Thursday, September 26, 2013

Sukkot Playlist

Giacomo Meyerbeer: Psalm 91

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 1

Arnold Schoenberg: Psalm 130

Leonard Bernstein: Chichester Psalms

Ernest Bloch: Ba'al Shem

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco: The Queen of Sheba

Fremontal Halevy: La Juive

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

800 Words: The "Special" Destiny of Baltimore

If you want to piss off a crowded room of Baltimoreans, there is nothing that will do it quicker than to point out the truth so obvious that it would never occur to nearly every non-Baltimorean in the world to think otherwise. But these are special words - three words that make Baltimoreans quake in their boots with the sudden realization that their lives are barren with meaning. Three words that make them realize that by rejecting the conventions of larger cities, they are merely living out their rejection without putting more than the smallest meaning in its place. Three words that every Baltimorean will do everything to avoid, everything to oppose, and everything to shout down. Three words for which a consultant can make a nice living telling people it’s simply not true every day.


Baltimore is just another mid-size American city. In many ways, it’s a very nice one. If you live in a good area, you can live a nice life rather cheaply, and have no more chance of being molested than in any other major American city. Baltimore has Johns Hopkins Hospital and University and an attendant scientific community. It has a financial district of some consequence, even if ultimately marginal. And as the federal government becomes too large to be contained by Washington, there are more arms of government which trickle into Baltimore every year. The city has three wonderful if rather tiny art museums, a fantastic art school (even if MICA’s most famous graduate is Jeff Koons…) and a just as great music conservatory where Leon Fleisher’s taught for nearly half a century; local scenes in all the arts that on its own small stages are truly thriving, and a few acts whose appeal even transcends the local. In any given year, Baltimore;’s capable of producing a few nights of truly world-class theater and classical music. It is a lucrative stopping-point for high profile rock bands and comedians. But the fact that you can name all these features of Baltimore is roughly the same as saying that the opportunities of Baltimore are a mile wide and an inch deep.

It’s history is certainly important to America - with everything from Betsy Ross to Barbara Fritchie. During the War of 1812, it became the most important city in America for a moment. It’s housed four of the most important American writers - one of whom, Edgar Allen Poe, died too young to truly set roots down here. Another, W. E. B. DuBois, had long since done his most significant work and already in his dotage when he lived here; his most important contribution to world discourse during his Baltimore years was to vociferously oppose America’s involvement in World War II, especially after Pearl Harbor. Still another lived his dotage in Baltimore; by the time he moved to Baltimore, John Dos Passos had long completed his USA trilogy and became an ex-liberal who spent his Baltimore years supporting the campaigns and causes of Joseph McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, and Richard Nixon. F. Scott Fitzgerald lived here for two years, and the only way Baltimore proved particularly inspirational was to his drinking habit. A fifth, Ogden Nash, lived here for his adult life, and had his moment in American letters as the foremost mid-century American writer of comic poetry, but has long since been forgotten, even by Baltimoreans. A sixth writer, the cultural gadfly H. L. Mencken, was the only truly eminent writer who was also a lifelong Baltimorean, and he was an unrepentant fascist fellow traveler to his dying day. It also was the creative home for two of the more important American filmmakers - one of whom, John Waters, is more influential (and more fun) as a personality than his films. The other, Barry Levinson, long since became a high-end Hollywood hack.  Baltimore county birthed both a corrupt Vice-President and a particularly insane UN ambassador (John Bolton). Tori Amos, David Byrne, Cab Calloway, Nancy Pelosi, Frederick Douglass, Phillip and Ira Glass (first cousins), Billie Holiday, Alger Hiss, Jeff Koons, Frank O’Hara, Parker Posey, John Rawls, Adrienne Rich, Tupac, Sargent Shriver, Gertrude Stein, Kathleen Turner, Leon Uris, James Wolcott, Chick Webb, and Frank Zappa were all born or raised around here, but virtually all of them made their fortunes elsewhere and stayed away for the rest of their lives. Most of them seem to follow a pattern - born to either upper class or intellectually engaged parents, who then unleashed them on bigger cities so that they could conquer larger worlds than Baltimore.

By far, the most important piece of fiction to ever come out of Baltimore is The Wire - which is ultimately as much a work of social protest as a work of art. It’s a Washingtonian’s view of Baltimore - focusing on its politics and urban blights and not on the quirks that make Baltimore itself. Baltimore is not Baltimore in The Wire, it is a metaphor for the terminal plight of all American cities. It’s a legitimate view of the city, but it’s a view born not of long familiarity but of journalistic inquest. For all its humor and pathos, there is something truly sterile and clinical about the show. We’re watching the lives of black people through white eyes. It’s a great show like Emile Zola’s Germinal is a great novel. The impoverished of Baltimore are not people, they’re archetypes meant to speak for others more than fully formed individuals. I would certainly rather The Wire be our epochal television show than The West Wing, but like in The West Wing, I think people need to digest obscene amounts of progressive piety and dogma to find The Wire a particularly meaningful experience to watch. The Wire is more interested in showing us life as it is than life as it’s lived. So often, I hear that The Wire is a great show because ‘that’s how life truly is.’ But The Wire is a work of fiction, not a documentary. The greatness of The Sopranos or Mad Men or Breaking Bad is that ultimately, even in Mad Men, the characters and stories mean nothing but themselves. These shows ask moral question after moral question, but they’d never think to answer their questions. Mad Men asks questions, The Wire provides answers. I know which I find more interesting.

If you want to move from a Global City to Baltimore for the chance to become a big fish in a small pond, that is perfectly legitimate. But to tell anyone that Baltimore has things to offer the world at large which trump those all those other cities in importance or even quality is not just ludicrous, it’s breathtakingly dishonest. Even if Baltimore is a city that punches above its weight, and it does, that weight nevertheless puts it in a lower class of its particular world-region than New York, Washington, Boston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Miami.

