We in America take science and/or religion very seriously, whichever side of that divide we fall on. We obviously take politics extremely seriously. But we don't take the humanities seriously because even those of us who hate most things about America are still Americans, and we're taught here that with enough effort and work, we can create the world we long to see. But we can't. Every victory is stolen from the jaws of defeat. And that's a lesson Americans still find unacceptable. With no defeat, there's no reason for art because ultimately, we have no reason to understand why our lives aren't turning out the way we want. And then you look at Bruegel and Bosch, Grunewald and Gentilleschi, Goya and Munch and Bacon, you listen to Bach and Tallis and Gesualdo and Mahler and Shostakovich, and you read Homer and the Bible, or Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, or Blake and Shelley, or you watch Kurosawa and Tarkovsky and Mizoguchi and Herzog and Kieslowski and S. Ray, and you realize that people have been exactly here throughout history so many times, but America has not been here since the days of the Civil War and all the atrocities which led up to it, and consequently, we've never had the heartbreak to need consolation that reaches that deep into us yet. The only arguable ones are Emily Dickinson, the genius shutin, William Faulkner or Mark Rothko, who are not exactly artists to be understood by everybody, Coppola, who hasn't made a great movie in 40 years, Melville and Ellison, who both wrote only one great book, and Kubrick, who is Mr. Machine. Frank Miller is a fascist, and it suffuses every frame of his comics. I still have to read Octavia Butler. A lot of the great science fiction writers are very long on foreseeing what comes today, but they're not exactly long on feeling. Maybe Will Eisner is the best choice for this kind of pessimism and whom we can ultimately turn to who had a vision of what was coming... Or maybe it's the great TV shows of the last twenty years: The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Wire, and Breaking Bad. Certainly they're more pessimistic than anything which came before. And I have great hope for Kara Walker, but even the greatest of the great here are generally artists of optimism or cynicism, but not pessimism: Whitman, Frost, Twain, Cather, Bellow, Dylan, O. Redding, H. Williams, W. Guthrie, C. Berry, R. Johnson, J. Darnielle, S. Stevens, (excuse the pretentious way I'm saying their names, I want to show I'm taking them seriously), R Newman (seriously), Coltrane, Davis, Ellington, Armstrong, Parker, Monk, Tatum, Ives, Sondheim, Gershwin, Copland, Cowell, Welles, Scorsese, Spielberg, S. Lee, Hawks, Ford, Keaton, Altman, Lynch, Tarantino, Linklater, PT Anderson, W. Anderson, Ditko, Kirby, Crumb, M. Weiner, Groening, and a host of standup comedians whom it's probably good not to mention these days ... All of them are great, maybe even towering, but hope and cynicism is what suffuses their work. Well, now we're here, and hope is in wickedly short supply. Art this great and this dark has been there for us to observe from other countries the whole time, and the greatest American artists to take their place alongside masters like that now have their chance. It will.probably come from the minority margins of American life, and no one will welcome them more happily than me.
