31 August 2008

Charles Kuralt and the Age of Miracles

No matter which party wins the Presidential election in the United States in November, I face the prospect of being governed by a person younger than I. Barack Obama was born 18 days after me, Sarah Palin three years later. I will be older than the President or the Vice-President of the United States. That such a thing was possible had occurred to me only as a vague, rather theoretical idea, over which I never lingered. (To make matters worse, it’s being reported that Governor Palin is about to become a grandmother — which means that, technically, I am now more than old enough to be someone’s grandfather.) Yes, some day I’ll be older than the President — and some day, man will visit Mars.

It’s a pity Obama didn’t pick a younger man as running-mate. Then we could line up all the candidates like a remake of The Mod Squad, with McCain as the crusty Captain Greer. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Somehow it’s easier (and surely less frivolous) to dwell on the historic. An African-American man is the nominee of a major party for the Presidency of the United States — that fact alone is awe-inspiring. In my lifetime, which I persist in describing as short, I have seen my native country go from segregation to a nomination. I may yet live to see an administration. I honestly didn’t believe it would happen.

If the Republicans win, a woman will be Vice-President of the United States. She’s now primed automatically to be a leading candidate for the Presidency in 2012. If a President McCain were to step down because of health or to die in office (realistic possibilities), she’d be the incumbent. This is an age of miracles — and it makes me think about Charles Kuralt.

I didn’t know Charles Kuralt, and he surely did not know me, though we worked in the same building and sometimes on the same broadcasts. I recall that during election-night coverage in 1992, Kuralt observed on the air that he had voted for the first time for a presidential candidate younger than himself. So far as I know, no interest groups protested this expression of political bias on his part — obviously he meant he’d voted for Clinton. If Dan Rather or Connie Chung had said such a thing, you’d still be hearing the ruckus. Kuralt’s popularity was titanium and Teflon. He could run over your dog when he was On the Road, and you’d still watch his shows and happily buy his books.*

That night in 1992, Kuralt seemed immensely old, and it was difficult to imagine anybody older. He was in truth younger than he looked, and hadn’t yet turned 60, but I was a kid of 31 and careless. Kuralt didn’t say how he was coping with the reality of being older than the President, and I wish he had, because that might have helped me now. Sometimes his words stick with me.

Indeed, as I write this, I begin to wonder whether it wasn’t Mike Wallace who spoke. Such is the force of Kuralt, though, that I doggedly give him the credit. (Besides, he’s dead and can’t sue me.)

To cite another example of that force, I recall Kuralt’s broadcasting from the Soviet Union, either for the Seven Days in May show or for Vladimir Horowitz’s return to Moscow — I didn’t go on either trip, but I watched on TV like everybody else. Kuralt spoke of the powerful emotional reaction to hearing one’s national anthem played in a foreign country, and years later I understood what he meant when I passed through a Parisian Métro station and heard a band playing “New York, New York.” It’s not a song I love, but it’s the anthem of that city, and you never hear it in this one. I was caught off-guard. I stood there only a moment to listen, then hurried up to the street, overpowered by patriotism, homesickness, and love. And I remembered Charles Kuralt in Moscow.

He was a masterful writer for his own voice; when I read his books, I find the prose flat and disappointing, the thoughts banal, until I remind myself what he sounded like. Then the rhythms emerge, and I pay closer attention. Confessing that he was about to be older than the President was probably not a statement Kuralt wrote out in advance, but I hear his voice in those words, and I hear him now.

*NOTE: You can almost hear him narrating the story, can’t you? “We went to see a man about a dog the other day. We ran over it, we told him. He was a good sport about it, though. Said he never much cared for animals. Invited us onto the porch for hot coffee and homemade biscuits. His wife collects matchbook covers. She’s got about a thousand of them. Then it was time to go.”

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30 August 2008

The Palin Nomination

The news was greeted with surprise on this side of the Atlantic.

Most of us in Europe were surprised by Senator John McCain’s selec­tion, announced yesterday, of Michael Palin as his running mate. We have been in deep confusion over the American presidential campaign for several weeks, stymied over such questions as why the United States requires two years for a political process that most European nations can achieve, start to finish, in two months. Moreover, the French are puzzled that Barack Obama isn’t already President, since he is so man­i­fest­ly one of the two or three most fascina­ting creatures on earth today. I am confident that, if he loses in November, he will be offered the Presidency of France as a consolation prize.

One cannot overstate Obama’s popularity here. I know that’s the sort of news that dooms the chances of any American politician; the admi­ra­tion of the French, like a penchant for endives, arugula and Swiss board­ing schools, is an automatic disqualifier for high public office. But Obama’s following in France is a fact and it must be recognized. Elect him, and Parisians will begin eating Freedom Fries in solidarity.

Palin (left) is expected to appeal to voters who dress like him.

Against this backdrop of bewilderment, the selection of Michael Palin is especially confounding to our understanding of American politics. We vaguely recall that we have seen him on television wearing a dress, and we have seen him in movies holding either a fish or Maggie Smith. That lady is known here as “Moggy Smeese” and viewed as an out­stand­ing representative of the pernicious triviality of the English. (Our great French actresses are never funny, and that is a point of pride with us.) Palin’s career in comedy makes us wonder why McCain didn’t choose someone more familiar to us, indeed idolized by us: why were Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey passed over? We have reason to believe that Palin, like Moggy Smeese, is English, and previously it had been our under­stand­ing of American government that the President must be a U.S. citizen, as Lewis and Carrey are.

