28 February 2008

William F. Buckley, Jr.

As a freshman at Yale, my best friend from high school, Kevin Pask, joined the Conservative Union in what I construed as one of those fits of perversity that led him on several occasions to vote for politicians he otherwise opposed. He was easily provoked on election days, and a single remark from a friend (“Are you voting for the Democrat?”) was enough to make him cast a ballot for the Republican. On any other day, Kevin was not a conservative. As a boy, he was thoroughly liberal — one of the first I ever knew — and his move from Dallas to New Haven hadn’t changed him. But he was always open to new ideas, and membership in the Union made available a slew of them, while linking him to a distinguished tradition on campus. One evening, a founder of that tradition came to visit, and his visit coincided with one of mine. And that is how I met William F. Buckley, Jr.

So far as I know, he charged the Union nothing for his appearance, and it was nothing like a speaking engagement, of the sort he accepted as often as 70 times per year, and for which he commanded handsome fees. Speaking to us this way was therefore generous and admirable, far from the preconception I had of him — namely, as a pompous ass.

For a couple of hours, a dozen or so young men gathered with him around a table, in a common room somewhere, and talked about political philosophy. He was relaxed, sipping white wine and slouching in his chair the way he always seemed to. (Now that he is dead, I realize that I can’t recall ever once seeing a picture of him sitting up straight.) His conversation was not a lecture, more a question-and-answer session, and it was certainly not a debate. For one thing, most of his listeners agreed with him, or appeared to do so, and for another, we didn’t have the requisite tools to debate him.

His use of language was extraordinary, of course, and throughout his career he was able to clothe his ideas and to defeat his opponents with Latinate grammar and a vocabulary so dense that I would have been excused for bringing a dictionary to the table at Yale. A ready wit made even his most odious opinions — and he had a lot of them — palatable, or at least entertaining to read.

But the brilliance of his language also obscured the failures of his logic, the inconsistencies of his positions, and the sometimes dirty, tangled roots of his thought. If any liberal had been as quick on his feet as Buckley was, it should have been possible to slice him to ribbons. Norman Mailer tried, but I’m not sure that anyone ever succeeded. None of us in New Haven that evening tried. I’m sure some of us secretly dreamed of it.

Much of Buckley’s thought and most of his sense of style can be traced to High Church Catholicism, which he practiced with a combination of arrogance and embarrassment, an anxiety that he might be mistaken for a Low Church Irishman. This led him to dress like a WASP, to speak like an Englishman, and to defend the establishment even when it was wrong. Among his more regrettable pronouncements and positions are an early defense of racial segregation, his notorious proposal that people with AIDS be tattooed on the buttocks, and his stubborn insistence that the whole purpose of marriage is procreation. Many of these positions made him an unlikely and rather objectionable host for the American broadcast of Brideshead Revisited, and yet Brideshead describes not only a gay romance, but also a very English quest for High Church faith.

Buckley saw his magazine, National Review, as a partly religious mission, and refused to hire Jews for certain jobs there; it was in the pages of the magazine that he wrote a lengthy, tortured analysis of the possible anti-Semitism of Patrick J. Buchanan, another conservative author, yet someone who seems to enjoy being taken for a Low Church Irishman, and whom Buckley held at arm’s length most of the time. For 14 pages, with expressed reluctance, Buckley weighed the evidence, which is copious and damning; it would be easy for clearer thinkers to state the case and reach the verdict in a few paragraphs. (To cite just one example, Buchanan has never met an accused Nazi he didn’t like, and very few that he didn’t champion.) Yet Buckley found nothing conclusive, nothing persuasive, until the end of the essay when he admitted that, yes, Buchanan might be inadvertently anti-Semitic. Though one might respect Buckley’s desire to give Buchanan a fair hearing, the essay wound up convicting its author, although arguably on a lesser charge.

No political philosophy holds a monopoly on reason, and Buckley was able on other questions to apply reason with a clear-eyed rigor that confounded his critics and admirers alike. He advocated the legalization of marijuana and opposed the war in Iraq, for example, things that most of his fellow travelers are still unwilling to do, or even think about.

He made of himself a character, a highly marketable brand name, and yet his airiest affectations seemed perfectly sincere in practice. He enjoyed his enthusiasms — Bach, sailing, literature, conversation, food and drink — and he shared them, dare I say it, liberally. He wrote prolifically, although apart from his first book, God and Man at Yale, no single title seems to have made much of an impression: it’s in the body of his work that his influence is felt. (Much of his influence has waned already — political debate programs on television now don’t resemble Firing Line at all.) In certain regards, one could do worse than to emulate him, and perhaps most especially in his visit to the Conservative Union, tending the newest flowers in the garden he’d planted long ago. If ever I have something to say, I must remember to say it at my alma mater, for free.

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26 February 2008

Ann Richards of Texas

An American Original

You can tell a lot about a Texan, of a certain generation, by the way he shakes your hand. It is a gesture as full of significance and symbolism as any book, because it contains the life and psychology of the Texan whole. Of course, if you’ve never shaken hands with a Texan, you must decode him by other means.

I met the late Ann Richards exactly once. Hers was the firmest handshake I’ve ever encountered in any woman. More than firm, in fact, it was hard, almost painful. She could crack pecans in her palm, I’ll bet.

Ordinarily, the handshake of a Texan woman is subtler, like the woman herself. She is less likely than a man to give away anything about herself. The fact that Ann Richards’ handshake was so manly, however, told me a great deal. She had succeeded at what was traditionally a man’s game — Texas politics — and increasingly a Republican man’s game. And she’d done it by outmanning the men.

She was pretty, with especially beautiful blue eyes, but she wore her wrinkles and her snow-white hair with a pride that dared you to say something about them. She got to be Governor because was smarter, tougher, fresher, funnier than any man, but she looked like your elderly aunt — more ladylike, that is, than any other lady. (She herself described her hairdo as “Republican hair.”) She wouldn’t play, or couldn’t afford to, the stereotypical Austin Liberal from Hippie Hollow, and though Molly Ivins was her boon companion, Ann Richards played by different rules. She didn’t even pretend to be a good ol’ gal.

She took positions that in other parts of the country would brand her a conservative, especially on questions of gun control and capital punishment, but in Texas those positions don’t mark one as a conservative, they mark one as a Texan. Many Texans seem to feel that the only thing wrong with capital punishment is that it can be administered only once per criminal, and that we don’t use shotguns to do it. Some day, a politician, or more likely a clergyman, may come along to persuade the Texans to other ideas, but Ann Richards was of the generation of women that believed (rightly, I daresay) that she’d be perceived as weak if she didn’t promote a hard line.

Hillary Clinton has demonstrated a similar political reasoning, on many issues (use of military force, flag-burning, etc.), and that’s one reason I believe she’d enjoy Ann Richards’ enthusiastic support during the primaries this year, if Richards were around to enjoy the fun.

I was in the room when she delivered her keynote address at the 1988 Democratic Convention, when she exclaimed of the Republican candidate, “Poor George! He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” I admired the speech, and like a lot of other people, I believed it announced a career in national politics. If Bill Clinton hadn’t been from next-door Arkansas, wouldn’t Ann Richards have been one logical choice for a running mate in 1992? But by the time Al Gore ran in 2000, Texas was a lost cause for any Democrat. Even adding Richards to the ticket wouldn’t have delivered the electoral votes.

She was Governor of Texas at the time of our meeting, at another speaking event, in Texas, at which both Ann Richards and my boss, Dan Rather, appeared. As a fan of her speeches, I was thrilled when she complimented Dan on his. Then came a painful moment. She said to Dan, “Did you write it yourself?”

Well, he had paid for it. Ordinarily he was more up-front in his answers, acknowledging my assistance — and sometimes he did write great chunks of his speeches for himself. (His famous address to the Radio and Television News Directors Association in Miami, in 1993, was too important and too heartfelt to entrust to me.) But in this case, I expect we both craved the respect of this admired public speaker, and so when the praise came, Dan took it for himself.

