Saturday, January 30, 2010

Crabwalking through History

Note: This is a loose end. I intended to explore this subject again since my post last summer. See July 19, 2009. The tragedy depicted here happened 65 years ago today.

“History, or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising.” (page 122)

So does Gunter Grass attempt to capture the essence of history within his novel Crabwalk. I read it back during my beach vacation last summer. The weather today is more appropriate for it though. Outside my home it is cold, grey and raining. We had some freezing rain overnight. The title for the novel comes from Grass’ interesting approach to history.

“…should I do as I was taught and unpack one life at a time, in order, or do I have to sneak up on time in a crabwalk, seeming to go backward but actually scuttling sideways, and thereby working my way forward fairly rapidly?” (page 3)

The novel shifts from the past and the present and, further, it shifts non-linearly around within each timeframe. The present is fictionalized. The past is factual. So, in this sense, Grass has created a “historical” novel that moves forward, stops, begins with another element, moves forward again, stops, moves to another elements, then back again to move a previous element further along. The end result in a linear narrative, but the style is to scoot along a bit, retrace your steps, then scoot along again, not unlike a crabwalk.

So, the first major point to make is that, for Grass, the unfolding of history is non-linear. This is actually not that unusual within the historical novel context. Anyone who has read War and Peace, for example, will realize Leo Tolstoy does the same thing.

The novel centers on a host of factual and fictional characters. Factually, there is Alexandr Marinesko, a Soviet submarine captain who is a drunkard when not on his boat and has outright contempt for the tyrannical world of Soviet Communism. There is David Frankfurter, a Jew who murdered the Nazi bureaucrat Wilhelm Gustloff. Then there is the ship named after the ‘martyred’ Nazi. Initially, the Wilhelm Gustloff is a “classless cruise ship” of the Strength through Joy program (mingling Germans in socialist fashion whether rich, middle class, and poor on each cruise – a symbol of the socialist aspect of Nazism) before being transformed briefly into a hospital ship during the Battle of France, then coming to rest near the port of Danzig as a U-boat training vessel, rotating usually 4 companies of trainees for a 4-month period.

Fictionally, there is the narrator of the story, whose mother was on the Gustloff the night it sank, barely surviving the disaster and giving birth to him on that fateful evening of January 30, 1945. The narrator is a mediocre journalist, who has devoted much of his life research the sinking of the ship. There is also the narrator’s own estranged son (due to a divorce), Konrad, whom he accidentally discovers in the chat room of a neo-Nazi website devoted to the sinking of the Gustloff.

For me the story is not as interesting as how Grass handles history, the crabwalk through history. These characters are not connected physically either in fact or fiction but they are all connected by this one tragic event, intersecting at this historical point both in the present, as it happened, and in the future, as it is remembered and debated. Each one is moved forward slightly by Grass’ constant ramble all around the events and characters concerned.

The narrator himself jumps around in history. He takes a tour of the magnificent ship. “When we visited E deck, where the German League girls from Hamburg has settled into the ‘swimming youth hostel’ with its bunks, we saw on the same deck the indoor swimming pool, with a capacity for sixty metric tons of water. And further numbers, which I did not bother to take down. Some of us were relieved that they spared us the number of tiles and the number of individual chips in a colorful wall mosaic populated by virgins with fish tails and fabulous sea creatures.” (page 61)

Grass fills his novel with a myriad of historically accurate details. Details you aren’t likely to find in many, less-fictionalized resources about the disaster. That is because (and this one of the many things “Crabwalk” attempt to convey) narrative details, so important in a novel, are not of much value from a strictly historical perspective. So, a second point to be made is that novels are in some ways superior to academic history in expressing the narrative of historical events. There is more to history than mere facts. Novels deal with the associations between facts that sometimes get lost in the traditional histories.

For example, the night the ship pulls out of port, overloaded with refugees fleeing the Soviet retribution for the countless Nazi atrocities committed on the Eastern Front, there were four German captains aboard. They were constantly arguing about everything. Should the ship risk sailing in shallower waters that are mined to avoid the threat of a submarine attack? Should it go into deeper waters to avoid possibly colliding with the mined coast? Should it move at 12 knots or 15 knots. The Gustloff has been in port for over three years and the captains disagree over what speed is best for the long untested engines. These sorts of human details are not usually included in ‘straight’ histories.

Then there is the troublesome Marinesko and his submarine. “The Gustloff was not alone as it steamed along as a distance of twelve nautical miles from the Pomeranian coast. The Soviet submarine S-13 was following the same course. The submarine had waited in vain in the waters near the embattled port city of Memel, along with two other units of the Baltic Red Banner Fleet , for ships departing or bringing reinforcements to the remnants of the German 4th Army. For days nothing came into view. While he waited, the captain of S-13 may have been brooding over the impending court-martial and the interrogation he would have to undergo at the hands of the NKVD.” (pp. 128-129)

“At nine o’clock in the evening all four captains are standing on the bridge, arguing over whether it had been right to carry out Petersen’s order and set running lights, an order merely given because shortly after six that evening a convoy of minesweepers had been reported by radio to be approaching in the opposite directions. Zahn had opposed the move. The second navigation captain likewise. Petersen did allow some lights to the turned off, but kept the port and starboard light on. With only the torpedo boat Lowe serving as an escort, and with no lights indicating its height or length, the darkened ship continued on course through diminishing snowfall and heavy swell, approaching Stolpe Bank, marked on all nautical maps. The predicted moderate frost registered minus 18 degrees Celsius.” (pp.134-135)

