Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Milestone and Miscellany

After my last post, Google informed me that was Lacunae Musing’s 300th entry, a milestone of sorts.  When I began this blog almost five years ago, I had no idea where it might lead or, even, whether it would merely be a passing dalliance.   I had discounted writing about investments, something I know enough about to be dangerous, or about publishing, which, when I retired, I knew a lot about, but by the time I began to write in this space, the publishing world had changed dramatically.  Nor did I want to espouse only political views, although I’ve posted my share on the topic.  No, I wanted to write something that simply expresses my interests (as well as my views) and experiences (including some family history) and, perhaps, along the way make a small contribution on the WWW. The one thing I wanted to avoid is turning it into a job; I have no hidden agenda, no source of income from this effort.  There is only the satisfaction from writing, and having a “written trail” – a form of accountability, an intellectual balance sheet that is auditable.

As far as blogs go, mine is but a minor star in a minor universe.  Comparing this blog’s statistics to those of my blogging “hero” – to me the “father” of the investment blog—Barry Ritholtz’s The Big Picture -- shows the stark differences between a blog written by an erudite professional such as Ritholtz, and an unfocused personal blog.  It is like comparing the New York Times to a mimeographed newsletter (does the mimeograph still exist?).  Google tells me that I’ve had 25,000 page views now. Ritholtz’s blog has had 5,000 times more (and well deserved)!

Of course, I don’t view this as a competition, but it puts my humble contribution in perspective. Going back to Google’s statistics, the most viewed pages of my blog were mostly about trips we’ve taken, people presumably landing on those pages as they are contemplating (or have taken) similar ones. (In October when we will return from visiting Norway, Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, and Greenland and I’ll look forward to posting a write up with plentiful photographs.).  Just for the record, here are the five most read pages:

Feb 10, 2011; 1101 Page Views

Feb 17, 2011; 796 Page Views

Oct 10, 2009; 710 Page Views

Aug 8, 2011; 512 Page Views

Apr 21, 2011;  418 Page Views

Late in the game I began to add labels to the entries as the eclectic nature of the blog needed some sort of thread to tie everything together.  Unfortunately, as much of this work was done retrospectively, it isn’t a true index because of inconsistencies.  But it does give a handle on the contents with more than 350 labels.

I haven’t incorporated the popular “comments” feature in the blog as I just did not want to deal with reader’s comments publicly.  That felt like work to me.  My email address for the blog is in my profile (lacunaemusing@gmail.com), and I’ve received and responded to comments that way.  It certainly cuts down on casual comments when someone has to not only write an email, but identify him/herself as well.

The political season is heating up and I’m so disgusted with Super Pac advertising, and the unbearable rhetoric from both sides of the aisle that I doubt whether I will be as engaged in these blog pages as I was during the last presidential (and historical) election cycle.  To make my personal views clear, I think President Obama, given he is a mere mortal, has done about the best he could given the economic mess he was handed and the political roadblocks thrown at him.  But his campaign rhetoric has also worked against him, promising too much.  Also, I’ve criticized some of his priorities in these pages, so it is not as if I am a raving liberal.  I like to think of myself as a fiscal conservative and a social liberal and one might say that the two are not compatible; I think intelligent compromise can transcend many of the disagreements that are aired like dirty laundry in the media.  Of course, there are also the lunatic fringes and there is no compromise possible with them.

In fact, I recently learned, there is actually a word to describe this endless obfuscation of the truth -- Agnotology: Culturally constructed ignorance, purposefully created by special interest groups working hard to create confusion and suppress the truth.

And to whom do I give a hat tip for this morsel of incredible insight? -- Barry Ritholtz! (Who, in turn gives full attribution to the word’s creator, Stanford historian of science Robert Proctor.)  Ritholtz uses the term as but one element in his recent entry Defective Government By Design   asking the rhetorical question, “Is it democracy or plutocracy when less than 200 people drive election spending in a nation of 300 million?”

This entry is about the rise of corporate power and the Super Pac -- implications that are onerous for democracy.  I’ve written about it before, but if you land on this entry and want to know more, go to the foregoing Big Picture link.

Agnotology.  You hear and see its practice every day......say the lie often enough, and in as many forms as possible and voila, it suddenly becomes “the truth”.  In fact, innuendo works as well or even better than saying the lie straight out.

Here’s an example, the Daily News’ agnotological headline, “How many more must die, Mr. President?” – as if the horrific tragedy in Colorado is somehow the President’s fault.  If Obama had a magic wand, he would probably outlaw assault weapons, but he has a Congress to deal with, the NRA, and, of course, State’s rights.  It was theSupreme Court of Colorado which upheld a state law that allows residents to carry concealed weapons, even in schools!  But a glance at the NY Daily News headline plants an agnotological subliminal message.