Within a few years of our meeting, Ann Richards ran a hard-fought campaign against the Son of George, and Bush’s supporters took an undisguised pleasure in defeating the woman who’d held the father up for international scorn. She was the first victim of the low politics played by “Bush’s brain,” Karl Rove, who orchestrated (it is alleged) a whisper campaign of rumors of lesbianism and drug abuse against her, and although she was hugely popular in the State, she couldn’t win.

The public speaker whose approval other speakers craved.

I had a telling conversation with another Texan woman, shortly before the gubernatorial election in 1994. (I won’t embarrass her by identifying her.) “I just love that Ann Richards,” this woman said. “She is so smart and so funny.”

“Are you voting for her?” I asked.

“No,” said the woman.

I spoke to her again the day after the election. “I am so sorry Ann Richards lost,” she said.

“Did you vote for her?”

“No.” It didn’t seem to occur to her that voting for the candidate she liked might have had an effect on the outcome of the race.

I’m thinking of Ann Richards today because of the Texas primary. Politics can be contrary in the Lone Star State, to the point of perversity. I suspect that, no matter who wins tonight, there will be Texans to wake up next Wednesday and say, “I am so sorry Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama lost!” Even though they voted for the other guy.

And if the contest between Ann Richards and George W. Bush had been decided by an arm-wrestling match, she’d be President today.

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25 February 2008

No Country

Lone Star: Tommy Lee Jones

I take full credit for the victories of the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men at the Academy Awards ceremony last night. I saw the picture on Friday afternoon, and obviously that was just the push required.

If you haven’t seen No Country, I urge you to do so. The bleak philosophy and abundant gore won’t bother you if you’ve made it through other Coen Brothers epics, and the Texas details are beautifully rendered, especially when you consider how few of the responsible parties are natives of the Lone Star State. (One of the most convincing accents is offered by the actress Kelly Macdonald — who’s Scottish.) Tommy Lee Jones, who is Texan, gives a typically beautiful, restrained performance as the Sheriff, a worthy cousin not only to Fargo’s Marge Gunderson but also to Andy Griffith’s Sheriff Taylor. At points, I found myself wondering how Mayberry would cope with an almost inhuman killing machine like Javier Bardem, who won Best Supporting Actor last night.

Like Barney Fife, he doesn’t use bullets.

Renamed this year the Euroscars™, prizes went to so many foreigners that you’d think America was No Country for Winners. This morning, all France is excited by Marion Cotillard’s Best Actress win for her portrayal of Edith Piaf in La Môme. Though I preferred Julie Christie’s luminous performance in Away from Her, Cotillard did a terrific job, creating a vivid character out of a real-life figure whom everybody in this country remembers and reveres, and she held together a strikingly diffuse, lengthy picture. But that’s art. What counts for her compatriots this morning is that she won the sacrée statuette.

Rien à regretter: Cotillard

The French are unaccustomed to winning. It feels good. They like it. To cover their bases, they awarded Cotillard a César on Friday night, but winning on American soil — ça, c’est autre chose. Marion follows in the steps of another national heroine, Simone Signoret, who won the Best Actress Oscar for Room at the Top, in 1959, and she’s the first French actor to win an Oscar for a performance entirely in French. This is cause for national celebration. The newspapers and radio would talk of nothing else, were it not for the fact that Marion has been upstaged by the President, who has been using the French language in another manner altogether.

Visiting the annual fair, the Salon d’Agriculture, on Saturday, Nicolas Sarkozy was doing the meet-and-greet in a bustling crowd when one man refused to shake his hand. “Tu me salis,” the man said (“You soil me,” using the informal “tu”). Sarkozy snapped back, “Casse-toi, alors, pauvre con” (“Then screw off, asshole”). A possibly defensible rejoinder, were it not for the fact that he’s President of the Republic, and expected to maintain a certain dignity, and what’s worse, the whole exchange was recorded. You can watch the clip on YouTube, and if you’re French, you began your day by doing just that.

Barnyard language at the agricultural fair?

Buyer’s remorse has taken hold of the country. The French were uncomfortable with Sarkozy’s “American” ideas of the presidency, a hands-on and spotlight-hogging management style. His divorce made them uneasy, too, but his marriage, a mere three months later, to Carla Bruni, a bed-hopping supermodel and pop star, pretty much freaked them out. Turn up the ratchet one more time: it’s been revealed that, shortly before the wedding, Sarkozy sent a text message to his ex-wife: “If you come back, I’ll cancel everything.” And it’s widely speculated that Bruni is pregnant, which could mean that the bachelor Sarkozy was having unprotected sex with a near-stranger (and one who’s well-known for her sexual exploits), in a country that’s been battered by AIDS.

Historically, the French seldom minded their leaders’ womanizing. What a man did in bed said nothing about his policies. Just one example: Napoléon III married the decorously devout Empress Eugénie and restored the Catholic Church to something like its pre-Revolutionary authority, while making out like a bandit with anything in a hoop skirt. And in similar fashion, all kinds of personal misbehavior got swept under the political carpet. Now the French are beginning to wonder if the old American bromide, “Character counts,” isn’t valid after all.

Sarkozy has popped off before — last year, he threatened to get into a fistfight with some heckling fisherman — but he was merely a candidate for President at the time. And it’s becoming clear that incidents of hot temper and hasty judgment are not isolated in this man’s life.

The other big headline this weekend is Raúl Castro’s widely anticipated election to the Presidency of Cuba, replacing his brother Fidel. Raúl is 76, as is the first Vice President, José Ramón Machado Ventura. Ricardo Alarcón, 70, was reelected president of the National Assembly. This confirms that there is at least one country for old men. It’s Cuba.

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23 February 2008

Hillary Drops Out! and Other Conventional Wisdom

The Agony of Defeat.
(Except that this picture was taken weeks ago, when she was still front-runner.)

To read the newspapers the past few days, you’d think Hillary Clinton had dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination already. In reality, her campaign is in trouble, beset by organizational problems, dwindling funds, missteps by the candidate and her husband, and the simple fact that Hillary doesn’t connect with voters as viscerally as her opponent, Barack Obama. But in a further reality, only she knows whether she plans to drop out soon, and when asked directly, she says she’s in the race to stay.

So why are the commentators and analysts now saying the same thing — “The clock is running down” — and saying it all at once? As one who used to write political commentary for a living, I can offer a few answers.

There are indeed trends in political writing, during an electoral campaign. The past year has seen many, many such trends, and a by no means complete list must include the following:

  • John McCain is inevitable.
  • Hillary Clinton is inevitable.
  • America isn’t ready for a female president.
  • Rudy Giuliani is inevitable.
  • Christian and/or social conservatives will never vote for (pick one) Giuliani, McCain, Romney or Ron Paul.
  • Fred Thompson would be inevitable if he’d just get into the race.
  • Fred Thompson got into the race too late and doesn’t really want to win.
  • John McCain is dead in the water.
  • Golly, Barack Obama gives a good speech.
  • America isn’t ready for a black president.
  • Barack Obama is not black enough.
  • Mike Bloomberg is about to announce that he’s running as an independent.
  • Mitt Romney has no chance because he’s a Mormon.
  • Mitt Romney has a lot of money and therefore can’t be counted out.
  • Mitt Romney’s speech on faith has effectively put questions about his religion to rest.
  • Mitt Romney’s speech threatens an American theocracy.
  • Iowa means nothing.
  • Iowa has destroyed the Clinton and Romney campaigns.
  • Hillary Clinton needs to show some emotion.
  • Hillary Clinton showed too much emotion.
  • Bill Clinton is Hillary’s secret weapon.
  • Bill Clinton has destroyed Hillary’s campaign.
  • Bill Clinton would support Barack Obama, any other year, because they are the same guy.
  • Mike Huckabee is a funny guy, although he’ll never win.
  • Mike Huckabee is a contender with serious momentum.
  • Barack Obama is getting on Hillary Clinton’s nerves.
  • They’re attacking each other; they’re tearing the party apart.
  • They are cordial toward each other; that’s what’s tearing the party apart.
  • Is Rudy Giuliani still in this race?
  • Rudy Giuliani is out of this race.
  • John McCain’s closest friends say he is too hot-tempered to be president.
  • John McCain is inevitable.
  • John McCain is corrupt.
  • Mike Huckabee is dead in the water.
  • Barack Obama is inevitable.
  • Barack Obama has a Messiah complex.
  • John McCain is dead in the water.
  • Hillary Clinton is dead in the water.
And that’s just what I’ve been able to track while living abroad. It’s dull reading for those who follow more than one publication. You might think that political reporters and analysts get a briefing every morning, much like the ones on Hill Street Blues, and then “go out there” and write articles that rehash the same received wisdom.

