Tuesday, January 31, 2006
The financial district at rush hour is not one of them.
Why is it so hard for people to figure out how to walk in crowded public areas? To me it just seems like common sense, but apparently some people need common sense spelled out for them. Therefore, I call upon the City of New York to issue regulations for proper sidewalk behavior and to issue citations for flagrant violators.
The key is simple self-awareness. If you are slower than average, stick to the building side of the curb, and stay there. Especially in lower Manhattan, where the layout dates to colonial times, sidewalks can be narrow. There's plenty of room for people to pass if you stick to one side; if you insist on meandering right down the middle, there's not.
I recognize that I am tall and have long legs and can take longer strides than most people. I'm also very type-A when I walk: I know where I'm going and don't like to waste time getting there. If I wanted to stop and smell the roses, I'd hurry to an appropriate place to do that. So I don't mean to discriminate against pedestrian Yugos, but please be courteous to people like me (that would be most of Manhattan) and get the hell out of my way.
Sidewalk etiquette is almost identical to the rules for driving. Think of Manhattan sidewalks as urban freeways, with multiple lanes, frequent exits, high traffic and high speeds that require concentration and quick reflexes. It also helps to know where you're going.
When you're driving a car on a freeway and decide you're unsure of which way to go, you don't just come to a screeching halt and stare at the exit signs. If you must, you pull over or take the next exit to study your map. The same goes for walking. Standing right smack dab in the center of a sidewalk corner is akin to halting your car in the middle of a four-way intersection. Stand up against the wall of the building, instead.
When merging onto a busy sidewalk, be sure to check for oncoming traffic, particularly if you don't have a lot of horsepower. I am forever tripping over people who just step out of buildings in the same cavalier manner as I step out of the bathroom when I am home alone. If you see a Type-A barreling along, merge in right behind him. Trust me, you won't be tailgating very long.
Walk single file, especially during busy hours and on narrower sidewalks. Walking four-abreast and maintaining a conversation is as rude as putting your feet up on an empty subway seat during rush hour.
Stairs, escalators and revolving doors: FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DON'T STOP THERE. I love when people stop at the end of an escalator and try to decide which way to go, and then give ME a dirty look when the escalator dumps me out on top of them with a hundred people behind me. Just go through a revolving door? Keep moving, or someone's getting decapitated. (Also, if you stop right in front of a subway turnstile and start looking for your MetroCard, then I promise you that you are going to end up in the Ninth Circle of Hell, which distinctly resembles the Rockefeller Center station on the BDFQV lines during rush hour on an August afternoon, except the train never comes. This is still better than the 11th Circle of Hell, where you stand for all eternity at the turnstile getting the "PLEASE SWIPE AGAIN" message while a thousand demons stand behind you and yell.)
Here's a tip for Type-A's who find themselves having to maneuver through tourist hordes in Times Square and other places. Simply throw your hands up in the air and say in a loud voice, "Homosexual coming through!" Seriously, they are so surprised that they part like the Red Sea.
I write this post because I had something of a fender-bender last night. First off, I was in more of a hurry than usual because I had evening plans. The Fulton Street Station was closed for some unexplained reason, so I had to walk to the next stop at Chambers Street, about 15 minutes away by foot. (Well, 15 minutes if you're me.) So I was irritated.
The entrance to the station is at the downtown-end of the train, but I like to ride in the first car because it's much less crowded and that's where my exit is, anyway. So I was strolling briskly down the platform intending to reach the front before the train got there, when I encountered the worst of all sidewalk offenders: The Drifter.
How, in a city of 8 million people, folks can walk around as if they are all by themselves, I have no idea. But I got stuck behind this little wisp of a thing who nonetheless prevented my passage by going slowly and refusing to move in a straight line. She'd drift a little to the left, then back to the right. She was actually semi-rhythmic about it, and so just when I thought I'd figured out her timing, I floored it, as it were, and tried to pass her on the right.
Of course that's when for no reason she changed course and collided with me.
"Hey, watch where you're going, you fucking asshole!" she shouted.
Me, watch where I'm going? I recognize that I have a particular talent for sidewalking that exceeds most peoples' abilities. I can dodge strollers and maneuver around scaffolding and toddlers as nimbly as Fred Astaire. Me, watch where I'm going? I'd watched this bitch go NOWHERE for yards, analyzed her gait and seized my opportunity. I make a virtual science out of watching where I'm going, and this little wench has the audacity not only to collide with me but to accuse me of her own breach of public etiquette.
Just to show off, I proceeded to shower her with a few choice words without messing a step, walking backwards at full speed and not bumping into anything. "You walk like my blind alcoholic grandmother drives!"
Now, in the interest of fairness, I will confess my own sidewalk faults: I speed and have been known to walk while intoxicated. (But I still manage a straight line, honey.)
Monday, January 30, 2006
This is one of the things that I and others skeptical of Bush's plan to remake the middle east in our image have been trying to find a way to articulate to the administration's defenders. Alas, now history has given us an illustrative example, instead.
Bush has acted like democracy is some sort of miracle antiseptic: just a single drop is enough to kill oppression and terrorism in up to twelve countries! Unfortunately, American taxpayers didn't get a money-back satisfaction guarantee with Bush's democracy informercials.
Don't get me wrong; I think democracy's the best form of government that human beings have come up with, and there's certainly a lot to commend it. Wouldn't I rather have a secular democracy in Iraq rather than Saddam Hussein? Well, duh.
But improving the situation in the middle east has to be at a minimum a two-pronged strategy. Er, strategery. For American interests, changing a government to majority rule from a criminal despot doesn't help if the majority hates us. When I argued that you can't impose democracy at gunpoint, what I meant was the average Iraqi on the street is not going to say, "Hey America, thanks to you I'm blind in one eye, missing a leg, the power is still on less than it was before the invasion three years ago, my brother and father are dead and I saw my daughter blown up in front of me, but you got rid of Saddam Hussein, so I guess that's a fair deal."
The problem in this country is that Bushies act as if the phrase "Yes, but..." means the same thing as what Dick Cheney said to Senator Leahy. No one was opposed to the idea of getting rid of Saddam Hussein; no one was opposed to the idea of a democratic Iraq. It's just that when sensible people heard Bush's plan -- or rather, didn't hear one -- and responded to his "Democracy, ho!" speeches with a polite, "Yes, but..." they were smacked down and told that they were providing comfort to the enemy.
Now we've seen what was supposed to come after the "but": what if the government that legitimately comes to power isn't a friendly one?
When that question was posed to the president the day after the election, he responded, "You see, when you give people the vote, you give people a chance to express themselves at the polls, they -- and if they're unhappy with the status quo, they'll let you know."
Mr. President? We're letting you know.
Sunday, January 29, 2006
Four Jobs I've Had
- Clerk, Anzen Foods, Beaverton, Oregon
- "Five Crows," Official Pageant of Oregon Statehood, Champoeg, Oregon
- Sales associate, Williams-Sonoma, Portland, Oregon
- Sales associate, The Shops at Lincoln Center, New York, NY
Four Films I Can Watch Over and Over Again
- Star Wars (the first one, which is now the fourth one)
- The Two Towers
- Romy & Michele's High School Reunion
- American Beauty
Four Places I Have Lived
- Portland, Oregon
- Los Angeles, California
- New York, New York
- Zurich, Switzerland
Four Favorite TV Shows
- Battlestar Galactica
- The Daily Show
- The Golden Girls
- The Jeff Corwin Experience
Four Websites I Visit Daily
Four Things I Want to Do Before I Die
- Live for a year in Venice
- Live for a year in Paris
- Move away from Washington Heights
- Direct a production of Salome
Four Places I'd Rather Be Right Now
- Santa Fe, New Mexico
- Montreux, Switzerland
- Acadia National Park
- Some hot guy's bedroom
I think everyone else has done this one, so I won't tag anyone else. Feel free to take up the baton, if you so choose.
