacks in Harlem (gosh!); all those neighborhoods have melted and interconnected (and interfucked, a word of my own coining). And now (we learn from this and many articles) Williamsburg has ceased to be a Polish slum and is a major meltdown. (Nearby Greenpoint is still Polish, with Chinese fringes.) And Crown Heights is still Hasidic, but how much longer? (Another generation, I’d say.) And Astoria is still Greek, and Jackson Heights is Afghan-Greek-Indian-Turkish-Croatian-Pakistani-Bengali-Chinese-Hispanic, and FOR THE MOMENT 18 nationalities share a block without ever mingling or even speaking to each other - but their children will go to CUNY and melt and move to Manhattan.

So it melts, but not at once, but in New York (and other ancient towns) the hot surface expands, the fire burns, the cauldron bubbles.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A magic word to cheer you up: "McCain!"

A (white) friend in Chicago, who was raised in Alabama, says Election Night was one of the greatest of her life, and she was ecstatic to be in Grant Park for the victory speech. I am fascinated (as always, every election) by the nitty-gritty breakdown of who voted for whom. And why. (In Manhattan, it was half a million votes for Obama to fifty thousand for McCain. Who let those people in?)

Race turned out not to be a major issue (except to black voters, bless 'em, and some Republican whites) - largely due to the intelligence with which Obama tamped down the issue. This is also a major difference between him and such candidates as Jesse Jackson. Jackson was the blacks' candidate; Obama always headed the coalition of the young, the intelligent, the ever-so-slightly left of center. (He's a very moderate liberal and I do not expect - alas - terribly liberal policies from his government.)

There were inroads into the ancient bastion of the white racist South. My southern friends have always said to me: "You think it's exotic - we came up here to New York to escape, and we know it's all true." But they grew up there, and more like them who do not leave. And many other friends of mine have moved there, following jobs or something. The place has been changing. When I've been there, the few times I have, it has been a pleasure to see that integration of commerce greases all wheels - whites and blacks mingle easily and politely, whatever may get said at home. People's minds do change, however slowly. If you know people, went to school with them, work with them, fought with them (I mean served in the military), your horror of the unknown must fade. Virginia, North Carolina, Florida went for a black man. The vote was close in other states. It was predictable, but one is amazed and delighted to see it. The South had to change; it had to forget its past to enjoy the delights of the present and future. A lesson the Republicans have so far refused to learn: the young want to live, and their social programs are the liberal ones. Your policies might appeal to older, more close-minded voters, but their children will look askance. They watch too much TV (even bad TV) not to be influenced by its casual freedom from old boundaries.

It would have been a bad year for Republicans in any case, yes, but they have tied themselves repeatedly to moribund, fading, hateful issues: they were anti-Civil Rights (and blacks have not forgotten that - nor have racist whites), they are anti-women's rights, they are anti-gay rights, they are anti-immigrants. They have set themselves in opposition to teaching science in science classrooms. These casual choices for unworthy reasons (I can't believe most Republicans really believe in creationism) have produced an image, a "branding," that they are the backward, hateful party. Word was bound to get around. It hasn't helped that their president was also the master of failed diplomacy, failed war, ruined New Orleans, and ruined economy. They can and do blame Democrats for their every idiotic mistake, but what positive accomplishments has their 12 years' control of Congress and 8 of the presidency brought us? We're a whole lot closer to fascism, but that's not a platform easy to run on. (Whether the Democrats will undo the fascist tilt of the last seven years of "Homeland Security" government remains to be seen.)

In 1964, when I were but a kid, my father solemnly said, "I think the Republican Party may be dead," after LBJ's victory. He used the voice one might have for a worthy if incompetent tennis partner. I said, "Don't be ridiculous; they'll bounce back," and thanks to LBJ's misbegotten Vietnam policy they sure did. In 1974, the day after Nixon quit, I said, "Well, I've seen the last of the worst president I'll ever have to live with," and that was the dumbest thing (politically) that I've ever said. I expect to be disappointed by many things Obama does, as I was with Carter and Clinton, but there is a matter of degree - I won't be shuddering with disgust and horror every time I glance at the headlines, as under Bush. (Or so I hope.)

For the next few weeks - maybe months - I will remember the nervousness of the last two. I will have a magic word whenever I am in the dumps: "McCain!" It automatically brings a smile to my lips and relief to my heart.

We all know NOW that McCain didn't have a chance; for the last couple of months I have been on tenterhooks (left over from a pre-Industrial Revolution loom) that he did. Obama's victory is that of a young, brainy guy who is unafraid of the new things in the world; McCain's defeat is the defeat of the people who feared the new world, who resented it, who wanted it beaten down, with weapons if necessary. Obama will embrace the world, which is eager to return the hug.

I would like to believe the Bush years were an aberration - but I don't. This counterrevolution has been building for some time, since the social revolutions of my youth certainly. Can any government bridge that gap? The Right isn't even interested in any such thing. Can the Left do it? Is there a Left in U.S. politics?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Back from Vancouver

Without being unpatriotic, you understand, what I detest about America is the sheer loudness of the brand, the insistence that no other brand counts, that we are the only way to go. This has only got worse since the fall of communism. Americans are offended that anyone else has a national anthem praising the beauties or splendors or achievements of their native land - that they admire their own movies, music, food, mode of living more than they admire ours. They are offended when any other nation wins an Olympic gold medal, because that means some other country's anthem will be played. They want the whole world turned into Disneyland with only one brand of coffee and one sort of hamburger and one sort of cola. One temperature. One weather. They want the whole world to be Chevrolets which, gas-guzzling aside, offends me because I think it's boring. I think a world with Packards and Studebakers and Rolls-Royces and Volkswagens is more interesting. And if it were Fords, they could be any color as long as it was red, white and blue. And fast food is terrible and the nine-to-five work day is inhuman; it is not nap-friendly; it is corporate in the worst sense.