I can account for a number of factors that lead to this lock-step.

1. Reporters are bored. They write about these horse-race topics because they have heard too many speeches and read too many reports on the issues. Never mind that you haven’t, never mind that it’s their job to tell you things you don’t know. Political writers are just too bored to cope. They turn in desperation to the only topic that promises excitement, drama, and fond memories of days writing copy at the sports desk: who’s up, who’s down, who’s ahead, who’s got momentum, who’s “attacking” whom.

2. Reporters are lazy. In order to write a “trend” story, one need merely watch a little television, read a couple of voter surveys, and talk to one’s buddies at the Punchy Pundit Bar & Grill.

My hands are clean! See?

3. Reporters dislike being spun. Despite their laziness, they’d happily talk to campaign operatives — which is a sort of interview, and somewhat like working — if they weren’t certain of being jerked around. Some political writers (David Broder, Robert Novak) actually seem to enjoy being jerked around, since they keep setting themselves up for more jerking, but they are the exception.

4. Reporters are under terrible time pressures. This isn’t their fault. They have deadlines, and they have no choice but to produce some compelling prose on command. They seldom have time to research intensively, to write thoughtfully, or to think at all.

5. Reporters just want to be loved. They want readers, viewers, listeners and web-surfers to love them, so that ratings or circulation figures won’t fall, so that their bosses won’t fire them. Moreover, the quasi-adolescent yearning for popularity leads them to say whatever their friends say. If the other pundits are writing something, they’d better write the same thing, or else people will think they’re not cool.

Now you know. There’s a widespread misperception that political reporters have political agendas, but in my experience this is completely untrue. (The pundits are another story, of course, because they’re hired to write opinions, and the easiest way to get an opinion is to follow an agenda — that is, to say what your friends are saying. See #5.) Reporters love a juicy story (see #1), and that takes precedence over almost anything. My former boss, Dan Rather, has been depicted as a left-wing liberal, and he’s seen more than his share of run-ins with Republicans — but I’ve never seen him happier than when he’s talking to Bob Dole or John McCain, interesting guys with great personal stories (see #1) who give him good quotes (see #2), who speak frankly (see #3), who are always ready to talk at a minute’s notice (see #4), and who seem to like him, too (see #5).

I say unto ye, I am come not to destroy but to fulfill.

The nominating campaigns this season have been exciting, historic, important — but not necessarily for the reasons you read in the papers. You can protect yourself by reading what the candidates say and do, and by taking with a grain of salt what reporters and pundits say the words and deeds are supposed to mean. And you can avoid anchors and editors who say, “Tell us what will happen next,” while you avoid the reporters and pundits who respond to that idiotic request. I never met anybody in the press who was worth her or his salt as a fortune-teller; they can’t see the future of a political race, anymore than they can predict earthquakes. And as Dan used to say, “He who lives by the crystal ball must learn to eat a lot of broken glass.”

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The Birds of Lake Geneva

Cygne et symbole: A Genevan swan

Seldom have I seen water as clear as that of Lake Geneva, or Lac Léman as it’s known locally. A friend of Lord Byron’s compared it to a vat of indigo, though I find it a touch greener than blue. Whatever the color, it’s a natural wonder, and the Genevans are rightly proud of it.

The lake is inhabited by myriad pleasure-boats and flocks of waterfowl. Notable among the latter are the swans, beautiful if not as serene as legend has it. One wants to take a picture, but the swans do not care. They are not cooperative. No matter how patiently you wait, they will not pose.

You’ll never be a model, darling, if you don’t play to the camera.

The highlight of my trip to Switzerland last week may have been my Valentine’s lunch, at the Bains des Paquis, a swimming club on a jetty in Lac Léman, just opposite the Jet d’Eau. Architecturally, it’s not an imposing setting, with low, cinder-block buildings (so as not to obstruct the view of city, mountains, and lake) and tables laid out as if for summer-campers. Surely the food would be terrible: it’s a snack bar, after all. But I wanted to look at the water as I ate, and the city’s other waterfront establishments are wildly expensive, averaging about 35 Francs for a main course. (And in Europe, the main course is seldom sufficient, the expectation being that one will eat a starter and a dessert, as well.)

The snack bar offered a plat du jour at 12 Francs, and it was a remarkable value, generous portions well-balanced of rabbit in a cider-based sauce, plain noodles, fresh broccoli not overcooked, and a green salad with an excellent mustard vinaigrette. And five pieces of very good bread: typically in Europe, the less you pay for your lunch, the worse your bread will be, with rubbery crust and gummy mie — and you’re lucky to get three pieces of it.

The snack bar of the Bains des Paquis

I’m not sure how the proprietors managed to train the birds around the lake, but the gull who glowered at me throughout the meal, and occasionally scolded me, resisted the palpable urge to make a marauding move on my plate. Birds in another town would not be so well-behaved, but restraint and self-denial are hallmarks of the Swiss character, and evidently this extends to the birds, too.

Or maybe, like me, the birds are simply happy to be where they are.

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On Acting, and Romola Garai

Much to atone for: Garai

Yesterday I saw the English film Atonement, in which one of the leading roles is taken by an actress named Romola Garai. This is the second picture of hers I’ve seen*, the other being François Ozon’s catastrophic Angel, and I’m at the point of hoping I never see another. Not since Renée Zellweger has an actress aroused in me so violent an antipathy. The question is why. Is Romola Garai a bad actress, or is she merely fated to have portrayed two unsympathetic characters in two films?

After all, an actress has to eat (unless she is Garai’s Atonement co-star, Keira Knightley), and therefore she must take the roles that are given her, and do with them what she can.

In Atonement, Garai plays an 18-year-old nurse, emotionally stunted by an error committed in childhood. She can’t atone; she can barely express her remorse. Instead, she relies on high-flown, insincere-sounding apologies that no one (including the audience) particularly wants to hear. Her inner torment is not only repressed, it’s boring.

Could another actress have made this part work? We have some clues here, because the same character is played by two other actresses, young Saoirse Ronan and distinguished Vanessa Redgrave, and we don’t want to smack them. Is it only because Ronan is a child, and because Redgrave is old? I think not. Both of these actresses get under the character’s skin, and we respond with sympathy (and an Oscar nomination) to Ronan’s confusion and with respect to Redgrave’s authority. But — I repeat — I want to smack Garai.

Angel as Monster

She’s a blonde in Atonement, so at first I didn’t recognize her as the title character, a brunette, of Angel. That picture was an utter mess, the depiction of the rise and fall of an ambitious young writer at the beginning of the 19th century — and Angel is a monster, vicious to her family, castrating to her husband. We might accept this if there were any indication that Angel has talent as a writer, but she’s worse than a hack. She’s a stupid hack. Willful in her ignorance of life, she writes overblown, romantic plots studded with false facts. (French critics dwelt on one scene, in which she stubbornly refuses to rewrite a passage in which a character is seen opening a bottle of champagne with a corkscrew.)

Angel is utterly convinced of her own brilliance, and for a time her books are successful. Ozon, a Frenchman working with an English-language script, seems to understand this aspect of her work; what I can’t tell is whether he knows how bad her prose style (read aloud onscreen) really is. And thus Angel wrecks lives in the service of a supremely minor talent. That may be the point, and it may be autobiographical, so far as Ozon, a notably shallow filmmaker, is concerned. But it’s hard to watch. One minor talent, as portrayed by another minor talent, does not a satisfactory spectacle make.