Wednesday, January 25, 2006
"If hurricanes were aware of the tactics we use, they could alter their strategies, making it more difficult for us to prevent the kinds of disasters we saw in New Orleans last year," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
Bush, in an appearance at Fisher Elementary School, a conservative think-tank, referred reporters to the Supreme Court's 2003 ruling in Hillside Dairy Inc. v. Lyons, saying it reaffirmed executive privilege in concealing sensitive weather-emergency related documents.
Additionally, the ACLU has filed suit against the National Weather Service, following a New York Times story last week indicating that the NWS had taken satellite images of hurricanes and other weather systems without first obtaining a warrant.
Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del), criticized the President saying, "This reminds me of a road trip my family took through Kansas when I was a young man, and a major snowstorm shut down the roads for hours and we were stranded at a motor-inn," he began, and 21 minutes later concluded, "and this is exactly why the Senate needs to oppose the Alito nomination, so that we don't have a court giving rubber stamp approval to a White House when it comes to hurricanes."
In response, Senator Bill Frist (R-TN), accused Democrats of playing politics with the weather. "Republicans have a plan to confront hurricanes before they strike, but Democrats would prefer to cut and run to higher ground, and would vote for a tax hike to pay for buses to evacuate the poor and the enfeebled. I am introducing legislation that would offer a tax deduction for people who purchase SUV's for the purpose of fleeing a hurricane."
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
The present wiretapping scandal reveals the intellectual paucity and moral bankruptcy of today's Republican party.
In a widely-reported speech yesterday in Manhattan*, President Bush fought back against accusations that his secret NSA eavesdropping program is illegal and unconstitutional.
To that end, he cited a recent Supreme Court ruling, Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, which he said gives him "additional authority," adding, "It means Congress gave me the authority to use necessary force to protect the American people."
He did not add, incidentally, that the ruling in question addressed the indefinite detention of American citizens without due process, not executive power to spy. He also neglected to mention that he lost that case. In fact, that was the ruling where O'Connor famously opined, "A state of war is not a blank check for the President."
The Bushies are busily and loudly chanting that the President has the inherent authority to eavesdrop on phone conversations -- even domestic calls -- if there is reason to believe intelligence related to national security can be gleaned from them. In addition to Hamdi, Attorney General Gonzales has stated that the Congressional resolution authorizing the President to use force in the war on terror implicitly includes permission for surveillance, as well.
This is all very bizarre. Yes, the President has the power to authorize surveillance of mail, email and telephone calls. Are you ready for this, George? No one is disputing that.
In fact, the 1978 FISA law explicitly gives the Chief Executive that very authority. So what's the problem?
A big one. FISA requires that the President seek warrants from a special court for all wiretaps. Bush kinda sorta skipped that part.
Republicans, ever fearful of the blundering bureaucracy of Big Government -- even though the federal government under Bush II has grown more than it did under any president since F.D.R. -- argue, "In a life or death situation where time is of the essence, the President should not have to wait for a warrant if thousands or millions of lives are on the line."
That's a pretty good argument, if you ask me. Want to know something interesting? FISA agrees, too. The law gives the President a full 72 hours during which surveillance can be carried out before the operation must be reported to the warrant court, which can be convened within hours. If it were really a "life or death" situation, it's hard to imagine the President would not have sufficient evidence to convince the court of a warrant's necessity.
When this story first appeared in The New York Times, administration officials and supporters accused the press of breaching national security by alerting terrorists to our tactics, a defense the President still employs.
For this to be true, the terrorists in question would have to be so naive that they have no idea that the government has the ability to listen in on phone calls or that they might otherwise be under surveillance. It also implies that the warrant court might somehow tip the terrorists off.
The other strange argument is that alerting terrorists to our surveillance techniques will cause them to change their methods of communication, thereby making it harder for us to spy. My question, though, is this: if the terrorists know that mail, email and telephone calls, even domestic ones, run the risk of being intercepted, doesn't that put them at a disadvantage? Doesn't it make it harder for the terrorists, as well? And honestly, what does that leave them, smoke signals? Sign language?
No, there is only one reason that the President would secretly circumvent the warrant court, and that is because he knew or strongly suspected that his reasons for wanting to spy on various individuals would not meet even the court's low standards for authorization.
That there are conservatives out there who still defend this president is astonishing. A party based on the belief that government authority should be limited should not be headed by a man marked by blatant disregard for the best Constitutional safeguard against government overreach: the system of checks and balances.
* The one in Kansas. You couldn't find enough people in New York who could pass the audience screening to fill a McDonald's, and Bush doesn't have the balls to face an authentic crowd.
Saturday, January 21, 2006
Not a day goes by when I don't have to confront the memory of that awful morning, and I never board a subway without wondering if I am seconds away from death, like the poor innocents in London and Madrid.
Conservatives sometimes accuse liberals of forgetting about 9/11. As if. I wish I could.
No, if anyone has forgotten about 9/11, it's the Bush administration. Oh sure, they mention it all the time, but they talk about it as if it were a single moment where history changed course. Nothing changed that day, not really. That's the real lesson of September 11: there are realities in this world to which America has largely chosen to remain blind.
Four and a half years after that unspeakable atrocity, Osama bin Laden -- who by all accounts has been in poor health all this time -- remains at large, popping up on the radar every once in a while when he releases one of his perverted public service announcements. Of all the outrages of this outrageous administration, by far the worst was Bush's diversion of crucial military resources away from al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan in favor of a political experiment in Iraq. They treated it like a garden, thinking all they had to do was pull out the weeds and then democracy would bloom overnight. It didn't seem to occur to them that the soil needed preparation, that the seeds needed water and nutrients that were no longer present in the badly husbanded earth. Concerns that the American variety of democracy might not be suited to that particular climate were dismissed out of hand.
How do Bush supporters reconcile their fealty to the White House with the incontrovertible fact that he has not concentrated on bin Laden? Whatever you think of Michael Moore and his propagandizing tactics, he did not invent the video footage of Bush saying he doesn't give bin Laden much thought. Why does this not enrage conservatives, who trot out 9/11 at every opportunity to justify every curtailing of democracy at home, ostensibly in the name of promoting it abroad? "They hate our freedom," Bush says of al Qaeda, as he eavesdrops on our phonecalls and reads our emails and sues to obtain our internet search records.
Conservatives probably hail bin Laden's most recent statements about public opinion polls in the U.S. as vindication for their assertion that criticism of the war on Iraq provides comfort to the enemy. But they are just as mistaken as he is. He thinks the polls are sinking because Americans are beginning to realize that he is right and Bush is wrong. In fact, every time bin Laden pops up, we are reminded that Priority #1 remains Mission Unaccomplished.
Dick Cheney recently argued that the only way to defeat the terrorists is to destroy them, but he doesn't understand how to do that and he doesn't understand how present policy makes it worse. He prefers to perpetuate our tactic of bomb first, find out who we killed later. Apparently if we miss a few times and slaughter a wedding party, or if we happen to kill a few women, children and bystanders along with a couple of the apparently thousands of al Qaeda Number Two's that that is somehow acceptable and forgivable in the grand scheme of The War on Terrorism. But it is exactly this callous attitude, which has by Bush's own recent public estimation resulted in 30,000 Iraqi deaths, that feeds the anger against us.
