Tuesday, March 31, 2009


I spent last night at the office hunched over a keyboard until nearly midnight, expending the last of my middle-aged vitality to help write a draft for my company's current proposal effort. The reason that I was working so late is that salesmanship does not come naturally to me; and exhaustion helps me surmount my personal threshold of disgust in generating proposal prose, a stylized form of expression that is equal parts bombast and giddy optimism.

Below are some of the zircons that I polished last night. (Specifics have been changed to prevent industrial spies in my vast blog readership from gaining illicit advantage.)

To satisfy certain niceties of proposal protocol, my thesis sentence had to include all of the items on a contract list. This ungainly thesis sentence, a sausage-string of prepositional phrases set in blue italics, sets the tone for my entire section.

"The Acme Handbag designing, cutting, and stitching approach uses incremental scheduling with a sew-as-you-go methodology to manage risk by enabling our sweatshop to identify production issues early and adapt to retailer delivery obligations."

After this awkward beginning, the prose settles down into conventional hype.

"Acme's unequaled competence in handbag manufacturing, demonstrated by successful past performance in ..."

"Acme employs a rigorous process-based handbag design approach, used successfully on our Big Mama series, to meet product line requirements on cost and on schedule."

"As shown in Figure xx-2, the Acme handbag process begins with the designer providing sketches, fabric and clasps to the sweatshop ladies and culminates with the warehouse boy hauling a quality-inspected handbag shipment to Betty's Fashion Barn."

When I couldn't think of any compelling arguments, I would punch up the prose with hyphenated jargon. The prose would resemble a bad translation from the German.

"This OSHA-compliant earth-friendly sweatshop assembly-line architecture minimizes finger-loss incidents and enables high-adaptability reconfiguration of sewing resources."

What truly dismays me is how closely these silly examples conform to my actual proposal sentences.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The joys of plagiarism

My younger son, the composer and soon-to-be itinerant bass player, sent me a link to a Harper's article by Jonathan Letham (February 2007). Letham explores how writers often appropriate the works of other writers in ways ranging from the subtle echoing of influences to outright theft. At the end of the article, Letham reveals that he has fabricated the entire article using quotations, thereby cleverly using plagiarism to explain plagiarism. To give the reader insight into the artistic process of plagiarizing (and perhaps to avoid litigation), Letham provides attributions for all his quotation sources in an appendix.

In a tour de force of literary cut-and-paste, Letham cobbles together quotations from sources as disparate as Mary Shelley and Ned Rorem to construct a graceful summation:

"Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one's voice isn't just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos. Any artist knows these truths, no matter how deeply he or she submerges that knowing."

As one having more ability as a reviser than as a creator, I have often considered pursuing a writing career based on plagiarism. Not as a thief, mind you, but as an editor transforming someone else's prose beyond all recognition. My goal would be to perform such radical editing that my product would bear no trace of the original author's words or sensibility. Only a structural resemblance would persist.

As an example of this process, consider this opening paragraph from bestselling author Robert Ludlam concerning the return of an agent to the spy bureau known as the Directorate:

"The patient was conveyed by a chartered jet to a private landing strip twenty miles northwest of Washington, D.C. Although the patient was the only passenger on the entire aircraft, no one spoke to him except to ascertain his immediate needs. No one knew his name. All they knew was that this was clearly an extremely important passenger. The flight's arrival appeared on no aviation logs anywhere, military or civilian."

Now, to transform this paragraph, let's make the agent a female. A chartered jet is a bit ostentatious; let's substitute a kayak instead. An air of mystery should be retained. The objective is to have the agent arrive at Washington, D.C. discreetly. Here goes.

In the cold dawn of early March, a woman paddled a white kayak like a long dagger of ice in the gray water of the Potomac River. Precise, silent strokes brought her along the shore and into a secluded inlet of East Potomac Park, four miles south of the White House. She tied off the boat, clambered up the river bank, and looked all around. Nobody was in sight. She tucked her long, brown hair beneath the collar of her windbreaker and pulled the hood snug to cover her face. She headed north along the shoreline trail. Near the park entrance a pair of joggers came toward her. She put her head down and buried her hands in her pockets, shoulders hunched, as if shrinking from the morning chill. The joggers passed without giving her a look.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Digital TV

My son the engineering graduate student installed a digital TV converter box for me two days ago. While I appreciate his help, I am having second thoughts about upgrading my viewing technology. All that I watch that provides any consistent benefit is the weather segment of the local news. So, insofar as most of what I receive over the airwaves is visual sewage, is it really an advantage to bring a more advanced sewer pipe into my living room? (I was too lazy to find a sewer to photograph by way of illustration. The sudsy spillway above is provided as a substitute.)

Sometimes my mind boggles when I consider the magnitude of the unprecedented psychological and sociological experiment that has been conducted on the American public during the last sixty years of television exposure. The relentless visual stimulus has damaged literacy and personal health; the increasingly degraded content has undermined morals; and the techniques of television advertising have driven serious consideration of issues clean out of political campaigning.