Again the question arises: would another actress do a better job? Here the answer is an unqualified yes. The screen is full of willful, destructive heroines for whom we feel enough sympathy to understand something of ourselves. Or sometimes we merely marvel at their cunning exploits, as we marvel at those of Richard III in the theater. The best example of this may be Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara, a creature who (to cite but one of her multiple flaws) makes miserable almost everyone around her in the pursuit of an idiotic schoolgirl crush. Yet we don’t hate her: we name our daughters after her.

Called on the carpet: At a premiere

Garai lacks charisma, a kind of star quality, a relish in the playing, that can maintain interest (and, yes, provoke sympathy) in even the most odious characters. It’s not Garai’s fault that she’s been given two odious characters to play, and both writers, too, a métier that is notoriously difficult to depict dramatically. It isn’t entirely her fault that she doesn’t bring the viewer along for these women’s inner journeys. The director and screenwriter bear a responsibility, too. But in Angel, Garai has abundant opportunities — she’s onscreen almost every second of a very long film — and she does nothing with them.

She’s young yet, and perhaps she’ll develop her craft over time. But I doubt I’ll be coming along for the ride.

*UPDATE: A quick check confirms that I’ve seen Romola Garai in two other pictures, as Kate Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby and as Amelia Sedley in Vanity Fair, in which Reese Witherspoon plays (very well) another odious yet sympathetic heroine, Becky Sharp. Garai didn’t bother me in these movies: in fact, I didn’t notice her. Perhaps 19th-century milk-toast is more her calling. Yet even these parts can be made compelling: look at the distinction Olivia de Havilland brought to Melanie Hamilton Wilkes (a revised portrait of Amelia Sedley, as it happens). My position remains unchanged.

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20 February 2008

Postcards from the Opera

Though you might not realize it from the pages of magazines and newspapers, critics and editors aren’t the only ones who write reviews. When I worked at Opera News, I often heard from readers about the exciting productions they attended. Here are a few samples recovered from my personal files.

We heard the most exciting contemporary opera last night! It is called La Traviata, and it was written by the stage director, Udo Tischbein, who according to the program is twenty-seven years old and has thirteen body piercings, only six of which could I see from where I sat. According to Mr. Tischbein, La Traviata is about decadent Western imperialism, but honestly, all I saw was a big fish. At first, I thought it was going to be like The Little Mermaid — but no, just a fish. She sang relevantly, however. The orchestra performed on a variety of tin cans and kitchen appliances while Verdi’s score was played backwards on a reel-to-reel tape, then kicked around the stage by a man in a George Bush mask. At the end of the first act, Mr. Tischbein came out and urinated on the conductor, and the stage manager called the police and we all had to leave the theater.

We saw the Anna Netrebko show last night. I find classical music very relaxing, but every time the chorus joined in, I kept waking up. With those looks, Netrebko has boffo box-office potential. Why doesn’t she make movies? We could always dub her dialogue. We’ll package her with that Josh Groban, some kind of romcom but with car chases, maybe a terrorist threat, where they sing to stop the bomb from going off. Start out with limited distribution, get good groundswell of word-of-mouth, then expand to nationwide release. International sales are guaranteed. That’s what Netrebko needs: really proactive marketing strategy. She could be the next Nicole Kidman. Now I’m just waiting to get the hell out of this damned parking lot. [Sent via Blackberry]

Netrebko: Boffo

We took the train in to the city to hear that one that always makes me cry. No, not that one, the other one. Harry, what was the name of the opera? The one with the Rice Krispies song in it. Anyway, the sets were very pretty. We all clapped and clapped like mad. And there were lots of horses and doggies in it. There was even a donkey! We clapped for him, too. But there were no kitties. That’s too bad. I really like kitties. But you know, New York smells funny. I don’t think we’ll be going back. Well, maybe to see Wicked again. Mittens says to tell oo she wuvs oo.

The early-music festival here is in full swing. Last night we joined a capacity audience of six for the first performance in three hundred years and four months of Ottodidactico, by Handel’s long-lost uncle, Bob Handelman, a dry-goods salesman and amateur composer of great skill, sadly neglected in his own time, and indeed in every time since. Only great experts can appreciate his work as completely as I do. Thus you can imagine my outrage when I learned that the key role of Gottobertaldo had been assigned to a bass-baritone! In this day and age! And at a festival, no less!

The result was unquestionably the greatest catastrophe in the history of music. From his entrance aria, it was obvious that Dmitri Tchopitoff was sorely overparted. However, at intermission, the conductor took him into an alley behind the theater and dealt with him appropriately: with period surgical instruments and strict adherence to the traditional methods of Handelman’s time, immersing Tchopitoff in a vat of unpasteurized milk, with no anesthesia. At last we heard the notes as Handelman intended!

Fleming: Faaaaabulous

Renée — I call her Renée — sang here last night. Her new hairdo is so flattering, and it frames her new face just beautifully, especially in the third gown she wore, an original creation by Pincochon designed just for her, exclusively. I didn’t like the first two gowns — they made her look like a frumpy middle-aged housewife! It was all I could do to keep from laughing. I sent a note backstage at intermission: “Honestly, girl, don’t you have any gay friends? I wouldn’t be caught dead in that rag! Do yourself a favor and burn it now!!!” I didn’t sign it, because of the restraining order, but I took it to a security guard at the stage door and said, “Look, I’m a close personal friend of Renée’s, and this is a matter of life and death — she must get this message right away!”

And I could tell she got it, too, because she was kind of squinting and looking around the auditorium in the next scene — looking for me, of course. She is such a wonderful, giving artist, to create that kind of connection with her public. And when she took her bow at the end, she put her hand over her heart and mouthed the words “Thank you,” and I said to all the people around me, “That’s for me — we’re old friends,” just in case they couldn’t tell.

And we are old friends. I’ve seen every performance she’s given in the Bay Area since 1987, and I quit my job so that I could travel to other cities to hear her. I think she knows now that, if she’s ever having a bad day, she can pick up the phone, anywhere in the world, and call me, any time of day or night, and I’ll listen to her, and I’ll understand. I think she knows that. And no matter how sordid her emotional crisis is, no matter how many other opera celebrities are involved, I’ll carry her innermost secrets to my grave.

(As you know, I’ve left special instructions for what Renée will sing at my funeral. I’ll go first, of course — I couldn’t live without her.)

They didn’t put my name on the guest list, so I had to wait for her at the stage door. I wore a fake moustache, so that manager of hers wouldn’t recognize me — but Renée saw right through it! “Oh, it’s you,” she said. “I had a feeling you might be here.” What an angel.

I’ve run out of stuff for her to sign — programs, photos, books, record albums, other people’s photos, books and record albums, an empty Rolex box, blank checks, old newspapers, a Chinese take-out menu, the San José phone directory, my arm, my leg, my chest. I’ll show you some time. This time I asked her to sign the back of my neck.

“You need to sing more Strauss,” I said. “You are ten times better than that slut Debbie Voigt. Why don’t you sing Ariadne for us?” She said, “Actually, I’m scheduled to sing that in Chicago in five years, but it’s not official, and we haven’t announced it yet.”

“I meant sing right now,” I said. “Here. Now.” Oh, how we laughed together.

(But naturally I went straight to Opera-L when I got home. I was the first person to break the news. And I’ve already booked my flight to Chicago!)

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19 February 2008

Émile Zola and ‘La Terre’

Zola, the Natural

For the past few years, I have been immersed in the work of Émile Zola, the French novelist who promoted a movement in fiction called naturalism, influence of which can be seen clearly in the works of writers as diverse as Mark Twain and Theodore Dreiser, and, more recently, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe. The idea was to treat stories as “natural histories” or scientific case studies, minutely researched, in order to expose the impulses that govern human behavior. In Zola’s own time, this idea was reduced to “He writes about the groin.”