S-13 is able to close with the Gustloff not least because the German ship was provided with only one anti-sub escort ship for protection. “But before Marinesko’s order to fire is issued and can no longer be retracted, I must insert into this report a legend that has been passed down. Before S-13 left Hango Harbor, a crew member by the name of Pichur allegedly took a brush and painted dedications on all the torpedoes, including the four that were now ready to be fired. The first read FOR THE MOTHERLAND, the torpedo in tube 2 was marked FOR STALIN, and in tubes 3 and 4 the dedications painted onto the eel-smooth surfaces read FOR THE SOVIET PEOPLE and FOR LENINGRAD.” (page 138)

We come back to the beautiful mosaic swimming pool area at the moment of attack. “This torpedo from tube 3, whose smooth surface carried the inscription FOR THE SOVIET PEOPLE,” exploded beneath the swimming pool on Deck E. Only two or three girls from the naval auxiliary survived. Later they spoke of smelling gas, and of seeing girls cut to pieces by glass shards from the mosaic that had adorned the front wall of the pool area and by splintered tiles from the pool itself. As the water rushed in, one could see corpses and body parts floating in it, along with sandwiches and other remains of supper, also empty life jackets. Hardly any screaming. Then the light went out.” (pp. 140-141)

Grass shows contempt for history’s normal infatuation with numbers. “But the more four thousand infants, children, and youths for whom no survival was possible…remained, and will remain, an abstract number, like all the other numbers in the thousands, hundred thousands, millions, that then as now can only be estimated. One zero more or less – what does it matter? In statistics, what disappears behind rows of numbers is death.” (page 145)

A large battle cruiser arrives in answer to the Gustloff’s distress calls. But it causes more harm than good. “Fact is, the Hipper, likewise overloaded with refugees and wounded, paused only briefly, but then turned away to continue on course to Kiel. Furthermore, when the warship, with its ten thousand tons of displacement, executed its turning maneuver at full power in the immediate vicinity of the disaster site, a large number of people floating in the water were sucked into the boat’s wake; not a few were shredded by the propellers.” (page 158)

More distain for exact numbers. A third point in Grass’ approach to history is that facts themselves aren’t worth much without human associations. “The numbers I am about to mention are not accurate. Everything will always be approximate. Besides, numbers don’t say much. The ones with lots of zeros can’t be grasped. It’s in their nature to contradict each other. Not only did the total number of people on board the Gustloff remain uncertain for many decades – it was somewhere between 6,600 and 10,600 – but the number of survivors had to be corrected repeatedly: starting with 900 and finally set at 1,230. This raises the question, to which no answer can be hoped for: What does one life more or less count?” (page 162)

“We do know that the majority of those who died were women and children; men were rescued in embarrassingly large numbers, among them all four captains of the ship. Measured against the roughly five thousand children who drown, froze to death, or were trampled in the corridors, the births reported after the disaster, including mine, hardly register; I don’t count.” (page 163)

Despite great success in accomplishing his orders…“Apparently Aleksandr Marinesko was disappointed when he returned to Turku Harbor and found that he was not welcomed as befitted a hero, even though he had resumed his mission and had sunk another ship, the former ocean liner General von Stuben, with two torpedoes fired from the stern on 10 February. The fifteen-thousand-ton ship traveling from Pillau with over a thousand refugees and two thousand wounded – those numbers again – sank, bow first, in seven minutes. About three hundred survivors were counted.” (page 164)

Marinesko, for being a drunk and bad-mouthing the Soviet regime while under the influence, received a dishonorable discharge due to being “an indifferent and negligent attitude toward his duties.” His application for the merchant marine was rejected. He ended up as a simple dock hand.

For Grass, great historical events are not holistic. They are always fragmented back out to their human elements. While history is something that happens much of the time beyond the control of its participants (another similar theme with Tolstoy), ultimately it is the effect of history of human beings that matters. Crabwalk is filled with many things, but hardly any of them have to do with nations or military doctrines or what makes war work. Instead, Grass tells us that these things are simply not as important as the little human triumphs and tragedies that can be explored more meaningfully through fiction than through strict enslavement to just the facts, only the facts.

Friday, January 22, 2010


I wanted to post this earlier in the week but work, family, and other important issues of the day prevented it. Here is a quote from Richard Russell's web site dated September 28, 2009:

"I look at the big picture, and I scratch my head. One item remains on my mind. Back in 2008 I wrote a good deal about the 50% Principle. Considering the entire Dow rise from its 2002 low to its 2007 high, it was important what the Dow did on a decline toward the halfway point or 50% level. That level was 10725. On October 6, 2008, the Dow closed at 10249. On that day the Dow closed below the 50% level. From there, the Dow declined to a March 8 low of 6547. Since then, on the advance from March low, the Dow has never climbed back above 10725, the 50% level. I find that significant."

On Tuesday the Dow closed at 10, 725.43. It reached the critical 50% Principle threshold. In terms of Dow Theory, this represents a test of the rally. It is not uncommon for major market corrections to retract half or even two-thirds of what they either gave or took away in the first place. At that point, the test of the continued rally or decline is whether it pushes through the 50% point between the timeframe for consideration of the highest high and lowest low. The longer the timeframe considered, the more meaningful the action at the 50% point becomes.