Neil Postman (1931-2003), the New York University professor and media critic, was one of the first to sound the alarm about television's bad effects. He argued that television presents "a peek-a-boo world where now this event, now that pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense, a world that does not ask us, indeed does not permit us to do anything...but like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining." He described his 1985 book "Amusing Ourselves to Death" as "an inquiry into and a lamentation about the most significant American cultural fact of the second half of the twentieth century: the decline of the Age of Typography and the ascendancy of the Age of Television."

Well, Professor Postman is no longer with us. But he left us some insights, my favorite being the following quote:

"What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance."

Put your money on Huxley.

Eichler Houses - Part 3

Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian house for Sidney and Louise Bazett was Joseph Eichler's major influence in his development of California tract housing in the Modernist style. "Usonian" is a quirky coinage that Frank Lloyd Wright used in place of "American", which he thought encompassed both North and South America and therefore was too general a term to refer to designs specific to the United States.


Extracted from Paul Adamson's article in the Eichler network newsletter:
(See http://www.eichlernetwork.com)

A great admirer of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Joseph Eichler had moved his family to California from New York in 1940, and three years later had the rare opportunity to rent a Usonian House Wright designed for Sidney and Louise Bazett, in Hillsborough, just south of San Francisco. Although consisting of only a living/dining room and three small ship's cabin-like bedrooms, including the guest house, the Bazett residence accommodated Eichler and his family, sometimes as many as seven people at a time, from 1943 until 1945, when the house was sold to Louis and Betty Frank.

Eichler's experience living in the Bazett house was profound, and inspired a change in his life. He had been the treasurer for the family produce business, but was forced to change careers when the company encountered difficulties during the war. Inspired by Wright's use of natural materials and his masterful manipulation of daylight, he later remarked that the Bazett house introduced him to "an entirely new way of living." Living there, he wrote, "was such a wonderful experience," that he determined to go into the house-building business himself with the idea of producing "contemporary houses for sale to the person of average income."

On the scale of the individual family, Wright imagined the Usonian: a warm, open-planned, small home designed for convenience, economy, and comfort. Wright's model of residential design for the "everyman" would provide abundant lessons for the designers of Eichler Homes. While the formal imagery of the Eichlers more closely resembles European Modernism, their integration with the landscape and the specific use of indigenous materials owes a debt to Wright, who pursued his vision of the well-designed small house with a sense of moral purpose.

Unlike the mass-produced Eichlers, Wright's Usonians were always custom designed for individual clients, but the homes were always very modestly scaled; their planning made efficient with built-in furniture and a minimum of circulation space. The architects who designed Eichler's homes would employ many of Wright's Usonian principles when designing Eichler's prototypes.

Many features of Wright's Usonian houses, including the Bazett house, and the more famous Hanna house constructed in Palo Alto in 1938, are common to the Eichler homes. It would seem likely, considering their proximity and their considerable notoriety, that these homes provided Eichler's first architect, Bob Anshen, who felt such deep sympathy toward Wright's work, convenient resources for ideas and techniques. In fact, the design parameters Wright defined for his Usonians were remarkably similar to those Anshen would employ in his prototypical designs for Eichler.

When seen today, the Bazett house is obviously a product of an earlier time. The fact that nothing about the house is standardized points to a condition, before modern codes and the machine-like construction methods of contemporary building, when houses were "hand crafted." Ornament aside, however, it is the careful accommodation of the intimate duties and pleasures of domestic life that have made this Usonian meaningful for the Franks for almost 55 years. And for Joe Eichler and Bob Anshen, the house was a touchstone that never ceased to resonate for either of them as they strove to transcend the limits of merchant building.


Daniel Soderberg visited Frank Lloyd Wright's Bazett House and posted the following notes on his blog. See the July 5, 2008 posting for his pictures. Three are shown above.

I surveyed a number of Northern California Frank Lloyd Wright structures in April of 1971. One of my favorites is the Bazett House in Hillsborough, 1939. It is one of Wright’s finest “Usonian” houses. This is a category of house characterized by reduced building cost via simplified design.

Wright’s Usonia doctrine includes flat roofs. “Visible roofs are expensive and unnecessary.”

Carport instead of garage. Slab foundation, no basement. Simplified plumbing. Radiant floor heating.

This house was designed with a hexagonal grid or layout. Note the playful pattern this creates with the glass living room wall. Wright loved blending where exterior space ends and interior space begins. It is a common trait for the Usonian houses to be wide open toward the garden, but closed and private on the side facing the street. That closed side was often butted up along the street to maximize garden space and vista at the open side.


I can understand the appeal of the Brazett House. I like the idea of a house that is closed to public view and that opens up to a hidden garden. However, the blending of interior and exterior space is best suited to mild climates. In Iowa, you want a stout bulwark between the indoors and the outdoors. During most of the year in Iowa (except for about a week in June and a week in October), the outdoors is usually too hot or too cold or too rainy or too infested with mosquitoes.

Eichler Houses - Part 2

Extracted from Paul Adamson's articles in the Eichler Network newsletter
(See http://www.eichlernetwork.com/em_joeeichler.html)
[My comments in blue]

Born in New York to European Jewish parents, Joseph Eichler received a business degree from New York University and started a career on Wall Street. After marriage to his wife Lillian, he began working for his in-laws' family-run poultry concern. The Eichlers moved to the West Coast in 1940, where Joe assumed the position of treasurer for the family business.