Wednesday, September 23, 2020
Sunday, September 20, 2020
It really is astounding. The most beloved public figure of a generation was literally obsessed with opera and chased performances of it for seventy years the way younger people plan vacations around bands. Her office was wall to wall opera memorabilia. It was her entire social life fron 1950 to 2020 and if she she didn't know as much about it as any nerd who posts 100x a day on classical music message boards it's because unlike us, she had a life. She so passed her love of opera to children that her son founded and runs his own exclusively classical record label (Cedille Records). People so loved her and wanted to walk her path that they would name their children after her, they'd dress as her, they'd tattoo her on their bodies, but so hate opera for unfathomable reasons that the one most easily replicable thing they could do to be like her, get inside her headspace, understand what gave her the will to keep struggling, was a bridge too far. Even RBG couldn't bring America back to opera and it was literally the passion of her life:It really is astounding. The most beloved public figure of a generation was literally obsessed with opera and chased performances of it for seventy years the way younger people plan vacations around bands. Her office was wall to wall ipera memorabilia. It was her entire social life fron 1950 to 2020 and if she she didn't know as much about it as any nerd who posts 100x a day on classical music message boards it's because unlike us, she had a life. She so passed her love of opera to children that her son founded and runs his own exclusively classical record label (Cedille Records). People so loved her and wanted to walk her path that they would name their children after her, they'd dress as her, they'd tattoo her on their bodies, but so hate opera for unfathomable reasons that the one most easily replicable thing they could do to be like her, get inside her headspace, understand what gave her the will to keep struggling, was a bridge too far. Even RBG couldn't bring America back to opera and it was literally the passion of her life:
Saturday, September 19, 2020
When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was first nominated to the Supreme Court, a lot of liberals cried foul. They thought she was a moderate through and through, and after an exhaustive and inconclusive survey of potential candidates that included everyone from Mario Cuomo to Barbara Jordan, she was only chosen because she was recommended to Clinton by Janet Reno as an uncontroversial choice, and Reno only recommended Ginsberg because of a recommendation from Orrin Hatch, who is now the longest serving Republican senator in history. Liberals howled that she would be uncommitted to women's issues, that she would be uncommitted to civil rights, that she was just another Clintonian moderate who would back down and concede to whatever watered down compromise Republicans would demand.
Thursday, September 17, 2020
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I'd have to venture a guess that the golden age of piano performance was around the 1920s. Not the piano or pianism - the piano is as much the very instrument 19th century and all its aspirations as the electric guitar is of the 20th. The music that truly defines the instrument - Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, (and Alkan, shhhh) was all written in one generation around the 1830s and 40s.
Monday, September 14, 2020
I got blocked today by someone whose opinion I care about, and it saddened me the way most of these fracases never do. I am in no way a paragon of morality, and if my finger is wagged too often on here it's not because I think myself any better morally or even intellectually (and I'm not even an intellectual, I just play one on the internet, and even if I in fact am smart, smart people often believe the dumbest things on the planet, and how smart am I if this is my platform...), but because that's how other people seem to present themselves without realizing it, and just as they can get incredibly annoyed, so can I. I really, genuinely do want to be an ally to people in need in the very best way I know how, but my conscience has been shouting at me for years that certain attitudes are screwing over every cause they mean to promote, and these attitudes have only been growing. From where I've stood, the impractical demands of the intersectional Left are the ultimate culprit in delivering the country to Trump and all its related maladies. Just out of living memory, there was another incarnation of the Left, for whom no amount of solidarity with class struggle and anti-imperialism was ever enough, and they scared the political center of Europe just enough to deliver the center to the right for a lifetime, and the right became so authoritarian and incompetent that it led to two world wars, and once that left-wing grew powerful enough, their demands for solidarity became an authoritarian requirement too which it took seventy-five years to shake. By no means are we there yet, but I can't deny, I won't deny, that the direction of things, the direction of the country, the direction of discourse, the direction of many friends of mine, frightens me terribly.
Well, my dear two listeners, if you haven't figured out my opinions on cancel culture by now, you're probably pretty dense - you also may be the kind of person who is so fearful of drawing conclusions about anyone until all the evidence is in and giving people every benefit of the doubt until the shoe drops that you probably believe in cancel culture because to so many people, everybody who isn't a villain deserves to be treated like a hero.
What especially makes cancel culture a dangerous stupidity is that it so obviously has the opposite of the desired effect. It's like telling a person 'don't think about elephants.' The more problematic an artist is considered, the more they turn into forbidden fruit, and the more people not predisposed to an ideology that demands cancellation will want to see what the big deal is.
So while cancel culture is tremendously ineffective on the one hand, what it inevitably provokes is a further impulse to censorship precisely because of its ineffectuality. I can almost give a 100% guarantee that if Democrats come back into power, and yes, in some ways it's still a big 'if', we will immediately start hearing from a call for government censorship from some left-wing circles, and I would imagine that before too long, it would gain traction, if not mainstream approval. But if that appeal to censorship doesn't work, and it's probably a 'when' rather than an 'if', how hard is it really to believe that by then, some vigilantes will be so worked into a lather of moral outrage that they'll try to silence artists they don't like through violence?
