Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Amuse yourselves.

Dear Friends,

I am afraid we are entering yet another hiatus on this blog. Contrary to the hopes of certain members of the blogging world, I am not slinking away to reconsider my position on the explotation of women, men, animals, or anyone else. No, I am off for a two-week summer school session on Intelligent Design. I have always been sorry that I did not take more science in high school and college, so I am going to rectify that now.

I was going to say, "While I'm gone, read Michael Bérubé, because his writing always kicks ass." But oh great: he's taking a break, too--AND he got a load more writing done during his semester off than I did. Thanks for making me feel like a slacker, Michael, but really you needn't have any concerns about your prose. It is mighty fine.

But it looks like he'll have a couple guest contributors, so read them for me while I am away, and let me know what you think. I'll have a lot to catch up on when I return.

Monday, May 16, 2005

The leads are weak.

My favorite moments used to be when the "NOW HIRING CLOSERS" sign would appear at the local Burger King. It was my big moment to have one of those elitist private laughs at the business world, when it had inadvertently stepped into a literary critique of itself. I would wonder, at those moments, whether the handy instruction manual for Burger King closers might read, "Always be closing." I really, really hope it does.

Now I am also happy that the Patient Partner has taken to referring to our fancy schmancy coffee maker as The Machine. That way, when we have forgotten to set it up the night before, or I have to clean out its many parts, I can simply say, "Fuck the Machine!" To which the PP, except when he is really sleepy, obligingly replies, "Did you say, fuck The Machine? She said, fuck The Machine!"

At which point Jacques Monod is rarely amused, and says, "Put that coffee down. Coffee is for closers."

But friends, these moments just don't stack up anymore.

Not long ago, the PP and I took a sojourn in New York, in part to see the new revival performance of Glengarry, Glen Ross.

I don't know if you are a David Mamet fan, but the production rocks, and not just because of the cast. I will confess that prior to this I had only seen the movie version, of which I am immensely fond. I have made the mistake of suggesting to people who work in sales that they should see it, no really they should, because it is so, so good. They usually come back and give me the look with which I am now familiar. It is a look that says, Why did you make me do that? and also wonders whether I am truly a friend.

I am, but really, it is so, so good.

So imagine my surprise, when the PP, upon returning from NYC, had lunch with some colleagues of his in the sales department at his company. They asked him how his trip was. He said how much he liked the subway and the great Vietnamese restaurants, and how good the play was.

"Oh yeah," one of them replied, setting down his third beer. "Our sales manager used to show clips from that movie during our motivational sessions."


Now, granted: I could see how that Alec Baldwin scene, out of context, might--I say MIGHT--have some useful pointers in it. (Nota bene: that scene is not in the original play.) But surely, if the aforementioned sales manager were going to track down that scene, surely he would have HAD to have watched the whole thing?

But without sounding too much like Alanis Morissette, I suppose I could acknowledge that the world is full of such ironies. That it can be the people who claim to be defenders of freedom who smack you down when you stop goosestepping. Or I could note that sometimes people watch things, and they just don't get it.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Women who rock.

Snaps to Pem, who yesterday completed her first triathlon. I can personally testify to how strong she looked coming in and out of all the transitions as well, of course, as the finish. To those of you who have never watched or raced a triathlon, it is a crazy event, with people coming and going, swimming and biking, biking and running all over the place. The ins and outs of the transition area are great to watch: some racers have devised elaborate systems to get grass off their feet before pulling on socks, some don't bother with socks, some are pulling the top half of their wetsuit off as they race up the hill from the lake, while others shimmy out of the damp thing in the transition area itself. The front racers often come in with those solid race wheels humming, while some race on mountain bikes.

Read Pem's account of her race: it gives a great sense of the experience, and of all the details to think about in a race that involves three sports and quite a bit of time.

Congratulations, Pem. You rock!

Friday, May 13, 2005

Happy Anniversary?

Welcome to May 13.

Can it be a happy anniversary, if it was twenty years ago today that police in Philadelphia dropped from a state police helicopter a satchel of explosives on a house on Osage Avenue?

And killed 11 people, destroyed 60+ homes, and left 250 people homeless?

If mayor W. Wilson Goode was "saddened" by reports of the fire's spread, beyond the bunker that was supposed to be the target?

As Alice Walker wrote from Paris in response to the bombing of the MOVE house, "Every bomb ever made falls on all of us."