The only equivalent East-Coast city is Charlotte. What makes living in Baltimore any better than living in Charlotte? For that matter, what makes living in Baltimore any better than living in Cincinnati, or Portland (Oregon), or San Jose, or even Adelaide or Glasgow or Bristol or Edinburgh? In terms of worldwide amenities, these are the English-speaking equivalents to Baltimore. History will remember Baltimore as a perfectly nice city of perfectly nice people - perhaps there was a filmmaker here or a musical group there which occasionally made it extraordinary. If you lived in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it might have been something like living in Brno or Lubliana. If you lived in the Roman Empire, living in Baltimore might have been like living in Herculaneum or Nimes. Baltimore a perfectly nice city, containing its own unique well of culture, but is not a city of consequence on the world stage, it hasn’t been in well over a hundred years, and it won’t be again any time within our lifetimes. It is not a worse place for that, but if you need the amenities of a world capital, you’re in the wrong place. If your goal is for Baltimore to ever be thought of as a city of world consequence, you’re so far in the wrong place that you should move away tomorrow. It’s rather adorable that people think of Baltimore as being a place whose greatness can compete with larger cities which have more money, more amenities, and less segregation. But Baltimore is great because it is so unexportable. You have to live here to understand the wonderfulness of the milieu. It is a city of eccentrics, most of whom could only survive around other people who are similarly eccentric to them. In this way, it’s a city like every other eccentric city, with types of people one could just as easily find in Boulder, Berkeley, Oakland, New Orleans, Seattle, Portland (both Oregon and Maine), Austin, Burlington, Minneapolis, Jamaica Plains and Allston-Brighton, H-Street and Petworth, Northern Liberties, Wicker Park, Silver Lake, The Mission District and North Beach and Haight-Ashbury, and many neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens, Jersey City, and Hoboken - places in which the people are utterly unique, just like everybody else. And yet, because there is a tolerance for weirdness, it causes the people within it to be neighborly in a manner that is truly rare anywhere else in America. In all these places, America is experiencing a kind of 1950’s for the Bohemian culture.

(Green Acres for the Hipster Set)

If Baltimore ever became a ‘more important’ city, nearly everything recommendable about the city would disappear almost overnight. The things which I love about Baltimore are only possible because of Baltimore’s smallness. Because Baltimore has such comparatively few amenities, it’s one of the very few ‘large’ cities in the US where the young professional white eccentrics feel as though have the keys to the entire city. There is so much tolerance in this city for weirdness because weird is the closest thing the city has to an engine - the primary source of vitality in a city sapped of it. And as such, there is none of the ‘edge’ and ‘judgementalness’ which one finds in cities where hipsters, hippies, punks, and the like have to feel territorial. More ‘normal’ white people have long since moved to the county, and most black people have either followed suit or are so beaten down by the ghetto that they don’t even have the energy to point out to white people how ridiculous they are. Like every place, there are benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand, nobody feels the need to point out that there are so many terrible shows, terrible bands, terrible art galleries, terrible theaters, terrible concerts, terrible food. On the other hand, because nobody points it out, everybody feels accepted. Baltimore, the city at least, is a place where people accept you for whom you are, and one of the largest cities in which you can take it to the bank that your eccentricity will be celebrated, not denigrated. Were it any larger, that would no longer be possible. It’s highly unlikely that truly great things would ever happen in Baltimore which astonish the world. But who needs greatness? What we need is decency and acceptance, and Baltimore provides it to so many people who would never feel that way in other places.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

800 Words: Vulgarity Will Save Us All

The last thing the world needs is another person coming down on the side of vulgarity. Vulgarity is already everything to which we aspire. Even in this time of economic worldwide crisis, the majority of Americans, Europeans, even a plurality of East Asians, have all the prosperity they need. We all have so much prosperity that we view it as a prison. Most people don’t have longings for a bigger house, or more expensive car - most of them get it, but it’s just another toy which gives them little long term happiness. What we all long for is freedom. We are so hogtied by responsibilities - financial, occupational, educational, governmental, parental, familial, even conjugal, that most of us long to break these chains, or at least have a break from them for a while.

In a society beset by chaos, the longing is for order. People in a chaotic society aspire to be in an elite class privileged enough to rise above the dread of life's uncertainties. When America was embroiled in true depression and World War, the longing was for the White Picket Fence and 2.2 children. But in a society beset by prosperity, the longing is for chaos. But people in a well-ordered society want the chaos which frees them of the frustrations which responsibility entails (totalitarian societies don't count, as it's the ultimate chaos when any family member could disappear at any moment). When America had 50% of the world’s GDP, the longing among the children of such prosperity was for the primal chaos they never knew and which their parents knew all too well. They began to rebel by being more vulgar in their dress, their musical tastes, their political aspirations, and their standards of acceptable discourse. Beginning with the Baby Boomers, our country has set about the surprisingly difficult task of tearing down the postwar order. From many valid points of view, the longing to tear down the old order was self-destructive, and could only lead to a level of horrific chaos that destroys millions of lives and can even end them. But even if the longing was misplaced, it still existed. But regardless, the postwar order has just barely held into the 21st century, but it was by no means assured that it would. Five years ago, we came within a hair’s breath of of an economic tsunami that could have dwarfed the Great Depression, and the current Middle East may yet begin a chain reaction for a conflict which bears strange resemblance to World War I. As the millenial generation has come closer to this chaos than their Baby Boomer parents, perhaps the longing for chaos in Obama era youth is less than in Nixon era youth. But declined and hobbling as it is, the social order of Roosevelt and Eisenhower still exists, and it keeps us bound in obligation to a prosperity to which we still feel chained.