Since Tuesday the Dow has fallen over 600 points, a significant drop. Is this the resumption of the original bear market or simply a correction in an emerging bull market? My bet is on the bear so I exited the markets (a bit early) before the new year. I have continued adding to my large position in GLD but even Gold sucks in this market. Still, my recent losses are trivial compared to what I would have lost if I had still been in stocks.

So, I'm lucky. Gold will come back (GLD is only less than $4 under where I started buying it again). I'm not sure the Dow will test 10,725 again in the near future. Tonight Russell writes: "I can't say that I like the market action here. But the implications of whether this is a simple correction or whether this advance is in the process of cracking up are so important (actually world-shaking) that I want to be patient just a little while longer to see "what happens." As I've written many times before, my instinct is to be extremely cautious here. If you don't love a particular stock in your portfolio, then get rid of it."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dehumanizing Democracy

The Supreme Court today made a horribly unwise decision. It blew past the previous inane ruling made decades ago that "money is speech" and jumped to the colossally stupid conclusion that "there is no distinction between individuals and corporations as it applies to spending on federal campaigns."

In other words, corporate spending on political campaigns is protected by the First Amendment.

This tranforms the political sphere, like the public sphere before it, into a marketplace - that most sacred temple of our national religion of capitalism.

It is difficult for me to express how utterly harmful this is to our already screwed-up campaign financing situation. The next president will be forced to spend well over a billion dollars to get elected, most of that money will now inevitably shift toward negative campaigning (because it works so effectively on the feeble minds of our voting population not because it actually communicates anything of intellectual value in the voting process) and counter-negative campaigning.

And, of course, the biggest contributors will only give big if they can expect a return on their investment. Stupidity will be awash in political cash.

As good and objective analysis as can be found anywhere was on the
PBS News Hour tonight. So you can view analysis and read about both sides of this issue there.

Me? I'm not the least bit objective about this decision. First of all, the prior court ruling that protects money as a form of speech was wrong to begin with. Money is not speech. Money is the vehicle of consumption, the medium of commerce, the force by which capitalism rules the anxious and depressed hearts and minds of our pathetic consumer society. But, despite the old saying, money does not talk. It is a commodity, not speech.

Speech is about language and language actions - spoken, written, symbolized, artistically created and dramatized words and ideas. There are no words or ideas inherent in money. That is not what money is for. Language is what is protected under our Constitution's First Amendment.

To equate money with language (money is speech) is to dehumanize language itself. It means that money is as human as any of us where speech acts are concerned and has a right on par with the act of speaking simply because it costs money to control the language of TV and newspaper ads. In other words, our consumerist reality makes it OK for money to have the same rights as any person and, by definition, persons with more money can tangibly leverage greater rights to expression.

You see how insane this shit is?? The bum and the millionaire both have the right to speak. But, the millionaire has more right to speak because he can afford the cost of language in the marketplace. He can multiply his speech acts and is free to do so. This is called "equality". Lunacy.

Next, to the moment at hand, corporations are not people. This should be self-evident but it obviously isn't to the five twisted minds in the US Supreme Court that voted this way. Under the ruling today corporations are given protection under the Constitution when they are NEVER even mentioned in our Constitution. Corporations are equated with human citizenry where speech is concerned. Corporations are equal to human Being in the political process.

Can corporations vote? No. Yet, somehow, they can spend all the money they want and play an integral part of our election process. This is the further dehumanization of politics. Human Being and corporate Being are indistinguishable as far as the First Amendment is concerned.

Corporations have no Constitutional right to representation. None. Corporations, political action groups, etc. have as much Constitutional political "voice" as dogs and cats. They have no "right" to be protected in this concern.

Yet a right was manufactured for them today. There is no other word for it. The Supreme Court manufactured a form of speech years ago and the legacy of that fallacy came home to roost today. Corporations are very much going to be represented in the future because the game of special interests (which has been played for so long in Washington) now has a Constitutional coronation.

What was needed was the strictest form of campaign contribution limits. PACs should have been eliminated. No one should have been allowed to contribute more than $2,000 annually in any way, shape, or form. Instead, campaign finance has been made a "marketplace" and the rot of consumerism continues to fester, even unto the very essence of our ever weakening democracy.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

An Ironic Election

The irony of it all. Ted Kennedy works his whole life for some sort of national healthcare policy. He dies just after Obama (whom Kennedy anointed as the next great national leader) becomes President. Obama's number one domestic priority is some sort of national healthcare policy (the president has never been specific about the policy). Then a Republican wins Kennedy's former Senate seat - a seat held by the Kennedy family since the 1950's. This tilts the national healthcare debate slightly in the Republican's favor because it gives them a thin 41 votes in the Senate. Is national healthcare now doomed because its greatest champion during my adult lifetime has died at the moment of its greatest chance for success?

I can only hope so. The bill has evolved into a patched together compromise that really doesn't please anyone. It has never adequately addressed the fundamental crisis of healthcare in this country - which is cost. Instead, it morphed into "boogie-man politics" (which is politics as usual, not the "change" Obama promised so eloquently in his campaign). It became all about healthcare insurance rather than cost. How can you promise affordable coverage if there's no upper limit on what can be charged for what's being covered?

I'd like any elected official to answer that question.

And don't tell me there's been a "healthcare debate" in this country. I had someone from the DNC call me a couple of weeks ago (they are always calling me begging for money which I never provide). My wife handled the call because, frankly, there's little I dislike more than talking on the telephone. I do enough of that at work. Anyway, when Jennifer challenged the caller on the president's healthcare agenda, the DNC guy said "well, you have to admit, at least we've had a national debate."