The way to destroy a terrorist is the same way you destroy a politician: erode his public support. For us, that means taking a hard look at what we've done in that region of the world, and how sometimes our best intentions backfire. That means admitting, once and for all, that Ronald Reagan was Saddam Hussein's patron. This means admitting that we have had business relationships with corrupt and oppressive governments. It means admitting that our dependence on the natural resources of the middle east has enriched tyrants and fundamentalists. It means admitting that we declared war on Iraq based on false accusations and that George Bush intends to leave Iraq with his promises to its people unfulfilled, even as he accuses political opponents of wanting to "cut and run."
Once we can do that, we can move forward and become a positive force for change in that region. Once we recognize that violence begets violence, and we take a look at the needs of the Arab world we can begin to address them in a constructive way. The best way to make friends is to be a friend. Friendship is based on mutual respect, but Bush doesn't understand that respect can only be earned through integrity, it cannot be won at gunpoint.
Bush and bin Laden are cut from the same cloth. The truth stares them in the face, but they see only their personal agendas. Both believe that God is pleased by, or at least not concerned with, the slaughter of innocents. Both believe that the end justifies the means. Both derive their power from fear, which they manufacture for mass consumption through lies and propaganda. Both believe that war leads to peace.
Both are wrong.
Thursday, January 19, 2006
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
It was 60 on Friday, and on Sunday it was 16. Today's high was 55, but tonight it will be 25. Oh, and we had a frickin' hurricane this morning.
This morning shortly after I stumbled out of bed I heard a roar that sounded like a semi truck was pulling into my living room. I ran to the window to see what it was, and lo and behold, there was a tree bent over like it was trying to touch its roots. The gusts ripping through the alley behind my bedroom sounded like a jetliner taking off.
Fortunately the rain subsided by the time I left for work. Unfortunately, it was back with a vengeance when I resurfaced on Fulton Street 45 minutes later. The corner at Nassau was flooded probably 8 inches deep. It was raining horizontally. Twisted, tattered remnants of umbrellas clogged garbage cans and skitted across the street like silver and black tumbleweeds. There was no choice but to fold up my umbrella and make a dash for it. Unfortunately, my "dash" from subway to office still takes 10 minutes.
I saw cash blow out of the hand of a customer at a coffee cart. I saw a woman get out of a taxi only to have a gust of wind catch her coat and send it up over her head. Blinded, she stumbled forward feeling her way with one arm while struggling to pull her coat down with the other, and waded into a puddle at the curb that completely covered her shoes. I saw people clinging desperately to the shredded fabric of their umbrellas. I saw an umbrella turn inside out and fly out of a woman's hands and then get smashed by a bus on Water Street.
The New York Times reports that gusts were clocked at 68 miles per hour. That's only 7 miles shy of a category 1 hurricane.
When I turned the corner on Front Street I honestly was nearly knocked over by a blast of wind. Wet wind, I might add. It was like being hit with a firehose. At Starbucks, a drenched wench was complaining to the barrista: "I'm on my way to a job interview, LOOK at me!"
The service door on my office building was shattered. It's twenty to five, and my jacket is still wet. (And I went to the staff meeting with wet underwear. Itchy!)
Scientists have been warning us that global warming doesn't just mean higher average temperatures, it means more extreme weather. This doesn't bode well.
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
I recognize that the Court has ruled that there is no Constitutional right to die, but the Declaration of Independence grants us "the right to life." Death, however, is just part of living; if I have a right to live, then surely I must also have the right to decide whether to keep on living.
Law is rooted in compassion. Every single law boils down to humanity trying to protect itself from suffering. This is how we tell just laws from unjust: do they relieve or contribute to suffering?
The conservative dissenters in this case argue that the Government has the power to outlaw physician-assisted suicide because of the Controlled Substances Act, but that is a law that is meant to protect people from illicit drug use because of the obvious suffering it causes.
Physician-assisted suicide, however, relieves suffering. Therefore, the dissent in this case clearly flunks the compassion litmus test.
"Suicide is immoral!" they cry in response. When they say "immoral," they mean "sin." It is not the Government's job to codify sins. So let us leave the Supreme Court for a minute, since the majority got it right anyway, and discuss the morality of suicide.
What if I argued that the real sin is despair?
"Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt," wrote J.R.R. Tolkien through the voice of Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Despair is a sin because it is a rejection of God's perpetual offer of mercy, a lack of trust in His divine will and a refusal to humble oneself to circumstances and petition for the Spirit's assistance, which is never denied. Such a decision is in fact "the Fall" depicted in Genesis; it wasn't that the fruit was forbidden for no reason, it was that the Serpent promised Eve that she would "become like God." If you are like God, you don't need God. A person who commits suicide out of despair is declaring he does not need God.
There's a big difference, though, between someone who is depressed and doesn’t know where to turn and someone who is terminally ill.
What if you do see the end? “It is wisdom to recognise necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope,” says Gandalf.
Some would argue that through faith doctors can be proven wrong and diseases can be cured. No doubt. But they are the ones that Gandalf says are "clinging to false hope." Look around. Who among us is still alive because of their faith? I'm not saying prayer can't cure illness. What I am saying is that everyone dies. Everyone. Death is not God's judgment. Death is not a failure of faith. Didn't the Pope just die? Even the saints are all dead. (And most of them had horrible deaths.)
Why must death be long and difficult? What is so immoral about sparing yourself indescribable, inevitable misery? Is it a sin to choose the manner of your exit? If your attitude is, “Thank you, God, for a wonderful life, now I’m ready…here I come!” is that wrong?
The thing that galls me the most about the legal controversy is that this is a fundamental issue of personal liberty. There is not one “right” way to think about this issue. Your answer to my last question could most certainly and justifiably be an adamant “Yes!”
No one is going to force you to commit suicide against your will; but John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzales, George W. Bush and Antonin Scalia think they have the right to compel you to linger in suffering. To be, or not to be? That's your decision.
* I realize the court did not rule on the Oregon law itself, but rather held that the A.G. did not have Constitutional authority to intervene.
Saturday, January 14, 2006
2006 will see the court-ordered legalization of gay marriage in Washington, New Jersey, New York and possibly California, and the November election could include initiatives to ban same-sex marriages or amend constitutions in as many or more states as the last go-around.
Republicans are on the ropes. The Abramoff scandal is poised to bring down many of their congressional heavyweights, and the Bush administration is in no position to help. Last fall, some Republican candidates tried to distance themselves from the president, and the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia slipped in the polls and lost after Bush campaigned for him. Even Rick Santorum declined an opportunity to appear alongside Bush at a rally, citing "prior commitments."
That, of course, was before we knew Bush was illegally tapping citizens' phonecalls. That sort of thing doesn't fly with small-government, libertarian-minded conservatives, and the swing-voters are uneasy with it, as well. There's also that special prosecutor looking into the Plamegate affair, who could still potentially net Rove and/or Cheney.
The economy looks great if you're a top corporate executive, but for the rest of us, wages are stagnating as the costs of living -- especially health care -- continue to rise. In Iraq, the only thing left for the President is to declare victory and bring the troops home, which he is certain to do. Even so, the damage is done: the majority of Americans will continue to regard our involvement there as a mistake.
Looks good for the Democrats, right?