But is there an outlet through which we can break free of our obligations without actually breaking free of them?... a way in which the frustrations and mental detritus can free themselves from the quiet desperation of our lives?

I have no idea. That question is well above my paygrade. But I do know that our burdens would be lighter if they felt more endurable. America deals with the stress of its increasing obligations in many ways - from an increase in religious practice to a simultaneous increase in acceptable sexual practices to an addiction to creature comfort to a simultaneous addiction to causing low-level wars abroad. But none of those practices or addictions are anything more than a temporary solution to the question of how to preserve everything that’s beneficial about America, and about the first world which America still oversees, without destroying every part of it because of what’s still wrong with it. If religion could be assured to be without dogma or fanaticism or repression or intolerance for differing views, it would be a reliable outlet. If sex could be assured to be without addiction or infection or power dynamics or human complication, that would work too. But humans are hardwired to pursue their outlets too seriously - and so long as mankind has aspirations, they will take their failures as a personal offense - regardless of how many successes they attain - and long for something precisely the opposite of what they have.

But what if there’s a way to assume all the necessary responsibilities of life without feeling them so onerous? What if there’s a way to acknowledge that we hate our obligations with the fire of a million suns, but fulfill them to the letter of the dotted i while still feeling that we have not sold our freedom away? Perhaps this is as impossible as any other solution for most people, but I believe that the best chance we have to survive as a species is if we all agree together that we loathe the obligations it takes to survive, and that there is absolutely no salvation which will make these obligations less burdensome. We should therefore take as much joy as possible in being completely honest about how much we hate our responsibilities and degrade them, insult them, and be as cruel and crudely honest as possible about how much we hate the chores which prevent us all from achieving the life of which we can only dream. It may not provide the extensive happiness of true belief’s salvation, but nor will such behavior will convince us falsely that there is an escape from our responsibilities, it forces us to deal with the fact that life exists to be muddled through with incremental gains in happiness that can be lost at any moment. Such a belief would not only allow us to have no illusions about ourselves, but no illusions about others as well. It would a prison of infinitely strengthened bars, but also a kingdom of infinite rebellion, in which people can insult each other at will and expect to be insulted back in kind - yelling and cursing would be a never-ending state of life, the level of constant criticism would be soul-deadening, and the anxiety over any moment spent not fulfilling responsibilities would be overwhelming - anxiety which we'd deal with by annoying one another all the more. But since people realize that there is no escape from this inferno of responsibility, the only option is to pass on the cruelty which was administered to you unto others in a tornado of emotional manipulation and emotion-flattening insults. We purge ourselves of our bad feeling through malice, and all that’s left is the warm feeling that this life is all there is, and that the people with which we undergo life deserve better than we’ve given, and we must endeavor as best we can to be kinder and more loving to one another than we were a few minutes before. And thus will begin the eternal cycle that binds us to each other, both in love and in hate, with no escape except death.

No doubt, this is a utopia like any other, and perhaps the least desirable-sounding utopia ever conceived. And like all utopias, it’s more a reflection of the person who created it than a practical solution. For all my intellectual pretensions, I’m an exceptionally crude man, and I think anyone who spends more than twenty minutes in my company realizes that I can’t go more than a few minutes at a time without a joke in exceedingly bad taste. The taboo topic is something I’m drawn to like a bug near a light. It’s won me many friends, and it also makes dating rather difficult. But I honestly think it’s the best part of me; what saves my eccentric interests from wafting over into the realm of the insufferable (if it hasn’t already). I grew up from a family of vulgarians - no matter how intellectually knowledgeable any of us became, cursing was never criticized, dinner talk was based around conversation topics which would make most families blush, elders yelled at you and virtually expected you to yell back, and inner monologue was a luxury as frowned upon as any other expensive taste. Only people from a background of chaos and vulgarity possess the innate intellectual pretension to use books and the humanities as a means for self-improvement. The base of me is completely vulgarian, and it’s only over that base in which I grew up that I could assume the smarty-pants ethos which I scrawl around this webspace every week. My vulgarity, for all the social awkwardness it causes at times by my being too forward, is what saves me from finding other people completely unrelatable.

Perhaps this is not the ideal manner on paper in which to be raised, but against all my expectations, my family has stayed completely together while so many other American families which were seemingly more functional have broken themselves up - whether by divorce, or through the distance which their children live away from home. For all the headaches from so much yelling and drama, there must be something we all get out of each other that enables us to still weather our storms together. No doubt, part of it is a Jewish thing - only an assimilated Jew has an inner monologue. But I think it’s by-and-large true of every ‘vulgar’ culture which still holds poverty and war in living memory. In a culture of poverty, there is no thought to hold back which will gain a measurable advantage. In a culture of war, every unarticulated fear is something that can get a loved one killed. Lots of people could never understand a culture like that - Americans who’ve spent their lives around people comfortably ensconced in the middle class for generations will never understand a ‘forward’ culture in which every thought and emotion is expressed. People from such cultures as ours have their own prisons from which to escape, but it is not by shirking our responsibilities that we escape them, it’s by denigrating them.