So yes, for the few people who listen to this podcast, it should be incredibly unsurprising that I find cancel culture a totalitarian impulse. Cancel culture is not totalitarianism itself of course or anything close to it, but its a fabulously effective mortar that builds its structure. Once we all head down the path of believing that every piece of news is either a chance to re-affirm our solidarity and either keep quiet or employ an approved political reaction, then before long, we're building the structure of a totalitarian movement. If you want to know how the 20th century happened, look no further than the fin-de-siecle when no amount of solidarity on the left to class struggle and anti-imperialism was enough, and that provoked the right-wing into a reactive force that eventually turned into fascism. Yes, of course it's much more complicated than that, but this is a daily podcast now, and we will eventually do multi-part episodes, but for the moment we'll stay on that level of simplicity.
So the reason we're dealing with this today is that I seem to have been blocked by a childhood friend who was always a devoted reader of mine, constantly commenting lauditorily on things I write, and whose presence in my childhood years I valued very much, and her obvious mind change about me makes me very sad. What seems to have provoked it was the recent veering by JK Rowling into transphobia, and I commented that I certainly think it disturbing and have no doubt what trans friends and acquaintances go through all the time is self-evidently terrible and sometimes even horrific, there's something about it which frankly I find hilarious about JK Rowling's position in this. This is a woman who literally has built an empire, has raised a whole generation of children on a liberal moral vision, and throws it all away because of her stance on the issue of whether transgender women are women, which she clearly cared not at all about until about two minutes ago and probably didn't even realize was an issue, and now she has thrown away the love of tens of millions of people by doubling down half a dozen times so that she can take a stance on the obviously false idea that transgender women are not women. Now she's even writing a book about how a cis-gender killer disguises as a woman. Part of the reason this is funny is that her turn into anti-trans agitprop is incredibly disturbing, and I would say precisely the same about when it's anti-Jewish propaganda on the docket like that, and whether people realize it, we Jews encounter anti-Jewish agitprop nearly every day if we read the papers and sometimes very much encounter it in person, and that's usually funny too....
But what got me blocked was my continuing insistence, one that I've soft-pedaled on social media for a while, that the current debate provoked by critical theory that the very building blocks of the world is almost invisibly structured to favor certain people, not through money or power in which that's obviously true, but through language, architecture, the structure of the humanities themselves. That strikes me as playing with the most dangerous fire. Once you see the most normal activities of discourse as irredeemably corupt and slated to favor certain people at the extent of others, then everything about the way people discourse has to be debated, and even if that true, if the debate is ever won by the prosecuting side, the debates will no longer be debates, and they will very easily turn into interrogations, ad result in nothing at all debated, because in the mind of the powerful, the question is now solved. I've seen a lot of people whose friendship I value very much go over to the other side of this issue, sometimes even in real time, and it worries me greatly, not because of its effect on my life, though that of course can't help but stay in my mind, but because historically, we've fallen down this kind of authoritarian rabbit hole so many times.