Addressing McCain’s weak support among conservative Christians, Palin also shares Vice-President Cheney’s interest in extreme interrogation methods.

However, we Europeans are constantly learning surprising things about America. Eight years ago, we learned that in the United States, un­like other ostensible democracies, the candidate who receives the most votes on the Supreme Court, rather than in the general election, is the victor. Discovering that America is not truly a democracy has made it easier to grasp much of what has happened since — such as the election of 2004, which we understand to have been decided by suicidal maniacs bent on the destruction of the planet. In France, we probably would not let such people vote; we certainly would not let them rule. We would take to the streets. Aux armes, citoyens! Allez, les Bleus!

This is not Palin’s first run for public office.

Since yesterday, our analysts, both the political and the Lacanian kinds, have struggled to clear up our confusion. They explain to us that Sen­a­tor McCain hopes that Palin will deliver an important bloc of voters whom Obama alienated during the Democratic primaries: name­ly, all those Americans who have memorized every single Monty Python sketch. Obama’s steadfast refusal, even during the Democratic Con­ven­tion last week, to say “Ni,” to sing the “Lumberjack Song,” or to dem­on­strate a Silly Walk, only handed McCain this opportunity.

A McCain–Palin administration would appoint conservative judges.

Only a few pundits have striven to explain that Senator McCain chose a different Palin, who is neither English nor a comedian, nor even a man. This woman Palin, we are told, is the Governor of Alaska, but that sen­tence alone poses insuperable challenges to our comprehension, since the French word gouverneur does not have an accepted feminine equiv­a­lent, and since until now we have been under the distinct im­pres­sion that Alaska was in Canada.

Wherever Alaska is, Palin boasts close ties to the logging industry.

We followed the Democratic Convention with great interest. So many of our all-time favorite personnages were in D’Enfer-Coloradó: both Beel and Eellary Cleen-Tong, former Président Hal Gaure, former Premier Ministre Tiède Kénnédy, and of course Obama himself.

But the Republican Convention won’t be a ratings winner here. We don’t care much for their personnages, particularly the notorious war crim­i­nal Georges Bouche. Though some of us have learned the name of Sénateur Jean Mack-Haine, we find him dull. So he once visited Vietnam — what Frenchman on holiday has not? The Club Med there is passé. Was there really no one better to choose? At least Mite Romné speaks French! (Or so we are told.)

Palin (left) is reputed to be a skilled debater.

It’s possible that we will take a moment to scrutinize La Gouverneur Palin, but mainly to see whether she is as chic as Michelle Obama; we will sigh happily that neither is quite so chic as Carla Bruni. It is a spec­ta­cle, this American election, but generally we prefer American movies: they are shorter, the acting is better, and there’s always the chance of a cameo by Jim Carrey.

The Americans, they are a funny presidential race, n’est-ce pas?

However, Palin’s debating techniques are somewhat unusual.

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26 August 2008


Name: Giuseppe Verdi
Nickname: Mean Joe Green
Friends: Marilyn Horne, Dolora Zajick, Plácido Domingo
Interests: Politics, Shakespeare
Motto: Pari siamo!

It will come as no surprise, from a guy who makes his pocket money by writing about opera, that my success rate is poor at keeping up with current trends in popular culture. Generally, if you want to know when to bail out of your investment in a given trend, you need merely look to me. For example, Madonna was a worldwide phenomenon by the time I took an interest in her — when I saw Truth or Dare. The picture overwhelmed me. I became an instant fan, roughly one decade too late. Almost immediately, the rest of the world lost interest in her. She, like so many other women I could but shall not name, has never recovered from my crush on her.

Mine is not a reliably anti-Midas Touch. I didn’t manage to kill off certain other trends, though I’ve been inarguably late in adapting to them. Other people are still using cell phones, for example, though I waited years before buying one. E-mail seems to be prospering quite nicely, despite my initial reluctance to participate in it. It remains to be seen what will become of Facebook, the Internet networking service, though I feel certain that, so long as I refuse to inscribe myself, it will prevail.

Suddenly, all of my friends have joined Facebook and are writing me indignant messages demanding to know why I haven’t joined. Without joining, I can’t access the site. I can’t know precisely what goes on in Facebook, and thus I can’t know what the appeal is. From the outside, it seems redundant. My friends are already my “friends.” I am in relatively frequent contact with all of them. Do I need Facebook to facilitate communications in which I already engage? What’s more, aren’t there technological advances enough as it is?

I have a blog (as you may have noticed), and so if you are Sally Boldt or Jimmy Swenson, or any of a number of my old friends, you will Google yourself like a normal person, see that I am thinking of you, and write to me in response, even if I haven’t written to you lately. Really, I’m doing my part already.

Madonna: She may never forgive me the harm I’ve done her.