I compare myself to lots good friends, and I see that many of them who seem to cultivate a more ‘vulgar’ image on the surface have little actual vulgarity in their upbringing of which to speak. One of my college roommates was a Pabst-swilling, Johnny Cash-listening, Marlboro Red-smoking working class dude, but I later learned that he actually came from Old Money and his older brother who went by a three-letter nickname was actually named “(Classical name) (French name) (Wasp surname)” the eighth. Another good friend has devoted his adult life thus far to spreading awareness about the burdens of race and class under-privilege, and meanwhile his uncle was the longtime headmaster of Washington DC’s most exclusive private school. In all of our cases, our presentations of a different ‘image’ from our origins might be pretension. But neither they nor I were indulging in fakery, and if anything, these assumptions of a different lifestyle should be celebrated - it shows that we’re all looking to move beyond the confines of our backgrounds to become more complex, more interesting, people. We all take on qualities which better let us assume the burdens of our origins. In each of our cases, there is something deliriously vulgar - whether in a common person’s assumption of aristocratic tastes, or in an aristocrat’s assumption of common ones - about the idea that we can possibly know what it’s like to come from a different milieu than our own. But the vulgarity of such assumptions is precisely what makes life that much more bearable for us all, and makes us that much more lively, complex, and interesting.

America was the first country consciously built upon vulgarity. It arose to eminence because its vulgar, teeming, life held no illusions about the sacredness of monarchy or aristocracy, and no illusions about the moral sacrifices it takes to become one of life’s aristocrats. In this giant petri dish, 300 million people, most of whom’s great-grandparents were considered the vulgarest of vulgar in their countries of origin, come together to infect one another with their attitudes, their criticism, their support, and their interaction. The best parts of America are the noisiest and the crudest. The biggest problem with 21st century America is not that our culture has corroded, but that it hasn’t corroded enough yet. It is only when America opens its borders to still more infection from immigrants that it will develop the antibodies to wipe itself clean of the current sepsis. And if America survives into the 22nd century, it will be because it we have maintained the lack of polish and civility that’s sustained us through everything.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

800 Words: The Tragicomedy of Onegin

My first experience of Eugene Onegin was nearly ten years ago. As a college student, I sneakily bought tickets to Tchaikovsky’s operatic version it for me to go with a slightly older opera singer with whom I was head-over-heals in love - or so I thought. Knowing that 100 other nerdy men were competing for her at any given time, I wisely absented myself from any competition and simply contented myself with her company - for I had enough problems in that area to give myself any more.

I knew the basic outline of the opera, or at least well enough that I should have known better than to take her to it - or perhaps I unconsciously bought the tickets knowing that basically our situation was almost a mirror image of the opera - with her as the older, world-weary Onegin and I as the puppy-love-stricken Tatiana. I have no idea if she squirmed in her seat, but I certainly did for virtually the whole of the first two acts - watching Tatyana’s heartache mirror my own so closely. At the time, it was truly awful, and felt like my heart was being rent in two-times-two, both by the obvious parallels of our situation and by the fact that they were playing out right in front of us. It was horrible. Ten years later,... it’s pretty funny.

Ten years later, I’m finally within striking distance of finishing Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin in an online translation that’s truly excellent (reading-wise, I have no idea as to its accuracy). As I draw near its completion, I can’t help but wonder if this is not the greatest poem I’ve ever read of any length, any nationality, or any era. The tone of it is so perfect - conversational, light-hearted, and funny, until it suddenly comes upon a passage so unbelievably heartrending that the shock of it stabs you like a knife. This novel in verse may become one of my favorite things in the world.

The Tchaikovsky opera is extraordinary - an opera which clearly owes everything to Schumann. It is one of the most beautiful, profoundly moving pieces of music you’ll ever hear. There are so many passages within it that I can barely get through without tears forming in my eyes. But it’s also a deeply flawed opera, switching from painful beauty to musical freneticness without warning in ways that seem rather tacked on. The sense of elegiac misery can seem almost oppressive - much closer to Chekhov than Pushkin but almost completely without Chekhov’s comedy to offset it. There’s only a little bit of tragic in the book, but beneath all the bubbliness it is one of the most profoundly sad books you’ll ever read - friendships souring into enmity, love’s opportunities missed, and the creeping realization that life is little but a series of disappointments. There is little of real suffering here - certainly not on the level of Dostoevsky or Chekhov, but the suffering of a sheltered existence is still suffering, even if it’s the suffering of mere misery instead of horror.

But there is also that sense that only one thing exists to combat the suffering we all must undergo - and that is the extreme fundamental unseriousness of our lives. The tragedies in Onegin are funny when seen from a certain angle, as they must sometimes be in life if we’re to get out of bed every morning. Everything in life depends on how seriously you take it, and if you’re blessed with the ability to view life unseriously, then even the saddest or most horrific events can be funny. We laugh so that we may not cry, and the funnier life seems, the more capable we are of bearing it.

Personally, I have no use for consuming things that don’t radiate that tragicomic serious non-seriousness. If comedy is not sad, bleak, brutal, it just isn’t funny to me. If tragedy doesn’t have that lightness of character that warns us it doesn’t matter at all, it’s either unintentionally hilarious or just unpleasant. My worldview involves equal parts compassion and contempt - a view which pities us our foibles, but never excuses us for them. Chekhov and Kafka are tragicomic, Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann are not. Mozart and Schubert are tragicomic, Wagner and Schoenberg are not. The Simpsons and The Sopranos are tragicomic, 24 and Game of Thrones are not. Jean Renoir and Hitchcock are tragicomic, Kurosawa and Kubrick are not. The Beatles and Randy Newman are tragicomic, Bob Dylan and The Doors are not. The Orioles and the Red Sox are tragicomic, the Ravens and the Yankees are not. Judaism is tragicomic, Christianity is not. Value pluralism is tragicomic, heroic materialism is not. Tragicomedy shows us the ultimate lesson: life matters, but not too much.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Yom Kippur Playlist: The Great Cantors

Golden Age

Yossele Rosenblatt

Gershon Sirota

Leib Glantz

Zavel Kwartin

Moshe Koussevitzky

David Werdyger

Richard Tucker

Jan Peerce


Shmuel Barzilai

Naftali Herstik

Yitzchak Meir Helfgot

Joseph Malovany

Benzion Miller

800 Words: The Joy of Picking Fights

A friend of mine once described the ‘artistic temperament’ to me as the desire to tell the world to go fuck itself and be loved for it. He also told me that I may be the ultimate proof of that axiom. Personally, I think there’s no ‘may’ about it. If the world has ever come up with a better definition of me (for surely that is the world’s responsibility), then I have yet to hear anything that comes close.  

