Monday, April 29, 2013

For Janos Starker (1924-2013)

I always found that there was far less to Janos Starker than met the eye - a perfect cello machine who never spared an opportunity to mute the expressive capability of whatever he played, and no doubt encouraged his students to do the same. Give me Rostropovich any day, hour, or minute over Starker. Rostropovich was all warmth and fire, whereas Starker was a perfectly formed icicle. Nevertheless, the technique was truly jaw-dropping, and when it came to works of great difficulty, he could put them over like the easiest thing in the world. He was not an artist to touch your heart, but he could make your hair stand up.

Kodaly Cello Sonata (it was said to be unplayable until he played it)



Friday, April 26, 2013

800 Words: St. Augustine - The Original Blogger?


There are large swaths of the Confessions of St. Augustine that are unreadable. I say this not as a Jew, but as a reader whom I’m sure would be equally bored with watching people kiss God’s ass if I pretended to believe in any other faith than the religion I choose to pretend to believe in. But for a few choice passages which I must find with a fine-toothed comb, The Confessions of St. Augustine sucks. There’s no promised place in heaven or hell which can make me finish this book.


But let’s be kind to poor Augustine. He was the pioneer of his genre, not the summit - though he was perhaps the summit of early Christian thought (and I’m far from qualified to pontificate in such matters). But as another overrated Christian writer once declared, “In my end is my beginning.” And T S Eliot’s maxim can apply, among many other things, to Early Christianity’s obliteration of paganism, and particularly of the material worldview which paganism provided - a materialism which probably ruled our species since the dawn of its sentience.


Augustine of Hippo was an almost exact contemporary of Emperor Theodosius, and converted to Christianity at precisely the same age that Theodosius was when he made Christianity the state-sponsored religion of the Roman Empire (incidentally, they were both 33... Christ’s age when he was put on the cross). Their generation was the founding generation of Christianity as the world’s dominant religion, the first generation for whom the entire world practiced Christianity with a universal standard as determined at the Council of Nicaea. And therefore, their perception of Christianity was unfettered from the existential threat which every previous generation of Christians lived with. The world they lived in was suddenly Christian, and because of that unfettered access to a world which shared their beliefs, Augustine was free to meditate upon existences’ mysteries in a manner which no Christian before him was able:


“And what is this? I asked the earth, and it answered me, "I am not He"; and whatsoever are in it confessed the same. I asked the sea and the deeps, and the living creeping things, and they answered, "We are not Your God, seek above us." I asked the moving air; and the whole air with his inhabitants answered, "Anaximenes was deceived, I am not God. " I asked the heavens, sun, moon, stars, "Nor (say they) are we the God whom You seek." And I replied unto all the things which encompass the door of my flesh: "Ye have told me of my God, that ye are not He; tell me something of Him." And they cried out with a loud voice, "He made us. " My questioning them, was my thoughts on them: and their form of beauty gave the answer. And I turned myself unto myself, and said to myself, "Who are You?" And I answered, "A man." And behold, in me there present themselves to me soul, and body, one without, the other within. By which of these ought I to seek my God? I had sought Him in the body from earth to heaven, so far as I could send messengers, the beams of mine eyes. But the better is the inner, for to it as presiding and judging, all the bodily messengers reported the answers of heaven and earth, and all things therein, who said, "We are not God, but He made us." These things did my inner man know by the ministry of the outer: I the inner knew them; I, the mind, through the senses of my body. I asked the whole frame of the world about my God; and it answered me, "I am not He, but He made me.”

(Book X)


This may seem like the most obvious Sunday School kindergarten pablum to us, but in the 4th century, this was absolutely revolutionary. The idea that not only is God invisible, but that he is also absolutely unknowable, is not a concept which comes from the Bible itself. The “Old Testament” abounds in passages full of divine intervention, and also of God as a character made flesh and blood. Read Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers; Yahweh is a character as real as every pagan god in Homer who presents himself in the lives of his subjects with the freest of hands. Ample evidence exists which even shows that the Israelites of the Davidic/Solomonic Court also worshipped a goddess whom they believed was Yahweh’s wife - Asherah, and that El is in fact not a second name for Yahweh but a god in his own right. It is only in the Seventh Century BC(E) in the era of the Prophets and Deuteronomy that monotheism became generally accepted as the correct interpretation -. Israel and Judea were not subjegated by Assyria and Babylon because Yahweh was a weaker God than Marduk or Ba’al, they were subjegated because the One True God used these Empires as a means to punish the Israelites for their iniquity. But even in the next millenium is full of examples of direct divine intervention - from the Book of Job to the Gospels themselves.


But it was only a thousand years after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem (586 BC”E”), when Christianity finally became the religion which ruled the world, that Christians had to reconcile themselves to the fact that God does not appear to them, even if He appeared to generations past. The Christian “New Testament” would not be officially canonized for more than a century after Augustine’s death, but the New Testament’s contents were determined by meetings in Augustine’s hometown of Hippo which he himself attended called the Synod of Hippo Regius. Augustine embodied the moment when Christianity became itself.


With Augustine, we find the official end of the Age of Paganism, and with its completion, the end of belief in the divine as a substance of our own world. God may control the heavens, but human beings, finally, are masters of our own kingdom; and however trivial that kingdom seemed in relation to God’s kingdom, it was still a place ruled by an invisible force for which there was no definite accountability. Therefore Augustine signaled the dawn of individual as the world’s most important subject for study. Man was no longer the plaything of a god, he was his own master, an object worthy of his own study. It was a long-fought dawn for individualism, and the world of spirits and magic continued their influence over even the highest discourse until the High Renaissance and beyond. God may be in the heavens, but the remnants of his earthly kingdom cling resolutely to the ground.


And as the beginning of individualism as we today understand it, much of Augustine’s Confessions seem quite anti-individual, perhaps invidiously so. So much of the book is giving to “stirring” paeans to God that it’s very difficult to see the revolution taking place. But take place it does. Skip the Confessions themselves and go straight to Book X and Book XI of the Confessions, you immediately see a mention of the greatest problem of every generation that has occupied every great thinker from Augustine’s time to our own - memory.

Memory is the ultimate problem, and the ultimate definition, of the individual. And it’s difficult to believe that any writer has ever written more accurately of precisely what memory is than Augustine. And certainly no writer has been more hopelessly wrong at diagnosing what causes memory than he. Like all theologians, the end answer is simply God - a divine gift from a divine being, tied neatly in a bow and with no need for further examination. I can’t help but be reminded of Sarah Palin talking about her brother-in-law, saying that he’s an extremely knowledgeable amateur biologist who can tell all about the history of each species. I always imagined his conversations with Palin’s children going like this:

How old is this species?