It was what has become a classic case: MOVE members disliked the norms of society, chose to live another way, and brought down on themselves the anger and frustration of those around them. They wore their hair in dreadlocks (which other residents of their middle-class neighborhood thought odd and unclean). They espoused a back-to-nature lifestyle (which other residents thought dirty and smelly). They argued against the way children were taught and kept them out of schools (which made them truants). They rescued stray dogs (who barked at night, disturbing their neighbors). They broadcast their arguments over a bullhorn (which drove their neighbors insane). They did not pay utility bills and breached housing codes (which merited arrest warrants and later the bombing of their house).

Do you remember what Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor said from his bullhorn on the morning of the bombing?

Attention, MOVE. This is America. You have to abide by the laws of the United States.

Or what one of the neighbors of MOVE said afterwards?

It was well worth it, because they're out. We'll be back and we'll be a community again, without MOVE.

Or do you remember the event at all?

Well, at least some people in Philadelphia are still talking about it, trying to make sense of the events, the media coverage, the memories and their lack. And Democracy Now featured an interview with the only adult survivor of the incident, back on the 15th anniversary. And there is a protest in Philadelphia tomorrow commemorating this anniversary.

If you go back and read some of the newspaper accounts of the event, you will be struck by how they present MOVE. There is no attempt to understand the group’s aims: they seem loony, radical. And if the event had happened today, they would no doubt be called terrorists.

For starters, check this one out from the Washington Post on 15 May 1985:

Members of MOVE live by a bizarre medley of philosophies that translates to the outside world as foul-smelling, unsanitary and violent.

Difficult to label, they have been described variously as a radical primitivist or back-to-nature sect and as armed anarchists and revolutionaries.

The little group was founded in 1972 by handyman Vincent Leaphart, a black third-grade dropout, and Donald Glassey, a white college teacher with a master's degree in social work. Their first home was a ramshackle Victorian mansion in Powelton Village, a university bedroom community of west Philadelphia known for its tolerance of counterculture movements.

For counter balance you might read Marpessa Kupendua and Alice Walker.

And as Laurie Anderson might say, "In our country you're free, and so you're born, and so, they say, you're free. So happy anniversary."

Thursday, May 12, 2005


While I have not been writing much here, I have inadvertently started a shitstorm on Other People's Blogs.

If you're interested in following it, have a look at bkmarcus's original post and the comments. Then his engaging response.

Did I mention the comments? It seems that a Matthew Bryan got his manpanties in a knot over my expression of concern, and if his comment is not enough for you, check out his measured response on his own blog.

Oh, you got me good, Mr. Bryan. I am most impressed with your wit.

A Gift

As I write this, there is a pileated woodpecker beating the crap out of a pine tree in my front yard with its face. I’ve been watching him now for about ten minutes. When I came to my desk, there he was, across the yard, on a stump—just a bright swathe of red with his darker body blending into the stump. Then, scooting backwards down the trunk, he tore apart the tree about 10 feet from my window. Amazing. Every so often with his limber neck he would pull some unsuspecting wood-boring bug out of the tree, or search around in the shards of bark he had knocked to the ground. Hard to see him now, especially now that my cat Sazha is staring out the window at himtoo, but I can still hear his hammering.

We used to see these a lot, but recently I’ve hardly seen them, and certainly not to watch for this long.

This makes me want more than ever to see an ivory-billed woodpecker. It is hard to imagine that it is another three or so inches larger than the pileated. And how magnificent is it that guys from Cornell have spotted it for certain?

Now the pileated is flying from tree to tree, holding wide his amazing black and white wings, showing off his frilly crest. And though he's probably not thinking about how much helooks like a dinosaur, and neither is Sazha, I sure am.

Monday, May 09, 2005


It's almost rare enough that a new issue of The Wire reviews an album I have already purchased, that such would merit a post here. But compound that by being able to compare reviews in May issues of The Wire and Gramophone? O, how could I resist?

The album, as you may already have guessed, is the new Deutsche Gramm recording of Pierre Boulez's Le Marteau sans maître (with Derive 1 and Derive 2).

Maybe it is a sign of a shared cultural heritage (or careful cribbing from the liner notes) that both reviews quote Stravinsky, who said the the piece was "the only truly significant work of the new age." The piece, whose title translates as "The Hammer Unmastered," consists of three interlocking cycles based on three poems by René Char: the titles of the sections and of the whole piece come from Char's work. I admit that it is difficult to hear the lyrics (of course, my French leaves much to be desired), but the liner notes for the album include the text and translations.