I’m the precise result of what happens in a family where you’re given all the love in the world and no approval. I was supposed to be the “illui of Pikesville,” the shiningly secular Rabbinical sage whose Krell-like intellect would set the world alight in a new Golden Age of Reason and Understanding. I know, I know, it all sounds like self-delusion. It probably is. But that massive level of self-esteem is only possible because a surprisingly large population of familiar people believed in me so much that I internalized it all into self-belief. And the self-loathing that accompanies said self-belief is only possible because I disappointed those people who believed in me so spectacularly. Somehow, that shining era of worldwide happiness never occurred. The world was not warmed by the rays of my golden gifts. Instead, it first labeled me a learning disabled student, and over the years transformed me into a ‘depressed’ kid, an adolescent with ‘deep character flaws’, a college near-dropout, a longtime unemployed twentysomething, a self-deluded musical entrepreneur, and now an ‘idiot son’ businessman. So whatever half-dozen of you deign to read this blogpost can bask in my fairly secure knowledge that I’m more intelligent than you. You can also bask in the still more secure knowledge that you’ve done far more with less than I’ve done with far more.

I am, without a doubt, the most combative person I know. I know this because there always seem to be so many pretenders to that title. Considering how many of my hours are spent in various states of bickering, it frankly amazes me that I have friends who clearly take some kind of joy in watching me do it - joy perhaps still more perverse than mine, because they’re simply unequal to the task of matching me bicker-for-bicker. There are very few things in my life at which I feel I’ve been successful but bickering and all its various hues - argument, bile, calumny, denigration, disapproval, disparagement, defamation, deprecation, derogation, detraction, and all the other letters of the alphabet - are my greatest accomplishments. Gore Vidal once claimed that his veins were made of ice. Mine are made of vinegar and bile. No doubt, there is a kind, benevolent, gentle soul aching to free himself from this body poisoned with negativity, but he is unable to free himself because he is so convinced that the world will stomp upon his gentle good humor and freely bestowed approval. In the meantime, an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind, but at least it will be equal again.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

800 Words: The Perils of Having Things to Do

I have no energy to write these days. I write all the time, be it on facebook or emails or on attempted posts on here which I begin almost every day but never seem to finish. I’m under no misimpression about the problem - the problem is that I socialize too much. As my outward stimulation grows ever busier, the stillness necessary for prolonged writing becomes ever harder to attain. I envy any writer who can sit at his desk every day and wait for inspiration to come like a store clerk waits for a customer. But my mind has never worked like that, and I think that such a mechanical process ultimately takes something out of the artisan who assumes it. A creator who has a set way of creating will probably create a set product. What’s needed is to go out into the world, experience as much of life as possible, and then steal the time, the money, the very thoughts, necessary in order to create something worthwhile. Hopefully, all that accumulated life experience will appear on paper. It is the tension of such a lifestyle that creates the tensile strength a piece needs. When I quickly make a list in my head of ‘great writers’ who holed themselves up in seclusion (in part) for the sake of their own productivity - Proust, Flaubert, Montaigne, Philip Roth, Pynchon, Thoreau, Dickinson - there are two things which strike me:

1. The majority of them are either New Yorkers or Parisians - or at very least adopted for part of their lives to those cities. It’s quite possible that there’s something about the overstimulation of hyper-urban life which provoked them to write, but perhaps it also made necessary a retreat into seclusion in order to hear the words that were shouting to get out.

2. When I look at this list, there are only two that number in my personal favorites. I got to roughly page 4 of Madame Bovary before I realized that I’d be reading this level of over-writing for another 400 pages. I persist with Proust, because just as I’m ready to give up there’s a truly gorgeous passage amidst an endless profusion of boredom. Pynchon’s constant parodies don’t settle very well if you can’t follow him in the extent of his erudition, and I can’t. Thoreau is just insane, and Dickinson seems to become more trivial every time I look at her poetry. The only two which provoke genuine affection in me are Montaigne and Philip Roth. But even among these two, I have to admit that Roth’s huge output - at least among the part I’ve read - has better and worse books, better and worse chapters, better and worse characters, and even the best are prone to huge bouts of cruelty. If Roth wrote a few less books, he might have written some better ones. And Montaigne, as intimate and humane as his essays seem, can also show a shocking lack of compassion at times. Perhaps that’s simply the 21st century reading into thoughts set down in the 16th, but I still can’t quite get over certain passages. In every case listed above, there is something almost mechanical about their production - as though they used all that time they had for writing as a means to drain the vitality out of what they wrote (Flaubert), or to publish reams of subpar writing among their great stuff that should never be published (Roth, Proust… heresy I know...), or to publish thoughts and attitudes to life that were simply wrong (everybody else).

But it still can’t be denied - every chance to go out and see friends, to take on a more interesting job, to try to have love affairs, takes something essential out of any writer, be they professional or a mere amateur like me. Look at so many of the great fiction writers - or at least some of my favorites. Tolstoy, the high aristocrat and compulsive sinner, wrote two meganovels about the aristocracy before burning out and becoming an insane Christian who renounced all aspirations to which a peasant couldn't aspire. Chaucer, the medieval bureaucrat, left a note upon his death retracting all his secular work. Saul Bellow, the fiction writer who doubled as a public intellectual, worked his way through five wives and became a bitter old reactionary in his dotage. Stefan Zweig, the public intellectual who took it upon himself to be the nerve center of European discourse between the two world wars, ended his life in ignominious Brazillian exile and made a suicide pact with his new wife. Chekhov is to my mind the greatest model of a writer who experienced the world head on and put his findings into what he wrote, but he had to juggle his writing with the demands of being a doctor for thousands of peasants and making time for his revolving door of mistresses - who can doubt that having so little time to himself was what killed him in his mid-40’s?