Bullshit. What we have had is a media circus conducted by the republicans back in August, followed by a hodge-podge of ideas from various special interest groups as the democrats try to piece together enough votes to support something, to support anything at all. This was no debate. A debate would be about why it costs $400 for a pediatric syringe when an infant is taken to the emergency room for a broken arm? Why does it cost $1500 for a routine colonoscopy but $3500 to remove one single polyp, a procedure that takes all of 5 minutes at the most and involves almost nothing more in terms of resources? Why doesn't the president believe tort reform should be considered as part of controlling costs so that American physicians don't have to pay the highest malpractice insurance rates in the world? Does he actually think that cost isn't passed along to the insurance companies who pass it along to employers who pass it along to the employees? Or in the case of medicare it gets passed along to the tax payer.

Until these specific types of questions are asked about physician charges, legal costs, the poor health habits of the citizenry itself, pharmaceutical expenses, the overwhelming inefficiencies of the business of providing healthcare due to the fact that physicians are some of the worst business persons on the planet, until all of this and more is taken into consideration we haven't had a debate at all. We've danced around the subject and called it a dialog. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Perhaps the American people sense this. Or at least the people of Massachusetts. Anyway, the top priority of Obama's domestic agenda has become a mess. Consider Clinton's attempt in 1992 and its deja vu all over again. And that's a good thing. Since the way this change was shaping up, it would only be for the worse.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A New Lesson from Frankenstein

Last semester my daughter had to read Frankenstein as part of her advanced placement lit class. She whined a lot about it. AP makes her work more than she wants to. But, she got a B in the class and that’s just fine with me. Especially since she studied hard to get it. Anyway, I hadn’t read Mary Shelley’s classic work since college. For a couple of weeks mostly around the holidays it served as bedtime reading.

Frankenstein is likely the world’s first science fiction novel, at least the modern beginnings of the genre. Somewhat amazingly, this novel was first published in 1818. It is a piece of gothic fiction with some vague bits about biology, chemistry (or alchemy), and electricity thrown in.

Electricity was a theoretical science at the time of Shelley’s writing. It had first been written about in the 1600’s but was merely a scientific curiosity at the time of the novel’s publication. The intentional use of theoretical scientific methods to “reanimate” human life gives the novel its distinctively sci-fi flavor.

Otherwise, it is a gothic horror (in the tradition of Bram Stoker) filled with dark imagery, mysterious developments, and – above all – tragedy on the scale of Homer. In a nutshell, as a result of a doctor’s well-intentioned attempt to bring a pieced-together dead body back to life, a “monster” murders three main characters, and cleverly frames one innocent character with one of the murders. The framed character ends up being executed by justice. Death is everywhere.

Frankenstein is not a book about giving new life, it is a story about how the consequences of transcending death forms a greater calamity of death and misery. To some extent, it is a warning cry against the abuses of science and would seem relative today to some of the 18th century minds still serving as movers and shakers as the 21st century world debates such matters as human cloning, nanotechnology, the technological singularity, and transhumanism.

It is not an inspiring work and it is futuristic only to the degree of using the future as a source of fear in the mind of the reader. What will the result of humanity harnessing electricity actually become? The reader is invited to ponder. Indeed, the world seemed to be changing rather rapidly in Shelley’s day. Nothing compared with the speed of change today, of course, but the basis for fear in Frankenstein is with us still.

This is the same fear as humanity experienced more obviously with atomic power during the cold war. Fear of the misuse of knowledge and technology, or of losing control of the consequences of technology is a basic modern and postmodern angst.

In the gothic context, these fears always result in guilt, misery, and ruin. The novel is a superb example of that and no doubt influenced the writing later on of Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, which – in turn – influenced more recent writers. Frankenstein is the cornerstone of a definable movement within world literature.

What struck me on this reading of the novel, after having last read it some three decades ago, is that the basis for the unfortunate narrative is not actually the creation of “the monster”. That is clear by the “humanity” shown by the “monster” in relation to the De Lacey family – led by the blind father. It is, rather, the way Victor Frankenstein reacts to his own creation.

“Oh! No mortal could support the horror of countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.” (from Chapter 5)

Victor flees his creation and becomes quit ill. It takes the efforts of a good friend over the course of an entire winter (naturally it’s winter in a gothic tale) to nurse him back to health. The reaction is fear, guilt, and sickness. Surely, there is no weaker posture for an obviously brilliant scientific mind to face the future.

For me, Frankenstein’s most relevant teaching is perhaps not a conscious intent of the author. In our postmodern reality, where the “genie is out of the bottle” on a whole host of genetic and other scientific and technological discoveries, the nature of human possibility should not be something to fear. On the contrary, it should be the basis for a sense of wonder, something ill-suited for the gothic metaphysic.

Had Victor accepted his “monster” the story would have likely turned out differently. All those murders probably would not have happened. Instead, Victor would have lived up to his responsibility to the monster - as its creator. There is no place for fear in the mind of the master.

What Shelley did not write into any of her characters was the idea of the heroic. The novel is, in fact, anti-heroic. Where the nature of human possibility is concerned, in the realms of science and art and ethics no less than in the realm of business and consumerism, our creations should be welcomed and incorporated into our intimate Being.

Such was not the case with Victor Frankenstein. His humanity was too weak for the knowledge he possessed. For most of humanity today this is very much the case. They fear the responsibilities of human possibility. They take refuge in the antiquated cowardice of human mystery and greatly prefer mystery to possibility as a basis for wonder.