Which isn’t entirely incorrect. Every volume of Zola contains at least one scene of rape, incest, adultery, prostitution, masturbation, or some kind of kink. Renée, the heroine of La Curée, carries on a torrid affair with her stepson, in a “warm, moist, pink-and-grey” boudoir the mere mention of which is lurid. La Joie de vivre features a scandal-provoking depiction of a young woman’s first menstrual period. In Pot-Bouille, a young man cheerfully sleeps with at least one married woman on every floor of the bourgeois apartment building where he lives; while in the servants’ quarters, a housemaid singlehandedly delivers her illegitimate stillborn child, then disposes of the remains and goes back to work. (Nobody notices.) The bisexual heroine of Nana salvages a hilariously inauspicious theatrical debut by shaking her breasts at the audience; the result is a brilliant career as a courtesan, the toast of Paris, leading her to ride one titled sugar daddy like a pony around her bedroom and ending in a fatal case of venereal disease. None of this is presented purely for shock value, but a lot of it is pretty shocking.

And to think that Zola was writing at the same time as the prudish Victorians! An American or British reader must spend a great deal of time gawping, as I do, wondering how the hell the man got away with this stuff.

He didn’t, always, but he paved the way for the next generation, who would be heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud (who wrote about sex, too, as you doubtless know). Zola himself was influenced by Honoré de Balzac, whose work depicts money as the root of all evil, an idea he picked up working in a law office. For Zola, money was evil, sure, but it wasn’t the root. Humans were having sex long before they invented money.

Deeply disillusioned by the politics of the Second Empire, Zola writes with scorn and fury about the rich. About the poor, he writes with somewhat greater sympathy as he exposes their living conditions. But they’re not very nice, either, as seen in the novel I most recently read, La Terre, about farmers in the region of Beauce, around Chartres. In this “natural history,” the characters don’t behave like animals — they behave much worse, something Zola underscores by setting his scene with plenty of cows, horses, dogs, chickens, a flock of geese, and one memorably dissipated donkey. Rutting, selfish, entirely lacking in morals, the inhabitants of the village of Rognes are fascinating, monstrous, and entirely human.

The most noteworthy of them is Buteau, a farmer who (spoiler alert*) swindles, steals, and lies; cheats his brother and sister; abuses, beats, and kills both his parents to get their land and their money; sleeps with his cousin and fathers her child but marries her only when she inherits property; sexually harasses her sister, who lives with them; prevents her marriage to a man who actually loves her by claiming that she’s his mistress, too; then rapes her while his wife holds her down, and looks on as his wife murders her (and her unborn child), so that they can inherit her property. Oh, and he drinks, too. I’m not sure a more outrageous character exists in fiction; I hope none exists in life.

Buteau’s exploits make other scenes in the book — such as that in which a man (nicknamed “Jésus-Christ”) farts for an entire chapter; or that in which an old lady uses her own excrement to fertilize her vegetable garden; or that in which the donkey drinks a vat of wine and vomits all over the barnyard; or that in which a halfwit boy rapes his octogenarian grandmother, who promptly brains him with an axe; or that in which the village curate, unable to cope with these people, has a nervous breakdown and is carted away — seem almost mild. Zola suggests that none of this matters, really, because the earth (la terre) that Buteau so covets takes little notice of him, or of anyone. It will go on with or without us, whether we behave ourselves or not.

The book provoked a scandal, as so many of Zola’s books did, and it was banned in the United States for a long time. (Probably there are libraries still that refuse to carry it.) Not long ago, I found a book review by Mark Twain himself, in which he defended La Terre by answering the question “Are there really people like this?” with feigned resignation and a clear-cut “Yes.” I must say, I haven’t looked at my neighbors in the farming village of Beynes the same way since.

La Terre is the fifteenth in the twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart cycle, “The Natural History of a Family in the Second Empire.” By examining both branches of the family, one prosperous, the other poor, he hoped to arrive at conclusions about heredity and environment, and other scientific factors, but that’s the least convincing aspect of the series now, not least because he keeps tipping the scales. What’s more compelling is the focus each book places on a slice of society: government, military, clergy, high finance, medicine, the arts, urban and rural working classes, even the rise of the department store, all painstakingly researched. To read Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris) today is to recover the city’s central market, destroyed years ago; Zola convincingly describes it as a monument to rival the great cathedrals.

A left-winger, Zola skewers the fat cats who profited under Napoléon III at the expense of suffering working men and women. But he was ambivalent about possible remedies. The revolutionaries and rabble-rousers in his novels come to bad ends, starting with the first volume, La Fortune des Rougon, in which the teenaged boy Silvère is killed while protesting the coup d’état that finished the Second Republic and transformed the “Prince-Président” into an Emperor. Both La Terre and its predecessor, Germinal, a study of labor unrest among coal miners, feature lengthy political debates in which Zola shoots down arguments on all sides. Meanwhile, the fat cats are shown doing very well for themselves.

So did Zola, as it happens. His books earned him a great deal of money. But just by calling attention to the manifold plights of the poor, and by so carefully documenting every detail, Zola made an important political statement — many of them. His late novels attack the Catholic Church head-on, and he made a ringing defense of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer falsely accused by his superiors of espionage. By taking on the army, Zola took on the government; he had to flee the country, and when he returned, he was assassinated. (Carbon monoxide poisoning, courtesy of a zealous right-wing heating repairman.) He was buried in the Montmartre Cemetery, just under my window, but his remains were moved almost immediately to the Panthéon.

Zola’s death jolted Twain, among many others. Twain’s writings already were growing more political and more bitter (we’re a long way from “The Celebrated Jumping Frog” when he starts railing against American imperialism in the Philippines), yet they gain intensity in his last years, as he resolves to fill the gap that Zola left. I wonder if I have the guts (to say nothing of the talent) to do the same.

I began to read Zola’s work not long after one of my many Twain kicks, when I was preparing an article for Opera News on Tobias Picker’s opera Thérèse Raquin, based on one of Zola’s early books. Picker would have been better off calling his opera “Mary Smith,” for all the fidelity it shows to the novel. Where Zola depicts savage brutes, Picker writes of nice people who make bad decisions. At the time, I suspected a cynical, though perhaps unconscious, attempt to draw in the Masterpiece Theatre crowd, and thus to profit by high-mindedness and cultural cachet. (Masterpiece Theatre, which presented a dramatization of the novel in 1980, is the only way most Americans would have heard of it.) In an interview with me, Picker said he wasn’t drawn to Thérèse Raquin because of Zola, he was attracted by the story — though, to these ears, he wound up telling a completely different one. He and his collaborators claimed that modern audiences wouldn’t stand for the wife-beating and amorality of Zola’s plot, and maybe they were right.

It’s no skin off my nose, because through a mediocre opera I wound up discovering a very great writer. I am a true disciple now, as you see. I made a pilgrimage to Zola’s home, in Médan, not long ago, finding inspiration in the inscription over the fireplace in his massive, neo-Gothic study: “Never a day without a line.” (And now I have a blog!) Even his photography, amateurish but passionate, inspires me.

I have five volumes to go in the Rougon-Macquart cycle. And then — who knows? I think it’s Victor Hugo’s turn.


* I may as well offer a few plot spoilers, because the damage is done already. It is now a kind of fetish among French editors to share with readers all of an author’s preliminary materials and rough sketches, to the point of restoring phrases emended and chapters cut by the authors themselves, with good reason. I’m not sure what the point of this is. Something about illuminating the creative process, I suppose, yet the editors ignore that this is often a wholesale betrayal of the author’s intentions. Proust died trying to get his work into a particular shape, but the French seem to shrug and sigh a collective “Tant pis.” Modern editions of his books are almost unreadable for their annotations. You are better off getting an old edition, from the 1930s or so, when the French held him in such contempt that they would not stoop to ruin his work.

Because Zola left so much documentation, he’s catnip for French editors. And they’re uncommonly clumsy about presenting the material: instead of putting it all in a foreword or in appendices, and letting us look it up if we choose, they litter the pages with footnotes, many of which give away key plot points and spoil the story for those of us who never read it before and don’t know how it turns out. Thus it wasn’t Zola who told me of the death of Françoise in La Terre (not just that she would die, but how and when), it was some damnable idiot of an editor.