And we're terribly offended that the whole world does not wish to be American any more, indeed that much of it never did. The world would rather be Canadian. We are all poised to kick out the immigrants, and they'd rather go to Canada. Old Croatian proverb: Give a man a fish and he will eat for one day; teach a man a fish and he will move to Nova Scotia. There is nothing like being all dolled up to reject an importunate suitor only to find out he's really come to ask your "dull" sister to the dance. And she's accepted him, so he may be next door the rest of your life - how do you like that?

If McCain wins the election, I think we'll all have to move to Canada. I don't see what other choice we'll have. Not that it will save us from global disaster, but at this point nothing will.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Wheel of Dates

It's a wheel in my head. It spins and you insert a date. The date should be four numbers, and the first one should be 1, though leaving it blank will also (usualy) work. It works best for CE, but there is a certain general sense in which it works for BCE.

I had no idea it was in place, though I put it in place myself over long years. It was much harder to install than a piece of software in my computer (installing software in my body ... well, that's a discussion for someone else's blog, isn't it?), but also a great deal more fun or I'd never have done it, would I?

Any year, and I will tell you roughly (stress that) who was alive and what was going on anyplace on earth, focus especially on Europe. Certain places remain dark to me, but I'm always eager to add more facts. I tend to remember things in their proper order, too. At my present age, I am having senior moments, but not so many about previous centuries as I do about this one. My specialty is political history, but I am pretty competent on military history and artistic-literary history as well. Musical history does not begin until the invention of musical notation (twelfth century, Italy? yes, Virginia, there are things dead white European males did do better than any other civilization, and notating music so that we can recover a lot of tunes from five or seven or nine hundred years ago is one of them), but I can give you a decent proximate timeline on that from 1600 to 1950. Don't ask me which year which band produced which top hit in the last thirty years because I probably never heard of the stuff (actually, I have, but did not pay attention to which group did which song). Am I into eighties music? someone asked me. I said: 1680s or 1780s?

This wheel gives me great pleasure and it was quite some time before I realized most people have nothing of the sort. (Too busy dancing to Top Forty or collecting football stats or making money or raising children or doing something else pointless.) When I look at a painting or a building or listen to a tune, I have a context to put it in - which does keep me a handsbreadth from just reacting to the thing as art (I yield - and deplore - the point), but does allow me to make connections that help me understand my reactions, or understand the artist. The point of art, I have always believed, is to communicate with others, and when I look at old art (or read it, or listen to it),, I am trying to open my satellite dish to the transmitter be s/he ever so anonymous or long dead. I want to share the joke, which is easy with jolly sorts like the anonymous sculptors of Romanesque cloisters, or composers like Rossini or Mozart, but can be tough with austere types like Mimar Sinan (the Ottoman architect) or George Eliot.

Go ahead, pick a year, pick a country. 1375, Sweden. The king was Albrecht of Mecklenburg (I think), to the great resentment of the Swedes, who ended up deposing him, besieging him and his German troops in Stockholm (a German city at the time) and offering their crown to Margarethe, the Danish regent of Denmark and Norway, in 1387. The greatest power in the Baltic was the Hanseatic League, a band of mostly German merchant cities (often in non-German places, like Bergen and Riga and Danzig and Tallinn, but based on Hamburg, Bremen and Lubeck), grown rich on the furs and lumber and grain and nautical supplies of the sea, which they exported to the entire continent. The local nationalities were thus under outside control and resented it; this ended in 1397, when the three Nordic monarchies were united by Margarethe under the nominal rule of her grandnephew, Erik of Pomerania. (Not a Scand, but at least not a German either.) This lasted until 1523, sort of - then Sweden dropped out (taking Finland with her. The Union of Kalmar was a great success in its way, as it was strong enough to hold off the Germans in the Baltic and allowed the Danes and Swedes, at any rate, to have local cultural development properly - but it was a bumpy sort of deal, sometimes with separate monarchs who still subscribed to the "union." The lessons of its breakdown should probably be studied more carefully by the EU in Brussels than, I fear, they are.
The Hansa never recovered from the Reformation, which hit Germany hard after 1517 - suddenly there were reasons other than national or mercantile for groups to stick together.

Do you want to know WHY Albrecht of Mecklenburg was King of Sweden? I'm so glad you asked. His mother was Euphemia, sister of King Magnus Smek (the word means a slobbery sort of kiss and there's a great story there, as usual), whose sons were Erik XIII of Sweden (o.s.p.) and Haakon VI of Norway (married to Margarethe of Denmark, vide supra; their son was Olav IV of Norway and Denmark, who died at the age of 17. Women could not legally reign in any of these countries, but Margarethe just kept on ruling anyway until her death in 1412, and the present Danish sovereign is named Margarethe II in her honor).

Of the other kings who were about just then, my favorites are Gedyminas of Lithuania and Pedro the Ceremonious of Aragon-Catalunya, the latter simply because of his cool nickname. There's a story about it. Go ahead: ask. (Charles the Bad was king of Navarre - or had he been succeeded by his spoilsport son, Charles the Noble?. You don't get many kings called "the Bad," and he did deserve it. Go ahead: ask.) (The Holy Roman Emperor was Charles IV of Luxembourg, who is fondly remembered in Prague if nowhere else. Historians like him because he was an intellectual and wrote an autobiography. Very few medieval monarchs did.) (The king of France was Charles V the Wise, one of the two Valois kings with any political sense. The tyrants of Milan and Pavia were the brothers Bernabo and Galeazzo Visconti;. The tyrant of Ferrara was wicked Marquis Niccolo d'Este, famous for murdering his bastard son and his second wife who were making eyes at each other. The pope - I think - was Gregory XI, who returned from Avignon to Rome. Not at all sure about that.)

(When figuring out which pope reigned when, it is generally reliable rule that the numbers increase as time passes. I cling to that. So if you know Gregory IX was the bane of Emperor Frederick II, who reigned in the 13th century, you can be pretty sure any later Gregory had a larger number. I cling to that.)

I'm not making all this up, you know. And I did just pick a date out of thin air.