Neither I nor anybody else should view these greats as models for how to write better. To even bring them up in the context of me is laughable. A giant is a giant, an ordinary guy is an ordinary guy. But no matter what your size, you are subject to the same human foibles and problems. And the biggest problem for any writer, any artist, any human being, is balance. Anybody can come up with a worldview which carries them through every situation - be it religious, or political, or cultural, or social, we all carry with us dogmatic beliefs to which we hold onto as best we can like the floor of a boat during a storm. If it’s required, there’s nothing wrong with a bedrock beliefs which carry you through life better than you can carry yourself. The only problem with such unshakeable beliefs is that you’ll go through life being shielded by them from so much of what life has to offer you.

It is so terribly hard for a writer to convey life as it’s truly experienced. It requires not only a knowledge of such experience, but also that you carry the memory of it from the time you experienced it until the moment you place that experience on the page, and then all through the editing process. Life ‘in the moment’ is so much easier, and those artists who work in ‘present’ artforms like popular musicians, dancers, and actors get to have more fun. Their goals don’t necessarily require less of them (psychologically, they probably require more), but the ‘art’ of their jobs is not nearly as elusive. What’s required of them is, mostly, to be fully present in the moment of creation - the moment after it matters not at all to their work. Writers, composers, directors, painters, they all are demanded to work far more within a fourth dimension, in which they must carry over the intense experiences of a moment fully in the past to create an equally vivid present. It requires far more contemplation and the ability to slow every action down to a crawl. The more ‘present’ you experience - the more time you spend in the fast lane of ‘reality’ getting the real time reactions of other people, the harder it is to slow your mind down to analyse all of those interactions for what they are, and the harder it becomes imagine all those same people’s reactions to what you write when you confess your thoughts to a blank computer screen.

For the second time since I left in the fall of 2011, I went back to the house in Bethany Beach this weekend where I spent an entire summer in 2011 - the scene of the crime where this blog was first hatched. It was a perfectly lovely weekend, with amazing weather, good food, good friends, and lots of liquor. But what I missed, deeply, was the seclusion which that place once provided me - the quiet of a lakeside setting where nothing could disturb you for six hours at a time. That moment in 2011 - when I realized I could write long essays on Jon Stewart, Johnny Cash, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Uncle Vanya, The Rules of the Game, The Simpsons, and The Orioles - is not to be repeated. It could never be. It was a once-in-a-lifetime flowering of a person who’d accumulated nearly thirty years worth of life experience, and finally had the time and space to write about it. It was the first explosion of words which every writer must experience, words that were simply biding their time to get out onto a page. But once the summer was over, there was the ever-present question - how do you keep this flowering going?

Ever since, this blog has been a series of attempts to answer that question. In the two years since, I think a lot of work has appeared on this page which I have every right to be proud of. There’s plenty of which I’m not proud too, but I’m damn proud of the fact that I’ve kept going, and will keep going for a long time yet.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

800 Words: My Translation of the First Two Paragraphs of Genesis

On election day last year, I did this to take my mind off the election. I haven't resumed since. I tried to do as literal a translation as possible, with all the potential implied meanings of the Hebrew text. I think it was pretty good for someone who is no biblical scholar and has forgotten half the Hebrew he ever learned, but this shit is hard!

In principle cause composed Divinity the sky and the land. And the land, she was abyss and amiss, and elemental darkness on abyss’s face; and divine breath, hovering on the face of water. And said Divinity, may there emerge light, and there emerged light. And there may see Divinity the light, because it is good. And divided Divinity between the light and between the darkness. And called Divinity to light Day, and to darkness called Night; And there emerged evening, and there emerged morning, Day One.

And said Divinity, may there emerge atmosphere within the water, and there emerges division between water to the water. And formed Divinity the atmosphere, and divided between the water that was under the atmosphere, and the water that was on the atmosphere; and there emerged was the atmosphere which was under the water, and between the water the atmosphere emerged from there. And there it remained. And called Divinity to the atmosphere: Sky; and there emerged evening, and there emerged morning. Day Two. 

Friday, September 6, 2013

800 Words: Monotheism and the Grand Chessboard

If the world is a chessboard, then Israel is the exact centerpiece which does not exist on any game yet played except in reality. Countries like America, Russia, China, are in the proper position to bestride the board like dominant colossi, but the ultimate goal is who controls Israel. For reasons many attribute to mystical properties, the dominant civilizations of the Western (and now Global) world have thus far almost always been those whose policies most favored the advancement of Jews.

The reason for this is not mystical at all, it is simple geography. America, Brazil, Russia, India, and China may be dominant players in the grand chess game. But Israel is the spiritual father to them all because Israel stands at the world’s exact crossroad - this tiny land is the closest thing to a central meeting point for Europe, Asia, and Africa. More than any other culture, it stands in the optimal place for its ideas to spread to many cultures which otherwise have nothing in common. If the larger world was eventually going to evolve from regional pagan superstitions, Israel was the only region with enough fluency for travel that the ideas could spread. And amazingly, as the Western World expanded into the Global World to include China and India to the Far East and the Americas to the Far West, Israel still seems to stand in the world’s precise center.