Six Thousand Years Old.

How about this one?

Six Thousand Years Old.

And this one?

Six Thousand.

Augustine was the beginning of theology as we generally know it, but he was also the beginning of the mystery of the individual - a mystery that resounds through the ages in all sorts of soft sciences as to what makes each of us unique? The problem of the individual, and particularly of individual memory, is something which we gather from all sorts of pseudosciences: from theology, to phrenology, to theosophy and anthroposophy, to social Darwinism, to (yes) philosophy, and even to psychology. Psychology may yet be remembered as the final exhalation of the mystic, unknowable individual - the final ponderings an unknowable inner psyche which is not yet explained by carbon-fused wiring, and as crude a first attempt at a scientific explanation of the human mind as Augustine’s was a crude literary explanation. I wouldn’t bet on it, but perhaps we have, finally, moved past God, and investigations of the individual into a world of pure materialism in which all the world can be controlled by science and therefore we must have the added complex of analyzing ourselves as our own Gods. In the pagan era, we humans were merely the playthings of the world. In the monotheist era, we are the world’s inhabitants. In the scientific era, we are the world’s masters. Naturally, Augustine would warn against this advancement.

In using his personal self, his experience, and his observations, as the beginning of personal meditation, Augustine was the first memoirist. Does that therefore mean that he is also the beginning of the Blog? Well, if he is, then he’s not the Blog in the sense of Perez Hilton (though the earlier chapters are not as far off as you might imagine), but perhaps the blog as chronicler of history, of an era, of an ethos, of a culture, of a life, and of an eyewitness who attempts to view his own life with dispassionate equanimity. In all these regards, Augustine of Hippo was utterly without precedent, and therefore should probably be forgiven if he ended up viewing his life with the most messianic imaginable self-conceit.   

But we should cut him still more slack. Augustine’s chronicles were the first chapter in the book of an era that did not yet exist and an era that awaits - and has perhaps arrived at - its final chapter. It is the era into which you and I were born, and the era into which today’s children may not have been. It is the era of individual mystery. If science and DNA can eventually provide concrete explanations what makes individuals individual, then the mystery which Augustine presented is no longer a mystery at all. If personality one day becomes something with which we’re born, but something which we can change as we might a shirt, then how much less space will there be for personal observations?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

800 Words: The Gym - The Most Depressing Place in America


I’ve not had access to my bike for the last two days. So in the midst of this rare health craze of mine, I’ve found myself returning to that place I hate more than any other, that place which is everything wrong with America made manifest, that place whose neurotic narcotics double our direly needed necessity for healthy living, a place where our addictions know no bounds, and a place which stultifies our health and stunts our spiritual growth into heart-diseased automatons who lose any ability to distinguish the joys of living from disgusting engorgement. It’s not the fast food restaurant, it’s the gym.


I hate the gym. I loathe the gym. I abhor, abominate, detest, despise, disgustize, rancorize, revulse, resent, scorn and spite everything about the gym. It is the black beast of my existence. It clinicizes physical activity and bludgeons the joy of being in shape into the most excrutiatingly mind-numbing, irritating, boring activity upon the face of the planet. It forces us to stay indoors when we should be using our primal urge for physical activity to put us back in touch with the natural world. It forces us to watch the spectacle of people more in shape than we will ever be show off their muscular physiques for their glory and our despair. It forces us to watch the equally sad spectacle of people so out of shape that they can never get back into it make futile attempts to prolong their short journey to the cemetery.


Runs and bikerides, even pool activity, give us the solitude and slowness we direly need in our too quickly run lives. But at the gym you’re at the mercy of whatever inane conversation goes on around you - and inevitably there’s some right-wing pontificator who shouts his opinions to a captive audience. Every attempt to read on the treadmill or the exercise bike comes to grief, every attempt to feel good about lifting weights comes to ruin when some know-it-all tells you you’re doing it wrong, and then shows you another completely wrong way of doing the same exercise. At least some people can wear earphones to drown out the noise, but for a musician like me who already has tinnitus, that’s impossible.


I started going to gyms when I was thirteen. I was even complimented on my newly burgeoning physique by my grade school gym teacher, a teacher who watched me cry many times after accidentally getting hit by a ball I was far too uncoordinated to follow. She said that by high school I was going to be more in shape than anybody I knew. She was both absolutely right and absolutely not.


I had no idea what I was doing, but I started to go more and more often to the Owings Mills JCC. I loved feeling pumped, I loved that a nerd who was lucky not to get picked last in gym class could feel athletic, and I loved that there were the kind of older teenage girls there which a horny younger teenager (and horny old men) loved to oggle. I used to fantasize about talking to them, for I was a simple boy with little knowledge of the world and its miracles.


When I was about fifteen, I stopped going and found myself gaining weight at an alarming rate. I’d been taking ADHD medications since I was eight, and was often told that I was in danger of serious weight gain. My mother had heard that a friend of hers got a trainer for her overweight son at the gym of the Pikesville Hilton who helped him lose quite a bit of weight. I went to the gym, and that’s where I met Kathleen.


Kathleen was twenty-one, a petite blonde shikse from Glen Burnie, whom for reasons I could not fathom worked at the Pikesville Hilton. She constantly wreaked of cigarette smoke and had a giant, multicolored tattoo on the small on her back. She was constantly telling me how much she couldn’t stand the other trainers. Half-hour sessions turned into two hours as she regaled me with stories of her ex-boyfriends and how much her girl-friends slept around. I was in love.


One of the most heartbreaking moments of my adolescence was when Kathleen told me she was leaving the Hilton for a better job. Going to the gym after Kathleen as gone was simply pointless. Not that it mattered. A few months later, I was at Hyde School in Connecticut, and I would be whipped into shape whether I liked it or not.

Physical activity was Hyde’s default solution. There was nothing in their minds which it could not solve. If a student needed to be disciplined, they’d be coerced into doing regimented, military-level workouts for three-quarters of an hour. If a student didn’t do their homework, they were made to run laps around the building. If a student was disobedient rules, they could be made to do physical activities for hours at a time - along with any other student unlucky enough to be around at that moment.