That was dry, wasn't it? It's livelier when I have you in person and you want to know (my friend Doug rings me up and says, "Yohopedia?") why the Iconoclasts in Constantinople upset the pope so much that he crowned Chalemagne emperor or something like that. I've got a million of 'em. Literally. It's especially good if I've been to the site of events (Istanbul, Ferrara, Prague) and can tie things in that way, with architecture and painting and why this building exists and that one doesn't.

I am always putting more reasons in for things that happened, from books, from research, from lectures, from deductions of my own. "Simple explanations are for simple minds - I've no use for either." - Joe Orton (True, he puts this line into the mouth of a maniac, but it still has relevance)

I'm in Vancouver now and it's raining so I can't ride my bike in Stanley Park and see how much is left, but I was sort of in the mood to work on my novel anyway. Back in New York on the tenth. Not looking forward to that. There are mice in my storage closet, yclept The Gulag. Any advice for getting rid of the smell will be appreciated. I can get rid of the mice okay, but the smell is problematic.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Weird Coffee

Constant fantasy, takes the place of travel, much cheaper, easier on back and feet: daydream I am in a strange city in a strange country when in fact I am only in New York. (Only!)

Today, awoke groggy (two margaritas and a vodka-and-tonic), no coffee, no computer, no conversation, nothing but instinct in gear, took manuscript and pencils - not to the Vandam Diner (as usual, if I'm up for breakfast) but to Starbucks on Hudson as it is next to my bank. Stood on line, but barely time to decide: do I want coffee, ice coffee, americano? Chose coffee and marble cake, but the woman at the counter, though smiling at me, was not speaking to me; she was speaking to the woman behind her, patiently, merrily, directing her on the next chore to handle, and doing this constantly as I tried to marshal thoughts, words, concepts to her, feeling as if distracted, rejected by her smile at me off purpose with her continual words not at me, the line behind me goading me not to wait longer, tongue refusing to sync with concept, desire - finally I blurted, "Coffee, medium size, with music." "With music?" she finally addressed me. "I mean, with room for milk." "Hot or ice?" Was she speaking to me? As I said, "Hot," she chattered again, still smiling into my eyes, but to the woman behind her. Threw me again. "And a marble cake." Somehow I escaped.

Had she been speaking Turkish? Croatian? Italian? Dutch? French? Quebec French?

Is this the new conversational manner - speak as if on ear phones (but she wasn't even wearing ear phones) with no connection between face, smile, and words? Would I get this, not be thrown by it, if I were 22 or had a cell phone or a bluetooth or were happily traveling in a foreign country?

Somewhat rattled, sat do my copy editing for a chapter or two.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Passover story: Meanings of the Seder

Sometimes I get to a seder, sometimes I don't. Shrug. I go for the sense of community with a largely atheist, much intermarried family I don't know very well, and for the pleasure of communal ritual (which is a far older custom than any extant religion, but is an element in almost all of them), and because I love fresh horseradish and hardly ever get it the rest of the year. This year, my distant cousin Mina got me invited to the seder given each year - largely in Mina's honor, and to keep the children aware of their Jewish ancestry - by her Irish Catholic daughter-in-law, whom I had never met. I was proud to be invited, delighted to meet a slew of cousins I didn't know, and wrote of this to a pagan friend who wasn't sure what a seder was. So I analyzed it for him.

As you know, all Judaism – and all Jewishness – is based on the notion that there is an omnipotent God who has chosen the Jews, and that history is worthy of study because it constitutes evidence of the working of God’s will in the world. This is a break (how conscious before the fact is an interesting question) with traditional cosmologies in which whatever deity actually creates the world is well nigh spent by the effort (often literally, being dead, his body parts used to create this or that) and retires to some unreachable realm, no longer influential (or interested) in terrestrial (much less human) doings: Ouranos, Varuna, Osiris, Obatala or Nyambi.

But if there’s only one god (let’s call him El, the Genuine Article, as in a train high above the streets, or a box of exploding cigars), then he either rolls over and ignores us (the Red King a-dreaming) or he enters history, stirs the pot, tastes it now and then and adds spices to taste. (God-in-a-toque and the divine (Julia) child.) Jewishness is predicated on this interfering god, and interpreting reality through his interferences. (E.g.: Sodom means he’s anti-gay or something else that was done there.) That is rough on theology as it means God is responsible for all the pain and bad stuff as well as the good stuff, and if God is good that means we've all done something to deserve it, and if God isn't good then he's a demiurge created by the real God, or else (Job's god) he's got too much on his plate to care to explain it to us. But that is not the subject of today's sermon.

So the first Event really (aside from the legendary strand of personal mystical interactions recorded in Genesis), for Jews, the moment when El threw aside his anonymity and said These are my chosen people, is the Exodus, and the celebration of the Exodus is a celebration of Jewishness (and Jewish survival) as no other holiday is. The actual event being commemorated, of course, is the Passing Over, when the firstborn of Egypt died but the Jews, having anointed their lintels with lamb’s blood or something (colored flashing lights? Christmas trees?), were spared, whereupon Pharaoh said, “Beat it,” and beat it they did, so fast there wasn’t time for bread to rise.

The event is commemorated with a feast (and a season) from which leavened product is specifically excluded. (You can’t even keep it in the house; it’s a spring cleaning holiday.) Like all celebratory holidays in every religion, this one involves particular foods and a particular crowd: in point of fact, a theoretical communion of all Jews celebrating at once, and in a sense sharing that meal with all other Jews (and their well-wishers). No accident that Jesus’s Last Supper was, it is generally agreed, a seder. He was offering his unleavened self and cleaning house of old theologies – or so runs the tale - in some versions.

For the Orthodox Jews, this is a major deal. Orthodox Jews must have two sets of dishes, utensils, pots and pans (even washing machines) in order to observe the division of food into milk and meat categories, never mingling them. Too, everyday items may not be used during the Passover season because they have probably touched leavened bread (or other leavened product, such as beer) during their shelf lives, so either one has two more full sets of dishes in the house for Passover use, or one goes out and buys brand new ones at this time. (Producers of dishware, cookware, silverware love this holiday.) Bread and anything else with yeast in it has to be thrown out of the house before Pesach. (I don’t know anyone who goes this far – I don’t even know anyone who has two sets of dishes. It would never occur to my Catholic cousins – or to their Jewish mother-in-law, for that matter.)