In 1942, Eichler rented a Frank Lloyd Wright house, known as the Bazett House, in Hillsborough from an Air Force pilot who was stationed overseas. The experience Eichler had living in this house would change his life. Eichler, who had been an admirer of Wright, now gained a deeper appreciation for his architecture. He was intrigued by the Bazett house and delighted in its spatial complexities -- the overlapping of exterior and interior, and the way daylight filtered in from so many directions, changing the mood of each room throughout the day. Three years of living in the Bazett house may very well have loosened Joe Eichler's spirit enough to allow him to feel his own internal stirrings for creative self-expression. So, when a scandal involving the family business forced Eichler to seek a new career, his experience in this house was in large part what inspired him to launch a home-building concern.

When the war ended, Eichler began his new venture, building prefabricated houses on individual lots. Over the next two years, Joe developed the company to the point where he was building small tracts. Meanwhile, no doubt thinking of his family's enjoyment of the Wright house during the war, Eichler sought out an architect to design them a new family home with a Modernist design. He settled on Robert Anshen, a young architect who, like many of his generation, could not help but be influenced by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

While Ashen was designing the Eichler family home [which was never built because Eichler's funds were insufficient for his architectural expectations], Anshen noted that Eichler was unsatisfied with the designs being used for his tract housing. Eichler's younger son, Ned, who would later join the business, recalls a conversation between Anshen and his father in which the architect criticized his work. "Joe," he asked, "how can someone like you, who loves real architecture, build this crap?"

Anshen proposed that Eichler hire him to design a subdivision. Eichler at first dismissed the idea with a scowl, claiming Anshen lacked the discipline to design within the strict budgets required in merchant building. [The scowl was Eichler's customary expression. He was described as a hard guy to work for -- a demanding, arrogant, tough-talking, cigar-smoking New Yorker.] Later in 1949, however, it was agreed that Anshen would develop three prototypical designs for a 50-unit subdivision in Sunnyvale. That subdivision sold out in two weeks, and the national press hailed their success as a bold, new kind of tract house.

Eichler Homes, Inc. went on to build nearly 11,000 single-family homes in California, mainly in Northern California, where they can be found in areas in and around Marin county, the East Bay, San Mateo county, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, San Jose, San Francisco, and Sacramento. As regional architecture especially suited for the Bay Area's benign climate, the Eichler house designs befuddled the traditional masses -- emphasizing boldness, change, and optimism through indoor-outdoor living, walls of glass, atriums, and radiant-heat floors.


From a late 1950s Eichler Homes, Inc. brochure:

Some of the most respected names in American industry are represented in the components of an Eichler Home. Armstrong cork floors cover the living area. Window walls of Pittsburgh crystal glass include Arcadia sliding glass door, the finest made, while the fully screened and weather-stripped windows are by Rusco. Kitchen and snack bar counters are covered with genuine Formica, heat and scratch resistant and easy to clean.

[Wow, genuine Formica! You won't find any imitation Formica in an Eichler home.]

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Eichler Houses - Part 1

In the mid-1950s, Denver developer H.B. Wolff & Co. transplanted a piece of California into southeast Denver. Wolff faithfully copied the modernist architecture elements pioneered by Joseph Eichler for tract housing in California: the low-pitched roofs, the open floor plans, the single car carports, and the walls of glass doors that led out to backyard living space. I snapped these representative photographs today as I walked through one of Wolff's subdivisions, Krisana Park.

While these Eichler look-alike houses captured the fancy of academics and artists in 1950s Denver, the houses were ill-suited to the Colorado climate. The low roofs allowed little space for insulation and the 1950s single-pane glass let the heat leak out during the winter. But the trendy Denverites of that era probably didn't care. It was worth a few extra bucks on the heating bill to live like an up-to-date Californian.

A week ago, I chatted with a man living in the Krisana Park area, which boasts 175 Eichler copies. Given his eagerness to share information about his house with a complete stranger, he obviously took great pride in owning a piece of architectural history. The man's house had three bedrooms and two full bathrooms, one at each end of the hall. Having two full bathrooms was quite remarkable in the 1950s, he told me. I had no opinion myself about 1950s bathrooms, but some reply seemed to be called for. I smiled and said, "Oh."

The man asserted that his house was equivalent to an authentic California house by Joseph Eichler down to the last detail and directed my attention to the house's roofline and windows. Unfortunately, I couldn't give the man the enthusiastic affirmation he obviously sought, owing to my total ignorance of Joseph Eichler and his architectural designs. I asked the man to spell "Eichler" for me, and I returned home to investigate the Eichler story. My findings will be summarized in Part 2.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Elephant Stuff

I happened upon this sculpture and wondered why the elephant was carrying on so. The explanation is provided by the object in the foreground. At first glance, the object appears to be droppings. This apprehension is incorrect and misleads the mind toward low comedy, to the detriment of the elephant's reputation. A closer look reveals that the object is actually the statue of a mouse. Therefore, this tableau is merely the portrayal of the well-worn myth that the mighty elephant is terrified of the lowly mouse.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

La Sonnambula

I attended another Metropolitan Opera HD movie showing yesterday, La Sonnambula by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835). The opera is acclaimed for its extraordinary melodies. All of the singers did an excellent job, but the coloratura soprano, Natalie Dessay, showed marvelous acting skills in addition to her vocal virtuosity. During the course of the Met's La Sonnambula, which uses the gimmick of pretending to be an opera company rehearsing a production of La Sonnambula, Dessay variously presents herself as a sophisticated professional, a spoiled diva, and a open-hearted young girl. She is believable in each of these transformations. Dessay's sweet tone and vocal agility are ideally suited for the bel canto style of early 19th century opera. She tosses off rapid-fire scales and cadenzas effortlessly.