The Harry Potter phenomenon is obviously deserving of many podcasts of their own, many more than the books do.... and the books are not terrible but... come on, they were never great. All sorts of people now say that Harry Potter has dated badly, but it didn't date badly, it was always kind of bad.... Dumbledore was always clearly a kind of cult leader. Harry and Ron were always little shits who relied on Hermione to do the work for them. The gnomic bankers at Gringots were always Jews. Elves were always people of color. There never were more than token minorities at Hogwarts. The wizards were always a metaphor to let people fantasize about having extraordinary abilities that let them look down on ordinary people. The books were so completely wall-to-wall laden with archetypes and even stereotypes that a reader should have only assumed that its writer believed in them and believes that people unchangingly are what they are. So I don't know how it could have been surprising to anyone that a person with a worldview that simple and unchanging has trouble understanding the fluidity of gender, but just as gender is fluid, so are the concerns of morality. Soon there will be another runaway phenomenon writer who is a perfect reflection of the values of this generation rather than the last one, and in twenty years, people will reexamine those books and find all sorts of new problems in them that we didn't see at the time, and people will yet again be shocked, shocked, that such a moral visionary is in fact just another human being who wrote a thoroughly OK series of books that were thoroughly overrated because they were a perfect reflection of their times and no other, and therefore got an undeserved billion dollars, and eventually therefore finds a way to blow all the moral credibility which they didn't deserve in the first place.
Maybe Harold Bloom was right! Harry Potter is a period piece, and even if it's not forgotten the way bestsellers usually are, its very fans now seem to want to abandon it in despair because the moral vision they thought was so pure was in fact as flawed as nearly every moral vision turns out to be. So much about cancel culture, about 'problematics', even about 'me too', is a very weird revenge posterity and high art is having on popular culture. The very country who lauded popular culture for a century now seems to assassinate it because they suddenly realize that a frivolous view of art is in fact just as frivolous as it seems. There are all sorts of problems with the new morality too, just as dangerous if not even more, but at least it's a serious attempt to grapple with moral questions, and from that seriousness, 'if that seriousness is serious', we just might be able to build a better world.
...Don't count on it though....
Sunday, September 13, 2020
This has been an absolutely glorious 24 hours, as glorious as life gets, but now that it's over, I'm suddenly very sad. This should be the beginning of the artistic season, and knowing you get to strap yourself in and experience humanitarian creations as miraculous as any scientific discovery is what gets me though the long and sad winter months. But there is no real artistic season this year, and 2 in 3 American artists are currently unemployed. Some things you can come back from, but there is no money or relief coming for a lot these organizations before January at best, and probably not for a while thereafter. Some illnesses are too drastic to recover from, and even if you make a partial recovery, living becomes so painful that one has to ask if life is still worth living thereafter?
Friday, September 11, 2020
Wednesday, September 9, 2020
2004, as ever before, I was an odd, isolated, little duck, and yet maybe a little less than otherwise. I'd met my core college friends, the node from which I've still found best friends of my life, but still, a dude like me didn't feel much of a home anywhere, and certainly not a spiritual home.
It was not even a given that a person like me could get his crap together to apply for a study abroad program. For a kid like me, the amount of hoops were staggering, and realistically speaking, with the amount organization that could go wrong, better a kid like me end up on a summer program than a semester or year-long one.
It was still worse once I got there. The highs of London were so high, and yet the lows were so low. No particularly interesting person wanted to study in England. The smarter ones of course had a different language or craft or industry to practice in, so they went to Paris, Rome, Madrid, Moscow, Prague, Beijing, Brussels, Oxford, Delhi, Souel, Abu Dhabi, Buenos Aires, Vienna, even Oxford.
I got an internship at the Association of British Orchestras, and for a learning disabled kid, every minute of it was horrible. The Brits were of course too polite to tell me straightforwardly how terrible I was at my job, but I knew exactly what they thought, and the stress led to near daily trips to cry in the bathroom. I don't know how bad you have to be to get a C on a meaningless work internship, but whatever I did, I was just that bad at it.
The kids on that program were truly terrible, and they hated me like anything. Most of them were there to get drunk. They'd come home at 4 in the morning, shitfaced and loud, sometimes with women, and when they were asked to keep quiet: 'Hell no! We're here to have fun! What the fuck are you doing here?'