In not-so-well-to-do families in stricter times, each year new dishes were purchased at Passover, and last year’s Passover dishes were promoted to year-round daily dishes – in any case, it’s a headache. My friend Barbara Murray has a set of Passover dishes in the basement because her husband has relatives who married Jews, and she loves to throw them a seder when the cycle has come round to her, and the Jewish cousins are charmed by her wish to be included. It’s a very inclusive holiday. My friend Edith, who comes from a not terribly observant family, found herself in London once, with Passover coming up. She went to a synagogue and was immediately overwhelmed with invitations, and had that experience so difficult for strangers to come by anywhere, feeling part of a family on a family sort of occasion. Because, as a Jew though a stranger, she was long-lost family, and inviting her in was a mitzvah (good deed, blessing).

Besides fresh dishes and unleavened bread, the seder includes a reading of the haggadah, which tells the story of Exodus and the Passover, with appropriate pauses for consumption of certain foods (bitter herbs for the wanderings in the desert, wine at certain moments, matzoh with assorted stuff on it – there’s also a game with matzoh broken, part of it hidden, kids sent to search for it, the matzoh restored and proven to be the other half of the broken one – I forget what that means, go invent something). When my cousin Amy’s partner, Ilene, who is fairly devout for my family (for a radical lesbian) – she converted Amy from Buddhism (the Jew in the lotus, as they say) – held seders for the Martinson connection (my mother’s family), which she did for two or three years before saying to hell with us – we all got haggadahs, borrowed from her mother, and the reading went around the table, each person getting a few paragraphs. This year, the Laskey haggadah assigns most of the reading to Father and Mother, and Jim read Father’s part, while the Mother’s was given to his mother, Mina, rather than to his wife and our hostess, Mary – since the house tradition was started (by Mary) when Mina sold her house and could no longer host the thing herself.

I’m rather fond of matzoh myself, though I like it salted with butter, which is not the way it is ever served at a seder. I also like fresh horseradish, which I think stands for bitter herbs. There is usually a fruit-and-nut spread symbolizing the land of promise, and every Jewish wife has her own recipe, there are whole traditions of them. (All this sort of holiday, in all religions, I call “communion” holidays, and sharing food is central.)

Four questions are asked during the Haggadah reading by the youngest (speaking) person present. There’s a nice moment in The Ten Commandments, and one that Jews enjoy, during dinner at Aaron’s house on the night of the Passover, when Aaron’s youngest kid starts asking the questions spontaneously. Ritual watchings of the movie are a recent addition to seder tradition. “Oh Moses, Moses, you wonderful, impossible man! What power can you find in these mud pits to keep you from these arms?” is not one of the four traditional questions, but Anne Baxter saying it to Charlton Heston is my favorite moment in the movie. Wherefore is this night unlike all other nights? is the first traditional question. Whether they are ever actually answered is debatable – the answer to Anne’s question, of course, is God.

I’ve also never been to a seder that served kosher wine. My father used to insist on French wine, and bring it himself, whoever was hosting the seder, and this is a tradition to which, thank God, all my cousins hold. But making wine kosher is easy enough – just get a rabbi to go zap over the bottle, and it’s kosher.

There are two dubious moments in the seder, by me: At some point, someone (usually the youngest ambulatory kid) is sent to the door to see if Elijah is there and invite him in if so. (In strict neighborhoods, poor Jews hoping for a free meal – or at least dessert – sometimes lingered by front doors awaiting this moment.) Elijah (Ilene said) stands for all the poor and deprived who might turn out to be God’s confidante, but I am opposed to inviting him in because the Prophet Elijah invented religious persecution (he slew 400 priests of Baal for no particular reason), and I think it would be better for Jews to remember that they have practiced this in the past, that some Jews would love to practice it now, and that all of us – Jews and non-Jews – have suffered horribly from it, and ought not to commemorate it. (I think this is where Ilene’s lack of interest in me changed to active dislike.)

The other dubious moment is the expression of hope that we will celebrate Passover “next year in Jerusalem.” That kind of got passed over chez Laskey – it doesn’t really mean anything to them (the kids are Catholic) – and when Ilene read the line to us Martinsons, she hurried through it as well – since the last thing anyone in my family would want is to be obliged to live in the Holy Land. How seriously, how fervently, did non-Zionist Jews say this in the years before the Holocaust and the founding of Israel? Did Jerusalem mean Jerusalem to them, or was it (as Ilene cleverly glossed it) an Ideal World where all would be at peace? How about Zionists, who were mostly not religious to begin with? Hard to say.

At the climax of Job, one of my favorites of Joseph Roth's wonderful novels, and almost the only one partly set in the new world (to which Roth never came – he died of alcoholism in Paris in 1939, a ticket to New York in his pocket), Mendel, a poor but devout Jew whose family has been more or less destroyed in its attempt to reach new world success, and who lives in the back room of a friend’s store over the grumbling of the friend’s shrewish wife, joins this family for Passover and is sent to open the door when Elijah is mentioned. To his surprise, there is a knock before he reaches it. Outside is a stranger from Russia, who apologizes for disturbing them – of course they invite him to join the meal. He turns out to be Mendel’s long-lost youngest son, an invalid baby left behind in Russia who has grown up to be a successful folk-band leader, now on tour in New York. He is searching for his father, to take him home to the Baltics. (Considering what lay ahead – of which Roth knew nothing as it had yet to happen – one may forebode about this.) As the tale unfolded I found my eyes wet; best of all, it was the shrewish hostess who leaped to her feet and cried it was a miracle, and a judgment on her, and that she would never question her husband’s charity again.