From her official website biography:

"Born in Lyons, Natalie Dessay grew up in Bordeaux. She first dreamed of becoming a dancer, but later studied acting and singing at the Bordeaux Conservatoire. She progressed with extraordinary rapidity, completing five years’ worth of study in just one year and graduating with First Prize at the age of twenty. In 1989, after a brief period in the chorus of the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, she entered France’s first Concours des Voix nouvelles and won second prize. This led to further studies at the Paris Opéra and to her first major engagements as a soloist."

In an interview from 1998, she said that her singing ability was recognized when she was a budding actress. An acting role required her to sing and she began taking singing lessons with a private tutor as preparation. One can imagine the delight and surprise felt by this tutor upon hearing the wonderful voice of this feisty young dancer and actress. The account would make an interesting movie in itself. Dessay was immediately encouraged to study singing and evidently took to it with remarkable determination. (Creative people often follow career tangents and zigzags. Daniel Pinkwater, the famed writer of books for the young, studied as a painter and later as a dog trainer. My composer son is poised to become gainfully employed on the strength of his performing prowess with the electric bass guitar. Who knows what other abilities he may discover?)

Dessay's great final scene is as a sleepwalker in the grip of emotional anguish after being rejected by her fiance. In a brilliant bit of stagecraft, Dessay stands on a a four-foot wide section of the stage as it is pushed out cantilever fashion over the orchestra pit. The spotlight shines on this petite woman, alone in the darkness, quietly singing of her heartbreak. The audience is doubly moved, moved by pity for the young girl's sorrow and moved by fear that Dessay might possibly trip and tumble into the violin section. Fortunately, all ends happily.

Natalie Dessay will be singing in La Traviata at the Santa Fe Opera during July and August.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Harpsichord Concert

Last night I enjoyed a harpsichord recital. The performer, an elegant woman about my age, played music by Jean-Henry D'Anglebert and by Johann Sebastian Bach. It was exquisite music, played with charm and spirit.

According to the program notes, Jean-Henry was a man (a steel driving man) employed in the court of Louis XIV as a claveciniste and music instructor to Marie-Anne, the Princesse de Conti and the legitimated child of Louis XIV and mistress Louise de La Valliere. The first half of the program was devoted to his Suite I in G Major. The piece was expressive and richly ornamented.

I have heard harpsichord music of the French baroque in which melody is dominated by ornamentation, producing a sound like the showering of stainless steel forks onto a concrete floor. Not so with D'Anglebert's ornaments, which form a natural and integrated part of his melodic lines.

My favorite movement from D'Anglebert's Suite was the Sarabande. As I think of it now, I remember it in visual terms. It was like watching a crystal bird as it leisurely swooped and soared in the bright sunlight. The path of its flight was the melody, and the ornaments were like the flashing of its crystal wings.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Friendly Skies

I took a business trip last week, traveling out and back on a Boeing 777 airplane, a behemoth that is twice the length and, when fully loaded, roughly the weight of the largest blue whale ever documented. As a modern-day Jonah, I enjoyed accommodations in my sky-whale that were deluxe Business Class, far removed from the original Jonah's accommodations, which were wet, dark, and smelly.

On the outbound flight, I luxuriated in a recliner seat having the spaciousness and padding to suit the most discerning posterior. For my entertainment, a private miniature television screen swiveled into viewing position from the armrest. The latest James Bond shoot-em-up was playing. A steward came by offering red wine. This was tempting, but I decided on a glass of orange juice instead. I am a novice at stylish living and didn't want to get in over my head. The steward gave me a heated crucible full of mixed nuts for an appetizer. Trust me, there is nothing like a warm, salted filbert to make a man feel like a dignitary!

Soon it was dinner time. The steward sailed a white tablecloth onto my tray with a matador's flourish and then speedily brought my requested fare: a salmon salad. It was a fine and satisfying meal.

By contrast, the return trip on the 777 was a letdown. I was seated on the last row of the Business Class, only separated from Economy Plus by a thin bulkhead. The chair was the same style of recliner as before but seemed a bit shopworn. The entertainment was a lackluster science fiction movie. When the steward came around offering drinks, he had white wine instead of red. I found nothing tempting about the white wine and, consequently, did not feel that subtle pang of regret one enjoys when choosing between attractive alternatives. Then I was dismayed to receive my crucible of mixed nuts and discover that they had cooled to room temperature.

The steward said that he was fresh out of salmon salad. My choice was shrimp salad or a sandwich. I chose the sandwich, which turned out to be heavily mayonnaised slices of beef on a doughy onion roll. Ugh.