Not so fast. When all else fails -- and it has -- Republicans revert to the perennial red-meat red-state issue of "values." Be prepared for a maelstrom of rhetoric involving "unelected, unaccountable activist judges." The numbers are improving, but mainstream America still isn't sold on the idea of full marriage equality, and the percentage of those who are vehemently opposed to it is still enough to flood the polls if liberals and moderates stay away, as they did in Texas last fall: the anti-gay constitutional amendment passed with almost 97% of votes, but only 15% of registered voters went to the polls.
Democrats have a tried and true strategy for dealing with gay issues come election time: ignore, equivocate, cave, and lose anyway. In a year where Democrats could potentially regain control of both houses of Congress, do you think swing-state candidates will to go bat for the gays if there's an amendment on the ballot right under their name? Do you think Republicans won't take advantage of that?
There is only one way to counter this threat, and that is to take advantage of the new determination of the religious left. It has to be sincere, however, and it must be left in the hands of Democrats of faith. The party can't afford for its leaders to go around saying Job is in the New Testament anymore. We need people who know what they're talking about, who are comfortable speaking the evangelical language without making it sound like an act. We must recapture the language of values.
Morality is not limited to sexual behavior. Morality is the careful stewardship of God's creation, as opposed to the exploitation of natural resources for profit. Morality is seeing that all Americans have access to affordable healthcare, as opposed to guaranteeing increased profit margins for insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Morality is working to eliminate racial and economic disparities by making sure everyone can afford a college education, and by improving the public schools in impoverished parts of the country so that truly no child is left behind. Morality is being honest about the threats our country faces. Morality is restoring the integrity of our criminal justice system so that citizens are not imprisoned indefinitely without due process. Morality is the guarantee of equal protection under the law for all Americans, not special rights for the majority based on arbitrary distinctions like sexual orientation. Morality does not say you can regulate a uterus but not a firearm.
Democrats can win in 2006, but not by trying to be Republican-lite. They can only do it by showing Americans that they already believe in a progressive agenda, they just don't know it.
Friday, January 13, 2006
"Andy, you'd better go check on the animals," said my boss. So I started to head out the door, but then she grabbed me and said, "And find Dr. Hubble!"
"The one who invented the telescope?"
"Yes!" she screamed, as if I had asked the stupidest question on earth.
So then I got on my tyke-sized tricycle and headed off toward the forest that's across the street from the shopping mall. Just as I came around the corner, I saw that the animals were beginning to flee in a stampede. The woods were emptying: a great stream of chipmunks, rabbits, zebras, lions, rhinoceroseses and polar bears were heading right for me.
Quickly I ducked behind a back corner of the mall and watched the animals file past me. One of the polar bears stopped and started to sniff. Slowly it backed up, and turned around to face me.
Remembering what I learned from Jurassic Park, I stood stock still, not even breathing, so that it couldn't see me.
Then I farted and it ate me and I woke up.
So, having given it a lot of thought, I think this dream means I am insane.
Thursday, January 12, 2006
Bush has put Democrats in a tough spot with this nomination. This would be easier with a more outspoken nominee like Priscilla Owen or Janice Rogers Brown, where we could point to a litany of public statements and rulings that fall far outside mainstream thinking. With Alito, one really has to dig; fortunately, unlike with Roberts, we have a 15-year paper trail to scrutinize.
If you've only been watching the confirmation hearings -- and honestly, who can bear them? -- you would see a mousey, deferential candidate being harangued by windbag senators, struggling to fend off transparently leading questions without being given a chance to answer. It appears as though we have a judge from the conservative end of the mainstream spectrum who is being held to an unreasonably liberal standard. After all, whatever we may think of the present expansion of executive power, it is not questioned that it is the President's privilege to appoint Supreme Court justices.
At the end of the day, it will appear to most Americans that Democrats are left to vote against Alito based purely on partisanship.
But that is not the case. Alito knows how to position himself as an attractive candidate and can effectively gauge what his potential employers want to hear. That's not a bad thing; any smart job-seeker tailors their resume and cover letter to the position and plays up relevant strengths, even to the point of exaggeration, in order to seal the deal.
That is why these hearings are a farce. The circus act led by Senator Kennedy is just playing into Alito's hands, because it allows him to come across as the victim of partisanship. We cannot predict what Alito will do on the Court based on three days of constantly interrupted testimony.
We can predict what he will do on the Court based on his record.
Judge Alito is not on the conservative end of the mainstream spectrum. He is far, far to the right of it. He does not approach cases with an open mind, but rather tailors his decisions to match his specific ultra-conservative agenda. Time and again his is the sole voice of dissent in panel rulings, and his dissents come under fire for consistently landing outside mainstream thought. On issues ranging from reproductive freedom to asylum to executive and legislative power to employment, his rulings elucidate a consistent pattern of ideology, not of fairness.
Many conservatives in this country support the regular recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, which ends, "with liberty and justice for all." Judge Alito clearly does not believe in that.
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
Nilsson possessed one of the most remarkable voices of the entire 20th century. She was famous for the ease with which she produced enormous floods of sound and for her natural stamina. Though she sang some Verdi (Lady Macbeth, Aida) and Puccini (Minnie, and, famously, Turandot) and was a great Elektra toward the end of her career, it was the titan Wagnerian roles of Brünnhilde and Isolde in which she made her greatest mark.
Her voice was not particularly phonogenic. On CD it has the timbre of frozen steel, a strong, steady tone without much vibrato, always focused on the center of the pitch like a laser. Her diction is clear, but her singing is not always especially expressive and her voice did not seem to encompass the range of colors of some other dramatic sopranos. It was her sheer ability to get through these lengthy, difficult rules singing as freshly at the final curtain as she did in the first act that set her apart.
I am told, however, by people who heard her live, that in a large space like the Metropolitan Opera or the San Francisco Opera, her voice bloomed into a lush, rich, opulent sound. Her tone quality was consistent throughout her range, which is unusual for voices in this repertoire. She sailed with ease through music that brings other sopranos to grief, especially the awkwardly placed high C's in the third act of Wagner's Siegfried.
My fascination with Wagner began 14 years ago when, as a curious high school senior exploring the world of opera for the first time, I checked out Götterdämmerung from the county library. It was, of course, the Solti recording with Nilsson as Brünnhilde. For some reason I decided to skip right to the end and play the last track, the very end of Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene, beginning at "Flieg' heim, ihr Raben!" I've been a fan ever since. To this day I remain awestruck the way her voice cuts through the orchestra like the gleaming blade of Nothung itself, fearlessly and cleanly attacking the high notes, seeming to swell with power as the vocal line rises higher and higher.
Ruhe, du Göttin.
Wagner could not accept that God would send his only begotten son into the world in the form of a Jew, and he viewed the Christian religion as illegitimate, based as it was on Hebrew scripture and the understanding that Jesus was Jewish. He loathed Catholicism for its dependence on flashy ceremony and ritual and the apparently ignorant way in which it had incorporated millennia of pagan tradition and passed it off as Christianity. But he was no real fan of Protestantism, either, based largely as it was on the Calvinist idea that through faith and good works God rewards us materially here on earth.
In addition to rejecting the notion of a Jewish Christ, Wagner had a few other very strange ideas.
The belief in an ultimate oneness of being that he adopted from his Schopenhauer-tainted Buddhism led him to become an early animal rights activist, of sorts.
For example, he became a vegetarian, something one might well imagine was regarded as particularly eccentric in 19th century Germany. He forced his dietary restrictions on his family and his frequent guests. Similarly, he started a grass-roots campaign against vivisection, the practice of dissecting live animals in order to observe the physical function of various organs.