There has been some discussion in archaeological circles as to whether there ever was an Exodus. There is no contemporary sign or record of it. Israeli archaeologists perusing the Sinai have found no sign of a march of a great concourse of people meeting the Biblical numbers – but pre-modern estimates of crowd size should never be taken too seriously (never mind that our written account of the event dates from three or four centuries afterwards). What seems likely to me is that a sizable band of Semitic tribes of linked ethnicity (easily glossed in myth as ancestry from an eponymous Israel), let’s say four thousand not four hundred thousand, having quarreled with the Egyptian authorities (newly nationalist after the overthrow of the invading “sea peoples” of the 15th and 16th dynasties, who may well have included – or employed – aforesaid Israelites, as Genesis suggests), decamped by way of the Sea of Reeds (the Hebrew Bible does not mention the Red Sea, which would in any case be the wrong direction) and, avoiding the Negev and the Egyptian-controlled routes to its west, circled around through Nabataea, followed the caravan routes north to Petra and Amman, and then crossed the Jordan, where they found – surprise! – communities in the hills (of what is today, ironically, the West Bank) of peoples linguistically and ritualistically related to them. (Archaeologists have found they eschewed pork; they probably did not circumcise yet, as the Hebrews learned this rite from the Egyptians who had done it for millennia.) Their miraculous tale of wanderings and tribulations and a god who nurtured them and led them through it all was identified joyously with the god worshipped by the Yids in the hills, and the various peoples were then linked by inventing twelve sons for the eponymous ancestor. Since there was no monarchy, the myth could equitably be shared; it did not yet imply one tribe ruling the others but something more confederal than that.

But the seder is a link to relatives one has not seen in forever (which is to say, all Jews - but also Arabs) and to all well-wishers, and as it calls for no extremes of religious observance (no religion demands that you must eat leavened bread or lobster at every meal), it is an easy way to cross any boundaries that may in fact exist, and also (but this is a matter of modern times) to permit Jewish and non-Jewish womenfolk to join forces in the kitchen, the latter learning tradition in the guise of acquiring recipes from the former.

And liberty and brisket for all.

One of these days I hope to find myself at Pesach-tide in Pasadena, where my Episcopalian cousin Martha gives, I am told, a famously special seder. And we can sing the holiday songs of Irving Berlin (Russian Jewish immigrant, married to a Roman Catholic). Though I will insist on "It Only Happens When I Dance With You," "Isn't It A Lovely Day To Be Caught In The Rain" and "Puttin' On The Ritz."

Monday, May 5, 2008

Dreams of Kharkov

The end of the dream was: I was on a tour of Russia, going by train from Moscow to St. Petersburg via Kharkov (I'm not sure this is geographically possible), and at the station where I changed trains there was an enormous queue to get into the unisex pissoirs (don't ask me how the women used pissoirs - I wasn't studying the matter). Everyone was pee-shy and the charge was a dime (or Russki equivalent) and my focus was entirely on the architecture, which included Art Deco mosaics so designed that the eyeballs of elegant Mucha ladies and the pistils in the huge colorful flowers seemed to bob up and down, an optical illusion or a lurching around of interlocked mosaic tesserae by some process I'd never heard of, immensely clever, clearly of Byzantine provenance, and still functional though the station had been built in 1904, indeed actually constructed by my contractor cousin Akiva Yaglom (grandfather of the mathematician). I had plenty of time to watch their eyeballs roll and ponder how superb the architectural functions of pre-Rev Russia still were, compared to the shoddiness of everything that came afterwards.

... I think the Russian ladies had the pinched, gamine faces of the Russian pianist I was chatting with in Whole Foods the other day, who thought I was making a pass at her and asked if I were married, and was rather startled when I said I was gay. She said she'd come here in 1986, in part because there was nothing to eat in Russia but kasha ... and told me about a friend of hers who had got a live-in nanny job here and was then blackmailed by the (Russian) lawyer who had found her the position. "That's how they all are here ... the Russians ... always looking for a way to cheat and steal ... that's all they think about." ...

But (back in the dream) I never did manage to pee and went back, grumpily, to my seat in the carriage, and wondered whom I could ask to watch my bags while I tiptoed to the w.c. on board, and someone observing me noticed I was not wearing shoes and complimented me on my cleverness in removing them on the train (was he being ironic?), and we had pulled out of the station and were going through suburban Washington D.C. which was in full spring bloom, enormous Victorian mansions overwhelmed with bougainvillea, and patriotic displays beside the tombs of Civil War generals ... it was at this point that my need to piss indicated what it usually does, and I woke myself up, amazed at how much of the dream lingered and for some reason singing the regimental song of the beau vingtième from La Fille du Règiment.

And on waking, I remembered the earlier part of the dream, when I and Nancy McCann (I think it was she, at least sometimes it was) were attempting to take a ferryboat across a lake to arrive at either Russia or some vacation spot en route (Cuba, perhaps, which Orlando was raving about to me last night in Ty's), and some very attractive fellow was captain of the ferry, and we dawdled, and he came after us to remind us we had fifteen minutes to get across the lake in his boat and catch the next connection (to Kharkov?) and so we scooted to the deck (although I reflected we'd never make it, have to take the next one) and the sun bore down on the lake and its shores (the Bosporus? the Georgia Strait?) but somehow we were in shade or under a stormcloud and it got rather chilly ... and before we docked I was on the train from Moscow as described above ...

I do like dreams where the architecture is interesting.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

An Opera for Beltane

I suppose I should have been spending this lovely Beltane Sunday out in the woods a-conjuring summer in, but WWUH (University of West Hartford) has a Sunday afternoon opera program with a sweet tooth for unusual works, and their choice today was the new Naxos 8669 recording (from a 1996 Seattle Symphony concert - what took 'em so long?) of a genuine May Day opera, Howard Hanson's 1934 Merry Mount, libretto taken from a Hawthorne short story (but Hawthorne unaccountably omitted the extensive witches' sabbath-devil's orgy sequence from his version).