It was illegal for Hyde teachers to slap us or use canes, so they used the pain from physical activity as a form of torture - and it was most certainly torture, torture was precisely the point of what they administered. But even though it was torture, some people thrived on this routine, and developed a lifelong (and no doubt rather morbid) passion for physical activity. For a little while it appeared to many that I might have been one of them. I was a svelte (though not sexy) one-hundred thirty-five pounds, and the immense amount of sweat gave me an acne-pocked face like a pepperoni pizza. There were many times in wrestling we were coerced into doing a ‘six-minute drill.’ For those who don’t understand what a six minute drill is - it is a period of physical activity so intense that it approximates the physical exertion one must exhaust in a six-minute wrestling match. In itself, that is not terrible, and doubtless exactly what’s used for wrestling teams around America. But one day, as punishment for a few students arriving late, our coach required us to a ‘twenty-five minute drill.’ The equvalent of four full-length wrestling matches in a row. At the end of the drill, he put the latest kid in the middle of the room - a kid from Hyde’s abortive Middle School who couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen. We were ordered to look him dead in the eye, strike the floor with maximum force with our arms and yell out “Thank You Kevin” every five seconds. The poor kid stood in the middle of the wrestling room, sobbing as we all directed our exhausted hatred at this poor little boy. Shortly thereaftetr, he seemed to undergo a personality change, no longer a happy-go-lucky boy but one of the most rebellious teenagers in the school. I often wondered what happened to him, but I can’t imagine he ever got over that day, it’s probable that here was yet another soul Hyde set irrevocably on a poisonous path.

One of their favorite exercises was what they called the ‘block’. You keep your feet running in place at full speed, and then you dive into the floor with your hands being all that stops your head from hitting the ground while your feet remain the air until a half-second later. You’re then expected to get up from this - all in less than a second. One day, for our perceived inattentiveness, the entire wrestling team was made to do five-hundred of these in a row. If that doesn’t sound so bad, try doing twenty of them in a row and see how you feel. At the end of it, the captain of the Varsity Wrestling Team, still the most impressively muscular person I’d ever met, came up to me and said ‘Holy shit man, that was not right.’

Another technique of theirs was called the ‘wall-sit.’ A wall-sit in itself in no way terrible: physical therapists use it to help their patients stretch and build up endurance. However, fifteen minutes to an hour of wall sits without a break is most definitely is a form of torture, and bears an eerie though admittedly curtailed resemblance to the Bush Administration’s Guantanamo technique of not letting prisoners sit down for twelve hours at a time (at least they could stand comfortably if they liked).

If we were wrestlers, we were often expected to go on mid-winter runs at 5AM. If we were disobedient, we were expected to have 5:30 military level workouts - come winter come summer. Exposing prisoners to extra-cold temperatures has always been a favorite technique of authoritarian organizations.

But even now, I expect there are some people who will see all this and say ‘this is not so bad and certainly not torture.’ It’s not surprising, these techniques are designed for people like you to say exactly that - just as the Bush administrations techniques were designed to do and no doubt just as many, many organizations in charge of discipline design themselves around the ‘civilized world.’ Like those at Guantanamo, I suppose it’s possible that we deserved no better than we got, but people should still be aware of what transpires in their back yards, and I don’t think they are.  

I’ve gone over the next part before. I swore many times at Hyde that nobody could ever make me do physical activity ever again. And I stayed all too true to that vow. Six years after I left, I was a hundred pounds heavier than my wrestling weight. I suppose that one could argue that perhaps Hyde was a special case and not indicative of larger problems in the society that allowed it to exist, but I would argue that what went on at Hyde was simply a byproduct of a macho society grown fat with ill-gotten muscle on its own testosterone. We’re a culture that caters to sports - American industry may disappear tomorrow, but professional American sports leagues have enough money from overpriced tickets and merchandise to outlast the rest of America for a hundred years. And we’re bombarded with so many airbrushed bodies on television and the internet that many Americans assume it profits them nothing to get in shape if they can’t look like Arnold Schwartzenegger or Kate Moss. Our country’s turned into the physical equivalent of the Eloi and the Morlocks. It often seems as though everybody who doesn’t look beautiful topless looks like a living room sofa. Can you blame us fatties? What hope have we of getting in shape when we’re told that if we can’t work a miracle with our bodies, we might as well stuff our faces on Chipotle?

I don’t ever want to be in wrestling shape again. I don’t want to be an athlete. I have no physical ambitions beyond the ability to play senior-league softball in my mid-seventies should I so choose. I want a normal body. I want to weigh somewhere in the area of one-hundred sixty pounds, and I want to weigh that before I’m incontrovertibly bald.

Two summers ago, I lived in Bethany Beach Delaware. I was between places, and needed to move in with my parents. But my parents’ heavy plaster ceilings were caving in. We had to move to my parents’ beach house, and since I’m in the family business, I had no reason not to move with them. Not a single friend came to visit me that summer - and in the long run, that didn’t matter much. For the first time in ten years, I was physically active in a meaningful way.  We had two bikes, and I would ride them all over the Delaware Coast. To Ocean City, to Rehoboth, to Bethany Bay, to Georgetown, Milford, Delmar, and Millsboro. I felt as though I knew every streetcorner within ten miles of our beach house. After the ride, I’d come home and we’d eat fish every nigh - hardly a single land animal consumed for nearly the entire time I was there. I was suddenly thinner than I’d been since my year in Israel.

When I moved to Baltimore, I blanched at buying my own bike for months. The expense was simply staggering to me. Who is going to pay $9-1200 for a decent bike? Day after day, I would walk outside to find a gorgeous, endorphin releasing day, and mourn how easily this could be enjoyed with a bike. In June, I finally balked, and I found a halfway decent bike for $400. And it was on that very day when I took it out for my first ride that I bumped into my old friend D-------’s running group, thereby causing the chain reaction which caused the ever-increasing social life I now have in my new city. The riding season for beginners was practically over, and I swore I would do better this year. Unlike last year’s March, the weather was dingy, grey, and forever 40 degrees, a true Smarch if ever there was one. Finally, April came and the weather warmed, and I’ve been out virtually every day.  

Suddenly, the joy is rekindled. On that bike, I’m ten years old again, riding on the Gunpowder Trail in Hunt Valley at speeds faster than any ten year old should ever go. I have literally shouted for joy in crowded streets on that bike. In just three weeks, I’ve bonded to that bicycle to the point that it’s become like a symbol of freedom and hope to me. On Saturday, I biked across the city - a distance I thought impossible a mere day before. I’m outdoors, I’m mobile, I’m seeing Baltimore - truly seeing it - for the first time, and for the first time since I was sixteen, I’m enjoying physical activity. I don’t know if I’ll feel that way in early July, but come rain or shine, cold or hot, I want to be on that bike.