There may have been many other places where monotheism was thought of before Israel, but Israel is where it took root, and Israel is the center point from which it began to proliferate. Before the development of what eventually became the Jewish people, binding legal codes certainly existed, but such laws could never spread past the immediate city-state or Empire in which they were upheld because they could not take on the weight of immutable Divine Law. The Gods of one region might disavow the laws of another region. Only an invisible and indivisible God; omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, could spread his law past the reach of any army. Only an eternal kingdom requires eternal vigilance, and such an idea could only spread were it to take root in the most fertile area for ideas to extend their reach.

Legal evolution is unthinkable without monotheism. The fact that laws took on the weight of Holy Word is what gave law the power to conquer entire civilizations. Monotheism may have enabled slaughter upon a scale yet unseen (though that’s debateable), but it also enabled feats of organization thus far impossible in eras when values were more relative (and that isn’t). With the quick rise and quicker decline of the Empire of David and Solomon, Israel displayed a rough draft for all the civilizations which came after it. The Kingdom of Israel was a kingdom of bedouin refugees whom in their wanderings absorbed many different influences from the empires of Egypt and Mesapotamia, and that was what allowed it to rise so quickly, and because it was encircled on all sides by those two empires was what made it fall even more quickly. The Israeli Kingdom was so short-lived that its subjects never completely forgot how to live as refugees, and once the reign of Solomon was over and the Kingdom of Israel divided, its subjects had to learn almost immediately following their inception how to live in a world where the influence of others could once again dominate life.

Rosh Hashana Playlist

Ravel: Kaddish

Leonard Cohen: Who By Fire

Bloch: Niggun

Aaron Lebedeff: Romania, Romania

Rosenblatt: Shir Hamaalot

Steve Reich: Daniel Variations

Bernstein: Jeremiah Symphony

Stravinsky: Abraham and Isaac

Bloch: Avodat Hakodesh (oh the contempt I used to have for this piece... I can't get through it with a dry eye now.) part 2 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

800 Words: The Complete Season's Greetings

2009: (the first, an unoriginal benediction, but with many, many personal emendations)

To All the Jews (honorary ones too),

In this coming year may you have friends who insult you to your face and neighbors who don't spy.  May you win the lottery, thereby acquiring a long list of relatives, and may you remember Evan Tucker when you win.  May you get good reports from your internist, ENT, dentist, cardiologist, chiropractor, proctologist and urologist, and if you don't may there be an organization to pick up your health policy when it's dropped.  May your hair stay in, your facelift not fall and your stock portfolio rise.  May your cholesterol stay low and your mortgage interest rate not rise.  May your broadband and refrigerator be free of spam (really just the broadband) and may your gchat records be easily deletable.  May the swine flu go back to the swine where it belongs.  May you get through the day without feeling the need for alcohol or nicotine at the end of it, or something else, unless you really think it's good for you in which case may you do that something else and may the government leave you be.  May you know your calling - choral singer or otherwise - and may your calling give you much satisfaction.  May those of you who think Israelis are always right be satisfied, may those of you who think Palestinians are always right be satisfied too, and may we all learn to stop talking about it at parties.  May you have a merciful IRS agent and a boss who charges lunch to the company card.  May those of you getting married, recently married or oldly married have all the best fortune.  May you make enough money to support all your children through college and grad school and for their whole lives thereafter.   When it's cold, may you have sealing windows.  When it rains, and it will, may you have non-leaking roofs.

To the Goyim,

Don't fuck with us.  

All the best,


2010: (easily my least favorite, toned down because it was the year I had to use it to try to convince DC singers to sing for Voices of Washington... I should have just done a better Season's Greetings)

To all the Jews: 

Real Jews, fake Jews; red Jews, blue Jews; Jews by force, Jews by choice; honorary Jews and dishonorable Jews.  To the three-times-a-year Jews and Shabbos Goyim, bacon-lovers and crabcake-connoisseurs; Jews when they watch Seinfeld and Jews when they read about Mel Gibson, Jews when they listen to Mahler and Jews when they watch Adam Sandler; Jews when they see the restaurant bill and Jews when their mothers call four times an hour.  To the 6'4 blonde Jews and the 5'3 balding goy, to the doctors named Esposito and the baseball players named Youklis; to the Jewish mechanic who works on your car and the Scotch-Irish accountant from West Virginia who sets up your 401 K, to the goyim who feel Jewish when Israel comes up and the Jews who feel Palestinian when talking to them; to the goyim who don't throw up when they realize what Kishkes are made of and the Jews who wretch at the sight of kippered herring, to the Jews who never miss a chance to look inside a church and the Goyim who feel like they're going to scream if they have to go again.  

To everyone, both Jewish and not, because beneath it all we share a common hatred of Yankee fans:

May the coming year bring you good health, good fortune, and happiness.


2011: (I went unoriginal again for the most part. But it was definitely funny)

Dearest Jews and/or Goyim,
In the coming year may you have all the health, wealth, wisdom and happiness which so clearly eluded you in the past year. I know I shall see you all tonight at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem where we shall partake of the great happiness that awaits all who devote eternity to the study of Torah. Should the Messiah however be unexpectedly delayed, here's fondly wishing you a happy New Year.

And here is a questionnaire I recently received from my synagogue:

During the last holiday season, many individuals expressed concern over the seating arrangements in thesynagogue. 

  In order for us to place you in a seat which will best suit you, we ask you to complete the following questionnaire and return it to the synagogue office as soon as possible.  