That is the brave new political campaign world for 2012, different than it was in 2008, although that one too was quite ugly.  I will be relying on Fact Check.org to winnow truth from agnotological fiction.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Richard Ford’s CANADA -- a Classic

Parents.  You trust them and see the world through their eyes.  They make plans and you follow, their logic not being completely clear, but you go along.   Life metes out some choices but the accident of our parents meeting, marrying, and having children hurls us unrelentingly onto a path not of our choosing or, in most instances, not even theirs. Then in turn we make our own choices and in retrospect that is our life.  These inexplicable choices, a form of accidental determinism, are what Richard Ford deals with in Canada, destined to become a classic American novel.

This is a coming of age novel, narrated by the fifteen year old protagonist, Dell Parsons, but it is written by him some fifty years later.  Thus, the voice in the novel is that of a somewhat naïve boy, but written with the knowledge of a mature man, one who we learn towards the end is the teacher of literature in high school. (How Ford walks this fine line is evidence of his writing skills.)

In fact, among the novels he teaches is The Great Gatsby and The Mayor of Casterbridge “that to me seem secretly about my young life.” And, indeed, Canada echoes some of our narrator’s favorites, with a Gatsby like character one of the novel’s centerpieces and Hardy’s sense of place and dark fatalistic themes playing out in Canada as well.

Ford has long been one of my favorite authors, ever since reading Sportswriter and more recently Lay of the Land, both part of the Frank Bascombe trilogy, which also included Independence Day. Canada elevates his work further.

He gets right to the point in the few sentences of the first paragraph and if this isn’t a sufficient “hook” to reel in the reader, then this book isn’t for you: “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed.  Then about the murders, which happened later.  The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed.  Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.”

This novel deals with themes about life, choices, and chance, and it is fittingly staged on the sprawling small towns and prairies of Montana and the Province of Saskatchewan in the late 1950’s. There is a sense of isolation and solemnity of an Edward Hopper painting, a heaviness Dell Parsons has to deal with and in his innocence he goes forward, somehow ending up with a life more of his choosing than his less fortunate fraternal twin sister, Berner.

Poor Berner.  Never even likes her name, but that was the one given to her by their father, ironically “Bev” Parsons. He is from Alabama, a fast talker, engaging, and able to turn on the southern charm.  He wanted to be a pilot in the war but was a bombardier, dropping bombs on unknown victims.  Dell thinks that it was his father’s charm that attracted his mother to him and she had “unluckily gotten pregnant from their one hasty encounter after meeting at a party honoring returning airmen.”  Their mother is Jewish, which complicates where they can live (the south is out of the question).  Her name is Neeva Kamper, and she is as different from Bev as she could be: “His optimism, her alienated skepticism.  His southernness, her immigrant Jewishness.  His lack of education, her preoccupation with it and sense of unfulfillment.  When they realized it…they each began to experience a tension and a foreboding peculiar to each of them and not shared by the other.”

After the Air Force Bev sells new and, then, used cars, while Neeva teachers 5th grade school, they having finally settled down in Great Falls, Montana (where people didn’t even know what a Jew was).  But Bev is a schemer and wants more and finds ways to make money selling stolen beef he acquires from local Indians, but this leads to a debt and he needs much more money, fast, the Indians threatening him and his family.  He had always fantasized about robbing a bank, thinking his fast talking ability would enable him to do so smoothly, without much risk, and as long as he robbed less than $10K, the government would pay the price and depositors wouldn’t, and he wouldn’t hurt anyone, so why not?  His son could drive the getaway car. he thought.  Neeva steps in to protect Dell and the inexorable fulcrum of the novel is set in motion.

Neeva has plans to use some of the money to go to her parents in Seattle with her children, leaving Bev.  But she also has a contingency plan for the kids if they are caught – a friend has a brother, a very bright man, one who had once attended Harvard, but now lived in Saskatchewan where he owns a hotel, and this friend, Mildred, agrees to drive Berner and Dell there so they would not wind up in an orphanage.  The parents are apprehended, but Berner flees to join a boyfriend, and Dell is left alone to accompany Mildred.  Where they were going is unknown to him until they practically cross the Canadian border.