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18 February 2008

Marie Blake

Enthroned at the Five Oaks: Miss Marie Blake
After I wrote this piece, a reader thoughtfully sent me this photo.

This story has no illustration. If there are any pictures of Marie Blake on the Internet, I’m unable to find them. References to her are scarce, too, apart from a couple of reminiscences by diehard Greenwich Village piano bar enthusiasts and one online German tourist guide, the authors of which seem unaware that she’s been dead for 14 years: they recommend her highly, though she’s no longer with us, and the bar where she played is long since closed down. Had she lived a little longer, there might be CDs and YouTube postings, and whole websites dedicated to her. It never occurred to me to bring in a tape recorder, to document surreptitiously her performances, or to interview her, or to photograph her at the piano. Now I wish I had anything more than memories to remember her by.

She was born in 1919 and died in December, 1993. Until her obituary appeared in The New York Times, we didn’t know her age, and until we talked to Fredd Tree, we didn’t know she was gay. That’s the way with performers, the better ones: they reveal to us only what they choose to reveal. She couldn’t hide, or didn’t care to, that she was short and plump, unapologetically homely and terribly, terribly tired by the time I knew her. And it should be admitted right away that she did not know me: sometimes she recognized me vaguely, never by name, but most times I was just another customer.

For a few nights every week, she held forth at a baby grand in the Five Oaks on Grove Street, rasping out a repertoire of pop standards in a voice that spanned perhaps three notes, all of them low, none of them sustainable. Her keyboard technique was astonishing for its grace, although it consisted primarily of fingerwork like bricks dropping short distances, and pedalwork like kicking a bad man in the balls; the piano often thumped as she attacked it. I have a recording she made, and to hear it without seeing her, you’d never know her touch was anything but flexible and nuanced. I don’t know how she did it.

Her material was eclectic, but it was an odd night indeed if she didn’t offer several of her signature songs: mostly Fats Waller and Cole Porter numbers, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Down in the Dumps (On the 90th Floor),” but also Blondie’s “Rapture,” all the more entrancing for its unexpectedness. Above all there was a song called “Rag Mop,” which according to its lyrics is actually spelled “R-A-G-G M-O-P-P,” and which I’ve never heard elsewhere.

She seemed to chew her words, and the bars and cars and guitars of “Rapture,” especially, took on an elastic quality in her broad mouth. She knew her lyrics too well to find them funny anymore, and sometimes she didn’t even smile as she sang. But that detachment seemed to enhance her formidable comic timing and phrasing. She let the listener discover the jokes, without forcing them. As she got older, her sets shrank from one hour to about 40 minutes, and she alternated sets with younger pianists with more stamina; she resorted more frequently to her sheet music and to a clutter of photocopied fake-book pages scattered around her. Her first piano teacher could play only by ear; she had to learn later how to read music. But no request could faze her, and for a tip she’d play anything you wanted.

Her interpretations were brisk and efficient, and as time passed they became almost perfunctory; she never could be bothered with patter or small talk. She gave every impression of mortal fatigue, almost as if she resented us for keeping her up past her bedtime, and between her sets, she’d retreat to a little cot in the back; during her sets, she’d pace herself by yielding the microphone to her students and to the occasional tipping customer, while she played along. And I mean “played along” to denote not only musical accompaniment but also complicity, possibly criminal, because many of the customers had no business singing at all. She indulged them, for a price, and once she had the money it made little difference to her whether they sang well.

The most notable customer was a character named Dennis, lacking some teeth and an entire lobe’s worth of brain cells. Emaciated, very tall, and even taller in his cowboy hat, he had long greasy hair, a straggly moustache, and the haunted, bleary eyes of someone who would have been better advised not to endure the ordeal of the 1970s, where he seemed still to reside. Time was only one of many things that had passed him by.

Unfailingly, any time we went to Five Oaks, he’d be sitting at the bar and ready to regale the crowd with a song, usually the Village People’s “Macho Man.” The opening lines of that song (“Body, body, body, do you want my body?”), combined with his choreography (unbuttoning his shirt to reveal his pallid, concave chest), elicited shrieks of protest throughout the room. But he was just getting started, and worse horrors awaited us. For Dennis was quite simply the worst singer I have ever heard.

If he had any voice at all, the disparity between the lyrics and his own strung-out appearance might have been entertaining, but in the event it was surreal, even disturbing. One could replicate his timbre by shouting into a cardboard mailing tube, and the concept of pitch was one with which he never familiarized himself. His rhythm was only slightly surer. Depending on the evening, the crowd might sing along — and over — him. He was indomitable, though, a piano bar Weeble who would not be shouted down, always coming back for more. The Village used to be a haven for people like him; I’m not sure it is anymore. I’m not sure there are people like Dennis now, in any case.

Marie seemed amused by him, and she’d introduce him with gusto each night, playing a little glissando and flinging out her left arm to call him from the bar, as if he were one of the more glamorous singers who frequented her microphone. (One such guest was the great Laurel Watson, a venerable beauty with wickedly suggestive delivery, who in addition to her other distinctions would later turn up to sing at the wedding reception of my friends Merrill Gruver and Ted Greenwald.) Because her own students were mostly a gifted, stylish bunch, well schooled by her in the art of putting over a song, I presume that Marie cared about music — yet not so much that she discouraged an abomination like Dennis.

The question is why. Did she see what I saw — that Dennis lived for those minutes in the spotlight, and that he would die (as he did) without them? Was she saving his life? Or was she simply taking his money? Strange are the ways of destiny, and it’s hard now to think of Marie without thinking of Dennis, too.

And these thoughts oblige me to consider that while Marie was very good at what she did, in her hands music seemed a kind of vehicle. She didn’t think about it much, she just turned the ignition and drove. She even let Dennis drive, a little. She was too sophisticated to stop to marvel at the wonders she could create at the piano — any more than you or I marvel at the automobile when we drive to work. And music served Marie well. It gave her a career, which not every black woman of her generation got, one that rewarded her for wit and talent and that carried her out of New Jersey, through the Great Depression, and into Manhattan for life. She sang with Count Basie and Duke Ellington and Billie Holliday, but those were merely stops along her way, and for four decades, she sang mostly alone. She became an institution, a legend of sorts, though by now she is proving that legends die when they are not retold.

Yet scratch a Villager of a certain age, even an Upper West Sider like me, and you’ll stir up passionate but slightly blurry memories of smoky midnights and scotch-soaked hours spent listening to Marie Blake. Memories like mine.

We went on to hear her on Fridays or Saturdays, to be sure to have the next day to recover. We’d arrive after eleven o’clock, when Five Oaks stopped serving dinner, because the food was expensive and we wanted to save our money for drinks (which weren’t cheap, either) and for tipping Marie. I never left without giving her five bucks, a princely sum for me in my graduate-student days. Once I tried to explain my situation, to excuse myself, so that she would understand that my tip was all I could afford, though not all she deserved or all I intended. But she wasn’t interested. If I wanted to consider the tip a symbolic gesture or a romantic tribute, that was my business, but the money was hers now. She gave me a gruff smile and a quick nod, and kept playing.

Most often I’d go with a group of old friends, and most often I’d leave with a new friend, too: rare was the excursion to Five Oaks that didn’t end with my picking up somebody. We’d stay until the end of Marie’s last set, and sometimes longer; more than once, we closed down the bar.

We were semi-regulars, with a favorite waitress, a Scotswoman named Alice, who claimed to know Forfar, the tiny village where Rena Grant was born; and we enjoyed a nodding acquaintance with the maitre d’, a young aspiring actor named Stephen who produced a variety show at Five Oaks, starring his friends and some of Marie’s students, for public-access cable television. Their “let’s put on a show” enthusiasm exceeded their scriptwriting ability, but one episode stood out: after Marie died, Stephen dedicated a half hour to video clips of her. I hope he has guarded that material zealously.