Monday, April 22, 2013

For Sir Colin Davis (1927-2013)

A Magic Flute that's pure joy. 

When Sir Charles Mackerras died, I was faced with an odd choice as a blogger. This was a conductor whose musicmaking simply had too much personal imprint upon my life to do a normal obituary. I'm determined not to make the same mistake with Sir Colin that I did with Sir Charles. But all the same, I can't simply give the details of Sir Colin's life without talking about the personal impact of his musicmaking on me.

Pure fire and brimstone - Mozart's "Great" C-Minor Mass

By any standard, Colin Davis was not my favorite conductor. But he was one of the conductors with whom I grew up, and one of the conductors whose best performances gave me the most joy. One of my early memories was when I was four years old, and seeing Davis conduct the New York Philharmonic in Brahms's 2nd Symphony and Beethoven's 4th piano concerto. To call me an unusual little kid would have been the century's understatement, and I had practically worn out my Bruno Walter tapes of Brahms 3rd and 4th symphonies already. But even at that age, I thrilled to my discovery of Brahms 2 the way an archaeologist would thrill to the discovery of Atlantis.

Berlioz Requiem -

Much as rhythm was the basis of Sir Charles Mackerras's music-making, sound was at the center of Sir Colin's approach - and he clearly loved making sounds as rich and full as any conductor since Leopold Stokowski. But unlike Stokowski, there was a stiff-upper-lip reserve that prevented him from exceeding the bounds of good taste. He conducted very little Mahler and claimed to loathe Mahler's 'vulgarity', yet had he let that magnificent shock of a silver mane down, he could have been a truly great Mahlerian (I grew up listening to his Mahler 1 and it was a wonderful, if unorthodox, performance), or equally great in more rough-hewn composers he generally avoided like Janacek, Bartok, and Mussorgsky. But he never could let himself go enough to get rid of his particularly English 'tastefulness'. Even in composers for whom his performances were justly world-renowned, like Berlioz and Stravinsky, his performances were full of passion, but they were passionate within an extremely constricting framework. It often felt as though Sir Colin had placed himself within an interpretive straightjacket which undercut all the momentum he worked so conscientiously to build. .

Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique (I’m not even sure a Colin Davis performance is in my top dozen choices for Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique - the piece is such an amazingly bizarre sonic kaleidoscope that most conductors know that they can cut loose in any way they like, and do so only to the music’s benefit. But Sir Colin was in such demand as a Berlioz conductor that he recorded the Symphonie Fantastique no less than four times. Most record lovers prefer his Concertgebouw recording from 1974, but while I’ve not heard his 1980’s version with the Vienna Philharmonic, I believe that his first with the London Symphony in 1963 is easily the best of the three I've heard. It can’t be denied that Davis was, in his manner, a truly great Berlioz conductor. But to me, Colin Davis’s Berlioz is overvalued. His evangelism on behalf of Berlioz cannot be overvalued, but he was able to evangelize for Berlioz because he brought out all the tasteful elegance of Berlioz, showing the world that Berlioz was no less classical than anything in Haydn - in Davis’s hands, Berlioz was a ‘normal’ composer. But the Berliozian bizarre which you get from Charles Munch or Leonard Bernstein or Pierre Monteux or John Eliot Gardiner is virtually nowhere to be found. Of the Davis SF’s, most people prefer his 1974 version with the Concertgebouw. But to me, that version is too long on elegance and too short on drama. Sadly, I’ve only heard one Davis performance of the Symphonie Fantastique that can thrill on the level of Munch’s, Bernstein’s, Dudamel’s, Gardiner’s, Monteux’s, Karajan’s, Ozawa’s, Muti’s, Celibidache’s, ... I’m sure I’ll think of more before long... and it was from long before Davis could be considered a 'mature master.')

And yet, there was a second side to Davis. Even in his genial old age, this conductor who appeared the personification of avuncularity could suddenly seem inflamed with the fire of a thousand angels and demons, and cause orchestras to play with the kind of fire which their training is supposed to drain out of them. Davis belonged to a line of conductors - like Bruno Walter and Carlo Maria Giulini and James Levine - who began their careers in blazes of fire and were known for giving performances of scorched earth intensity. But as age mellowed them and the fires cooled, they began to 'savor' the music and linger on every beautiful passage to milk it for maximum expressive potential. Sometimes the results were absolutely beautiful, sometimes the results were boring and maudlin. Nevertheless, in each of these cases, these conductors could occasionally summon the fire of old and stun their audiences with a blazing excitement which no 80 year old should ever be able to summon. In Sir Colin's case, he was able to summon the old passion seemingly on command in his beloved Berlioz and Britten and Sibelius even in his final years. But there was no better example of how the fire would return than in his recordings of the Nielsen symphonies. Sir Colin had never conducted these works that are known still to strike terror in the hearts of orchestral players for their difficulty until his 80's. With one exception, the results seem marginally a success with some awkward errors. But in Nielsen 4, still one of the most difficult pieces of music ever written for orchestra, Sir Colin and the London Symphony recorded perhaps the most scorched earth performance ever made of this terror written by lightening which takes the unambiguous heroism and necessity of visceral playing which one can only find elsewhere in Beethoven, and allies it to musical techniques that are fully of the twentieth century. Sir Colin's performance of Nielsen 4 with the London Symphony is a miracle.

Stravinsky - Oedipus Rex (Good as the linked version from Munich is, it’s still not as good as the scorched earth that inevitably resulted from Colin Davis’s Stravinsky from a quarter-century earlier. Colin Davis was an angry young man, and perhaps his performances of Oedipus at Stadler Wells (no the English Naitonal Opera) did more to establish him as a force with which to be reckoned than any other single accomplishment of his early years. Most conductors, not least Stravinsky himself, are unwilling to go with Stravinsky’s writing to the primal power of his dissonances to make them as ugly as possible. But Davis plunged as fully in as his 'English' reserve would ever allow. Davis is perhaps not up there with Pierre Monteux, Ernest Ansermet, Antal Dorati, Leonard Bernstein, Valery Gergiev, and Esa-Pekka Salonen as one of the very greatest of all Stravinsky conductors, but he's damn close.)