I was working myself up to a fit of pique as I considered these minor disappointments. Fortunately, my perspective was restored when I thought of a young girl I am acquainted with. She lives in a slum in India and has never flown in a Boeing 777. What delight she finds in life comes from her baby sister and from skipping. She has won school awards for her skipping ability, she has told me.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Tropes in Humor Writing

I picked up a library book with the ungainly title of Spunk and Bite: A writer's guide to punchier, more engaging language and style. A chapter on rhetorical devices caused me to review the various tropes that humor writers favor. The common tropes, accompanied by a few examples from my store of humor books, are given below.

Indirection is a prevalent trope with humorists. Mark Twain was fond of capping a humorous narrative with a "snapper." Dave Berry, in particular among modern humorists, owes much of his career to this form of verbal judo.

Paraprosdokian (indirection, surprise twist at the end of a phrase or series)

* Dave Barry, Greatest Hits, Why Sports is a Drag: "Mankind's yearning to engage in sports is older than recorded history, dating back to the time, millions of years ago, when the first primitive man picked up a crude club and a round rock, tossed the rock into the air, and whomped the club into the sloping forehead of the first primitive umpire."

* Dave Barry, Greatest Hits, Peace on Earth, but No Parking: "Once again we find ourselves enmeshed in the Holiday Season, that very special time of year when we join with our loved ones in sharing centuries-old traditions such as trying to find a parking space at the mall."

* Woody Allen, Without Feathers, The Scrolls: "Scholars will recall that several years ago a shepherd, wandering in the Gulf of Aqaba, stumbled upon a cave containing several large clay jars and also two tickets to the ice show. Inside the jars were discovered six parchment scrolls with ancient incomprehensible writing which the shepherd, in his ignorance, sold to the museum for $750,000 apiece."

* Woody Allen, Without Feathers, The Early Essays: "Of all the wonders of nature, a tree in summer is perhaps the most remarkable, with the possible exception of a moose singing "Embraceable You" in spats. Consider the leaves, so green and leafy (if not, something is wrong). Behold how the branches reach up to heaven as if to say, "Though I am only a branch, still I would love to collect Social Security."

* S.J. Perelman, Acres and Pains: "If you can spare the time to drive sixty miles into the backwoods of eastern Pennsylvania, crouch down in a bed of poison ivy, and peer through the sumacs, you will be rewarded by an interesting sight. What you will see is a middle-aged city dweller, as lean and bronzed as a shad's belly (I keep a shad's belly hanging up in the barn for purposes of comparison), gnawing his fingernails and wondering how to abandon a farm."

* S.J. Perelman, Somewhere a Roscoe...: "This is a story of a mind that found itself. About two years ago I was moody, discontented, restless, almost a character in a Russian novel. I used to lie on my bed for days drinking tea out of a glass (I was one of the first in this country to drink tea out of a glass; at that time fashionable people drank from their cupped hands). Underneath, I was still a lively, fun-loving American boy who like nothing better than to fish with a bent pin. In short, I had become a remarkable combination of Raskolniknov and Mark Tidd."

Prosospopoeia (personification)

* S.J. Perelman, Westward Ha!: "Four days out, my stomach and the Arabian Sea arrived at a modus vivendi: it was agreed that the ocean would do its own heaving and my viscera the same."

Catacosmesis (ordering words from greatest to least, especially when the least is surprisingly trivial)

* Woody Allen, Without Feathers, Selections from the Allen Notebooks: "I believe my consumption has grown worse. Also my asthma. The wheezing comes and goes, and I get dizzy more and more frequently. I have taken to violent choking and fainting. My room is damp and I have perpetual chills and palpitations of the heart. I noticed, too, that I am out of napkins. Will it never stop?"

Meiosis (understatement)

* Woody Allen, Getting Even, A Look at Organized Crime: "It is no secret that organized crime in America takes in over forty billion dollars a year. This is quite a profitable sum, especially when one considers that the Mafia spends very little for office supplies."

Change of diction (alternating between slang and high-toned language)

* Dave Berry, Greatest Hits, Making the World Safe for Salad: "I've been thinking about technology of late, because, as you are no doubt aware (like fudge, you are), we recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Etch-a-Sketch. I think we can all agree that, except for long-lasting nasal spray, this is the greatest technological achievement of all time. Think, for a moment, of the countless happy childhood hours you spent with this amazing device: Drawing perfect horizontals; drawing perfect verticals; drawing really spastic diagonals; trying to scrape away the silver powder from the window so you could look inside and try to figure out how it works (Mystery Rays from space, is what scientists now believe); and just generally enjoying the sheer childhood pleasure of snatching it away from your sister and shaking it upside down after she had spent 40 minutes making an elaborate picture of a bird."

* S.J. Perelman, Acres and Pains: "Not long ago, while waiting around Grand Central to have my pocket picked, I was approached by a rather dashing woman of the world with a request for a light. I am not one of those who kiss and tell, but, frankly, men, she was the bee's knees. Her general appearance suggested a younger Lillian Russell; she was dressed in skunk-dyed sable, had a sable-dyed skunk on a leash, and altogether resembled a yacht of the Defender class. Naturally, I was somewhat wary at first and nervously fingered the lunch money that Mummy had pinned inside my jumper. I indicated a newsstand close by at which matches were being offered for sale, but my fair suppliant confessed the headmistress of her boarding school had cautioned her against strange newsstands. My innate chivalry rose to the surface, and I escorted her forthwith to a snug little boite where we could discuss her dilemma."