Sometimes the scotch made us careless, as scotch will do, and one night, in the middle of some boozy argument, I looked up to see Jack Levinson at the microphone; he’d left our table, tipped Marie, and begun to sing “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” as beautifully as anyone ever has. Not until that moment did I know he could sing.

Another night, a woman at the table next to us smiled firmly to say that I was getting too loud for her comfort. I apologized, and asked her name. “May,” she replied. In a spontaneous flash of inspiration, I ran to the pianist — Marie’s relief player — and asked him to play Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” but with a slight alteration in the lyric: “Night and May / You are the one….” The trick worked exceedingly well, through every verse and chorus (try it yourself), and May forgave me.

That past seems so distant now, more distant than almost anything else in my life. Marie is dead, and so are Dennis and Rena, and doubtless so is Laurel Watson. The Five Oaks is closed, but those people wouldn’t be there, even if it were open again. I have no idea what’s become of May, or of young Stephen — except that he’s less young now than he was. Tree says that Alice returned to Scotland. There’s no going back to Five Oaks. Proust tells us that we can’t go back to places, only to the names we give to places, because the moments we spent there are what matters, and they’re past. All we can do is remember.

And I do remember this. When you were with Marie Blake, you knew you were a New Yorker, like her, and you didn’t want to be anywhere else.

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17 February 2008

Weekend Update – Dateline: Geneva

The Old City, viewed from the Lake:
A scale model in the Maison Tavel museum

I got back to Paris from Geneva around midnight on Friday. After some false starts, the trip turned out remarkably well, and I spent much of my time skipping around town taking pictures for this blog. This is behavior so unprecedented and extraordinary that it must be commented on. Taking pictures is like having babies or singing opera: I leave it to friends, who have aptitude, and thus far they achieve entirely satisfactory results without any help from me. Yet suddenly I’m clicking away. You may expect my Met debut, soon.

The weather was warm but the skies were hazy in Geneva. Much of the time, you couldn’t even see Mount Salève, which with two peaks, le Grand and le Petit, overlooks the city (from the French side of the border, actually). Trying to photograph the Jet d’Eau, a column of water that shoots 140 meters into the air at the point where the Rhône breaks free of Lac Léman, I was dissatisfied with the light. I resolved to come back in late afternoon, the “Golden Hour,” when the light would be better. Return I did, just like a real photographer. The light was fabulous. And the fountain was turned off.

High, draulic: the Jet d'Eau, in the best picture I could get
(Don’t those gulls know Switzerland is land-locked?)

Once I got home, I realized that I can’t really say much here about Geneva. I’m preparing an article for Opera News, and the best words must be saved for print. (You will simply have to subscribe to the magazine to find out what I write.)

My deadline is Monday, which is also the deadline to mail my application to renew my French residency. This is a deadline devoutly to be met, because it will mean I don’t have to wait on line at the Préfecture in the pre-dawn darkness. With two important deadlines bearing down on me, I haven’t panicked yet, though I’m planning to do so around six this evening.

Impossible though it may be to believe, I am resigned to missing a recital tonight by Susan Graham. Ordinarily I would do anything — leap over tall buildings, stop a speeding train, etc. — to hear her. But I can’t afford the time, or the risk that the time represents.

Instead, I am posting her picture here, as a kind of consolation, for as my mother once observed, Miss Graham’s smile may be more even lovelier than her voice.

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08 February 2008

Blackberry Jam

Living thousands of miles from so many of my loved ones, I am keenly aware of the need to maintain friendships through frequent communication — and phone calls are expensive. So I write, and I am grateful for the technology of e-mail, that has made writing so easy. What seemed at its inception to be most useful as a paperless memo among colleagues has become the bedrock of modern epistolary literature, without the expense, delays, and fuss of the post. Now I begin most days with my e-mail, much like a Victorian gentleman at his desk, carrying on a wide-ranging, vigorous correspondence after a good cup of coffee and my morning newspapers.

Because I’m a writer by vocation, and because I’m unemployed, I enjoy advantages that my correspondents don’t. Most often, they can’t — and I don’t expect them to — write as long, or even as thoughtfully, as I. And I’m okay with that. Really. I just want to keep in touch.

The trouble is that a couple of my dearest friends have acquired Blackberries, and those little gizmos may yet drive a stake through the heart of written communication. I hear less than ever now from these guys (and you know who you are). Part of the problem lies in the Blackberry keyboard, which is too small for Arrietty Clock to manage properly. But the larger problem lies in the efficiency.

One answers a Blackberry message immediately, much as one would answer a phone call, regardless of whatever else is going on. Therefore one writes in haste, and seldom follows up. (Why would you write again? You answered already.) One confirms one’s existence, and hints that one has read the previous message, but one shares no news, expresses no feeling, illuminates nothing.

To help you to understand what’s at stake, I’ve taken a few famous letters and supplied the responses they might have received, had Blackberries been in use in previous centuries.

Giorgio Germont to Violetta Valéry (La Traviata)

You have kept your promise. The duel has taken place. The baron was wounded but will mend. Alfredo has gone alone into exile. I myself have revealed to him your sacrifice, and he will return to you, to ask your pardon. I too shall come. Take care of yourself! You deserve a better future.
Giorgio Germont

Luv U 2!
[Sent via Blackberry]

Virginia O’Hanlon to the Editor of The New York Sun:

Dear Editor:
I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.”
Please tell me the truth: is there a Santa Claus?
Virginia O’Hanlon
115 West Fifty-Ninth Street

[Sent via Blackberry]

Rainer Maria Rilke, to a Young Poet

Art too is just a way of living, and however one lives, one can, without knowing, prepare for it; in everything real one is closer to it, more its neighbor, than in the unreal half-artistic professions, which, while they pretend to be close to art, in practice deny and attack the existence of all art — as, for example, all of journalism does and almost all criticism and three quarters of what is called (and wants to be called) literature. I am glad, in a word, that you have overcome the danger of landing in one of those professions, and are solitary and courageous, somewhere in a rugged reality. May the coming year support and strengthen you in that.

[Sent via Blackberrry]

Apostle Paul to the Corinthians, First Letter

Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours:
Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ; that in every thing ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge; even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: so that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.

[Sent via Blackberry]

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Be a Male Model! (Or Just Look Like One)

Clothes always fit ya / When you’re a boy

A recent New York Times headline, “Male Models Get Downsized,” should have roughly one half the world’s population snickering with undisguised glee. At last, men are getting their comeuppance, after decades, even centuries, of dictating impossible body images to women. The slimming down of female fashion models has gotten so bad that weigh-ins, with doctors present, are now customary before fashion shows: the girls are so thin, they’re unhealthy. And they are girls, because of course no grown woman could get anywhere near the pencil-thin profiles demanded by designers.

Ah, said the men, you don’t understand, we demand of ourselves something equally unreasonable: worked-out, pumped up, lithe, lean muscle. And the pressure was always rising: from flat stomachs to six-pack abs, to eight-packs, to the “Girdle of Adonis,” ad infinitum. Although a lot of guys resorted to steroids, supplements, and surgery, it was possible, with time and good genes, to acquire the desired silhouette in perfectly healthy ways. But the pressure was intense, men insisted. Women simply couldn’t understand.

This reminded me of a conversation in seminar with the late Carolyn Heilbrun: discussing the ways men historically subjugated women to physical tortures (corsets, brassieres, shaving legs and armpits, waxing, plucking, making up, cosmetic surgery, hair treatments, to say nothing of footbinding, lip plates and neck rings) in the quest of an oppressive definition of beauty, one of my male classmates started to interrupt. “Men suffer to look good, too,” he said.

Professor Heilbrun turned to him slowly. “If you’re going to talk about neckties,” she said, “I’ll scream.”

Just as the fashion industry seemed to be coming to its senses, and demanding of female models a healthier, more robust silhouette, it seems the industry has completely lost its senses when it comes to the male models.