I was here to have fun too: the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert, the National Gallery and the Natural History Museum, Diana Rigg in Tennessee Williams, Jonathan Pryce and Eddie Redmayne in Edward Albee, Roger Allam and Conleth Hill in Michael Frayn, the Jerry Spring opera and Sweeney Todd in the best Sondheim production I ever expect to see - that's the West End for you. At Covent Garden, Britten's Peter Grimes conducted by Pappano and Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos conducted by Colin Davis. Jose van Dam starring in Die Meistersinger at Royal Festival Hall and Bernard Haitink conducting Brahms at the Barbican. And best of all, Charles Mackerras conducting the Glagolitic Mass by Janacek, a night during which I must have wept through the whole performance. When I look back at some of the performers and actors I saw, I realize it was my one glimpse into a passing generation that I'd only read about in newspaper reviews and sighed with longing for would that I could be there.... If only I could have gotten back in time from a conference at a country manor in time to hear Mstislav Rostropovich conduct Shostakovich 5 or let myself see Kurt Masur too conduct the Glagolitic Mass! Those are two legends I will have missed in concert forever - though I met Rostropovich in a Tel Aviv hotel, at some point I'll tell that story... But the post-concert drink was ineitably alone, I might have felt sad, but I was sad at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese or the Lamb and Flag.
By halfway through my time in London, I was broke three separate times and my parents reluctantly wired me money from Western Union, because were they really going to let their irresponsible child starve in an unfamiliar city? Even if he was going through it like water in the second-most expensive city in the world? And at the time, London was even quite a bit more expensive than it is now!
But the few nice people I met at work told me: just wait for the Proms! I'd heard about the Proms of course, every classical music nut in the world knows about them, but nothing could prepare me for them. Whatever was memorable in the concerts, and surely there was much memorable stuff - like the Chichester Psalms, Petrushka, and Ives 4 all on the same program, Birtwhistle's and Dallapiccola, Pierre Laurent Aimard doing the Ravel Piano Concerto, George Benjamin conducting Messiaen's Canyons to the Stars, Mariss Jansons and Gidon Kremer, Messiaen's Poemes Pour Mi, Britten's Curlew River in the kind of avant garde staging you never see in America except in a claustrophobic blackbox, and if only I hadn't gone to Scotland I could have seen Colin Davis do Britten's War Requiem - I'll never have seen Davis in concert..., and Jiri Behlolavek conduct Dvorak's Specter's Bride, and if only I could have stayed a couple more days in England, there would have been Osmo Vanska doing Sibelius 2, David Robertson conducting Messiaen's Turangalila, John Eliot Gardiner conducting the B-Minor Mass, Valery Gergiev conducting the Rite of Spring. Brendel and Dohnanyi doing the Emperor Concerto, and Simon Rattle conducting Das Rheingold. Oh, the opportunities missed, every year, then and since....
But ultimately, the great appeal of the Proms was not what I saw, but how we saw it. The Proms is not a concert like any other classical concert. It has certain things in common with rock concerts, but not much. However horrible Royal Albert Hall's acoustics, however sweltering that behemoth's heat, however difficult it is to stand, to find seats, to fill up a hall of six-to-ten thousand every night for two whole months! Proms is, quite simply, classical music in its ideal state: the world's most elite music, for everyone.
At the time, the price for the cheapest ticket was 4 pounds. For those cheap standing room seats just beneath the stage of Royal Albert Hall, you stood among a crowd of people who were there not to be seen, but because they loved music. Eccentrics all of them as Brits are known to be, some of them garrulously friendly whom you engaged in all kinds of conversation, some of them truly with a nastiness only eccentrics can attain. I remember, after going to the lou at intermission one guy, who didn't speak English, who literally shoved me But when I returned to London in 2012, here's what I wrote about the experience of returning to the Proms, my favorite place in the world, for the first time:
I was standing exactly four rows behind the conductor’s podium. And around me in that gallery was a panoply of ages, and at least half a dozen simultaneous conversations about classical music, all knowledgeable and completely audible. Two rows behind me was a young man talking up a beautiful woman and seemingly trying to impress her with his knowledge about Charles Mackerras’s career. One row behind me to my left was a man and a woman clearly on a date, both in their late fifties, and telling each other about the most memorable orchestral concerts they’ve seen in the last few years. In front of me was an older gentleman, telling an older lady about how Daniel Barenboim’s Beethoven stacked up to all the other Beethoven cycles he’d seen. My friend, The Harris, and I struck up a conversation with another guy there; in his fifties, my height and vaguely Jewish looking (we were the only two people there under five-and-a-half feet tall) and spoke about Barenboim for some minutes. Near me was a German couple in their thirties, and from whatever little German I have I picked up that they were very excited for the Boulez. Next to me was a still more beautiful woman than the other who seemed to have come to a Proms concert completely alone. Near me another guy, early twenties and looking like an American popped-collar frat boy, standing completely on his own. Another guy in his twenties stood alone, and was reading some sort of music book. Clearly the older generation seemed more knowledgeable on the whole, but here was a city where classical music still clearly has a future.