During the drive, Mildred offers advice to Dell: “’Don’t spend time thinking old gloomy….Your life’s going be a lot of exciting ways before you’re dead. So just pay attention to the present.  Don’t rule parts out, and be sure you’ve always got something you don’t mind losing. That’s important…Does that make sense to you?’ She reached across the seat and knocked her soft fist against my knee the way you’d knock on a door. ‘Does it? Knock, knock?’ ‘I guess it does,’ I said.  Thought it didn’t really seem to matter what I agreed with.  That was the final time Mildred and I talked about my future.”

 He is the perpetual optimist, and learns to adjust. One of his interests is chess, always carrying chess magazines and his chess pieces, hoping to find a game, but ending up playing against himself. His philosophy is expressed as the novel ends its “American segment,” Dell thinking, “It’s odd, though, what makes you think about the truth.  It’s so rarely involved in the events of your life.  I quit thinking about the truth for a time then.  Its finer points seemed impossible to find among the facts.  If there was a hidden design, living almost never shed light on it.  Much easier to think about chess – the true character of the men always staying the way they were intended, a higher power moving everything around.  I wondered, for just that moment, if we – Berner and I – were like that: small, fixed figures being ordered around by forces greater than ourselves.  I decided we weren’t.  Whether we liked it or even knew it, we were accountable only to ourselves now, not to some greater design.  If our characters were truly fixed, they would have to be revealed later.”

While Hardy’s characters always seem to come to crossroads, ones that inevitably lead to their downfall and most of the main characters in Canada seem to suffer the same negative fate, Dell’s trusting, and childlike-innocence ironically enables him to escape similar misfortune.

His greatest challenge is dealing with the Gatsby-like character, the person to whom he has been abandoned, Mildred’s brother, the mysterious Arthur Remlinger.  (“He was tall and handsome and had fine blond hair parted carefully on the right side…Mildred had said he was thirty-eight but his face was a young man’s handsome face.  At the same time he seemed older, given how he was dressed.  He wasn’t consistent, the way I was used to people being.”) Dell had fantasized that he would befriend Remlinger, perhaps play chess with him, learn from him, but he rarely sees him and is assigned to a strange young scoundrel named Charley Quarters  (a character straight out of Dickens) who works for Remlinger and serves as a guide to “Sports,” men who visit the Remlinger’s hotel to hunt geese. Charley sets up decoys and cleans the dead geese and this is the trade Dell learns for his keep.  We find out that Remlinger has something on Charlie, something he could reveal, but Charlie has even more on Remlinger, a dark secret that becomes the denouement of the novel and one in which Remlinger involves Dell.  To Charley’s credit, he reveals that secret to Dell (one that Dell at first finds a way of doubting given his innocence) and warns Dell that he is merely a pawn to Remlinger,

As this terrible secret begins to be played out, Dell is at first caught off guard, thinking “I’d had plenty of time since the day before to route everything through my mind, and observe the things I needed to know, and be satisfied with not knowing all that was true, and to feel that probably not the worst was, and that in all likelihood nothing bad was going to happen….’Our most profound experiences are physical events’ was a saying my father often pronounced when my mother, or when Berner or I, was tortured by something we were worried about.  I always took it as true – although I hadn’t known precisely what it meant.  But it had become part of my sense of being normal to believe that physical events, important ones, that changed lives and the course of destiny, were actually rare and almost never happened.  My parents’ arrest, as terrible as it had been, proved that – in comparison to my life before, where there had been very little physical activity, just waiting and anticipating.  And in spite of believing what my father said about the importance of physical events, I’d come to think that what mattered more (this was my child’s protected belief) was how you felt about things; what you assumed; what you thought and feared and remembered.  That was what life mostly was to me – events that went on in my brain.”  Until Remlinger reveals his true character.

But Dell befriends Remlinger’s paramour Flo, who is an artist (whose style, fittingly, is Hopper’s “Nighthawk” school of painting). “Her arrangement with Arthur Remlinger suited her because he had money and good manners and was handsome, in spite of being private and an American and younger than she was.” Flo arranges for Dell’s ultimate escape to Winnipeg where her son and daughter-in-law live and they would put Dell in high school there.  “She said I should consider becoming a Canadian….This would fix everything.  Canada was better than America, she said, and everyone knows that – except Americans.  Canada had everything America ever had, but no one was made about it.  You could be normal in Canada, and Canada would love to have me.”