Many of the recordings of works he recorded with that amazing fire are nowhere to be found on youtube: Benvenuto Cellini, Dvorak 7, Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements. But there is one work above all others for which he will probably always be best known. Les Troyens, Berlioz's magnum opus, the crowning glory of his grandiosely glorious career, his Grand-with-a-capital-G rendering of Virgil's Aeneid, lay unheard by most music lovers, and rarely heard by even the most passionate classical music fans, who would have to travel halfway across the world for a revival, which seemed only to happen once every five years in a single city. But by now, Les Troyens is nearly as much a repertory item as The Ring Cycle, produced everywhere in spite of its expense. We could, if we like, pretend that it's due to the efforts of other musicians. But no, it is because of Colin Davis's tireless promotion that Les Troyens is no longer a rare item, and not just his promotion of Les Troyens, (though I believe his second recording sold 100,000 copies, a number which even Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma rarely equal). It is because of his ceaseless, tireless, championing of Berlioz throughout his fifty-year career. When Sir Colin began to undertake his holy cause of performing Berlioz throughout the world, Berlioz was still an under-regarded composer for a full century after his death. For championship like that, who cares if there were Berlioz conductors who made better performances?



Colin Davis was a bit of a walking (conducting?) contradiction. A voracious reader, he was among the most intellectual men to pick up a baton, and yet few if any conductors seemed more guided by their gut instincts. And yet he would leave his gut instincts at the edge of the cliff, and rarely if ever dived off of it if it meant giving interpretations that were too controversial. He was stubbornly, resolutely old-fashioned in 'classics' from Handel down to Mendelssohn, with sometimes stunning and just as often extremely boring results. And yet he publicly accused his friend John Eliot Gardiner in the press of being insufferably dogmatic, when Gardiner's sole crime was to be the mirror image of Davis's own dogma. There should be no doubt that he was a great conductor, but he could have, and should have, been still greater. 



Handel: Messiah

Verdi: Falstaff

Michael Tippett - A Knot Garden - a work he premiered

The Legendary Peter Grimes Performance







Saturday, April 20, 2013

800 Words: Tante Sophie's Funeral


(Time to bring the big guns out for a rerun. Here it is... Tante Sophie's Funeral. My attempt at a Pikesville novel. It is, in some ways, still the best fragment I've ever written. A shame it's hardly fictional...)

I.

As the Berkowitz family stood next to the family plot where my 123 year old Great-Great-Great Aunt Sophie was about to embark upon her final journey into the earth, it occurred to my uncle Jared that this was the coldest day of the year.
"It's really cold."  Jared said to my mother in a scarcely audible whisper.
To which my mother whispered back, "I'm sure that wherever Tante Sophie is she's really hot right now."
And it was at that very moment that my uncle Jared doubled over into laughter so forceful that he could not help but split his pants.   Scarcely a month passed before legend upon legend grew about the precipitous split of Uncle Jared's trousers.  Some cousins maintain that my uncle had eaten a bit too much spongecake from the Kiddish tray and accidentally tore a hole while performing a dance upon my aunt's grave.  Other relatives swear that my uncle tore a hole in his pants with a pair of scissors so that every mourner present could smell the undulation of the fart he so willingly laid upon my aunt's tomb.  
The legends of Tante Sophie's funeral grew over time.  It all depended upon who was telling the story.  The Rabbi apparently gave a eulogy and praised Aunt Sophie as "An exceptionally righteous woman" who was the "kindest, most gentle soul you'd ever meet."  She was the "personification of generosity", a woman who "believed in Jewish values with all her soul."    As the Rabbi's sing-song voice emitted still greater flights of ecclesiastic generica, my mother either choked back laughter to the point of tears until the end of the Rabbi's eulogy when he came down from the pulpit thinking that she was in dire need of consolation, or she emitted sidesplitting gales of laughter so loud that the Rabbi simply left the podium in the middle of his hespit.
But I was at that funeral, and the truth of what happened was quite different.

II.
Tante Sophie finally finished her thrice-daily trip to the bathroom. It was the first time in a week that there was no blood on the toilet paper. She took the used squares to her bedroom and pinned them to the wall above her bed next to last week's sample. The bloodless toilet paper samplings of the past thirty-five years were laid out in her room wall to wall from the ceiling halfway down to the floor. She told me that it was part of a spell her grandmother taught her to ward off the evil eye that causes menstrual cramps. No one in our house thought it worth reminding Tante Sophie that she could not possibly have any cause for menstrual cramps in three quarters of a century. She eagerly looked forward to pinning a new square of toilet paper to the wall because the smell reminded her of uncle Berryl's barnyard where she claimed to spend so many loving hours in the company of male admirers.
But the times in which there was blood on the toilet paper were a far more involved affair.  Tante Sophie would coercively gather together everyone who had the misfortune of being home at the time she left the bathroom, force every one of us to stare at the toilet paper for sixty seconds, and then mumble to herself what we could only speculate was an Eastern European spell to ward off the evil demons that compelled her to shit blood.

Tante Sophie was the sister of my great-great-grandmother, Blume.  Blume had three sisters, each of them seeming of one face with the others.  All four had the same thick and long white hair, brown when they were younger and seemingly always done up into a bun for every picture.  It would seem from photographs that each of the four had the same porcine nose, jutting jaw and forbidding half-moon glasses with the exact same put upon scowls. The pictures made each of them seem as though they were permanently unimpressed with whomever had the temerity to look upon their photos.

III.
They say it was a myth that my father kept a coffin in his office. But I knew it was true. Nobody would ever believe that a nursing home administrator would secretly keep a coffin in his place of work. But not only had I seen it, I even destroyed it.

When I was eight years old I used to play hide and seek every Tuesday with my friend Jacob at the nursing home while we waited for Jacob's mother to pick us up. One Tuesday, I could hear him in the coatroom closet of Dad's office. But I couldn't see him. It was only a matter of time though before he screamed that he couldn't breath. With all my eight-year-old strength I pried open the already unfastened coffin, and the front-piece crashed to the ground with a clean break in half. To my great surprise Jacob was still alive, and he immediately had the idea that we cut up the broken coffin and make it into a fort. So we went into the nursing home kitchen and while the kitchen worker got us cookies, we went over to the appliances, got the biggest knives we could find and ran with them to Dad's office. We didn't want to get sawdust on the carpet, so we took it out into the lobby and started cutting it up. Within two minutes we were surrounded by patients who were cheering us on. When Dad found us cutting up his coffin, he knocked us both out of the way, fell to his knees and began to cry as he clutched the remains of the coffin in his arms. After his second brain operation he told me the truth that I had figured many years before: The coffin was for Tante Sophie. When I was four, he drove into the woods every weekend for a year to find the perfect pine tree which he would chop down to make into the perfect coffin for the dearly beloved Tante Sophie. Every day, once a day for the next four years, he would open the closet and stare at that coffin for five minutes. It was the highlight of his day.