However sincere his concern for the suffering of animals was, Wagner took these quasi-Buddhist ideas one step further. He believed that mankind was originally vegetarian, and had adopted the practice of eating meat when they first came in contact with the Israelites, who were cannibals (or so Wagner insisted). In order to integrate themselves into society, the Jews gave up on eating men and switched to animals, a habit which found its way into general society. His main objection to vivisection was that he perceived the scientific and medical industries to be dominated by Jews, and that it was a direct result of the unfeelingness of Jews which derived from their not being a part of that eternal oneness that engendered compassion in each of us.
Some of his contemporary anti-Semites thought that inter-marriage was the best solution to the problem, but Wagner called Jewish blood "corrosive." Despite his distaste for Christianity and its rituals, he believed that Jews should be baptized in order to assimilate. Wagner's wife Cosima records in her diary on May 6, 1880, that a letter from the conductor he chose to lead the premiere of his final opera caused him to remark, "I cannot allow him to conduct Parsifal unbaptized, but I shall baptize [him] and we shall all take communion together." (Incidentally, Levi conducted the premiere without getting baptized.)
On November 1, 1876, she wrote, "In the evening we are visited by Dr. Rée, whose cold and precise character does not appeal to us; on closer inspection we come to the conclusion that he must be an Israelite."
Cosima, the daughter of composer Franz Liszt, bore Wagner two illegitimate children while she was married to his friend Hans von Bülow. Her diaries contain fascinating accounts of Wagner's frequent off-handed and outrageous anti-Jewish comments (with which she wholeheartedly concurs), but also long passages on her husband's musings over the meanings of his work. It is emphatically clear that whatever his prejudices and however much they dominated his social life, they did not inspire his dramatic compositions.
Genius and madness are closely related, and there is every reason to believe that in Wagner's case, his peculiar variety of madness facilitated his unique genius. Only someone with Wagner's degree of megalomania could conceive of and spend three entire decades of their lives creating a saga comprised of four epic operas to be performed in the space of a week whose principle theme was rooted in the philosophical idea of negation of the will as path to ultimate redemption. Not only that, he self-produced the first performances of the cycle and even built his own theater (still in use as the home of the Bayreuther Festspiele) for the event, personally choosing the cast, supervising the rehearsals and even, to the extent his ability allowed, designing the sets and costumes. All of this while he was writing numerous essays and articles on an astounding variety of subjects; the present edition of his published writings runs to sixteen volumes, not including his personal letters.
Wagner the man is as fascinating and complex as the works he produced. His racism was an important component and expression of his personality, but it's not the whole story. If you look to the operas, you will see that it's not even in the story.
Tuesday, January 10, 2006
The roots of Wagner's anti-Semitism are pretty clear. Even in a society where expressing racist thoughts was not uncommon or especially rude, Wagner's views were extreme and socially embarrassing.
Many people have wondered if -- and some have boldly stated that -- Wagner himself thought he might be Jewish. We are pretty sure that Wagner was illegitimate, and that his real father was an actor named Ludwig Geyer, who married Wagner's mother shortly after her first husband's death. The family was poor and lived in a Jewish neighborhood, and Geyer is not uncommonly a Jewish surname. But church records (marriage, baptisms, etc.) indicate clearly that Geyer came from a long line of Lutheran church musicians. Furthermore, later in life in one of Wagner's typical acts of vanity, he adopted the vulture as his personal crest. The German word for "vulture" is Geyer. One can hardly imagine that if Wagner had any real suspicion that he was the illegitimate son of a Jew he would have taken that step.
The accusation has been given an air of academic legitimacy because it was made by none other than Nietzche himself, who had known Wagner quite well but later had an enormous ideological falling-out with the composer, and savaged him in print every chance he got.
I believe Wagner's anti-Semitism was caused by his psychosis and fueled by the financial difficulties he experienced as a young man. He was extremely paranoid, and probably bi-polar, the sort of person who believed that the world was "every man for himself" and that given a chance any ordinary person would stab you in the back to get ahead. Furthermore, because of his exceptional vanity, he believed he was the victim of a large conspiracy, that the world wasn't just "every man for himself" but largely "everyone against Wagner." As we well know from racist language, the words "conspiracy" and "Jewish" are frequently found together, especially when it comes to matters of money.
To say Wagner was financially irresponsible would be the grossest understatement imaginable. He was always in debt, lived well beyond his means for much of his life, and "borrowed" as much and as often as he could from friends and patrons. Of course he never repaid a cent. He was also frequently forced to go to professional moneylenders, who were often Jewish. Wagner despised having to be at their mercy, having to beg and grovel from a Jew for money, especially if they were not particularly polite about his inevitable delinquency. More than once he was threatened with imprisonment for debt, and would only escape by "borrowing" more money from friends. This all played into his fantasy of a Jewish conspiracy to keep him down and out.
Wagner frequently knew severe poverty in youth. Trying to get his career started, he went to Paris in the 1830s, then the cultural capital of the world. The opera houses were utterly dominated by the works of Giacomo Meyerbeer, who was Jewish. Wagner regarded Meyerbeer as an inferior composer -- which he was -- and also assumed it was part of the "conspiracy" that this hack should be the most celebrated opera composer in the world, while he lived shoeless in the streets of Paris, having pawned all of his possessions and having sold the pawn tickets.
Meyerbeer was a sort of operatic Jerry Bruckheimer. The plots didn't make much sense, but the music was appealing and wrapped up in a spectacular effects-laden production. Young Wagner initially thought he could achieve commercial success by imitating what was currently popular. In fact, his third (and longest) work, Rienzi, has been snarkily called "Meyerbeer's greatest opera." Of course it bombed, and Wagner did not begin to carve a name for himself until he began to find his true voice with Der Fliegende Holländer.
Wagner wrote a disgustingly sycophantic letter to Meyerbeer (he signed it, "Your Slave") asking for assistance. Perhaps Wagner thought Meyerbeer would instantly recognize superior genius and would step aside for the young German, arranging premieres in Paris' great houses. Meyerbeer was helpful, and it was in fact through Meyerbeer's own influence that Wagner was able to get Tannhäuser produced for the first time -- in Dresden.
This was not quite the instant success Wagner had hoped for, and he wrote savage critiques of Meyerbeer himself and his music. Even though he used a pseudonym and didn't mention Meyerbeer by name, everyone knew who wrote it and who he was talking about. Needless to say, the relationship between the two cooled somewhat permanently.
This was typical Wagner; he would grovel and abase himself in front of anyone he thought could help him, and then he would turn around and stab them in the back if he felt their assistance had been anything less than total devotion; woe unto the person who declined to help. Frequently he would accuse such people of being Jewish, even if they weren't.
Monday, January 09, 2006
- If he sends a picture of himself, double click on it to "edit photo."
- Distort the picture by making it wider than the original.
- Crop the photo across the top just below the hairline to see what he looks like without hair.
- If he sends you a picture that is...how shall I put this so my mother doesn't faint...not of their face, view it at 50% size. (If using AOL, select "33%.")
He stopped in front of me, looked me square in the eye, and, I swear, he meowed at me.
I wanted to be perfectly clear that my belief that the operas of Richard Wagner are not anti-Semitic propaganda is not to be taken as an apology for or a denial of Wagner's racism, nor am I under any delusions about the intensity of his hatred.
Most people assume -- in large part because of the overt references in Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, and Parsifal -- that Wagner was a Christian, but this is not true.