Still, there is no inherent reason why you and I need be like Victor. If anything, the novel should teach us what he did wrong. If we are to live up to our ever-expanding knowledge, we must not allow old thinking and the archaic basis for human wonder to hinder us finding ourselves very comfortably at home in any world of our creation.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


I've been trying to wrap my mind around this disaster in Haiti. When they first said as many as 100,000 dead I was surprised and thought the estimate would end up being too high. Surely 100,000 human beings can not perish in an earthquake in the 21st century.

Today they say 200,000. It just blows my mind. The last time a rector scale 7 earthquake hit in the US was in the Aleutian Islands in 2003. Apparently, magnitude 7 or larger quakes happen on average almost 20 times each year worldwide, though there have been a good bit fewer than that recently. The ones in California aren't that big usually. That horrific tsunami that devastated parts of southern Asia in 2004 was due to a 9, the second largest earthquake ever recorded.

Pat Robertson says the Haitian earthquake is the result of a pact with the devil.

Let's see.
Brit Hume thinks Tiger Woods should become a Christian and drop this Buddhism stuff. Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh implies we gave enough to Haiti before the quake ever hit. As I try to wrap my mind around Haiti I can't but think that these men represent a large number of feeble American minds. And this is a democracy.

Let me be very clear about something. Religious belief has nothing to do with earthquakes. Nothing.

That this terrible crisis is subjected to the rubbish of neocon thinking sickens me. It only amplifies my complete lack of respect for the pseudo-intellectualism of radical (i.e. moral) conservatism, particularly conservative religion. The God of Wrath did not direct His vengeance upon a land of poverty so many thousands of innocent women and children could die. There is no such God. Thankfully.

Haiti, poor Haiti with 3 million human beings still to rescue. Still. Today. Five days after the event. There's no infrastructure to speak of in this country because what infrastructure there was was in Port-au-Prince. This is an 18th century culture in a world leaving it behind. Much of the infrastructure fell on everybody down there. The city has been destroyed. 200,000 might end up not being high enough. The country is increasingly in chaos, though US troops will bring a measure of control. All this just as the poor nation was finally establishing a fragile basis for economic growth.

World aid and sympathy has been inspirational. Perhaps everyone can find common ground when that ground has violently shifted and disrupted basic human life. This is an historic disaster.

Viewed strictly objectively, however, this is not
the Katrina Disaster magnified. So far as I know now, Katrina compares with Haiti in terms of the scope of disaster. While Katrina resulted in far greater destruction in economic terms, it resulted in far fewer deaths. In a wider view, the Asian tsunami was a much more powerful earthquake. Still, its epicenter was not a mere 16 miles from the capital of one of Earth's most economically impoverished nations. That destroyed its very ability to rapidly respond to its crisis. That is the important point I think.

From a selfishly human perspective, Haiti at least equals 2004's tsunami in the Indian Ocean and any other natural disaster of recent times. I don't cringe at human suffering, even on a vast scale. It is a historical reality. But, my heart is shocked more than saddened that there can be so much more misery in the world so suddenly.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Frozen Pine Winter

Since sundown January 1 it has been below freezing here for all but a few hours. The last two mornings it has been 14 degrees. Our heat pump is giving us the finger, running nonstop. But, this weekend has been bright and sunny and mid-afternoon today it got up to 34 degrees. The wind was forceful yesterday but the sun felt warm enough. I spent awhile this afternoon outside with the dogs in the sun and a constant, slow freezing breeze. The dusting of snow we got Thursday night is still everywhere the sun doesn’t shine.

When I was a kid growing up here we had cold spells that would last a week or two. So, this reminds me of the way winter used to be, cold, in the shadow of pines waving in the dry arctic breeze. Most of the stock ponds have frozen over. On cloudy days you can walk on the sheet of ice, but when the sun is out it melts the surface into slush.

Tree dormancy is something of importance that most people never consider. I was told by the County Extension Agent several years ago that oaks and maples need at least one prolonged period below freezing each winter to go dormant. Otherwise, the tree never really "rests" and ends up being stressed out not only by the accumulation of our recent drought years but just as much by the lack of freezing temperature. Over the past few years I have seen many hardwoods die near where I live. Fortunately, I haven't lost any of my older ones, though - as I mentioned before - the vast majority of my dogwoods have died. In recent months, with plentiful rain and now with abundant cold, our trees should be enjoying this winter.

Charlie loves to run in the cold weather. I took him for a couple of walks today and yesterday and each time he has raced all over our ten acres, sometimes just rounding in large circles until he can’t catch his breath and has to stop and hack. Nala seems to enjoy the weather as well. She was running for awhile too, you just have to make a big fuss over her and give her a vigorous rubbing. She will briefly bolt and dance around despite her bad hips.

Parks, the Perpetual, isn’t so excited about the cold weather. But, he has to stay out anyway except during the bitter cold at night. Otherwise he might pee on one of Jennifer’s carpets or throw-up on the wood floor. He is mental about eating and often staggers through the woods next door to gobble up scraps that the neighbors throw out their back door which often lately makes him sick. Just not a situation you want inside.

Still, Jennifer has been cleaning up a lot after the seemingly ungrateful guy. But, at “true” mealtime Parks is as animated and boisterous as ever. He wags his tail a lot. If he were in pain and wasting away it would be easy to put him down given all the trouble he causes due to being inside so much recently because of the cold. But, he isn’t in any pain at all (thanks to the meds). He staggers around a bit and seems to walk off into nowhere, stare, and come back to where he started. Not really a reason to kill him…yet.