Mom always thought the reason that Dad went for walks in the woods every week was to have an affair. One week she resolved to follow my father to find out what precisely where and whom he was meeting. Little did she realize that my father was meeting with Joe White, his nursing home handiman who mowed our lawn and trimmed the hedges once every month. He was so good that the rest of my family asked to have Joe do the same work for them. Whereas my father was a squat Jewish man, Joe was a tall muscular Black Muslim. My grandfather used to tell Dad that he planned on making Joe the primary heir in his will because he trusted Joe more than any of his children to never eat pork. It was late July and the hottest weekend of the year. While my father wore a t-shirt, Joe wore nothing from the waist up. My father listened very intently to everything Joe said about each tree and scribbled notes on a yellow legal pad. At one point Joe realized that in order to assess the feasibility of this pinetree, he needed to scrape out some dirt from over the roots. Just as Joe White bent down to clear the soot from the roots with my father standing directly above him, my mother spotted them from 500 feet behind Dad. A brief look was all she could bare. For the next twenty years my mother had assumed that when I was four my father had an affair with Joe White, who still mows my parents lawn to this day.
Like anybody else, my father did not begin his life thinking that he wanted to be in the nursing home business.  He did not even have any ambition to be in the family business.  But war escalated, and rather than go to Hollywood as he wanted to, with a potential stopover in Hanoi, my father ended up in grad school getting a doctorate in history so that he was assured the ability to sit out the war until he was too old to be drafted.  Quickly realizing that there was no future in history and with my mother to provide for, he felt he had no choice but his father's nursing home.
My grandfather was in the enviable position of being older than most of his patients.  The life expectancy being what it was in the city, it was not surprising that my grandfather lived to be 88 with the same routine from beginning to near the end.  He was first and foremost a businessman of the old school.  When my father once came to work without wearing a watch, my grandfather began to cry.  He did not stop crying until my father went back home and returned with a watch on his wrist.
The nursing home was in the worst neighborhood in town.  The northwest of the city had once been the epicenter of Jewish life.  Yet no amount of Jewish money could save this town from dilapidation when the Jews moved out and 'they' moved in.  Oh yes indeed, the blacks moved in, and with them came crack-cocaine, heroin, murder, and my father's habit of riding his bike to work every Sunday.  “He's made it this far,” Mom reasoned, we won't stop him.
Make no mistake of it, we were good liberals.  My parents dutifully voted Carter twice, then Mondale, then Dukakis.  My mother has volunteered every week at a soup kitchen since she was first married.  My father has often thrown himself upon the mercy of judges to give inner-city adults a second chance and would hire them as maintinence workers in the nursing home.  The result was that half the inner city knew our home address, and it was as if there were a network in the the nursing home neighborhood that let everyone know exactly when we were away from home.  Like clockwork, our house was burgled once a year.
Perhaps surprisingly, it was never while we were home.  Aunt Sophie, my brothers and I would be dropped off at my Bubbie's house every Saturday night to be babysat while my parents went out.  A typical Saturday night would involve my grandparents watching over us while my brothers and I stared at my grandmother's wax fruit.  We would interrupt this routine for a half-hour every night so that my grandmother could watch the Golden Girls and we would sit with her and laugh at the idea of sexually active senior citizens.  We would come home at 11:30, just in time for me to watch the opening skit to Saturday Night Live and be put to bed.  But once a year, invariably on a Saturday night, we would return home to find that the house had been burgled.
One year it was our stereo equipment, another it was my mother's jewelry, another year it was my father's collection of ceramic pigs.  But every year we would return to find the lock busted, the house ransacked, and something missing.
My parents were very sensible people.  But appearances mattered in a way they did to everyone else.  It was more important to them that the house looked good 364 days of the year.  So my parents brought help from the nursing home to the house to help my mother clean.  My father never trusted my mother's housekeeping abilities and after a while it was clear that as long as we left the house every Saturday night, no one would be hurt.

IV.

And my father had reason not to trust my mother with cleaning.  She was awful at it.  Who could blame her?  She learned from her own mother.  My grandmother had not thrown away a single article of paper in forty-five years.  Forty-five years ago she had bought the house from no less a personage than the governor-elect of the state.  Within a year, the house had gone from the august home that housed a governor-elect to a house with a year's worth of papers accumulating dust.  A year's worth of papers became five years became fifteen became forty five years worth of papers.  When I was three, I remember the stacks of papers being twice my height.  When I was tall enough to see past the counter, I saw that papers were stuffed into the oven, the toaster, the stoves, the refrigerator, the sink, and the udiator.
The living room had a small trail leading to a small space on the sofa the size of my grandmother's wide posterior that lacked papers.  There was just enough room for my grandmother to sit, and my grandmother would sit there obscured by the leviathan's worth of magazines that surrounded her.
Legend always had it that my grandfather's cat, Reb, preternaturally sensed the exact moment his master died.  Within minutes of my grandfather's passing, Reb the beloved cat was gone from the house, never to return.  It was only this year that I found out what really happened to my grandfather's cat.
The first thing my grandmother did after my grandfather's passing was to drown it.  She hated that cat more than anything else in the world.  My grandfather would refuse to get the cat neutered, and every morning the cat would come back into the house bloodied and battered to a pulp.  Clawing its way out of a bath and tearing up the carpet with all its renewed energy from a nap after a night's brawling and screwing, Reb would assert mastery over his owners.  And so the very morning of my grandfather passing, my Bubbie returned to the hospital, waited for Reb, put him into a thick potato sack, tied the knot as tightly as possible, and drove to the city reservoir.  And with a feline screech audible for a couple miles in any direction, my grandmother threw Reb into the river with all her mourner's might.

A few days afterward at the shiva house, she wondered aloud as to where Reb could have been. He’d been missing since the night of my Zaydie’s passing. My three-and-a-half year old self felt the strain of a terrible secret I could contain no longer. During the day my grandfather died, I stood in the door after Bubbie had warned me not to because Reb might escape. And after five minutes of leaning on the open front door, Reb scurried out the front door. Somehow, I knew that I was seeing him for the last time. With my parents watching, I told my grandmother that I was responsible for her missing cat. She looked at me with what my father later told me was something not unlike delight before gathering her lack of composure so she could slap me.
V.