The young Wagner was heavily influenced by the philosophy of Feuerbach, who argued that morality is a cultural construct based on reason, that our laws and social behaviors are built upon generations of a sort of trial-and-error approach to discovering the difference between right and wrong. Wagner believed that religion revealed fundamental truths: not about divinity, but about ourselves, because into these religions we had projected onto our deities our own most valued qualities; therefore "God" is all-powerful, all-knowing, God is love, God is compassion.
The operas listed above consist of about half of Wagner's contributions to the repertoire. (He wrote three early operas which are hardly ever performed; they are not even done at his own self-established festival in Bayreuth.) The other six operas are Der Fliegende Holländer (the Dutchman refers to God and the apocalypse in his great monologue but it's not a Christian-themed work), Tristan und Isolde (which takes place in pre-Christian Britain and is most assuredly not a religious work), and the four operas of the Ring. That is to say, he wrote four operas on the subject of the Norse god Wotan, but no serious person has ever accused him of promoting that religion, even though there is an exact balance between the four Ring operas and the four "Christian" operas.
However, he did believe in Jesus Christ, in a manner of speaking. In 1854, at the age of 41, he first began to study the philosopher Artur Schopenhauer, and it changed his life. Schopenhauer had been heavily influenced by Buddhism, most especially the concept that desire is the root of all suffering. Wagner began to understand that law and morality were not artificial constructs, but were based on compassion. Murder is not wrong because there are tangible consequences, it is wrong because deep in our deepest, bottom-of-the-Rhein unconsciousness, we are aware that it is wrong to inflict suffering, and that all of our cultural rules, ranging from law to etiquette, were established for the sole purpose of limiting suffering.
Our daily "reality" is not reality at all, but rather an illusion. In the "real" reality, all living beings are interconnected, we are part of an eternal Oneness, and we feel compassion because in wounding another we are really injuring ourselves. But if desire is the cause of suffering, then the desire to reduce or eliminate suffering is self-defeating. We must accept that our present world is full of suffering, resign ourselves to that fact, and not hope for anything else. It is through this "denial of the will" that Schopenhauer argued we would transcend this illusion.
It is this idea and nothing else that forms the true base of Wagner's mature operas. Now, these operas are complex and multifaceted, and can be interpreted on many different levels, and many different themes can be understood or emphasized, but any understanding of his late operas that does not take into account Wagner's fundamental purpose in writing them is illegitimate.
Wagner, like many other people, drew similarities between the Buddha and Jesus Christ. For Wagner, Christ was the ultimate Schopenhauerian figure. He was under no illusion that life was pleasant or easy, he owned nothing, he desired nothing and though as the Son of God he was all-powerful, he surrendered himself to his fate without struggle, made no attempt to save his own life, and submitted to torture and execution not for his own glory, but for the sake of all of us who are connected in the eternal Oneness.
But Wagner did not believe in the "Christian" Christ, and this is where things begin to get weird.
Sunday, January 08, 2006
That's the thing I miss most about my former career: every day was different. Different schedule, different stage of the rehearsal process, and sometimes even different locations. The opportunity to travel was really the best part, and the thing I looked the most forward to. The actual time I was working exclusively as a singer was pretty brief, but I still got to Europe and visited several places around the U.S.
I just like traveling. It doesn't even have to be fancy places like London or Chicago, or cool places like Santa Fe. One of the best gigs I ever had was a concert series sponsored by the Central City Opera, where we did a two-week road-trip through small towns on the west side of the Colorado Rockies.
About the only place my current job will ever send me is Duane Reade.
My other career was very forward-looking. I had a plan; there was always a next step. Having a new project and location waiting on the horizon was very satisfying for me.
I am really enjoying my present job -- honestly -- but that voice in the back of my head is starting to ask more frequently, "Is this going anywhere?" I find my work challenging and fun and even semi-interesting, but I can't help thinking that I'm capable of more.
January and February is the worst time of year in Manhattan. Fortunately January has (so far) not been as agonizingly frigid as it was the past two years, but still. The holidays are over, the days are short and dark, the trees are bare, everything is grey and brown. Even on a crystal clear, sunny winter day, Central Park looks like it's molting.
I know other New Yorkers feel it, too. There's tension. Short fuses. More selfishness.
I need out. Even a brief change of scenery would really help. But there's not anyplace I can go.
One of the great things about my job is that there's ample paid vacation; the downside is that I can't afford to go anywhere. I could go visit my family in Oregon, of course...but -- and mom, don't take this the wrong way -- that's not really relaxing anymore. My parents are all retired now, so they're home most of the time, and they don't "do" very much.
It's weird having to ask for permission to borrow the car, like I'm 16 again. "Where are you going?" Well, sometimes I just don't know, sometimes I just go. "When will you be back?" I don't know, when driving gets boring. When I get hungry. Whenever.
When I am on vacation, I like to balance periods of relaxation with doing things. And you know, having grown up there, there's not much in Portland I haven't done. More than once. And besides, if you think Manhattan is gross in January, well...Portland ain't a lot better.
Don't get me wrong. I love my family dearly and know how lucky I am to have them. But there's a difference between a vacation and visiting your family. You know?
In my desperation I recently bought a CD that I thought might help me relax. I figured I could put it on, close my eyes, and imagine myself somewhere a little more exotic. Instead I found myself checking the sheets for tarantulas.
My grandma writes to me frequently and always tells me that God has a plan for us. Right now I'd prefer an itinerary.
Saturday, January 07, 2006
As a Christian, is it wrong for me to want a television character to die?
I have disliked Battlestar Galactica's Admiral Kane ever since she first stepped off the Pegasus last fall. I don't dislike her in the way one dislikes Scrappy Doo (i.e., I like to pretend it never happened), I dislike her in the way one dislikes Tilda Swinton in the Narnia movie. She's the bitch you love to hate. She's fun. I am delighted that President Roslin shares my opinion, and I look forward to her imminent demise.
The diet is going okay. One of my vendors from work sent me a belated Christmas present: white chocolate-covered fortune cookies. *drool* Two of my favorite things, together at last! But seriously, isn't everyone on a diet in January? Who sends chocolate-covered cookies as a present in January? Cruel bitches. I figured it would be rude not to have one, though. It was delicious. (My fortune said "You Will Soon Be Sitting on Top of the World", which doesn't make it sound like the diet is going to go well.) Then I promptly set them out on the counter in the lunchroom and they were gone before I could flip the fortune over to learn how to say "perspicacity" in Chinese. (繁體中文版)
I miss sweet things. I love ice cream and cookies and doughnuts, preferably all at once. And I miss alcohol. Well, more than that, I miss flavor, especially when drinking. Since I can't even have fruit juice during the first two weeks, I'm going crazy on water and tea. Hell, this afternoon I had an extra glass of metamucil because it tastes good. (Sugar-free, of course.)
The NyQuil I had last night before bed nearly set off an orgasm. Color! Intense flavor! The sweet dizziness of intoxication!
I miss not being able to crack open a pint or two of Ben & Jerry's after dinner. A slice of non-fat low-sodium Swiss cheese is just not the same.
At work we have decided to include staff members' spouses or partners on the company directory, so everyone is supposed to email me the name of their partner as they'd like it to appear. So far three different people have responded, "Jake Gyllenhaal."
I put down "Snuffleupagus."
Another homophobe turns out to be gay. Over at Slacktivist, the Lefty Christians are all in a huff: "I think Rev. Latham's bigger sin was to use the bastardization "pastoring" and to use it as a transitive verb. Unless, of course, "pastoring" has a new meaning in homoerotic slang that I don't know about."