And if I have written to you lately, and you haven’t answered, I doubt that Facebook will light the fire beneath you. No, Satan is lighting that particular fire. (It’s called Hell, and it’s where anyone goes who doesn’t answer my mail.)

“Ah,” say my friends, “Facebook makes it so easy to get in touch with people you haven’t seen in years.” This is interesting, but it presupposes a desire on my part to be found by those with whom I no longer communicate. That desire is in reality quite limited to a very few people. If my long-lost college roommates really want to get in touch with me, they will Google me, or themselves, and arrive at this blog, at which point it will be easy to contact me. (Are you paying attention, Jonathan Foell?)

Meanwhile, another friend of mine finds herself being stalked by a former beau on Facebook. I am unaware of having any stalkers; I prefer to live in ignorance.

Facebook seems to function also as a means of introduction to strangers who share your interest in model trains, or training models, or whatever. My personal interests are so eccentric that I’m not sure I want to know anyone who shares them: do I want to join any club that would have me for a member? And am I really comfortable telling strangers about my fetishes?

Moreover, some of the happier occasions of my life have been those moments when a common interest was revealed unexpectedly. I recall fondly a night when I attended an interminable opera by Philip Glass in the company of several friends who wanted desperately to keep up with the times and who did so by going to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I found the piece anti-theatrical and nearly anti-musical; I was bored stiff. Retreating to the lobby for a cigarette, I ran into one of my companions, whom I didn’t know well at the time.

“What do you think?” she asked.

“It ain’t Rigoletto,” I replied.

She drew herself up and snarled, “I like Verdi!”

“So do I! He’s my favorite composer!” I exclaimed. And on the spot Rena Grant and I became the dearest of friends (indeed, I’ve often thought that it was primarily my love of Verdi that prompted Rena to excuse my many lapses in intelligence, politics, and countless other realms), without the benefit of any networking service. Would the pleasure be the same, if the connection were made by other means?

Not a character from an opera by Philip Glass

Whatever people do on Facebook, it seems to demand a great deal of time, which, between dial-up and my writing career, I can’t afford. Moreover, I note that certain iconoclasts among my friends have joined other, more obscure networks, and now write inviting me to join those. Clearly, Facebook alone is inadequate.

Yet even as I lay out thoughtful arguments against joining, I know it’s only a matter of time. Peer pressure will be too great to resist, and I’ll tire of explaining my continued and protracted abstinence. Eventually — some time next year, perhaps — I will sign up.

And then you will know that the phenomenon has run its course, and it is time to do something else.

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21 August 2008

A Formal Announcement

Ending weeks of heated speculation, I am taking immediate steps to remove my name from the list of possible running mates for the major-party nominees for the presidency of the United States. After careful deliberation, I must respectfully decline both Senators’ interest. I am going now to rededicate myself to my family, although of course I will continue to speak out on the pressing issues that matter to rank-and-file Americans everywhere.

I urge my supporters to accept my decision and not to draft me as a write-in, to press for a roll-call voice vote, or to shout my name in high-pitched voices during the keynote speeches. No, my friends. Now is the time for all Americans to get behind the nominee of their party’s choice. Not too close behind, just an appropriate distance behind. And it is important also that we remain fully dressed while we get behind our nominees. We don’t want them to get funny ideas about us. God bless America!

Some may rush to say that I am being hasty, that the scandal will blow over and I will emerge a viable candidate. To them I say, “Which scandal?” For it is true that I have yet to denounce my pastor; indeed, I don’t even have one. It is also true that I have yet to disassociate myself from my top political adviser, Feldstein, despite his many controversial positions, which include sitting, standing, slouching, and immigration. It is equally true that I am not now, nor have I ever been, married to any of the women I have slept with. I do however want to take this opportunity to deny categorically that I have ever slept with Evan Bayh. I am not bayhsexual.

I understand that the press, as well as advisers to both campaigns, has questioned my skimpy legislative record, my lack of executive-branch experience or military service, my credentials, my judgment, my morals, and my handwriting. Senator Obama’s staff doubts that I could deliver my home state of Texas, and Senator McCain’s staff doubts that I could deliver my other home state of New York; President Bush has thrown himself into the debate by expressing doubts that I could deliver France. And Vice-President Cheney has stated publicly that I don’t know how to attach electrodes to the testicles. Pollsters assert that my principal constituency lies among middle-aged white college graduates who have met me at a cocktail mixer in Dubuque in 1996. To these nattering nabobs of negativity, I say, “Let them come to Berlin!”

Seriously. It’s a nice town.

I want to thank my family for standing behind me, although not too close and fully clothed, during this time. My wife, if I had one, would wear a good, Republican cloth coat. My children, if I had any, would wear good, Democratic tie-dyed dashikis. And my dog would wear a good, Libertarian collar, except that the whole point of being Libertarian is not wearing a dog collar. So my dog, if I had one, would be free-range, which would appeal equally to the Greens. And my dog would stand behind me now, too, although perhaps only partially clothed. It’s up to him. Or it would be, if I had a dog.

My parents, retired mill-workers who came to this country with nothing in their pockets but lint and a credit card, once dreamed of an America where their son could grow up splitting rails and building log cabins, eventually running for the vice-presidency and maybe buying them a nice retirement condo in Florida with rec-room privileges.