Hitherto, the standard height for models was between 5’11” and 6’3”, jacket size around 42R, waist size 32. According to the Times, the new standard for jacket is down to 40R, waist size 30 (or less). Without getting any shorter, today’s male models weigh less: down from an average of 185 pounds to 145 pounds. Selfishly, I’m not entirely displeased by this trend: I’m 5’11”, 145 pounds, I wear a 39R and a 30 waist, and I have friends in fashion who give me free stuff.

So you will see how generous I am when I say that my heart goes out to every man who is not equally blessed. These boys have never seen the inside of a gym. If there’s a way to look like them without resorting to bulimia, I can’t imagine it.

But I don’t have to, because I have come into possession of a handy guide, distributed by one of the leading modeling agencies. By following these simple rules, even a fat slob like Marcus Schenkenberg could look like a male model.

Tired of looking like this guy?
Just follow these simple steps!



More cigarettes
1 Stalk raw celery, for essential nutrients such as protein

(You there, the one who just said that celery does not contain protein. You may go now. We didn’t hire you to be intelligent, we hired you to be pretty.)
More vodka

Afternoon snack:
Listerine (Do not swallow!)

More cigarettes
More Champagne
More vodka
More heroin


Workout Routine 1: Warm-up: Wake up. Remain awake for the next week. Sleep three hours, then repeat. 365 sets of 15 repetitions.

Workout Routine 2: Lower Body: Walk to Philadelphia and back. But slowly! We don’t want you developing any visible leg or gluteal muscles! 4 sets.

Workout Routine 3: Upper Body: Take the right index finger. Insert it in your throat as far as possible, then hold this position. After vomiting, repeat the exercise using the left index finger. 4 sets of 15 repetitions.

Workout Routine 4: Stomach Crunches: Lie flat on the floor. Slowly bring your upper body forward, until you hear a loud crunching sound. Those are the bones of your spine breaking from lack of calcium. 4 sets of 25 repetitions.


If you must take a shower, close your eyes and think of Dachau.

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05 February 2008

Flunking Nerdology 101

Growing up, I was a nerd. By most standards of reference, I still am, but these things matter less when you’re middle-aged. In junior-high school, nerdiness was a curse. It frequently led to my getting beat up by the football team, whether by individual players or by specially drafted offensive squads. But there was no help for it. I liked opera — and show tunes. I made good grades. I took French class. I didn’t like football. (There’s probably a connection between my antipathy for the sport and my treatment at the hands of the sportsmen, but no matter.) Oh, the list goes on.

The Onion A.V. Club has compiled its own list of indicators of nerdiness, “The Knights Who Say ‘Nerd’: 20 Pop Cultural Obsessions Even Geekier Than Monty Python.” As a Dallasite, I was one of the original Monty Python geeks — the local public-television station was the first in the country to broadcast the show. So I ran down the inventory, to see how I’d measure up by today’s standards.

I’m ashamed to say that I don’t even make a passing grade. Over the course of three decades, new nerdologies have been developed to which I could never aspire. I record my scores below.


√1. Star Trek: I’m undeniably guilty of this one. I watched the show fanatically, I attended the conventions and met the cast, I collected memorabilia, and my little friends and I tried to make our own Star Trek movie. (I was Doctor McCoy.) In those days, we had only the original series to cling to, and I could identify the episode title within ten seconds of the program’s start. I knew the names of all the actors, writers, and directors. It’s pretty embarrassing to watch nowadays. The colors are gorgeous, but the performances are over-the-top, the scripts more often bad than brilliant. Yet the show gave its audience hope for a better future — that’s not bad. We reciprocated by hoping for a better future for the show. As if we awaited a Messiah, we prayed for the show’s revival, or a movie. In time, our prayers were answered, but except for a brief infatuation with Captain Kathryn Janeway (and the way I still cry when Spock dies in Star Trek II), I moved on.

Janeway confronts a Borg usurper.

2. Renaissance faires: I minored in Renaissance studies in college, and I still read the relevant texts, but I’ve never attended a faire.

3. Fantasy sports leagues: I’ve never understood any sport well enough to pursue this activity.

4. Michael Jackson: Speaking of Messiahs, listen to this guy sing “I’ll Be There,” and you’re getting a direct message from Jesus. If only Michael had died at 33 — instead he’s been crucified, and crucified himself, ever since. I loved the Thriller album, when it came out, but that’s like saying you love oxygen. I was never a Jackson camp-follower, merely an admirer — for a time. But some of my happiest memories are of dancing to “PYT” and “Human Nature” with Elise Goyette, a quarter-century ago. When those songs were playing, she was the only girl on earth.

√5. Wikipedia: I don’t edit Wikipedia entries, but I spend entirely too much time surfing its virtual pages.

6. Battlestar Galactica: The original series struck me as a weak substitute for Star Trek, and I’ve missed all the subsequent reformations.

If you think this is a picture of Billie Whitelaw in Beckett’s Not I, you’re a nerd. But a different kind of nerd.

√7. The Rocky Horror Picture Show: In junior and senior years in high school, I saw this movie 31 times. Since then, I haven’t seen it all the way through once. But I can still quote all the lyrics, and I haven’t forgotten how to do “The Time Warp.” I never dressed up, but I was a pretty hardcore fan for a time.

I remember doing the Time Warp
Drinking those moments when
The madness would hit me...

8. Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly): This pop-cultural phenomenon arrived on the scene too late to do me any good. I suspect I’d have been a fan, if I’d had the opportunity.

9. Media-specific role-playing (gaming in which one pretends to be a favorite movie or TV character): I’m not exactly guilty of this one, although for years I did woo a girl by pretending to be Lord Peter Wimsey, and referring to her as Harriet Vane. I’m confident this is not what the editors of The Onion are talking about, however.

10. Magic: The Gathering (a collectible card game): I’d never even heard of this before reading the article in The Onion.

11. World of Warcraft (a video game): I’d heard of this, but never gone near it — nor any other video game. That in itself must constitute a kind of nerdiness.

√12. The Simpsons: I’m pretty hardcore on this one. I have DVDs for the first nine seasons (after which we start running into far too many Worst. Episodes. Ever.), and I even listen to the Voiceover Commentaries by Cast and Crew; I collect figurines, and I was among the first people in France to attend the movie last summer. I don’t apologize. The Simpsons have made me a better person. Now, even my boogers are spicy.

13. Doctor Who: This British sci-fi series began in 1963, went off the air in 1989, then made a comeback in 2005. This is simply too much for me to handle. I can’t get involved in a series if there’s catching-up to do.

14. Frank Zappa: I admire him. I don’t own a single album.

15. Game-show tape trading: I can’t even see why this would be fun.

16. Animé: I like some kinds of graphic fiction, and I’m a big fan of Astérix and other French comic books. But animé never grabbed me.

17. Cosplay (dressing up as superhero cartoon characters): When I was four, my mother pinned a pillowcase to my shoulders, and I became Robin the Boy Wonder, joining the next-door neighbor, who had an authentic, store-bought Batman costume. Together, we would fight crime by running around the block as fast as we could. We never met any criminals, although this one time, we did see these older boys who chased us. That was the end for me of anything resembling “Cosplay.”

18. Live-action role-playing (acting out Dungeons & Dragons with costumes, swords, etc., in wooded areas): I couldn’t get into the tabletop version of Dungeons & Dragons. I wonder if the accoutrements would have given me the key to unlock the Cavern of Nerdy Delights, to smite the Guardian Orc, and to recover the Treasure of Fandom, giving me power over the Maidenly Wench. My guess: we’ll never know.

19. Second Life/MySpace/FaceBook: I have a blog. Does that count? I thought not. I’m too old for this one.

20. Fanfic: Although characters based on popular culture did surface in my early writings (the novel I wrote in high school is basically Star Trek Meets Upstairs, Downstairs — and yes, it’s that good), I was more interested in parody and in disguising my influences. Possibly because at an early age somebody explained to me the meaning of “copyright infringement.”

My Score: Four out of ten, not even a Gentleman’s F. I’m a failure as a nerd. (But I may have to contest the grade, because they didn’t even mention Tolkien.)

I should like to register a complaint.

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