It does now.
And, finally, speaking of Jake Gyllenhaal...
Thursday, January 05, 2006
Loconte adopts an air of neutrality for the liberal Times editorial page that he didn't bother with when he wrote for the Wall Street Journal back in July, where he had nary a word to say about religious conservatives and heaped scorn upon progressives, claiming that we had conveniently compiled a list of Bible verses that just happened to justify the existing Democratic Party platform. At the time I described the article as a "study in rank hypocrisy."
Now he's developed a new strategy: appeal to the liberal secular audience's distaste for the religious right and try to make them think religious progressives are just as dangerous.
Once again he smears Sojourner's Jim Wallis, accusing him of drawing "a direct line from the Bible to a political agenda" (in July he called it "the impulse to leap directly from the Bible to contemporary politics.") Loconte finds it remarkable how Wallis' citations from Isaiah "conveniently affirm every spending scheme of the Democratic party."
Wallis is the leader of an organization whose slogan is "God is not a Republican or a Democrat." In his best-selling book from last fall, God's Politics, Wallis has plenty of criticism for the Democratic party and its priorities. But even this is missing the main point.
Religious progressives are not pushing a theocracy.
Tolerance, compassion and respect are hallmarks of liberal Christianity; in fact, the "agenda" we push is based on these fundamental principles, and a large part of that means we believe people should have the protected right to live their lives as their personal morals and consciences dictate. As former Bush Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers put it, "Legislating religion or morality we gave up on a long time ago." (It was the day after that quote came to light that the GOP killed her nomination.)
It's not progressive Christians who are attempting to mandate a literal reading of Genesis as part of the scientific curriculum; it's not progressive Christians installing religious monuments on government property; it's not progressive Christians who are worried about "happy holidays."
So what is "Religious Left" doing?
We simply grew tired of the public perception that "religious values" meant two things: anti-choice and anti-gay. The Bible addresses homosexuality in only a couple of places, but throughout both testaments we find countless instructions on caring for the poor and the oppressed. We grew tired of smarmy politicians on their third wife who get elected by pandering to fears about homosexuality and vowing to "defend marriage" or who claim to uphold the sanctity of life and then give away corporate tax breaks paid for with cuts in programs that aid the poor. And then of course there's that war America started.
Religious progressives needed to speak up, as the fear-mongering anti-intellectual wing of American Christianity, more concerned with the potential corruptive influences of SpongeBob Squarepants and Charles Darwin, began to speak for "us" in the public eye. Suddenly, "religious" became synonymous with "conservative," and as we have seen, conservative politics has been hijacked by fascists.
Loconte cynically assumes that Democrats have suddenly "discovered" that pandering to faith communities worked for Republicans and think they can do the same. I can see how it might appear that way, but in reality we are reaching out to Americans who frankly don't know how much they agree with us. We're finding new and better ways to communicate and connect, and it's because it's been so immediately successful that conservatives like Loconte are getting frantic.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush bowed to business interests and suspended a law that required companies to pay their workers the prevailing wage. What we saw in New Orleans was that the wealthy got out and the poor got stuck, and now here was the President letting companies get rich off government contracts by allowing them to pay their workers less than was fair. The religious left spearheaded the movement to get Bush to reverse that decision. He did.
Loconte faults Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi for denouncing this year's Republican budget proposal for its "injustice and immorality." Of course, Loconte doesn't mention that the budget was basically cuts in services to the poor and new tax cuts for the rich. He warns that the progressive agenda is "awash in scriptural references to justice, poverty and peace, stacked alongside claims about global warming, debt relief and the United Nations Security Council."
And that's bad because...?
The Christian Left isn't interested in invoking "a Biblical theocracy." We're merely bringing a desperately needed balance to political discourse in America.
This morning I decided to run out and get coffee and do my grocery shopping. Of course I forgot the natural law that says the hotness of guys you run into on the street is inversely proportional to your daily ugliness factor.
At the grocery store I saw the cutest guy...sigh. You know when you see someone and you just know they're a nice person? I was ready to propose.
I did shower and actually shaved, but I let my hair dry on its own and put on some ratty jeans and an ugly t-shirt I only wear for housecleaning or sick days. My nose is red and my eyes are puffy and if I don't sniff loudly every 15 seconds or so, a little trail of snot starts to run out my right nostril. Yeah, I felt sexy.
Wednesday, January 04, 2006
Yet tradition is incredibly important to Wagner, and this is where the accusation that Beckmesser is some sort of anti-Semitic buffoon falls apart. In Nürnberg, Wagner has created his vision of an ideal society: there is no poverty, there is no class warfare, and everyone is equal with the single exception of artistic talent, through which true genius can be recognized. Of all the characters in the opera, Wagner has assigned Beckmesser to be the guardian of tradition.
Political correctness is a social invention of the present era, in which racism or other –isms are detected primarily in perceived slights. Wagner was hardly politically correct. He wrote and published horrifically offensive things concerning Jews and Judaism, and certainly didn’t censor himself in person, either. He even tried to badger Hermann Levi, the handpicked conductor of his final masterpiece Parsifal, into getting baptized before the premiere. Yet for some reason, people persist in believing that Wagner went to the trouble of disguising these sentiments within his operas.
If Meistersinger contains anti-Semitic themes, and if Beckmesser is supposed to represent the “Jewish” character, who would he be and what would happen to him?
Beckmesser is not some penny-ante villain from a melodrama, nor is he Shylock; he is the rule-keeper of the highest, most revered guild, that of the Mastersingers, into which Wagner has placed his own stage-avatar. The other Masters treat him with respect and deference in Act I, and even if Sachs baits and teases him in Act II, it is always polite. Outside of his role as a Mastersinger (which implies he possesses a certain degree of artistic genius himself), he is an important member of civil society: the town clerk. This means he is educated in law and letters. His downfall comes through his own arrogance and inflexibility; he steals Walther’s prize-winning song and attempts to perform it himself. Bogged down as he is in “rules,” he is unable to comprehend the new style, and makes an ass of himself. What is his punishment? Laughter.
Beckmesser is not evil, merely a curmudgeon; in his way, he is bemusing and even sort of endearing. Each of us knows or has known a Beckmesser in our day, and there is nothing stereotypically “Jewish” about him. In fact, if you were to view Meistersinger as some view the Ring – that is, as an allegory of the human conscience, where each character represents an aspect of human personality – then there is a Beckmesser in each of us. Mine, for example, happens to dislike “My Humps.” Yet the crowd applauds.
Beckmesser suffers no great fall; he is not removed from the Guild or banished from Nürnberg, let alone killed off. If you accept that Nürnberg represents for Wagner the ideal society, then either he placed a “Jewish” figure at the respected center of it, or Beckmesser is not the anti-Semitic cartoon he is accused of being.
Of course, the latter conclusion is the more likely. This idealized “Nürnberg” is hardly a diverse, pluralistic society. My argument that Beckmesser is not an anti-Semitic character is not intended to be taken as either a defense or denial of Wagner’s racialism; rather that the charge of anti-Semitism, as applicable as it is to the composer, is generally not applicable to his compositions.
Not surprisingly, Walther wins the competition and the hearts of the people of Nürnberg, in addition to Eva; he is decorated by Eva’s father with a medallion bearing the likeness of King David; yes, that King David, the one to whom are attributed most of the greatest poems in the biblical book of Psalms. (This is an anti-Semitic opera?) Initially Walther declines membership in the Guild of Mastersingers, but Sachs admonishes his arrogance.