My friends, we are living that dream, you and I — at least the part where my parents dreamed of having a son, if not all the rest of it. But let us never forget: my parents did wake up, eventually! I talked to my father yesterday, and he was wide-awake. You could tell by the way he didn’t snore.

I am proud to represent their dream. I am proud to represent the spirit of change that is sweeping this country — change from a government of incompetent, unqualified, Ivy-educated, Texan baby-boomers to … I’ll have to get back to you on that.

I am proud to represent the hopes and aspirations of a statistically negligible percentage of Americans, proud to be an American, and proud to reject the nomination for the vice-presidency.

Thank you, and God bless Peoria.

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Welcome to the Death Star

There’s a moment early in the first Star Wars movie when Darth Vader invites Princess Leia to look out the window, whereupon he blows up her home planet. Although I can’t be certain, I suspect that my face may have reflected Leia’s expression on two occasions in my life: in June, 2001, when I accidentally erased every document on my computer, including an entire novel; and yesterday morning, when my computer crashed for no apparent reason.

Such incidents are disturbing to anyone, surely, yet to me, as a writer, they’re especially upsetting. How technology — how my life — has developed to such a point that I can write so much without leaving a trace, is anyone’s guess. But there you have it. The very idea of writing with pen and paper inhibits my creativity now. (To say nothing of the difficulty of pursuing a work in progress without being able to see any of the prior chapters.) I’m dependent on my brave little laptop for so many things, and I was reminded yesterday how little there is in Beynes to divert me that doesn’t require the use of the computer. Yes, yes, there are books and radio, there are the pleasures of cooking and of watching the grass grow — but that’s about it.

Better back up those files, Mose.

It’s to be remembered that, regardless of the technology used, writers have been losing manuscripts by any means possible for as long as there have been writers. A sudden gust of wind or rain, or even the tiniest conflagration will damage ink, paper and parchment; Moses tried using stone tablets, and you know what happened to those. The writer’s inspiration evaporates easily, and every minute risks the equivalent of the knock on the door that stunted Coleridge’s “Kublai Khan.” Even once a work is published, it’s not safe, as a recent re-viewing of The Name of the Rose reminds me.

Yet modern digital technology is so fast-moving, the consequences so great of gestures so small, that the writing seems more fragile than ever. In 2001, my single keystroke wiped out an adult lifetime’s work, and though other technology exists to recover files, I spent an entire year getting my novel on its feet again. During that time, the market for fiction dried up, not least to other advances in digital information technology, and my book remains unpublished. Had not my finger slipped, who knows what career I might have now? For all we know, I might have gotten in under the wire. In a sense, I’ve never recovered from the loss.

Thanks especially to my brother, I’ve gotten more diligent about backing up files. Very little of the current novel would have been lost yesterday. But repairing a computer can take a very long time in this country: most often, Paris merely ships the wounded Mac to Holland, where the real repairs are performed, and the customer is obliged to muddle along without a computer for six weeks or longer. I had to contemplate pushing back every deadline I have. That’s not merely a discouraging thought but a series of them, grisly dominos that keep toppling down.

I persist in writing because, I tell myself, I do not have a choice. It is the will of destiny that I should write. That’s a lofty sentiment, and sometimes very cheering, but once one admits the possibility of destiny’s will, one must admit that it could be exerted in other ways, too. It’s no good believing in a God who makes bunnies and kittens if you do not also accept a God who makes tsunamis that kill tens of thousands of humans at Christmastime; otherwise, you don’t truly believe. Yesterday I found myself wondering whether the same destiny that wills me to write might not also will me to fail. Even if the will in question belongs not to a deity or to any other external supernatural force, I am screwed, since the will must therefore be my own.

These are the things you think about, when your computer crashes. It is easier to blame technology.

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15 August 2008

Genres of the Convention

Although I’m not in this picture, I was somewhere in the room when it was taken.
Madison Square Garden, 1992.

There are few more reliably poignant reminders that I no longer work in broadcast news than the nominating conventions of the American political parties, which doggedly persist in taking place even though I’m not there to cover them. “Cover” is perhaps the wrong word to use, since it implies that news might actually be involved, which is only rarely and fleetingly the case. Dismayed by the mayhem of the Democratic convention in Chicago, 1968, organizers in both parties began to do their utmost to present to the nation a serenely polished spectacle in which very little would happen of interest to anyone on earth. News organizations continue to pour enormous resources into covering the conventions, however, in the fearful hope, or hopeful fear, that someone may slip up and do something significant.

The press is currently trying to drum up excitement in the Democratic convention — will Hillary sabotage it? Has she already sabotaged it? Is this Obama’s party, or Clinton’s? Don’t be fooled. By the time they get to Denver, there will be no drama for Obama, and the press knows it already. They’re simply trying to justify their expense accounts ahead of time.

Rock on. New Orleans, 1988.
I missed out on this one, actually.