I remember when Hanson, who ran the Eastman School in Rochester for forty years, grumbled at salutes to 80-year-old Aaron Copland as the "grand old man of American music," that Copland wasn't old enough for this distinction and Hanson was. In any case, both are dead now, and Hanson's music is far from well known, as he lacked the jazz inflections and winning populist emotions that kept Copland up top. On the other hand, Copland never composed an opera for the Met, and Hanson did. I first discovered this years ago when my grandmother gave me her collection of old librettos - her husband (who died in 1935) having had a sweet tooth for opera. The Met, in Gatti-Casazza's day, felt a certain commitment to American music, and every year or two there was another world premiere - although not one of the works so created (unless you count Puccini's California Gold Rush drama, La Fanciulla del West) endured more than a season or two, and none are remembered today: Peter Ibbetson, Mona, The King's Henchman, Shanewis, The Great God Brown. With all their faults, these stylish works were a damn sight better operas than such Met commissions as The Last Savage and The Great Gatsby and An American Tragedy and The Voyage. (But none of them is half as good as Fanciulla.) (This leaves Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra in some middling limbo. Anyway, rep standards they have never become.)

Merry Mount is an expert score, melodious in a late-romantic but pre-Schoenberg style. Its resemblance to movie scores (the field into which the more populist American and European composers were moving with a vengeance at the time of its premiere) is neither accidental nor displeasing. The vocal lines are not extreme enough to put it out of the range of revival, though the enormous cast may be. (At least we don't have excessive unsingable high notes, often fallen back on by post-tonal composers to express extreme emotion because they have given up all other musical methods of expressing it - melody used to accomplish this, remember?)

The centerpiece of the opera, for pagan music-lovers, is the great witches' sabbath that ends Act II, a wonderfully sensuous (not merely discordant) scene in which a Puritan minister, tempted by the flesh (in particular the flesh of a lovely Cavalier aristocrat, Lady Marigold Sandys, whom he identifies with the goddess Ashtoreth - Astarte, folks!), falls utterly and gives himself up to demonic allegiance. What with religious hypocrisy running rampant in the U.S. these days, such a scene might with profit (prophet?) be presented by regional opera companies fed up with the lack of controversy under which they are forced to labor. Anyway, it's great fun for a pagan, and I'd love to see it staged somewhere. True, American witches may have problems with the final scene, in which local Indians attack the Puritan village, burn it to the ground, and scalp a couple of folks before being driven off.

Heartily recommended. (Why doesn't Botstein put this on?)

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Dream: Amniotic Park

Visiting a foreign city - San Francisco perhaps - or Istanbul - or Stockholm - it had trams going through the parks - I took one - perhaps I arrived by cruise ship - and there was a splendid park, battlements and copses and formal gardens and a huge, palatial casino all lit up (rather resembling the Blue Mosque from my hotel roof), the grounds so laid out that there was a long, shallow lake in it, and I lay on a kind of raft that was somehow drawn constantly on a fixed path around the park - so I was rocking in a very pleasant warm bath (a very amniotic dream, eh?) while effortlessly moving through the park and looking at its sights and also at their reflection in the clouds above me, the lights of the carousel and a palatial casino like coronets of stars, and up into great spreading branches of old trees, and out into the ocean (as if from the hilltops of old Stamboul) at the passing liners and the distant hills - all this with such a sense of well-being I cannot tell you - all my anxieties drifted away (VERY amniotic, eh?) - and there were events, and I rose refreshed and strolled through a park filled with flowerbeds and tram tracks and into great teeming markets past sidewalk cafes into a city full of inviting squares and galleries. Yes, it was Istanbul, but somehow also Union Square.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Hindu deity of the high C's

Discussing the Hindu pantheon last night in the usual place for such things, a sleazy gay dive, explaining the Hindu take on monotheism (of course there's only one god - all 370,000,000 of them are one) to a (somewhat) religious Jewish friend, and Ganesha's birth from Parvati and Shiva, and Parvati's relationship with Kali-Durga, and he intruded, "Is Pavarati the Hindu god of singing and overeating?"

I'm sure you're as appalled as I was.

"I think I'll save that one for appropriate re-use," I muttered. He responded with whatever the Hebrew greeting is for the eve of Passover. (I wouldn't know; we gave all that stuff up a couple of generations back.)

Multiculturalism lives!

Pesach Shalom!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Captain Peachfuzz in Love

"Dear Diary: Today I kill off moose and squirrel. Weather continues fair."
"Boris! Boris! Moose and squirrel - they are saved!"
"Raskolnikov, Natasha! Now I must rewrite whole page."

You may remember Wrong-Way Peter Peachfuzz from the original episodes of the adventures of Rocky (the Flying Squirrel) and Bullwinkle (the Moose): His Navy career ended in fiasco, but on receiving a legacy of eight million dollars from an eccentric aunt, he bought the S.S. Andalusia and hired himself as captain. His next act was to sail it into the Brooklyn Bridge. (Why does all this come back to me?)

His crew responded as any crew might: they rewired the steering mechanisms of the ship. Do what he might on the bridge, PP had no control over the movement of the liner, which was controlled from a secret engine room lower down. But one day (as luck would have it, when Rocky and Bullwinkle, deceived by Boris, had taken flight in a lifeboat with Boris's Uncle Chumly, not realizing the latter was actually the stolen mooseberry bush in disguise)(WHY do I remember all this?), Captain Peachfuzz took a wrong turn into the right room and was once again (fortunately nowhere near Brooklyn, just on the high seas) steering the vessel....

Why has all this come back to me in the dazzling sunshine of a brave April day?

Because (just in time for Beltane)(the Lusty Month of May), it seems to me that Wrong-Way Peter is the perfect metaphor for love (anyway lust) in my aging but still adolescing heart. Over the years I have figured how to distract him, keep him happily occupied, unaware of the disconnect between his orders and reality - happy years when lust no longer occluded my vision, a time of busy-ness and productive activity, liberated from the horns of the male dilemma (so to speak).

I live however in dread that some awful day the captain will make the fatal wrong turn into the right room again, and embark me for Cythera, the isle of Aphrodite, the picnic ground of love affairs, the very last place on earth I want to go. (Okay, besides Florida and Abu Dhabi.) (And even Florida has a few opera companies.)

Peachfuzz is my metaphor: prosaic proper command on a rational course is all my desire.