Ford’s writing is sparse and compelling and the novel unfolds like a force of nature.  He is finally reunited with his twin sister, but life has dealt her a harsher hand, she being more the pawn than a power piece in her own life. “Her life turned out to be different from mine.  I have had one wife and been a high school teacher and sponsor of chess clubs through my entire working years.  Berner had had at least three husbands and unfortunately seemed able to please herself only on the margins of conventional life.  I lost track of most of it…. [She] was bitter about the ‘substitute life’ she’d led instead of the better one she should’ve led if it had all worked out properly – our parents, etc.  Of course she was right.  I HAD given up a great deal, as Mildred told me I’d need to.  Only I was satisfied about it and about what I’d gotten in return.”

Canada is a haunting work of fine writing; my only regret is that its 400 some pages flew by so quickly.  

Friday, July 13, 2012

“Clybourne Park” Downer

Ann and I boarded the Metro North at South Norwalk station anticipating a wonderful night of good theater and dinner.  I had purchased tickets to see Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris, well before it received the Tony Award for Best Play.  It is now near the end of its run on Broadway.  The play had opened off Broadway a couple of years before, played London, and had toured some of the top regional theaters before returning to the Great White Way.  Besides winning the Tony, it had won the Pulitzer, but our main reason for seeing the play is that next season Dramaworks is reviving Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun.  

Clybourne Park is both sort of a prequel and sequel to Hansberry’s relatively tame but groundbreaking work about racism in, ironically, a suburban neighborhood in Chicago, the environs where Barack Obama rose in his political career.

The first part of the evening, our pre-theatre dinner at Glass House Tavern, was superb.   We’ve been there before, a great restaurant destination in the theatre district, with both a fixed price pre-theater and standard menu.

Unfortunately, Clybourne Park was disappointing, although the mostly out of town audience was captivated by its in-your-face racial invectives and humor. Maybe we were just expecting something more, to feel engaged in the production, but I wasn’t and felt emotionally duped.   

I am not going into the details of the plot – it has been written up and down and there is nothing much I can add, other than to briefly summarize that it takes place in two acts, the first in 1959 and the second fifty years later, in the same house in the fictionalized “Clybourne Park.”  The first act depicts the sale of the house to a black family, the same one Hansberry wrote about, the Youngers (who we never see). The lily-white neighborhood association is up in arms about the sale, but that same act carries the revelation that the current owners had lost their son in that house, his having committed suicide after returning from the Korean War under a cloud of possible war crimes.  The second act puts the shoe on the other foot.  It is now a middle class black family selling the house to a white couple who are in the vanguard of gentrifying the neighborhood. (Whole Foods is right down the road!)

There is some very clever dialogue, much of it delivered with such breakneck rapidity that we had trouble hearing all of it.  Maybe we’re at the age of needing one of those assistive listening devices given out at theaters, but I don’t think so.  Of course the Walter Kerr Theatre, a venerable institution, perhaps has outlived its useful lifespan.  The seats certainly have.  The configuration was designed for a much earlier generation, when, indeed, the average weight of an adult was 150 pounds.  Those were the days when people dressed up for the theatre, not arriving in their shorts, their arms and the rest of their bodies spilling over into their neighbor’s seats.  Half of the audience looked like they were about to get on an airline and we all know what that now looks like.  The space between rows is mere inches.  No leg crossing here, assuming you can fit your legs in the row at all (we were second row, mezzanine).   If I was not at the end of the row, I would have fled the theatre in a claustrophobic angst.

Throughout the play I was aware of something I’m never conscious of while watching a great play: that indeed I am watching a play.  Here are competent actors going through the motion of delivering lines, traversing the stage as competently directed.   I suppose all of this was convincingly done judging by the audience’s reactions, but I never felt engaged, although Norris had his opportunities for some real drama, particularly with the death of the son.  He touches on that issue, but never really explores it.  He could have gone to emotional places where Arthur Miller has gone in his work, but as quickly as it arose, its development was abandoned, the symbolic trunk of the son left behind, buried, but unearthed fifty years later, just like the racial issues. 

Consequently, the play is more a device for delivering Norris’ misanthropic view of the “progress” we’ve made on race in America.  Could it be the paucity of great theater that renders merely an interesting play, with edgy humor, a prize winner?

So, while being conscious that I was watching a play, I also felt that I was watching a bunch of stereotypes, stick figures, no one really drawn out in any engaging way although Russ’ character, the father of the boy who committed suicide, played by Frank Wood, comes closest to one I can empathize with.  But sometimes his lines were delivered with such briskness they were not decipherable from the mezzanine. 

The dialogue at times, with its edgy racial humor, was well timed, and I suppose that is the glue that holds the play together, but much of it was well telegraphed, and in its poor taste meant to be tolerated by what we would like to think is a post racial world.  But is it?  At times I thought of the 1970’s sitcom All in the Family, which implied much of the same humor decades before.  The difference here is the humor is now explicit.  Norris is clearly an equal opportunity insulter, with ne’er a good word for any ethnic group of people, including the WASPS howling in the audience.