I attended five conventions, three Democratic and two Republican, in 1988, 1992, and 1996. At my side on all these excursions was Dan Rather, whose roughing up in Chicago in 1968 has come to symbolize both the mayhem of that week and the last gasp of newsworthiness at any convention. By the time I arrived on the scene, technology had advanced to the point that it was no longer necessary for Dan to wear an elaborate headset like the one he’d worn on the floor of the Chicago convention — but the sight of him in any headset at all was startlingly powerful. He was a television icon, like Spock in his ears or Matt Dillon with his pistol.

He used to roam the halls, greeting delegates and reporters alike with the cheery request to “Call me if any news breaks out.” People would chuckle, but he wasn’t joking. He was likewise serious when he’d say to me, “Take a good look around. This may be the last time.” He didn’t mean the last time for me, but the last time for the networks. Covering a convention is an expensive proposition, and though it’s a gesture of good citizenship, the rewards are few. As conventions get duller, fewer people watch. During my tenure, all three major networks cut back on the hours devoted to convention coverage, and all three cut back on personnel, too. The lavishness of it, by turns circus, parade, and Roman orgy, could not survive.

I’ve written here about the summer-camp excitement of attending a nominating convention. It’s not unlike a Star Trek convention, too, for we are brought together by a passion that others do not share, and we find thereby a community. We treat as major celebrities people who are not widely known to the general public (“Look, there’s Walter Koenig/Evan Bayh!”), we boast of our knowledge of trivia while speaking arcane languages (Klingonese/policy), we are encouraged to buy overpriced memorabilia (an authentic copy of a phaser/a Pat Buchanan button), and many of the conventioneers feel the need to wear strange costumes (Wisconsin cheese-heads being but one example). Having witnessed both ladies in action, I can assure you that the appearance on the dais of Nichelle Nichols or Barbara Jordan excited a precisely equivalent frenzy among their respective audiences.

At least Star Trek conventions are colorful. At the nominating conventions, our eyes are assaulted by red, white and blue — it’s everywhere — until we get headaches, and in more severe cases, we start to see spots. Pink, purple and green ones. We have regrettably little time to get to know the cities where conventions take place, though my glimpses of Chicago and San Diego in 1996 inspired me to linger through the weekend after each convention had ended, and to return several times on my own. We can’t get into the good restaurants, because big shots like Peter Jennings and Bob Dole got there first. For fear of a security breach, we can’t afford to hook up with attractive conventioneers — but fortunately, there seldom are any. Rob Lowe may have gotten laid in Atlanta in 1988, but I didn’t.

I miss the conventions. I miss the speeches, which with only one exception (Buchanan in 1992) were incredibly, invariably dull. I miss the foolishness — I miss watching Al Gore dance “The Macarena.” I miss the skullduggery, the wariness accorded to the politicos by the press, and vice-versa, while each side feeds voraciously off the other. I miss the pomposity and audacity (“The next president of the United States, Michael Dukakis!”), the eccentricity (“The great state of Missourah nominates… ”), the pageantry, the inevitable balloons. And I’ll miss it again this year.

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12 August 2008

The Game of Politics

For years, I helped to keep the schedule of a major public figure. The fact that a network anchor isn’t a politician doesn’t negate the fact that s/he runs for election every night: the corporate bosses take the ratings very, very seriously. So the staff of a network anchor must exercise extreme caution in scheduling events and appearances that are appropriate. And at the first sign of trouble, the staff must do everything possible — up to and including throwing themselves bodily in the path of her/his speeding car — to bail the anchor out of an event that could compromise her/him.

Apparently, President Bush hasn’t got any such people working for him. Granted, when the travel plans were drawn up, the White House couldn’t have known that Russia and Georgia would go to war while the rest of the world was watching the Olympic Games. But surely they realized what was happening once the war started. How to explain, then, that the vigorous response of the President of the United States to this crisis included a dirt-bike race and a fanny-slapping volleyball game?

No wonder Putin kept right on bombing the Georgians. George Bush’s opinion on the subject carried about as much weight as that of Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, who remained on a boating vacation while the conflict began. “Don’t bother coming into the office — I have everything under control. You just relax and enjoy yourself.” Just think of the time Putin could have saved by making a conference call and saying the same thing to both presidents at once!

I’m having difficulty keeping my cool on this subject. Set aside that Georgia is among the only nations on earth who still like America — that they still like Bush, even. Set that aside, really, and consider this. Fourteen years ago, a Georgian family welcomed me into their home in Tbilisi, and the two youngest children, ages five and three, entertained us with the purest, sweetest singing I’ve ever heard. Today, those little boys are young men. They’re cannon fodder right now.

But okay — nobody knew this was going to happen. They did know other things, and reportedly some State Department staffers did suggest to President Bush that, given the continuing recalcitrance of the Chinese on everything from human rights to air pollution to Tibet to selling arms to rogue nations, it might be unwise for him to appear at the opening ceremonies in Beijing. One or two of them may even have realized that the ceremonies would be the Chinese sequel to Triumph of the Will. But Bush overruled them. He’s a sports buff, you see. He wanted to catch the basketball game.

I sympathize somewhat with those folks in the State Department — I’ve been there. When the Big Guy makes up his mind, there’s not much you can do. (And I didn’t even work for the Decider.)