My daughter liked the fact that school was closed Friday but she has been bored out of her mind. She pacified herself with movie rentals, the internet and a bunch of Season 5 Lost reruns we are watching as a family in preparation for the upcoming finale of that TV series.

Jennifer hates the cold. But, the funny thing is that even she agrees after several days with highs in the twenties, it felt almost balmy in the sun this weekend if you were properly layered up. You do eventually get used to the cold to the point that what used to be cold is now not. Still, we both hate the wind. Jennifer played tennis out in it this afternoon. She is on a very dedicated competition team. They will play if it is above freezing, even by only a degree or two. But, the wind chill makes you want to keep running throughout the match.

I got out our kerosene heater for the first time in two years yesterday, cleaned it up and bought some fuel which is outrageously priced at over $3.70 per gallon. The heat pump simply cannot keep the house warm in the mornings when it is this cold for this long. This morning it was toasty even if we had to put up with some fumes.

The conditions make reading a worthwhile pastime. Appropriately enough, I am blazing a trail through David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter. So far, the book has given me a great overview of the geopolitical situation in which the Korean War took place. But, it is very general on the actual military details. Still, it is an excellent book, shedding light on a topic I am not well acquainted with. My reading is spiced with the usual bits by and about Nietzsche.

Jennifer and I have rewatched the Dudamel DVD a couple of more times this weekend. She only wants to hear the Mahler now. The Adams is too much of a good thing for her. She says she can’t get the Mahler out of her mind. I understand. I told it is that way with each of his symphonies once you open yourself to them.

Standing in the woods this afternoon, feeling the cold breeze in my face and listening to the swish of winter wind through the tops of the tall green pines I thought of Thoreau’s “winter walk” essay. Looking around, I found deer prints and evidence of the occasional scramble of a squirrel. All the while Charlie was my steadfast companion. Roaming wide in all directions around me, now running, now inspecting with his snout. Always coming when called.

From "A Winter Walk" by Thoreau: “The wonderful purity of nature at this season is a most pleasing fact. Every decayed stump and moss-grown stone and rail, and the dead leaves of autumn, are concealed by a clean napkin of snow. In the bare fields and tinkling woods, see what virtue survives. In the coldest and bleakest places, the warmest charities still maintain a foothold. A cold and searching wind drives away all contagion, and nothing can withstand it but what has a virtue in it, and accordingly, whatever we meet in cold and bleak places, as the tops of mountains, we respect for a sort of innocence, a Puritan toughness. It is invigorating to breath the cleansed air. Its greater fineness and purity are visible to the eye, and we would fain stay out long and late, that the gales may sigh through us, too, as through the leafless trees, and fit us for the winter – as if we hoped to borrow some pure and steadfast virtue, which will stead us in all seasons.”

Friday, January 8, 2010

No podium, no curtain

Jennifer and I had the pleasure of watching the DVD of Gustavo Dudamel’s inaugural concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic last night. I ordered the DVD from on Tuesday and it arrived in two days without any special shipping. There are so few packages in the various delivery systems of this country that what few there are just zip right on through, arriving promptly. A subtle sign of an excess in capacity – the Great Recession is with us still.

The quality of the sound on the DVD is great but not noticeably better than the recording Jennifer purchased off iTunes and gave to me for Christmas. Nevertheless, watching a classical music performance has always given me an added dimension of joy and this was no exception.

Several things make this DVD better than merely listening to the excellent recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. This is the first time, other than in photographs, I have ever seen the amazing Walt Disney Concert Hall. The orchestra is situated more or less in the center of the space, toward the front but not in front. There are seats surrounding the orchestra which is positioned more or less among the audience, without a curtain, integrated not segregated.

Observing the animated conducting style of this young, energetic Venezuelan conductor compliments the smile you feel inside listening to this music. Dudamel’s facial expressions are diverse, his eye direct and intense toward specific sections of the orchestra at specific times. He grimaces, he smiles, he grits his teeth. His arms sweep, wave round, gouge, the baton a wand of fire. At delicate moments the arms slow, elbows are tucked and he leads with just his fingers. His body contorts, he practically leaps, leans back on his heels, plants his feet firmly and commands stiffly. All this is Dudamel in action. Great to watch with his dark, curly Latin hair often bobbing around like some wooly crown.

Part of the reason for purchasing this DVD is that, in addition to Mahler’s “Titan”, the concert features as a warm-up the world premiere performance of City Noir by John Adams. Of course, you know by now that Adams is one of my favorite living composers. The piece is wonderful, jazzy, urbane, much more complex than the Mahler symphony, but that is typical of contemporary classical music. As is Adams’ style, the work is melodic and layered, yielding a rewardingly rich, highly engaging sound, at times soothing, at times challenging, at times surprisingly forceful, with large strings, plentiful percussion, powerful horns. Traces of minimalism are throughout, but only now and then. Adams has matured to be distinctively modern without pigeon-holing. Several superb solos are sprinkled throughout the 30-plus minute piece. A saxophone shines as the best offering in this aspect of the work. A bright, new, fulfilling work of classical music first performed in October! Normally, I don’t get to hear entertaining new stuff until in comes out on CD several years after it was composed. Not this time. How lucky I am!