After the fire her neighborhood was naturally abuzz with the claim that crazy Sophie Hills had burned her own store to collect the insurance. But those who knew Sophie better knew that an insurance fire was impossible because her store was uninsurable. But what we did not know is that an insurance fire had been Aunt Sophie's scheme from the day she bought the store. For fifty years, Sophie had worked seven days a week in the city's poorest neighborhood to build a store where no other shopkeeper would in the hope that one day the store would be safe enough to insure. Once the store was insured, she would burn the store to the ground using the gas in her furnace and live for the rest of her life on the money she would collect.

From the time she had opened the store in 1906 until the outbreak of World War II, Aunt Sophie's store had been robbed at knifepoint an average of three times a year and Sophie herself had been stabbed two dozen times. During the first decade Sophie would hide as much money as she could in places hidden enough that she knew it could not be found, only to find that the small sums she kept in the cash register aggravated the thieves and caused them to stab her customers. After the first ten years she herself had been stabbed five times, eight different customers had been shot dead and fifty more wounded. In 1910 she attempted to alleviate the shootings by going to the local mob boss to solicit his protection. For a fee she never specified, the neighborhood gang would send a foot soldier every day to guard her store. But after eighteen months of that arrangement, half a dozen foot soldiers were killed and the boss had to withdraw his protection, telling Aunt Sophie that the store was 'unprotectable.' In 1916 she decided to conduct an experiment dealing with how little money she could leave in the cash register that cost the lives of eight customers, got her shot four times more and left her right arm paralyzed. The experiment lasted over five years and she reached the conclusion that she and her customers were least likely to be shot if she kept at least a quarter's earnings at any given time in the cash register. Over the next eight years violent robberies plummeted in her store. The thieves would draw their weapons, but they did not often shoot. The store itself was robbed nearly as often, but she herself had only been shot twice during these better years. In the fall of 1929 she finally found an insurance company willing to support her store. But the Stock Market Crash occurred three days before she was due to sign the contract and immediately sunk her benefactors' abilities to help her.

Between 1929 and 1941 Aunt Sophie had been shot thirteen times and twenty-seven customers were shot dead along with another ninety-six wounded. Particularly notable in annals of our family lore was the time in 1936 when Mayor McDonald found himself help up at gunpoint after he came into Aunt Sophie's store to use the lavatory. Or the time in 1932 Aunt Sophie was personally held up by the Father Josiah from Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception three blocks down the street. According to my cousin Harry, Father Josiah built an orphanage with the money he stole from Aunt Sophie. Or the time in 1939 that Aunt Sophie herself paid robbers to hold up the store so that she could keep some of her own money.

You may of course wonder why Aunt Sophie did not buy a gun. The answer is that Aunt Sophie did not believe in guns. She believed in what was known in the Old Country as 'Ayin Horah' and to us as the 'evil eye.' She told me many times that whoever robbed her store would receive a seven-fold punishment to hers.

And she wasn't kidding. The only story she told more than the stories of the robbers was the stories of her revenge. Once the hospital released her after a robbery she would hobble straight over to her uncle and my great-great-great uncle, Rabbi Hyman.  The Rabbi would promise that the next morning as he fell on his face to chant the special prayer - the Takhanun - he would plead with God to punish the robbers.   She told us that sometimes she knew the robbers were punished because whenever they came back she could see through the stockings on their heads to their lips and saw that they all had the 'woman's disease.' But while it was obvious to Aunt Sophie that Uncle Hyman had incredible pull with God, it was less obvious to the rest of us that Uncle Hyman had any beneficial effect on her fortunes. One day in 1956 when Uncle Hyman was already in the home, he told her that later the same day one of her regular robbers would die in a fire, another would die from jumping into a window and a third would be stabbed to death. Later that day the robbers returned to her store and in the middle of the robbery one accidentally put out a cigarette on a running gas stove. In order to escape the explosion the second jumped through the store window and the third made it out of the store through the door only to trip and fall on his knife. Aunt Sophie was fortunately upstairs at that moment getting more money for them. The apartment upstairs didn't explode, it merely caught fire which gave her burns on her legs that made her walk with a limp and a cane for the next sixty years. After the fire department arrived they got Aunt Sophie out of the apartment shortly before the entire building collapsed. Three months later Aunt Sophie was released from the hospital and moved in with my mother's family.

My mother hated Tante Sophie no less than my father did. In fact, Tante Sophie had lived under the same roof as my mother for more than forty of my mother's fifty-two years. For the first five years of her life, my mother had been an only child. When my grandparents had my uncle Jared, they insisted that his crib would stay in her room so that Aunt Sophie could have a room of her own in their house. Weeks before the birth of my uncle, Aunt Sophie was homeless because a fire had consumed the corner drugstore she owned and the apartment above it. The arrangement was supposed to last for less than a year until she was put into a nursing home. But one year turned into fifty, and to this day at the age of one-hundred twenty-three, Aunt Sophie has lived under the same roof as my parents in possession of mental facilities as full as they ever were.
My five-year-old mother had to live in the same room as my uncle Jared from the time he was six months old. She generally woke up to the sounds of his screams as many as five times a night and during those nights was solely responsible for feeding and changing him. Because my grandmother was responsible not only for Aunt Sophie but also for Aunt Sophie's sister and brother-in-law, parents of my grandmother.

While Aunt Sophie was built indomitably like a sturdy house, my great-grandmother was built like a sofa. And her 375 pound frame rarely left the sofa which she occupied in the almost seperate apartment of my grandparents' Main Street household. Ten years earlier she had a massive stroke that left her right leg paralyzed. It was 1946 and my newly married grandmother insisted on immediately moving back home to take care of her and that my grandfather decline a lucrative and promising engineering offer in California to move back with her. Instead my grandfather got the closest job a Jewish engineer could find. It was half the pay and meant a forty-mile commute each way. After the first year, he told my grandmother that the commute was impossible and that he needed to get himself a small apartment nearer to his work. And so for five days every week, my grandfather was nowhere to be found. Until my mother was twenty-five years old and engaged, her father lived nearly forty miles away from her for five days of the week.   Aunt Sophie insisted the whole time that my grandfather got the apartment so that he could put up a woman and a second family.  Why else would the money he brought home as an engineer be so meagre?