Also taking advantage of the Olympics in order to make news — while attracting as little attention as possible — was former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, who sincerely hoped that everybody would be too distracted by the Games to notice that he’d just admitted to an extramarital affair. Things didn’t quite work out that way, but you can’t fault Edwards’ reasoning: this was as good a window of opportunity as he was likely to find.

What I can’t fathom is why his clever, sensible wife — who knew all about the affair — encouraged her husband to run for the nomination, only a few months later. It’s admirable that she forgave him, but surely she realized that, eventually, other people would find out, and there’d be hell to pay (on top of all the hush money). Like it or not, voters care about these things. And yet she said, “Go for it, honey — run anyway.”

In confessing, Edwards blamed his own narcissism, but it’s important to remember that there’s a woman in the story of Narcissus, the nymph Echo, who’s every bit as smitten with him as he is with himself. I always figured Elizabeth Edwards for more the Hera type than an Echo — in this context, I’d picture her turning the Other Woman into a farm animal, instead of agreeing with everything her husband says — but I was wrong.

The Other Woman turns out to be a former lover of the writer Jay McInerney, who tried his darnedest to warn other men away from her by making her the main character of his novel, Story of My Life. He couldn’t have made himself clearer if he’d bought a billboard in Times Square. Does anybody read that book and walk away wanting to have an affair with Allison Poole?

It really does seem as if anybody who knows anything about politics — or contemporary fiction — would have sounded the alarm at any of several points in this misadventure. But apparently the Edwardses don’t know anything, and don’t know anyone who does.

And to think that this guy was very nearly Vice-President of the United States.

Maybe it’s all just a game to these people.

UPDATE: For some, the name of the game may be “Hi Bob.” The AP has released photographs of President Bush, a teetotaler, at the swimming competitions in Beijing this weekend.

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08 August 2008

Drill Now!

The view from the garden

Like so many Americans, I am eager to set aside partisan politics in order to find quick fixes to difficult problems. That’s why I was so pleased to hear Senator John McCain’s new campaign slogan, “Drill here! Drill now!” It is the Republican’s assertion that increased offshore drilling would result in the immediate rise in production and reduction of prices at the gas pump. This flies in the face of the facts, as well as reason, logic, common sense, and the analysis and testimony of people who actually know anything about the subject, but it plays very well among voters like me, who know nothing, and Senator McCain is increasingly adamant on the point. I admire his tenacity. Like a remarkable percentage of Americans (two-thirds, in a recent poll), I find myself agreeing with the Senator. The experts, bah! What do they know?

Rather than wait for the do-nothing Congress to debate, rather than side with Democrats who, according to Senator McCain’s spokesmen, want Americans to pay more and to suffer, I decided to take action on my own. Though I’m sure the Senator really means “in the ocean,” if one defines “offshore” more simply as “not on American soil,” one can’t do better than France. I am already offshore. Thus I recognized a unique opportunity to contribute to American political and economic discourse by testing the Senator’s assertion. I determined to drill here — in Beynes — and to drill now.

Unfortunately, location was the easy part. I don’t personally possess any oil-drilling equipment. I meant to bring some when I moved to this country, but the lousy airline told me I was exceeding the weight allowance for my checked baggage. You know the feeling — we’ve all been there — standing at the check-in desk at JFK and sorting through your bag, removing your 25,000 feet of drill pipe and your spare cable, your drill mud and your derrick girders, while the attendant glares at you and the people waiting behind you begin to fume. Some arrogant New Yorker actually had the nerve to say, “I bet this guy is from Texas.” “You bet I am, buddy — wanna make something of it?” I replied. But my flight was leaving, and there was no time to brawl. I had to leave all my drilling equipment, every last bit, right there at the counter, and even at the time, I knew I’d regret it. I haven’t seen it since.

There will be oil:
With any luck, I will shortly look just like this guy.

However, the house at Beynes boasts a tool closet, filled with all kinds of gadgets and hardware accumulated as they are in any old house, particularly one that used to be part of a working farm, as this one was. Surely I’d find what I needed — and I did, a battery-powered hand-held perceuse with half a dozen changeable bits.

I cleared an oil patch in the garden and set to work. Regrettably, my output thus far has not been significant. The drill battery requires frequent recharging, and though I gave myself a head start by drilling in a pre-existing hole (abandoned by a hedgehog), I have yet to reach a depth greater than about 84 cm., or indeed to strike any oil. It’s been arduous and expensive, too, necessitating emergency medical treatment after I encountered a hostile native, Bernard, who walloped me when he saw what I was doing. But the true American spirit won’t back down — and certainly not to a Frenchman! I will not cease until I strike oil. Not James Dean, not Daniel Day Lewis himself could match my determination. My stitches will be removed in two weeks.

And I am pleased to note that gas prices in the United States have begun to drop already. I will write this very day to Senator McCain, reporting my success and urging him not to relent in his campaign. Reality-based policies are clearly a thing of the past, and ignoring facts and experts has led to most of the signature achievements of the current administration, from tax cuts to disaster relief, from the war in Iraq to enhanced interrogation methods. There is every reason now to believe that President McCain would enjoy comparable success. My offshore drilling is just the beginning.

In other news, the candidate threatens to hold his breath
until we vote for him.

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07 August 2008

Summer: Industry and Indolence

All work and no play makes Bill’s a dull blog.