Lorenz Hart wrote, "I Wish I Were In Love Again," but he didn't live to be as old as I am. I don't wish it at all. A country song I wrote when I was writing (titles for) country songs: "Look out, Mama! Turn out the porch light! Here comes love at us again!" That expresses it.

Hacksaw Kind of Guy: A True Story

It wasn’t the bike – it was the principle of the thing.

No, it wasn’t the principle of the thing. It was the bike.

It was a good New York bike – looked like crap, worked fine. I’d be terrified to leave a thousand-dollar bike on the street, even for five minutes, and what’s the use of that? I don’t use it just for exercise; I go places. And then I go back.

Had it seven years. Pretty well-used when I got it, from a friend trading up to a mountain bike. At first I thought it was an inch or two too high for me, and the seat, hard plastic, rough on my rear, but I got used to it. Knew its quirks; developed the responses to guide it through Times Square at rush hour, or jump from pavement to corduroy when a street was being resurfaced.

It was my bike. I felt like me on it.

Replaced the tires just a few months back. The seat (narrow, hard, a rip in it) could use replacing too. And there was the plastic remnant of an old lock holder that I never removed, still on the shaft.

Never put my name on it. Didn’t record the serial number. Until it was stolen and I went to the cops, I didn’t know bikes had serial numbers.

Knew it would be tough to replace. They don’t make them like that anymore – they make these fat-tired jobbies, sometimes with no gears at all. Didn’t want something that looked new – thief magnet. Didn’t want something that would fall apart at the first smash of a suddenly opened taxi door. And it would have to occupy a very narrow place on the road at those moments when the cab you didn’t see, the one whose driver earned his stripes in Katmandu or Abidjan, scorches by a quarter inch from your elbow. You have to be able to hold steady. You have to know your machine.

Tuesday I biked to the Mid-Manhattan library, collecting books to research an article, checking the half-price booth for theater tickets, flirting with cute foot traffic, and so down Fifth Avenue home. New metal hoops have been installed in the sidewalk, and I left it there, with my simple – too simple – hoop lock. It was about eight, and I figured I’d drop my loot then ride to the piers to watch the sunset. Instead, I fell on the bed; did not open my eyes till ten. Still a safe hour, wouldn’t you say? Very safe in my part of the South Village. So I went downstairs. No bike.

Well, it’s New York. Your bike will be stolen. No tears. (The last bike went that way.) Besides, I had an article to write.

When the writing was done, I called Cedric, who’d recently purchased a used bike, and asked him to recommend bike stores. He told me about a couple, but they were far away – Avenue C, Grand Street, the East River. No easy matter to get there – without a bike.

It was a week before I had time to explore. I took subways to Grand Street, E up to West Fourth, F down to Grand – no bikes, but I did find a kosher bakery with real prune danish. The nearest bus went up Avenue A, and I started across East Fifth Street for Avenue C. If I’d known the East Village well, I’d never have chosen Fifth – it’s a cul-de-sac. Some civic building - a police warehouse garage, I think (ironically) - runs from Fourth to Sixth on B.

So it’s a quiet afternoon on an unfamiliar street.

But one thing on the street is not unfamiliar.

I’d been staring at every red-brown bicycle in the West Village for a week, and each had characteristics that quickly revealed they could not be mine. So I studied this one. New yellow-wall tires? Yes. The name on the shaft in rusted flash-letter: Rampar? Yes. The rip in the seat? Yes. The old plastic bike-lock holder? Yes. The soiled bandages on the ends of the handlebars? No – covered with fresh black tape.

It was mine all right. Locked by a heavy padlock and a thick, rusty chain to one of those little square fences the city puts around spindly trees.

I ran about, frantic, for the nearest cop shop. Found one on Eighth and Avenue C. I explain: I found my bike. My bike. No, I haven’t got a receipt or the serial number; no, I never put my name on it. The cop is sympathetic but regretful. Nothing they can do. I recognize his problem, I sympathize with his predicament. But I’m boiling.

As I wait for a bus back across town – a bus I shouldn’t even have to take – I am boiling. I consume prune danish at a dangerous rate.

I’d feel easier if I hadn’t found it again – gone with the wind. But I have found it again. And it’s my bike.

Every person riding by me on a bike is doing it on purpose to make me feel lousy.

Every ache in my fallen arches is a grievance, with an identifiable culprit.

“So get a hacksaw.”

No, the cop didn’t say that. The guys in my local pub, Ty's, suggested it.

I’m not a hacksaw kind of guy. Visions: passing cops enquiring politely what it is I am up to with that hacksaw? “Well, it’s my bike.” “I see. You can prove this?”

Cat suggests, “Oh officer, I’m such a ditz! I locked my bike here and then lost the key to the lock.” She might get away with that – but I’m no actor.

Bunny says, “Get some liquid freon. Tell them you have a chain on an old trunk and you’ve lost the key. Pour it on the locks, then hit them with a hammer. Wear protective goggles.” But the hardware guys don’t stock freon. And another guy at the pub says it doesn’t always work.

And what do I say if the owner – no, I won’t use that word – the person in current possession – shows up in the middle of the operation? I imagine him: taller than I, younger, well muscled, martial arts belts of various hues. Someone to reason with.

A stratagem: Get another lock and put it on the bike. To this attach a note: “This bike was stolen from me last Tuesday. Please call this number and let’s discuss who you got it from, and so track the thief. Or tell me how much you’d let me have it back for.”

This could work, if he’s a reasonable guy, and we meet in a public place where he can’t beat the crap out of me.

Or, he’ll just get a hacksaw and cut my lock off, and move the bike someplace I’ll never find it. Such as indoors.

Then he (or a cop) knows how to find me.

Alternate scheme: I get a nameplate and glue it beneath the seat, then tell the cops I knew it was mine because it has my name on it. Would they detect that this was a recent addition? Would they be amused if my fraud came to light?

“Why not keep an eye on it until someone uses it?” – say many people who have not thought the thing through. How many hours do they expect me to commit to this? How much of their lives would they devote to an unpaid stakeout?