Adams is in attendance at the concert (sitting next to actor Tom Hanks about half way up in the audience). He comes down to take a bow at the conclusion of the work. A standing ovation, naturally. Both composer and conductor share the glow of the moment. Both point to the saxophonist, who takes his bow to a roaring explosion from the crowd. Several other musicians are directed to stand in their turn. Adams is so obviously appreciative.

Then comes the Mahler. I know this composition so well and, by now, I have become quite familiar with this interpretation of the work. I won’t comment here on the playing itself (see the previous post for that) except to say, once again, this is the greatest First Symphony ever composed. The surprise on the DVD is that Dudamel conducts the entire work without the aid of a score. He used one intently for the Adams piece but Dudamel knows this Mahler so well he doesn’t need to see a single note. I’m not sure how common this is in live classical performances, my life is rather shamefully limited to a few dozen that I’ve actually seen. But, I’ve never seen a conductor take on a large work – or any work for that matter – without a podium, completely from memory.

In further research since my last post, I have learned that Dudamel – even though he is only 28 – has already conducted Mahler’s First a dozen times professionally with other orchestras around the world and often practiced conducting the score as a music student. He is intimate with the work. So, while it is still a rather audacious choice for an inaugural, it is a comfortable one for Dudamel.

Being a DVD there is a bonus feature documentary included. It features most of the principle players in the LA Philharmonic discussing what it is like to have the young Dudamel in charge. Most admit they have been playing music longer than Dudamel has been alive. Without exception they appreciate his ability and several are hopeful that this is the beginning of one of those great periods in classical collaborative performance that come along only ever so often. Like Bernstein in New York. Or Solti in Chicago. Or von Karajan in Berlin.

That might be stretching things a bit, but I’ll certainly stay tuned.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Great Firsts

This is how karma works.

The best gift I received this past Christmas season was from my wife. Jennifer gave me a new recording of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, “Titan”. I have several other performances of this magnificent symphony in my collection, but this one was particularly special for a variety of reasons.

What makes a gift so special? Is it the thoughtful giving or the appreciative receiving? This Christmas, my best gift was one that moved beyond the simple joys of the exchange. The gift immediately inspired other experiences and broadened into this shared connection of a broader gratitude.

Jennifer and I listened to this rather historic performance and were both pleased. It led to a discussion about the symphony itself. I played my copy of Benjamin Zander’s excellent lecture on Mahler’s First which added depth and numerous specific guideposts by which to appreciate the symphony’s intricate, complex, development.

This, in turn, led to a discussion about other great first symphonies. We listened to several others in the days after Christmas. Taking time to enjoy the leisure of the season, to stop whatever we were doing, sip hot drinks, and enjoy the artistic brilliance of other great composers in their inaugural attempts at the pure symphonic form.

Before returning to Mahler, let me run through some other first symphonies that have caught my ear over the years and seem to me to rise to the highest level of musical competence.

Jennifer and I shared two other first symphonies after being enthused by the Mahler performance. Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1 was composed in 1936. It was revised in 1944. This work, like much of Barber’s compositions, is both distinctly modern and distinctly romantic. It is composed of the classic four-section style yet contained in a single movement that lasts a bit under 22 minutes. It possesses a superb development of musical ideas, which is essential to the artistic merit of any true symphony. There are frequent moments of terrific, balanced interplay between the strings and horns. Though not as famous as Barber’s brilliant Piano Concerto and his Adagio of Strings, Barber’s First certainly is an aesthetic and intellectual masterpiece.

The other first symphony Jennifer and I shared as a result of her gift was Dmitri Shostakovich’s, composed as a graduation piece in 1925 when Shostakovich was only 19. Obviously influenced by both the work of Mahler and Tchaikovsky (among others) the work nevertheless is not just an exercise in various studied styles, it has a distinctive voice of its own which would continue to develop throughout his life to make Shostakovich so at home and recognizable in the repertoire. I especially enjoy the way he incorporates the use of a piano to help accentuate the work at certain moments, particularly in the second movement. Moments of humor, tenderness, rage, pomp and that unique Russian cultural conception of fate are all present throughout the work building to a triumphant finale so common with first symphony efforts – the composers usually being young and full of life and hope. In Shostakovich’s case, few of his 15 symphonies would match his First in its underlying optimism.

Preceding Shostakovich historically was the brilliant composer P. I. Tchaikovsky who’s Symphony No. 1 was completed in 1866. Appropriately, for this time of year, this symphony is subtitled “Winter Daydreams”. Cold weather makes me think of Tchaikovsky and, as it happens, I was already listening to his entire cycle of symphonies while at work through December. Listening to his First a few weeks ago, I had forgotten how rich and fulfilling it is, immediately showing Tchaikovsky’s comfortable mastery of orchestration. Tchaikovsky himself considered it paradoxically an “immature” work, yet “with more substance” than many of his other symphonies. Like Mahler's, Tchaikovsky’s First was a huge labor to produce. It did not come easily. But, the end result is something that sounds to my amateurish abilities as very mature, in that the work not only communicates and develops a coherent collection of themes but does so with the splendid use of every aspect of the orchestra. Tchaikovsky displays competence and artistic merit throughout his “daydream” which makes it a perfect musical experience for any winter afternoon.

Johannes Brahms rounds out the “honorable mentions” for my Great First Symphonies. No one in this post struggled more to complete his First than did Brahms. He began sketching it in 1854 and did not complete it until 1876. Brahms’ First begins boldly, confidently, alternating between harmonic orchestral bursts and periods of wonderful, delicate woodwind textures. Many critics dubbed this First as “Beethoven’s Tenth” when it was first performed, indicating the tendency among some to equate Brahms as the proper successor to Beethoven’s near-peerless career. Such a distinction also indicates something of this First’s sweeping complexity while remaining firmly entrenched in the romantic catalog. Brahms juxtaposition of horns and strings in the final movement is particularly noteworthy.