Now come the dog days of summer, or as they’re known in French, the canicule. This charming word is derived from the Latin for “dog’s asshole” — gee, thanks. Next please tell me who had the honor of taking the dog’s temperature. (Caligula, probably. That guy was freaky.)

Posters in the Métro, recalling the fatal heat wave a few years ago, encourage us to remember our elderly neighbors and to bring them glasses of ice water: the gesture may prove as unnecessary as the reminder. The inconvenient truths of global warming being what they are, temperatures in northern France are persistently cool, for the third summer in a row; we can no longer say that the chill and damp are seasonally abnormal, because they fit the newly established pattern. The garden in Beynes hardly knows how to respond: we have no plums this year, neither mirabelles nor prunes, and the grapevines and hazelnut trees are starting to shed their leaves already. The grass is unsure whether to grow anymore, and I’ve given up any hope of ever raising another tomato.

My own mood reflects that of the garden, and I’m torn between industry and indolence. The past several days, I’ve found little to write about in this space, yet I’ve been busily at work on the next novel: I can’t complain, and you shouldn’t.

It’s a curious fact of the writing life that one keeps working even in August, when every sensible Frenchman is on state-authorized vacation. The entire notion of vacation is foreign to writers: we can’t escape and must instead await and embrace the possibility that a brilliant phrase or scene will come to us even when we’re asleep.

The summertime pleasures of Paris — the deserto poppoloso, as Violetta calls it — are largely denied me this year, because the removal in July of prefabricated buildings from the schoolyard across the street turned out to be a mere preliminary for the phenomenally noisy construction of new classrooms. It’s difficult to sleep and impossible to work in such circumstances, so I have retreated to Beynes, where the birds make a racket in the trees and have already eaten the best grapes, where the shops are closed and my allergies act up every evening, and where peace is a relative concept.

I find it difficult to motivate myself toward the day-to-day chores that nag me. The bathroom sink is clogged and the kitchen floor wants mopping: too bad. From lack of exercise, and not from any athletic or dietary discipline, my weight has dropped to 62 kilos, which is, I think, an adult record for me. My arms are beginning to resemble those of a native Frenchman, which is to say that they look very much like pencils. Yet I can’t be bothered to go into the city to work out. Very little inspires me, except the principal thing I ought to be doing. And so I keep writing, or thinking about my writing, which is almost as good.

But the days are growing shorter — soon the skies will be dark before 10 P.M. Change is fluttering in the lazy air, and who knows what autumn will bring?

How does a ballet dancer do the belly flop? Now you know.
This is Roberto Bolle, who is not French.

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06 August 2008

Nicola Rescigno

Nicola Rescigno has died, in Italy, at the age of 92. I have written before, in this space and elsewhere, that I consider myself to have been spoiled rotten as a burgeoning opera fan in Dallas, Texas, in the 1970s; as co-founder, artistic director, and (during the period in question) general director of Dallas Civic Opera, Rescigno is the first man to be thanked, or blamed. A gifted conductor with a predilection for the bel canto works that were my introduction to opera, Rescigno managed to bring dozens world-class singers, in repertory congenial to them and illuminating to me, right to my doorstep, exactly when I needed them most.

Bringing opera to Dallas was a quixotic enterprise: there was no particular reason to do so, and Rescigno faced innumerable challenges — starting with money. Dallas is a wealthy city, and it adores glittery, snobby outings, good excuses to wear what one has bought at Neiman-Marcus. In that sense, opera might seem like a good fit for the town. But Dallas is also deeply conservative, in every way, and moreover mistrustful of art and outsiders. Dallasites were delighted for Rescigno to import superstars; they flocked to galas and sometimes listened to the music, too. Getting them to pay for their opera was another matter, and Rescigno never did quite surmount the problem.

He had founded one American company already, Lyric Opera of Chicago, in 1954. One of his partners there was Lawrence Kelly, and the third member of the triumvirate, Carol Fox, rewarded the men for their efforts by booting them out of town. What the hell possessed the two men — one foreign, both gay — to strike out for Dallas in order to produce something so strange and so expensive can never be explained to my satisfaction. But enlisting the help of their friend Maria Callas, arguably the most famous woman on earth, they soon set up shop in Fair Park.

Boasting performances by Callas and Giulietta Simionato, the new company soon earned and scrupulously maintained the nickname “La Scala West.” Joan Sutherland made her American debut there, in Handel’s Alcina, at a time when almost nobody staged Handel — but the music was right for her voice, so Rescigno programmed it. Plácido Domingo and Magda Olivero were among the many who made their U.S. debuts in Dallas, too, and Jon Vickers and Marilyn Horne were among the faithful who returned again and again.

New York friends sometimes marvel that in my first years as an operagoer I heard Mady Mesplé in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, or Renata Scotto and Tatiana Troyanos in Anna Bolena, and that I was so frequently treated to Horne, Vickers, and Alfredo Kraus in music that was so right for them. Beverly Sills’ appearance with the company, in La Traviata, was one of her last outings in that opera, and the occasion of my first journalistic interview.