The Wire review (written by Philip Clark) opens:
Pierre Boulez's jowly face breaks into a broad grin on the cover of this new recording of his Le Marteau sans maître--his record company would like you to think Boulez, now in his 80th year, is cuddly. OK, his demeanour is more sober on the Piano Sonatas disc, but Deutsche Grammophon are doing the best to sweeten what for many listeners remains a bitter pill.

It is true that Boulez is the big maestro on campus these days, and the DG recording of him conducting the Bartók Piano Concertos is mighty fine. But it is a far cry from Boulez's own compositions, which, though they might merit a place in the Difficult Listening Hour, are fascinating and repay keen listening.

In Gramophone, Arnold Whittall notes that by his count this is Boulez's fifth recording of the piece, but I admit is the first I've heard. Philip Clark says that in some earlier recordings, the opening has "had a big girl's blouse quality," while this time it is "clangorous and faintly demented." This is a good thing.

About the mezzo-soprano part, performed by Hilary Summers, and seizing on my favorite aspect of this piece, Philip Clark says,
Boulez confuses the point where text ends and music begins. The voice is heard in its familiar guise as a solo line, but then gets buried deep within the ensemble as the instruments assume a vocal quality.

Maybe this is the perfect examination of the relationship between poetry and free verse. The meaning from the poetry comes as much from the music as the language, but you cannot predict the relationship.

About the instrumentation, Arnold Whittall says,
Flute, guitar and viola are never overshadowed by the more resonant sounds of the percussion duo, and there’s the kind of edge-of-the seat interplay which can only be achieved by players who have the music in their bones as well as under their fingers. As for the final duet for flute and metal percussion, this stands out for its incantatory gravitas, and for the hint of un-Gallic pathos that underpins its eloquence. It might not please the great composer/conductor to realize it, but Le Marteau has become a modern classic.

I close with my own cribbing from the liner notes, with another comment from Stravinsky—one that better speaks to my experience with the piece. He said,
I will not explain my admiration for it but merely offer a variation of Gertrude Stein's answer to the question of why she liked Picasso's pictures—"I like looking at them"—and say "I like listening to Boulez."

Listen to it several times, and several ways—listen straight through, with the text in front of you, along the paths that let you explore the interlocking cycles.

p.s. If you do not subscribe to The Wire, then you have not received in your mailbox their latest sampler, Marke B 05. Centering on May's Marke B festival, which showcases "Berlin's network of electronic music labels," the disc has tracks from Non Standard Institut, ISAN, Duran Duran Duran (track? "I hate the 80s," with fab destruction of a Yaz sample), Dominique, Barbara Morgenstern, and my favorite, Frivolous, whose name I might have to steal. If I were as fancy as The Cod, I'd give you MP3s, but then I'd probably get hauled off by the FBI, and what fun is that?

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Swimming through oceans & sailing through libraries

I have finally discovered the Google search that best sums up this blog: a websurfer in the Netherlands searched (the Dutch word, if you're curious, for the verb to search is zoeken) recently reached this blog by looking for "avignon + donuts".

Welcome aboard, O Seekers of French fried pastries!

Apologies for thin posting of late: even after returning from travels, I've been mobbed with work.

But I want to pitch the book I'm reading. Lucky for you, I have not finished it, so I will not blow the plot--a special bonus, since it is a mystery.

I don't know if you have read any books by the Spanish novelist Arturo Pérez-Reverte, but I have yet to find one that I have not loved. His books are absolutely absorbing, full of wild characters, and capable of making you think you need to become a restorer of old paintings or an enforcer for the Vatican. The stories require you to use your own brain if you are to have any chance of figuring out the mystery, but he always provides you the tools to do so. The Flanders Panel, for instance, whose plot involves an elaborate chess game, has the board diagrams and everything, so a reader who is acomplished in chess can start to anticipate moves. (That reader would not be me: I know how to move the pieces around and everything but have no skills.)

But what I am reading now is The Nautical Chart. I know next to nothing about sailing and ships, but now I feel like I am a part of that world--if only briefly. And if you do know something about sailing, and perhaps already crave a life at sea (and dahling, you know who you are!), You'll love this one.

The set-up is a treasure hunt for a long-lost Jesuit ship, and the main character is a sailor who, as a result of an accident, is exiled from piloting ships, and a bit, as it were, adrift. Enter a beautiful woman who at an auction bid powerfully on an old nautical atlas, and for conflict,the Dalmatian man with two-different-colored eyes who bid on the same atlas, but lost. Lots of echoes of Melville, Conrad, Coleridge, occasional trips through archives and plenty of shady folks.

It's summertime people: treat yourself to a fun read.