Synecdoche (substitution of a part for a whole)

* Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods: Hearing a bearlike sound in the woods, Bryson notes that his pocketknife is "patently inadequate for defending oneself against 400 pounds of ravenous fur."

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Unique Location

There is only one location on the planet where you can see the golden dome of a Greek Orthodox church behind a tepee. I traveled to that location and took a photograph.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Hope for the Arts (or not)

The audience for the recent Metropolitan Opera high-definition movie broadcast of Madame Butterfly was much the same as for previous Met movie broadcasts: most of the audience appeared to be in their seventies. The conclusion often expressed is that public support for opera in America is in decline and will largely vanish within a generation.

Perhaps the outlook is not quite so dire. The people most likely to appreciate an opera are those who respond most deeply to the opera's story. Response is largely a matter of what personal connections and associations are triggered by the opera. As I grow older, I see more and deeper human implications in an opera than I did in my youth because I can connect the opera with a web of my experiences, the experiences that others have shared with me, and memories of similar events in histories or novels. If, according to this analysis, older people are the natural audience for opera, then we should see a surge in opera attendance as the great wave of Baby Boomers reach a (greatly overdue) level of maturity and sensitivity to great art.

I put myself in a hopeful mood with these thoughts. However, further reflection concerning my Madame Butterfly experience restored my accustomed sense of gloom. I had arrived at the movie theater a full hour before the showing to guarantee myself a good seat. There was already a long line of fidgety old folks, a line that began inside at the ticket taker station, stretched back in two coils around the ticket booth, and then spilled out the doors to the street. I was discouraged at first by the crowd but then did a quick mental calculation and determined that the people ahead of me would fill no more than a third of the two theater rooms reserved for Madame Butterfly. All was well. I should have no trouble finding a good seat.

When I entered Theater #5 and took a look, I realized that my calculation had been correct. There were only enough old people to fill about a third of the room. However, each of them appeared to be saving seats for two others. The great swath of prime seats was covered by jackets, sweaters, scarves, suitcoats, etc. It looked like wash day along the Ganges, with clothing laid out far and wide to dry in the sun. The only seat that was left to me was in the very top row.

If you are betting on the future of the arts in America, the odds right now appear to be stacked toward selfishness and decline rather than a coming groundswell of audience sensitivity.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Madame Butterfly

For many years I have heard Madame Butterfly praised as one of Giacomo Puccini's most moving operas. Last Saturday I was able to attend the Metropolitan Opera production, shown as a live high-definition movie broadcast. The production was outstanding: fine singing, believable acting, marvelously effective use of Japanese puppetry, and ingenious minimalist scenery consisting of sliding paper walls. However, all of these excellences intensified the unrelieved sadness of the opera and made the experience troubling to me.

The plot is very simple. A Navy lieutenant, B.F. Pinkerton, arrives in Nagasaki. (The mention of Nagasaki was jarring and set me thinking about suffering at the very start of the opera, whereas Puccini, for dramatic reasons, would have wanted to permit the possibility of hope during the early scenes.) Pinkerton leases a house that comes with servants and a fifteen-year-old geisha wife called Madame Butterfly. He finds her charming and marries her, fully expecting to later exercise his legal right in Japan to repudiate the marriage so that he will be free to have a real marriage with an American wife.

The two have a brief honeymoon for the remainder of Pinkerton's shore leave, during which Butterfly becomes pregnant with Pinkerton's son. Then Pinkerton leaves with his gunship. Three years pass and Butterfly receives no word from Pinkerton. It is obvious to everyone but Butterfly that she has been deserted; but when she is advised to consider marriage to another man, she steadfastly clings to her hope that Pinkerton will return to her.

Pinkerton does return to Nagasaki, but he returns with an American wife. When he discovers that he has a son by Butterfly, he shrinks from facing her and instead sends his American wife to retrieve the boy. Butterfly finally sees her true situation. She agrees to give up her son, for the sake of his future, and then withdraws to commit suicide with a dagger.

The profound sadness of the opera kept me from fully appreciating the beauty of the production. The sorrowful last scene, although inevitable, ended Butterfly's victimization but produced no emotion release or resolution. One could easily imagine how the memory of Butterfly's betrayal and violent suicide would blight the lives of the contemptible Lieutenant Pinkerton, his American wife (who would now see him in a drastically different light), and the pitiful little boy.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to see Madame Butterfly, but I would not wish to see it again.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Tailspin Tommy and the Sinister Cloud

During the early years of television, which paralleled my own early years, broadcasting stations faced a problem with the late afternoon hours on weekdays. The viewers were mainly children home from school. We children had no buying power, and consequently the stations couldn't charge much for advertising in this time slot. So, to drive down costs, the stations would usually hire some local actor from community theater, dress him as a clown or sea captain or jungle explorer, and have him tell a few corny jokes and present cheap recycled entertainment from the 1930s. Cartoons were standard fare, as were short features by the Three Stooges and the Little Rascals. My favorites were the movie serials.