Even some of those who didn’t become household names, living legends, or musical monuments were wonderful, and I cherish memories of Roberta Knie’s delicious Salome, Beniamino Prior’s buoyant Rodolfo, and Linda Zoghby’s glittering Israelite, in Handel’s Samson. Vickers and Knie teamed for my first Tristan und Isolde, which coincided with my first date. The music went over my head, and my girlfriend’s, too, and we fell asleep — but we felt terribly grown-up.

By your friends, they shall know you:
Maria Callas as Medea, one of the roles she sang in Dallas.
(Albeit before my time.)

Regional opera elsewhere in America in those days didn’t mirror my experiences in Dallas. One didn’t hear superstars, one didn’t hear bel canto — and in most places, one didn’t hear opera at all. I had it easy. With Dallas Civic Opera’s season of four operas in the fall and the Metropolitan Opera’s annual sojourn in the spring, with another four operas, I got to hear live performances by many of the greatest artists of the day. At home, I subscribed to Opera News, timed to the Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Met and offering me a weekly course in music appreciation. The music critic of The Dallas Morning News happened to be one of the best in the country, John Ardoin, so that first-rate background and analysis were easily within my reach. My parents generously provided me with an allowance that permitted the purchase of several complete opera recordings per year. And my adolescence coincided with the emergence of live opera on public television, as well as the broadcast of German television productions. Television gave me my first glimpses of Teresa Stratas, Hermann Prey, Astrid Varnay, Mirella Freni, Gabriel Bacquier, Frederica von Stade, and countless others whose work is eternally meaningful to me.

A kid discovering opera today would find it more difficult to immerse himself as I did — notwithstanding the newfangled tools of Wikipedia and YouTube. The contemporary opera scene isn’t hopeless, by any means. In Fort Worth, for example, Darren Keith Woods produces wonderfully exciting opera; the Marilyn Horne Foundation dispatches the great lady’s protégés into the heartland, so the whole country can hear impeccably trained singers, live in recital. There’s a long list of attractive artists now (Fleming, Graham, Voigt, Netrebko, Dessay, et al.) who may not drop by the local concert hall very often, but who doubtless can create the glamour I found, and who can inspire the passion I felt for my totem divas, back in the day. Some younger, highly approachable singers (Martínez, DiDonato, Gunn, to name a few) may even make opera seem more inviting. But a kid today would have to work harder than I did, I believe; he’d have to be more cunning and persistent than I was. I had opera handed to me on a silver platter.

I wasn’t conscious of my good fortune; I didn’t appreciate the incomparable resources at my disposal. It never occurred to me to express my gratitude to Nicola Rescigno.

His artistic direction had a lingering, in some cases lasting impact on me. That’s a mixed legacy. It took me a long time to warm to composers who weren’t Italian, to stage direction that wasn’t traditional, to performances that weren’t singer-centric. Because Rescigno’s baton was so deft, and because the acoustics of Fair Park Music Hall are so odd, I’m still learning what conductors really do; had he chosen a different hall, or offered more aggressive interpretation, he might have answered key questions for me. I’m still crazy about singers (as perhaps you have noticed), and I count many among my personal friends. In short, for better and worse, I am the opera fan that Rescigno brought me up to be.

His work was thrilling, and memorable. Attending his performances, one never doubted that opera was worthwhile — and very far from a dead art form. It demanded my attention, my affection, and my participation. It opened up the world to me. I’m a little late in saying so — but grazie, Maestro.

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02 August 2008

Pop Quiz

Good morning, class! Get out your pencils. It’s time for a pop quiz. I’m going to describe a world leader, and I want you to identify him.

The less-gifted scion of a distinguished political family, his ascension to power came as a surprise to most. Even his own family had designated a different “heir apparent,” but circumstances permitted him to rise. In the course of an unorthodox election, he campaigned on a platform of concern for those less fortunate; once in power, he quickly set aside his stated objectives in favor of what some described as “an imperial presidency” that ultimately amounted to a coup d’état. Seizing on threats to national security as an excuse, he clamped down on civil rights, squelched dissent, and embarked on a domestic policy marked by cronyism and a foreign policy marked by ill-advised military adventures.

Under his administration, real-estate speculation was rampant, permitting a few investors to accumulate great wealth, although the stated goal of housing policy was to improve the quality of life for the poor and for small-homeowners. During most of his time in office, the legislature served mainly to rubber-stamp his agenda. News outlets that cooperated with him were rewarded; those that did not were punished. Though he frequently boasted his Christian faith, his actions put him in conflict with the Vatican, and many people esteemed his personal behavior and public policies as immoral; though his wife was considered a model of piety, she limited herself to a few charitable works, and few believed she exerted any real influence on her husband. Artists and intellectuals reviled him, but they found themselves powerless to oppose him.

He was brought down by a series of military exploits abroad. Several of these were blatantly designed to provide economic opportunities for his cronies. Repeatedly, on multiple fronts, he attempted to impose his values on other cultures at the point of a gun. Though he claimed that his wars would demonstrate his country’s preeminence as a superpower, they left the country more vulnerable — for generations to come.

Got all that? Good. Write down your answer, then scroll down to find his name and picture.

Why, it’s Napoleon III, of course! Who on earth did you think I was talking about?

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