But, for all their splendor, the remarkable Firsts of Barber, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms, cannot match the towering brilliance of Mahler’s First. Initially, composed in between 1884 and 1888, the symphony was not favorably received. Few knew how to appreciate such a composition; it contained so many strange elements. The work began as a “symphonic poem” and its earlier versions reflected this. But, as Mahler continued to refine it – tinkering with it up to 1894 – it took on more of a traditional symphonic development though it still remained inaccessible to much of the audience. This was largely because it was so far ahead of its time.

Today, Mahler’s First is considered standard orchestral fare, though it retains the distinction of being a rather robust, difficult composition demanding the complete attention of the audience to fully appreciate. It is to be only attempted by the most accomplished musicians and conductors. For that reason, Mahler’s First is one of the mileposts by which only the best conductors stake their claims to greatness.

Now, back to Jennifer’s gift and how it fits into all this.

As loyal readers know, I am captivated by the modern compositions and conducting abilities of Esa-Pekka Salonen (see May 17 post). Jennifer is, of course, aware of this. Back in the summer we discussed Salonen leaving the Los Angeles Philharmonic and even toyed with the idea of going to LA in December to hear John Adams conduct the Philharmonic in a performance of Adams’ brilliant The Dharma at Big Sur in the Walt Disney Hall. But, in the end, our schedules did not permit such an extravagance.

So, this was all on Jennifer’s mind when we met with some of our Atlanta friends for dinner back in the fall. Our friend Eileen is a good violinist in a small, civic orchestra. This is a hobby of hers (she is a real estate attorney by trade) so naturally music is often a topic of conversation. Jennifer was discussing the John Adams piece with her when the subject of the LA Philharmonic getting a new conductor came up. I was elsewhere at that particular moment of our gathering so I knew nothing of what Eileen related but for a reference to this conversation Jennifer made on the drive home from that party. Unbeknownst to me, however, a Christmas gift idea was being hatched.

It turns out that Salonen’s replacement is a youngster of international renown from Venezuela, Gustavo Dudamel. I thought nothing more about Dedamel until Jennifer gave me his inaugural concert performance with the LA Philharmonic, a concert recorded at Disney Hall on October 8, 2009. The performance, if not the best ever of this First, is certainly competent and enthusiastic. You can sense the energy Dudamel inspired with his reportedly animated style of conducting (not unlike Mahler himself back in the day) by the explosive applause at the conclusion of the magnificent symphony. I plan to order the DVD of the performance so we can watch Dudamel’s conducting style and hear the performance in a DVD quality which is often noticeably better than regular CD.

I have no doubt that Dudamel, already known world-wide and only in his late-twenties, chose Mahler’s First with absolute intent. There is no better symphony by which to proclaim youthful mastery to the classical world. It is, in fact, a rather arrogant choice, as if attempting to prove from the start that there are no barriers for this conductor. Dudamel, if not already great, undoubtedly has visions of self greatness as one of the premiere conductors of the young 21st century.

An exciting conductor, an outstanding First, an excellent orchestra fine-tuned by Salonen himself, impeccable acoustics, and an eager audience all combine to make this gift of Mahler so very special. Still, there are some who claim this twenty-something upstart is too "showy" and can’t possibly get everything out of Mahler than a more mature conductor could obtain. Did Dudamel live up to his audacious choice for beginning his conductorship?

Under Dudamel’s guidance, the critical, fragile first few minutes and last, strident four minutes of the first movement certainly hold my ear, the truly remarkable percussion is resonant in this recording. The fine dance of a second movement – one of the most difficult ones for early audience to accept as serious music – is spritely, earthly and rich with strings and brass horns nicely interplayed. This all gives way half through the movement to a light cadence of isolated winds and softer string sections before erupting into dance again when the strings answer the call of trumpets. Wonderful.

The percussion softly begins the third movement accompanied by first a cello and then a bassoon in a folk medley. The entire orchestra gradually joins in. There are variations on this until the orchestra gradually fades into a dying percussion. Two beats. Then comes the final movement cascading down upon us with great alarm. The recording is distinctive, you hear every element of the orchestra, the percussion again being clearly in evidence. Building higher and higher to a triumphant explosion of sound only mid-way through the long 20 minute movement. This is not really triumph at all. It is struggle. And so the struggle goes on for several minutes until Mahler again calls us into the triumphant, this time complete. The audience applauds passionately.

On New Year’s Eve I was off work and did some small chores en route to purchasing an extra champagne bottle for the night. I was listening to NPR’s Performance Today and heard them salute Gustavo Dudamel’s d├ębute with the LA Philharmonic as a musical highlight of 2009. They played the final movement from Titan, Dudamel’s (and Mahler’s) proclamation of optimistic greatness to the world.

Now, you see, I obviously did not plan to hear Mahler’s final movement to his first symphony conducted in the very performance that my wife had intimately given to me for Christmas. She broadened my world in a meaningful way and opened up this mutual couple of nights of symphonic music, is there a greater intimacy to give? Only in the music itself. I did not plan to hear it but it was played for me on my radio out on a gray afternoon doing small errands. But, I was so appreciative of how all these things came together in the mind’s eye of my gift.

For that I am abundantly appreciative.