With my great-grandparents' help, my mother's family was able to buy a house further away from the old neighborhood, which was quickly becoming less Jewish, Italian, Greek and Irish and more 'colored' every week. My grandfather was born dirt poor and grew up around black people, but my grandmother's family hated them.  The thought that my grandfather would even consider moving into the old neighborhood provoked outrage from Aunt Sophie.  "Oy.  You want to move back so that your children can be raped by the schvartzes!  Don't you?"      
When my grandparents eventually found an affordable house in the neighborhood they thought the Jews were moving into, it turned out that within a few years they would be in fact the only white family on the block.  The more innocent other children on the block thought very little of how weird it was to have a large white family with no grown men around on weekdays.  The children  would casually walk by and show their friends my mother's family as if they were a display exhibit at a museum: 'Dey is de Jews, Dey is havin' a cookout.'
But the adults on the block had a much more difficult time coping.  Perhaps my mother could have become friends with these children.  But the problems began when Aunt Sophie moved into the house and began all her talk about how the 'Schvartzes are ruining your neighborhood just like they ruined mine.'  Given the matter of times she had been robbed by Irishmen, Italians, Pollacks, Greeks, and even other Jews it caused my mother and grandmother to muse no end of times out loud to me about what could have happened to make Aunt Sophie hate blacks so much more than she hated everyone else.  But regardless of why, Aunt Sophie made no secret of her opinion that blacks were ruining our neighborhood either to us or to our neighbors.
If boys would come anywhere near their lawn, Aunt Sophie would burst through the door with a running start and chase them away with a swinging broom.  If my mother came to the house with a black girl from the neighborhood, Aunt Sophie would chase her out of the house with her bare fists.  When parents of these children began to complain to my grandparents of Aunt Sophie's treatment of their children, my grandparents decided that it was time to tell Sophie that she can't chase the children away.  The result was that Aunt Sophie threatened repeatedly to throw my grandparents out of their own house.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

800 Words: 25 Things About Herbert Swamley

(a rerun from something I wrote for my 'fake name' during that '25 Things About Me' craze on facebook from roughly five years ago.)

1. On May 1st 1973, Herbert Swamley was born into a Communist family residing in Flatbush, Brooklyn. His parents names were Wayne and Lynn Swamley.
2. Herbert was the middle child. Lucius Swamley being his elder brother by two years and Karla Swamley his younger sister by three. 
3. On Herbert's ninth birthday, Wayne and Lynn Swamley had an explosive fight about Wayne's potential promotion to foreman of Brooklyn's largest longshoreman dock and proceeded to murder each other with a hammer and sickle.
4. Herbert's only surviving grandparent, Sidney Applebaum, was deemed an unfit caregiver on account of purchasing a magazine from Publisher's Clearing House. 
5. Custody was awarded to a band of coyotes.
6. Four years later the Swamley children were repossessed by social services after their foster father attempted to force them to follow a road runner off a cliff.
7. Ten years after their reintroduction to human society, Lucius Swamley graduated from Harvard summa cum laude. But shortly after the graduation ceremony, Lucius was to die in tragic circumstances. Upon seeing a red car, he chased it onto a highway and was flattened by a Mack Truck. 
8. At the age of 16, a voice spoke to Herbert, endowing him with the testament for polygamy and ordering him to move to rural Utah. Immediately upon his arrival he married Shiela Firkusny, Jeanette Cortot, and Joline Mitropoulos (nee Ratzenburger).
9. Three years and eight children later, he repented his paleo-Mormon choice of lifestyle and returned to the Communist fold, for which the National Politburo of America assigned him to agitate on the streets of East St. Louis.
10. The return to Communism lasted four days due to a brush with shoelace heiress Marcia Wigglesworth, herself in the midst of a three day crisis of liberal guilt. Six hours after meeting they eloped. A week later they opened a fur coat store on Fifth Avenue.
11. Immediately upon returning to New York, Herbert encountered his younger sister, Karla Birenbaum(nee Swamley), now self-appointed community agitator against Wigglesworth House of Fur. Karla, prematurely aged and pregnant, offered Herbert a reconciliation in exchange for crack money. 
12. Marcia agreed to the reconciliation and offered to support Karla's crack habit in perpetuity, but unbeknownst to Herbert and Marcia, Karla was also an FBI informant who named names.
13. In exchange for supporting the crack habit of both Karla and her unborn child, Karla cheerfully agreed to provide the FBI with a list of 754 communists. After an hour of writing down names, her list numbered 753. Not being able to remember another name, she put Herbert on the list.
14. Herbert was arrested and the reputation of Wigglesworth House of Fur tarnished forever. He was sentenced to 5 years, but the sentence was suspended on account of a plea bargain he made to turn informant on the Wigglesworth family.
15. Marcia's father, shoelace magnate William Wigglesworth, moonlighted as a KGB assassin. Seeing as how we are up to 1993, the KGB did not exist anymore, so William Wigglesworth then moonlighted as a mail frauder against the United States postal service, running a stamp counterfeit operation out of his bathtub. 
16. As an informant, Herbert reported directly to the Postmaster's General. He turned up evidence that William Wigglesworth is an alias for Mitch Paderakus, a disgruntled postal worker in Newark, Ohio who shot 12 customers on account of a missing hole puncher.
17. Upon Paderakus's arrest, Herbert had to testify against the father of the woman he loved, a fact for which he had extremely conflicted feelings. However, for the good of the United States Postal Service, he elected to do his duty and became the key witness in the government's successful effort to send the Newark Hole Puncher to the chair.
18. Marcia Wigglesworth, betrayed by her husband, left Herbert with their newborn son the evening after giving birth to him.
19. Herbert Swamley Jr. was left to only his father to raise, with no money or assistance in caregiving. Herbert Sr. attempted to leave the son on the doorstep of an orphanage, only to realize right after ringing the doorbell that Herbert Jr. would be a fantastic advantage for welfare fraud. When the doorbell was answered, rather than giving Herbert Jr. up he convinced the orphanage to print fifteen duplicate birth certificates to be mailed to relatives and friends as a sign of his devotion to his son.
20. Herbet Swamley Jr. then became the recipient of fifteen welfare checks a week, addressed to Herbert Swamleys Jr-XVI. 
21. For fifteen years, the Swamley's owned a ranch outside of Billings, Montana during which Herbert Sr. became the country's preeminent breeder of Bald Eagles. 
22. Swamley & Son's half-hour infomercial 'how to start your own Bald Eagle farm' infomercial can be seen at 3 AM on G4 every Saturday and Sunday.
23. Herbert and Shiela's son, Joe Firkusny saw the infomercial and quickly notified his three mothers, each remarried to (and divorced from) the same man.
24. Herbert Swamley was then brought to trial in the State of Montana on 17 counts of fraud including child support fraud, welfare fraud and bald eagle fraud. He was found guilty on all counts.
25. Sentence pending.