1. I would prefer to sit in the . . . (Check one)   

______Talking section    

______No talking section

2. If talking, which category do you prefer? (indicate order of interest)

_____ Stock market

_____ Sports

_____ Medicine

_____ Congregate's secret medical tragedies

_____ General gossip

_____ Specific gossip (choose)

_____ The rabbi

_____ The rabbi's voice

_____ The rabbi's wife

_____ The choir

_____ The rabbi's "secretary"

_____ Fashion news

_____ What others are wearing

_____ Why they look awful

_____ Your neighbors

_____ Your neighbor's relatives

_____ President Obama

_____ Sex (Preference:______)

_____ Who's cheating on/having an affair with whom

_____ Other:

3. Which of the following would you like to be near for free professional advice?

_____ Doctor

_____ Dentist

_____ Nutritionist

_____ Psychiatrist

_____ Child psychiatrist

_____ Mother in law

_____ Pilot

_____ Podiatrist

_____ Chiropractor

_____ Stockbroker

_____ Accountant

_____ Lawyer

_____ Criminal

_____ Civil

_____ Estate agent

_____ Architect

_____ Plumber

_____ Buyer (Specify store:_____________)

_____ Sex therapist

_____ Golf pro (tentative: we're still trying to find a Jewish one) 

_____ Other:_____________________________

4. I want to be seated (Indicate order of priority)

_____ On the aisle

_____ Near the exit

_____ Near the window

_____ In Aruba

_____ Near the bathroom

_____ Near my in-laws

_____ As far away from my in-laws as possible

_____ As far away from my ex in-laws as possible

_____ Near the pulpit

_____ Near the kiddush table

_____ Near single men

_____ Near available women

_____ Near anyone who's available - I'm bisexual or just not particular   

_____ Where no one on the bimah can see/hear me talking during services   

_____ Where no one will notice me sleeping during services 

  _____ Where I can sleep during the rabbi's sermon (Additional Charge)

5. Orthodox only - I would like a seat where:

_____ I can see my spouse over the mechitza
_____ I cannot see my spouse over the mechitza
_____ I can see my friend's spouse over the mechitza

_____ My spouse cannot see me looking at my friend's spouse over the mechitza
6. Please do not place me anywhere near the following people (limit of 6 names):


(If you require more space, you may wish to consider joining another congregation)

Fondly yours,

2012: (easily the best so far, though a presidential election made it easier)

Dear Sir, Madame, Or Other,

My Judaism primer sheet informs me that a holiday signifying a supposedly Jewish new year is approaching and that it would be prudent to issue a greeting for this allegedly sacred time. So for those economically successful people of Jewish persuasion, I would like to wish those Jews whom God has blessed a Happy and Blessed New Year. For any of those economically successful Jews who would give five hundred thousand dollars and above to my campaign, I would endow them with a gift basket of honey-glazed pork chops and a freshly-killed lobster dinner with me and Anne at the White House. 

Best Wishes for a Sweet New Year,

Willard Mittens Romney


To all my Jewish Friends,

I would like to wish you all a great and sweet New Year with lots of dragons and fortune cookies. I know that soon you will achieve your dream of founding a country in your ancestral homeland and that you'll have a friend in America, who will be at your side when the next Holocaust occurs. 

Your Friend,

Joe Biden


So I'd like to wish you all a new year. Except for the teachers, whom I'd like to wish a !@#$%# @#$%@##!#$ %Y#@$%!#$!# !@$%@#! @#$@$%^@#$ !@#%@#%^@#$% @$%@#$@#$^ CHAINSAW @#$%!@$@#^ ^&$%^&*$%* !@$%#$%#^& @#%^#$^&%#$%& BLUMPY #@$%@#^$% #^#$%&#$%^#$@#% &$%^&@$ *(%^&*#$% !@$%#$%& #$^&$%&*&@#$ @##$%^ DUKAKIS @$%&$% %^&*#$%^ #$^&^&*%*$^ $%^#$%^#$%^ @$#%@$%&#$^& NEW YEAR!!!!

Best Wishes,

Rahm Emanuel 


Dear Jews,

I'd like to wish all you movie business Leninists a good New Year or whatever it is you celebrate. I don't even know why I'm sending this thing but I think my agent's implying that I need to if I ever want another Oscar. 

Back to the Links,



Dear Jews, 

You make me sick.



To all Jews (self-identified or honorary)

May you be written in the Book of Life and may you have a sweet new year. Unless you prefer otherwise. 

Best Wishes,


2013: (a little too close to the bone this year, but I don't take a word of it back :) )

Dearest Jews, self-identified or honorary, of Baltimore,

Your new-found reappearance in my life has been such a blessing. I am so happy to have ditched that tiresome, disgusting, pestilential blight upon the world that is Washington and all those people within it whom I claim to love but secretly loathe with all my might for their disgusting fakery, their fanatical belief systems, their craven ambition and catty social climbing, their uninformed bloviations, their corporate facelessness, their collusion in the thievery of the country's money, and the overpriced restaurants, rowhouses, bars, public transit, and clothes, for all of which they spend the money they stole from us like water. Like hell, Washington is nothing more than a demon-filled swamp disguised as a real city.  Satan's kingdom must come down, and one day we'll do a field trip to dance on the remains of its ashes.

Happy New Year,



Dearest Jews, self-identified or honorary, of Washington,

Oh my god TAKE ME BACK TAKE ME BACK TAKE ME BACK!!! If I have to sit through one more shitty band/gallery/theater production then I'm going to become the artistic equivalent to a disgruntled postal worker who goes crazy and shoots up his office, and the Baltimore City Paper would name my mass shooting the 'best show of the year.' And it just might be, because everything in Baltimore is like a bad show: "look how few murders we've had this month!", "look how effectively we've stopped the drug trade!" "look how much better gentrification's made life for us!" "look how amazing it is to work for your father!" No wonder so many shitty artists take root here. We're a town tailor made for bad shows. At least DC is a show which some idiots believe. Nobody believes in Baltimore. 

Happy New Year,



Dearest Jews, self-identified and honorary, of all cities,

What the hell did I do to deserve you people?

Happy New Year,