I tried to take notes while watching the play, which is my general practice, but as I lost interest, or, better put, never got to the point where I felt I was part of the action, I put down my pen (usually I can’t read half of what I write in the dark anyhow).  But I did get one quote near the beginning of the play which I think resonates right to the end, one of the characters in the 1959 first act saying “we all have our place.”  And I think that is Norris’ point.  Nothing has really changed in the intervening fifty years, in spite of having a President of mixed racial heritage.  One of the characters at the end of the play, after all the confrontational humor says something to the effect, “instead of doing this elaborate dance, what we’re really saying, it’s about race, isn’t it?”  Indeed, we’re still battling out the shame of the heritage of slavery, whether it is the beer summit involving Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s arrest, or the Trayvon Martin incident , Norris makes it clear that while some things are for the better (we can at least laugh and talk about it), the “change” we have long hoped for remains elusive. Racism is still alive and well in America.  And the latent racial tentacles could still impact the coming presidential election, although it miraculously eluded its grasp last time around
Great theater?  No. But as a philosophical statement, right on the mark.  

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Plaintive Melodies

As much as we enjoy returning to live on our boat in Connecticut, the worst thing about summer is leaving my piano behind.  If I was a professional, or played nearly at that level, it would be intolerable.  But I remember having once worked with the great harpsichordist, Ralph Kirkpatrick (in the capacity of publishing and cataloging the works of Scarlatti), visiting him at his home in Guilford CT which was populated by harpsichords and grand pianos.  He had made lunch for us, with some wine, and before we got back to work I timidly asked him whether he might like to play a piece.  He looked at me as if I had lost my mind, saying he never gives private audiences and especially not after a glass of wine.  I wondered, doesn't the love of music transcend everything else? 

Contrast that experience to the one I had with Henry Steele Commager, who was the dean of American intellectual historians.  I used to visit him in Amherst and we would work in his study on the second floor.  On the first floor he had a baby grand piano and one day, again after lunch, I asked him whether he played.  He raced to the piano and I quietly sat listening to him play a Beethoven sonata, and very competently. For Commager, playing the piano was his creative outlet and during that moment historian took second place.  I understand that.

My piano has been good to me this past year and in fact we've been partners, preparing programs that I performed at the Hanley Center in West Palm Beach, a rehab facility, and at The Waterford in Juno Beach, a retirement home.  Actually, most of the music I played at the Hanley Center was impromptu from fake books but at the Waterford I gave musical presentations with some commentary (Ann frequently helping me with the latter), something I really enjoyed doing, and now have programs for the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, George Gershwin, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Claude-Michel Schönberg, and songs of the Great American Songbook as immortalized by Frank Sinatra.  

Next season, I'll do others and perhaps record another CD at a professional studio.

Of course I have no illusions about the enduring value of such recordings, other than having goals keeps one young, and it is a joy to be able to play.  Luckily for me, my kind of piano playing -- reading the melody line and improvising with chords -- is sort of like riding a bicycle; once you know how to ride, you can do it anytime without frequently practicing.  So, a summer away from my friend doesn't really set me back in terms of my ability to play. 

Nonetheless, as we prepare to leave, I look at my piano with a melancholy regret and I tend to play pieces that reflect that mood. Recently, I found myself playing some Bill Evans songs, constantly reverting to his "Time Remembered" -- a piece with abstract, floating harmonies, not exactly melodic.  It reminds me a little of Debussy, but in a more abstract form, so I found myself fiddling around with some classical music, not one of my musical strengths, but what better piece to play than Debussy's "Reveries" as a bookend for the Bill Evans piece.  From there I turned to one of Stephen Sondheim's most beautiful ballads, "Johanna" from Sweeny Todd,  much more structured than the Evans piece, but all three musical compositions share this sense of the plaintive. 

I set up my camera and recorded the Sondheim piece, a brief rendition (BlogSpot has restrictions on video size).  It is less than two minutes. and as I never play a piece the same way twice, improvising much of it, when recording (especially video with just a digital camera in our echoing living room), some self consciousness encroaches.  Nonetheless, I include this below as a musical statement of the moment and particularly because "Johanna" most accurately captures my mood.   Whoever said Sondheim can't write a beautiful melody is crazy as this is one of the most haunting songs I know.  It is also one of his few outright love songs.

We'll be on the road soon and the blog will go quiet for a while.