These Depression-era serials shaped my early worldview. Their sentimental idealism became my standard of conduct. Virtue triumphs in the long run; a hero never quits. I would dash home from school, sit on the floor in front of our Zenith black-and-white television set, and marinate in the popular culture of the bygone 1930s. If only I had been born about the time of World War One! I could been Bomba the Jungle Boy or, better yet, Tailspin Tommy.

Tailspin Tommy was a young go-getter who flew a biplane on a mail route. He was all pluck, gumption, and positive thinking. He had a comic sidekick named Skeeter, a well-meaning goof who used the catch phrase "It's an unwritten law" whenever he was stuck for an explanation. Tommy's girlfriend was Betty Lou. She was a nice small town girl – no Carole Lombard, but at least cheerful and dependable.

All my old memories of Tailspin Tommy came back to me last week when I was out walking and noticed the bowl-shaped cloud shown in the photo above. There was something peculiar and mysterious about this lone, dark cloud hanging so low in the sky. It looked like the opening shot of a Tailspin Tommy serial. The story might play out as follows.

Episode 1

Small town America, 1934.

Tailspin Tommy, Skeeter, and Betty Lou visit Tommy's friend Lt. Bell at the military air base. Lt. Bell gives them a tour of the base, showing them everything but a restricted area that is walled off from sight: the secret test facility for prototype aircraft. There is a comical moment as Skeeter tries to light a cigarette on the flight line and is given a talking to.

After the tour, Tommy, Skeeter, and Betty Lou head back to town in Tommy's old Model T, which breaks down a few miles from the base. While Tommy and Skeeter rig up a fix using their ingenuity and whatever materials are at hand (nuts, bolts, twine, postage stamps, whatever), Betty Lou pulls out her knitting bag and begins knitting a sweater. As she is knitting and purling away, a shiny wrapper drops from the sky and lands at her feet. The picture on the wrapper shows a chocolate candy bar, but the writing on the wrapper is not English but some Middle European language. (This is 1934 and Germany wasn't considered a threat yet by the movie serials. However, there was a bull market in generic Middle European spies in popular fiction and cinema, especially in England. Cf. Alfred Hitchcock's film of The Thirty-nine Steps, 1935.) Betty Lou looks up, but there is nothing overhead but a bowl-shaped cloud. She shows the wrapper to Tommy and Skeeter. Skeeter gets excited at this mystery and insists that they follow the cloud, because it must be involved with the mystery somehow. And a mystery always must be investigated. Why? "It's an unwritten law."

Tommy is unwilling to waste time chasing a cloud. Common sense tells him that the candy wrapper is probably some windblown litter from a foreign tourist. Tommy also worries that he won't get Betty Lou back to town by the time he had promised her stern father, the judge. But to humor Skeeter he agrees to follow the cloud for a little while.

They follow the cloud, which surprisingly picks up speed. Tommy does some slick driving along the country roads to keep the cloud in sight. Then the cloud descends and hovers above a large barn. The cloud's vapor dissipates, revealing a miniature dirigible. Tommy pulls off the road and parks the car behind some bushes. The three get out and sneak up behind the nearby farm house for a better look. Instantly, foreign gunmen rush out and capture them.

Episode 2

The leader of the spies – a sinister villain with un-American facial hair, a thick accent and faulty syntax, such as "Bah, you young people in trouble are being" – interrogates Tommy, Skeeter, and Betty Lou. Perhaps he ogles Betty Lou a bit, just to get Tommy steamed.

This is a convenient point in the story to get the exposition out of the way. The leader explains how his band of spies uses the dirigible, camouflaged by its mist generator, to spy on the military base and take pictures of the prototype airplanes. They plan to take the dirigible on one more surveillance flight at dawn the next morning, and then the spies will return to their Middle European homeland. The exposition complete, the leader orders his henchmen to lock Tommy, Skeeter, and Betty Lou in the basement of the farm house.

After some comical hysterics from Skeeter, the three captives settle down to figuring out how to break out of the basement without alerting the spies. The basement windows are too small to allow even slender Betty Lou to squeeze out. Skeeter suggests creating a bomb out of cleaning fluid and rags and blasting their way out. This is vetoed by the other two. Various other plans are proposed and rejected. Night falls and it grows too dark in the basement to see.

Episode 3

They sleep until dawn's light appears through the tiny basement windows and they hear the commotion of the dirigible being readied for flight. Betty Lou has used her knitting bag as a pillow. It occurs to her that Tommy could pick the lock on the upstairs door with one of her knitting needles. Tommy successfully picks the lock but is afraid to make a move without a diversion. He adapts Skeeter's idea for a bomb and pushes a small canister of cleaning fluid with a rag wick up the flue of the coal furnace. Tommy lights this off and when it detonates with a boom, the three make a clean escape as the henchmen are diverted to investigate the noise. (A snazzier escape plan could be concocted, but this one is about par for serials of this era.)

They return to the hidden Model T and race back to town. Tommy drops off Betty Lou at the courthouse, where she gets her father's help in alerting the authorities. Tommy and Skeeter hurry to the county airport and fire up Tommy's biplane. Skeeter yanks on the propeller. Sputter-sputter-vroom! Tommy swings the biplane onto the runway and roars into the sky.