“So forget it. You can get a cheap Chinese-made bike at K-Mart,” says Judy, who has, in fact, bought one. It’s all shiny and inviting – to thieves. She lives in New Jersey and can keep it in her garage.

I can’t forget it. I feel my manhood has been challenged. I want my bike.

The thing that drove me into fits was the sight of it, sitting there, unridden yet unavailable. I know because I went back, again and again, to make sure it had not been moved.

It never budged!

It appeared to be sinking, like a triceratops at LaBrea, into the mud of the little square in the pavement. The bastard was leaving it out in the rain. And it only occupied one side of the square fence because the other sides are occupied by other bicycles. None of them ever moved either.

This has the earmarks of a depot. Someone is stealing the bikes of New York and leaving them here, a quiet area because it’s not a through street, and barely policed (that I can see). Here they sit until he gets a customer, or until some truck drives up and hauls them off to Belgrade. Okay, Newark. The principle is the same.

The police should be aware of this. Won’t they be pleased I have uncovered a multi-hundred-dollar bike-fencing ring? Doubtful. And I do not want my bike impounded and held as evidence; I want it ridden. By me – and nobody else but me. I just want it rid by me alone.

However, by revisiting the crime, I have discovered that the heavy, rusted chain around the fence behind my bike … isn’t attached to my bike at all. It’s just curled on the fence, waiting for some worthier candidate. The only thing holding my bike is the padlock attached to the bike chain. Not to the body of the bike – just the chain.

The sonofabitch is tossing my helplessness in my teeth.

Quite a little nest he’s got here – not only chains and various padlocks, and a number of bikes, but a club from a stolen car is attached to this fence.

If I’m going to do something vaguely illegal (okay, it’s not vaguely illegal; it’s illegal), I’ll have to do it very quickly, when no one’s around. Midnight or four a.m. are out – just when he might come by to inspect his stock. And on weekends people fill the streets unpredictably. Weekdays are emptiest, mid morning or mid afternoon.

“Do you have clippers – heavy ones – the sort that cut through chain? The sort that cut through padlock even better?” – I ask everyone.

Nobody has. Not a regular utility item, is it? I’ve seen them on Canal Street for $80, but it’s unthrifty to buy a tool to use only once – unless I go into bike theft as a profession. Not a bad idea – the police pay no attention. Think of it as unregulated capitalism.

I try to rent clippers from my bike store, claiming I’ve lost the key to my lock. They look at me funny and refuse. What do they think I’m going to do – steal a bike?

I am a very law abiding person. But the laws are said to frown on bike theft. Well, I haven’t looked them up lately.

I put it off on the weekend – street patterns are unpredictable on weekends. I put it off during the week – I have my own work to do. But I can’t focus on it, or on anything. I’m having dreams about it. I’m overreacting. It’s the principle of the thing. One has one’s principles. But one doesn’t have one’s bike.

Inspecting the corpus delecti, I sit in the Café Gamin across the street for two hours, seething. No one comes by looking suspicious. Or rather, everyone looks suspicious.

Before I leave, I attach an old bike lock to the shaft and the fence. If he sells it or wants to ship it out, he’ll have a tougher time moving it. On the other hand, if he ever looks at it closely (the evidence implies he never does), he’ll know someone is on to him.

Finally: Hank has a hacksaw. It looks frail, but I’m desperate.

Tomorrow. This thing will be resolved tomorrow.

Hermes, god of thieves (and commerce), be my aid! (Peter has made me a little statuette of him for my altar; I libate to it before major travels.)

The moon is full, omens are everywhere. I will shave my skull to look tough, wear a ripped flannel shirt and a bandanna around my head; if spotted by witnesses, I will look nothing like myself. But then I do none of this. Looking like myself, I put the hacksaw in a backpack, and head for the bus. Just missed a #21 – bad omen. I will take a cab – I want this thing over with. But no – here comes another #21. Good omen.

Avenue C and East Fourth. Everyone has a bike, all insecurely fastened to this, that or the other part of the streetscape. I could have them off in no time, if it weren’t for witnesses.

Heading down East Fourth, I pass a yard full of police and police vehicles, but East Fifth is empty as usual.

I study the problem. I pull out the hacksaw. I look as though I know just what I’m doing. The saw makes not a dent in the padlock.

Well then – Plan B.

I want this situation resolved.

I begin to saw at the bike’s own chain. (What’s the crime? It’s my property, isn’t it?) The chain spirals around a large wheel and a small one, through a mechanism. Between the mechanism and the padlock is an open space. Half a link cuts right through, but the other half, because of my awkward angle, is harder to bear down on.

A passing fellow (shaved skull, bandanna) eyes me. I look up, not resentful, just … looking. “Having a nice day?”

“Pretty good, thanks,” I reply, with bland cheer.

He wanders off. Does he look back suspiciously? I don’t know. I am at my task. If you do not look as if you thought people were looking at you suspiciously, no one will think you look suspicious. I feel no stage fright – there was near-hysteria in anticipation, but now that I’m in action, I feel good – the workman at his trade, the job no one could do for me. I feel righteous. I could kill, rob, perform an act of terrorism, sing Turiddu on the Met stage - it is beforehand and afterwards that terrify.

Free at last. The chain comes out of the padlock, and then I remove my own lock from where I’d left it the day before. Simple.

Of course, it cannot be ridden in its chainless state.

I walk it to a bike store and say, truthfully, “Someone took a hacksaw to my bike chain.” He says it will cost $5.95 to repair it, and to come back before 7. He urges me not to replace the chain with a new one.

At 7, I'm back. I buy a $30 lock and head home, graceful as a loping centaur. Centaurs are graceful; trust me. Doored by a cab on Houston Street. The cabbie asks if I’m okay. Now, that’s a good omen.

There is a hiccup as I ride, as if something in the gear mechanism is catching. It requires an overhaul, but hey – I’ve just saved $150 on a new bike.

Before anything else, I turn it upside down and copy the serial number. Proof!

It’s no happier for 17 days at the mercy of the streets and the elements, and a certain element in the streets. And now the chain hiccups.

Perhaps it’s time for an upgrade. (This time, keep the receipt!)