“Even if the Reich should fail,” sings Sachs, “for us will remain holy German art.” Those of us who live on this side of the Holocaust might perceive those words as a threat; but we’ve only to look at another civilization – that of ancient Greece – which has long since departed the face of the earth, but whose art and culture form many of the bases of our own today. For Wagner, politics is temporal but art is eternal.
Long live Wagner’s art.
Tuesday, January 03, 2006
After work tonight I came home from my job at the Homosexual Agenda and cooked my first Phase 1 South Beach Diet dinner, Ginger Chicken in Snow Pea Salad. I know I said in November that I was going on a diet, but with the holidays and everything that wasn't really practical. Well, last night I hopped on the scale again. I won't tell you what I weigh, but I can give you hints: the first number is a two, the last number is a one, and in between is a big 0 for OH MY GOD.
For Christmas I bought myself The South Beach Diet Quick and Easy Cookbook (thanks for the g.c., Dad!). Ready in 30 minutes or less! says the cover.
Now, speed and ease are important to me because I'm tired after my commute and I'm not really up for a big effort. This recipe called for 10 minutes of prep and 20 minutes of cooking.
Thirty minutes, my flabby butt! It took me an hour. (Okay, part of that was that someone at the grocery store put a chicken breast with the bones in in the middle of the boneless-breast pile and naturally that's the one I picked up, so I had to debone...and since I bought the package using the weight called for in the recipe, I ended up with significantly less chicken than I desired, especially since de-boning is not one of my skills. So, SMACK to you, whoever you are.)
It was yummy, though.
After dinner I retired to the living room to fold laundry and watch Queer Eye. Carson's still not as funny as he thinks he is; actually, he's kind of creepy. And after all this time they still can't find something for Jai to do?
I don't know if this was a re-run or not, I'm not a regular watcher, but it was this one where they makeover this veterinarian and decide to surprise his fiancee with a wedding. A little risky...he goes to pick her up from work and says, "Hello, you're getting married in an hour." Yipes.
I thought the wedding actually looked beautiful and was very cool, and once the bride got over her shock, she seemed to enjoy herself. The ring-bearer was the couple's dog Stanley who came running down the aisle with the rings bound up in a cute little scarf. And of course, that's when I started sobbing like it was King Kong all over again.
What's probably scariest about My Homosexual Lifestyle is that it's virtually indistinguishable from that of a midwestern hausfrau.
Wagner was horrified by industrialization, bureaucratic government and capitalism. In its place, he created the alternate universe of Nürnberg. Nürnberg has no king or mayor or governor. It is a self-sustaining, agrarian-based world. It's essentially socialist. There is only the working class, yet everyone is prosperous. Each trade is controlled by elected representatives who form a guild, and the guildmembers form the city's governing body. Though the real Nürnberg was actually organized in this way, the operatic treatment is clearly a romanticized vision of medieval German life.
There is one special guild in Nürnberg, and that is the guild of Mastersingers, the guardians of art and culture, made up of other guildmembers. Sachs is a cobbler and Beckmesser is the town clerk; additional members include a goldsmith, a baker, a tailor, a soap-maker, and various other representatives from traditional medieval industry. Using an idea he borrowed from ancient Greek culture, Wagner created a Nürnbergian holiday, where the entire city would gather for festivals of art and drama. At the heart of the plot of Meistersinger is a song contest adjudicated by the Guild. Eva is the prize. (That's less offensively misogynistic if you view Eva as a symbol, not a real woman: the point is that the reward for purest art is purest love.)
The young knight Walther is in love with Eva and hopes to win her hand, but first he must audition for the Guild in order to enter the contest. Beckmesser, too, has his eye on Eva. He has a special role in the Guild: he is the audition scorekeeper, marking down infractions of the rules of composition that uphold tradition and sustain their art. Walther improvises a song, and in one of the precious-few laugh out loud moments of this opera, Beckmesser's increasingly furious markings form a hilarious rhythmic counterpoint to the tenor's aria. When it's over, the exasperated Beckmesser exclaims that the knight has broken every rule in the book, and could not possibly be admitted into the competition. The other guildmembers look to Sachs.
"Well," he says, shifting in his seat, "he broke a lot of rules. But it was a damn good song." The Guild agrees that Walther can compete.
This was Wagner's principle beef with Hanslick. Western music was governed by a series of seemingly inviolable rules, especially with regard to harmony, chord progression, dissonance and form. Wagner began to bend many compositional rules early in his career (he was a largely self-taught composer), but with the radical Tristan und Isolde, he threw them completely out the window. That opera opens with a chord structure no one had used before, wherein dissonances are not resolved into consonance, as they might be in Mozart or Schubert, but into a new dissonance, creating an unstoppable chain-reaction of keyless modulation that continues for five hours. And where most composers used themes which took the form of complete musical phrases, Wagner would link one melodic fragment to another, first in this tonal center, then in this one, then in another one, on and on and on. It drove Hanslick crazy. "Sure, I broke all the rules," you can imagine Wagner saying, "but it's a damn good opera."
Monday, January 02, 2006
Richard Wagner was a rabid anti-Semite, but analysis of his work is ill-served by viewing him through the prism of World War II.
Among the many characteristics that made Wagner unique, he was a prolific writer. In addition to composing his own lyrics -- something few composers attempted and fewer still were successful with -- he wrote countless essays and letters. His megalomania was of an order that they were nearly all about himself and his work; pages and pages of his ideas on the widest variety of subjects. In short, to an extent unmatched by any other artist of any medium, we know exactly what points Wagner was hoping to make with his complex and multi-layered operas.
Yet people claim to find all manner of nonsense in his music, and the ugly pall of racism which hangs over his reputation has unfortunately and incorrectly led many people to assume and assert that his operas are thinly veiled commercials for anti-Semitism, especially Der Ring des Nibelungen, Parsifal and Die Meistersinger.
Wagner's racism was extreme and bizarre; he immediately suspected anyone he didn't like or who wasn't utterly enamored of him of being ethnically Jewish. One such person was the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, who gave an astute, if negative, review of Tristan und Isolde.
Wagner saw himself as a heroic defender of German art and culture, shouldering a mantle he inherited directly from Bach and Beethoven. He also saw himself as an innovative, rebellious maverick, and it was his unabashed use of chromaticism and "endless melody" in Tristan (not to mention a bizarrely new-age existentialist libretto) that aroused Hanslick's ire.
Wagner frequently inserted himself into his operas; intentionally, as in the case of the tormented Tannhäuser, transparently torn between an insatiable sexual appetite and his desire to find a single, pure soul-mate, and occasionally unintentionally, where he drew himself as the doomed hero Siegfried in Der Ring but was actually much closer in personality and temperament to the nasty dwarf Mime. In Meistersinger, he is deliberately two characters: the wise, revered old master Hans Sachs, and the young, dashing, talented but unschooled knight Walther von Stolzing. It is not coincidental that the heroine, Eva (her name is also not coincidental, as she -- along with many of her Wagnerian cousins -- represents the feminine ideal, that which is original and pure and good and noble), is in love with both men.
Their nemesis is the fusty old town clerk Sixtus Beckmesser, who in an earlier draft of the libretto was called Veit Hanslich. Beckmesser is definitely a caricature of Hanslick; but is he an anti-Semitic cipher, as well?
To be continued…
Sunday, January 01, 2006
Special thanks to Tin Man for taking me; I hope I didn't embarrass you too much by sobbing like the big softie I am.