Meanwhile, over the military base, the dirigible cloud is drifting slowly over the restricted area of prototype airplanes. In the little compartment beneath the dirigible, two spies are taking pictures via small hanging periscopes that descend through the mist. As they take their pictures, the spies are laughing – laughing in a sinister, un-American way.

But here comes Tailspin Tommy! He buzzes the military base to get their attention. Pilots come running and climb into their planes. Then Tommy banks his biplane hard and heads right at the sinister cloud. He veers off at the last second, approaching so closely that the mist is blown off, showing the dirigible beneath. The military aircraft quickly arrive to force the dirigible to the ground. The sinister foreigners are foiled!

The last scene shows Tommy, Skeeter, and Betty Lou being honored by the base commander. Tommy gets a chaste peck on the cheek from Betty Lou. And Skeeter explains the story to a newspaper reporter and gets a final opportunity to add "It's an unwritten law."

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Subversive Smile

My son the composer invited me to an experimental concert at the university last Saturday. He mentioned that he was participating but offered no information about the show except to say "Bring earplugs."

The night of the concert, I arrived at the university building early, hoping to get a good seat. I followed a group of students through the door and down two flights of stairs to a sub-basement lobby, where we joined a chattering group of about seventy students and about two dozen grizzled free spirits of my generation. The mood was festive; hugs and laughter abounded. Such a carefree throng of university avant-gardists! I appeared to be the only workaday square present. Yet even a square can be stirred with curiosity and excitement. What would my son be doing in the show? Was he going to surprise me with a striking new composition?

At 9:00 p.m. the doors opened. We all filed inside and were issued earplugs. I took the earplugs even though I had brought my own pair. I figured that a backup set might come in handy somehow if the decibels were outrageous.

A man behind me said that the concert room was called the Black Box. The name was apt. The room was a dimly lit bunker the size of half a basketball court. Three of its walls had giant video screens showing swirling abstract patterns. High overhead, catwalks bristled with theatrical lights. To my dismay, no chairs, benches, or bleachers were present. I withdrew from the milling crowd to stand against the only wall without a video screen and observe the scene.

Meandering through the crowd came nine instrumentalists. Five were playing the violin; but instead of music, the only sounds emitted were squeaks and squeals. Across the room I spotted my son jerking his bow across his violin as if striking sparks. Two tuba players on opposing corners of the Black Box began blasting long notes at each other like heartbroken whales. I hastened to insert my earplugs. A trumpeter and a saxophonist paced back and forth in front of me, spraying noise at the crowd. I faced all of this with equanimity. I was in a cheerful frame of mind and was not going to let a few sour notes bother me. The players were no more than children in the marketplace calling out, "We sang a dirge, and you did not mourn."

On two low platforms about the size of small raised flower beds, student dancers writhed and whirled. All were dressed in white tops and flouncy skirts. All wore white headcaps like medieval nuns. All were female, except for one inexplicable young man in a tutu.

A gong rang out, the crowd parted, and a man with a shaved head stepped into an illuminated area in the center of the room. He began singing a doleful song in the style of the Appalachian shaped note singers. I didn't understand a word. My earplugs clipped off his consonants and left only the moan and wail of bluesy vowels.

After this the dancers became agitated and started haranguing in Italian and lunging at the crowd. I later heard that they were reciting verses from Dante's Inferno. The video screens lit up with drawings of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, followed by old film footage of houses blown apart during the early atomic bomb testing. These kinds of bleak images have often been used to give superficiality the semblance of Serious Art in academic settings. I saw it done before, and done with more bite, years ago when Viet Nam and the draft loomed over us college kids having uncomfortably low draft numbers.

Then, descending from aesthetic offense to moral offense, the video screens flashed to a vicious burlesque of Christ amidst the lampstands (Rev 1:12-20). Christ was perversely portrayed as a fierce skeleton. It was a bitter irony that the only Person capable of rescuing mankind from the horrors earlier displayed on the video screens was now being attacked. It was now plain to me that the production intended to transform the Black Box into the third round of Dante's seventh circle of Hell, reserved for the violent against God, nature, and art.

It was now time for my son to participate. He picked up his bass guitar and took his place beside a friend of his, on drums, and the professor responsible – and culpable – for the concert, on electric guitar. The three erupted into a credible heavy metal song or, more precisely, a heavy metal tirade. All of the classic elements were there: the repetitive bass patterns, the thudding drums, and the frantic and meaningless guitar runs, shrieking up and down the fingerboard like the tortured ghost of Your First Book of Guitar Exercises. My son was doing the customary head bobs of a heavy metal bassist. I could only hope that this behavior was a piece of clownish stagecraft in keeping with the rest of the production.

After the last heavy metal echoes died away, the Appalachian moaner stepped forward to do another song. Or possibly it was the first song all over again; I still couldn't understand a word. Then, as the video screens showed pictures of a demon and a multi-headed fiend, the whole troop of dancers and instrumentalists led the crowd in a funereal procession around the Black Box. I stayed put, next to my trusty wall, and watched them all pass by. When my son came round wearing a gloomy expression, I greeted him with the most hilarious smile I could muster. His face hardened, he fought to stay in character, he had to look away.

Sometimes love's only weapon against the darkness is a subversive smile.