It was only at intermission that I worked up the nerve to do what I barely had the nerve to do eight years ago - I spoke to nearly all of them. The kid reading the music book was a doctoral fellow at Kings College in Medieval Literature who hated Wolfram von Eschenbach. The ‘jock’ was an enthusiastic amateur violinist who loved playing Beethoven in semi-pro orchestras. The beautiful girl standing alone was a French girl with barely any English, but she played Beethoven on the piano and wanted to hear the symphonies. The German couple were jazz music lovers who wanted to determine if Boulez sounded like free-jazz, or if free-jazz sounded like Boulez (they also gave me some delicious olives). Of the couple on the date, I learned that the guy had been going to the Proms every year for thirty years and had been going to concerts of the Liverpool Philharmonic since he was a child, and of the woman I learned that she has a personal, not musical, hatred of Roger Norrington.
The Proms is the greatest music festival in the world. Period. There is nothing in any other genre in any city which compares to the coordination it takes to assemble a different orchestra from a different part of the world every night for two months in a venue that can house six-thousand people with standing room 5 pound tickets in the front of the hall. It is now in its 117th year, and the seasons show only signs of growing in size and scope - there’s even an additional chamber music festival now at Wigmore Hall.
In America, a festival like this is utterly unthinkable. In order for The Proms to happen, there needs to be a massive government subsidy from a national broadcasting organization (in this case the massively funded BBC) which thinks classical music is in itself a public good - and they therefore produce, distribute, and advertise the concerts throughout the entire world. The whole idea that classical music, or even music itself, is a public good would cause many Americans to laugh themselves senseless - and perhaps rightly so. There is very little evidence that much good is done for the public by putting a hundred or so classical concerts. But ultimately, that is why The Proms are so awesome. Artists thrive on risk, and the best art is neither made when artists have too little money nor a too stable source of income - neither situation inspires people in the arts to their best. What inspires them is that tenuous middle ground where the funding to survive can be taken away at any moment - and they therefore must beg, borrow, or steal the money they need to fulfill their dreams.
Many music lovers in the UK protest the fact that the Proms, and the organization who produces them, are being irredeemably dumbed down (how spoiled can you be?). But unlikely as it sounds, should the economy of Britain crumble to the ground tomorrow, what program will be hacked up first? The Proms or the National Health Service? Its the very fragileness of a festival like the Proms that makes it such a miracle. I’m not sure if I believe in God, but I believe in The Proms.
....So yesterday, we got the news that Royal Albert Hall may file for bankruptcy. People are calling for that acoustical behemoth to be raised to the ground. Even Royal Albert Hall's former chairman is saying that no bankruptcy is so deserved. For a hundred fifty years, nobody could ever defend Royal Albert Hall, but for nearly a hundred-twenty, Royal Albert has given us the Proms, and no other place on earth could do that. For a certain subset of musical obsessive, the Proms is the happiest place on Earth, and for this small possibility that the Proms be gone, it is as horrible to the mind as any genocide. Nothing like as actually horrible of course, but like all things which make life worth living, the things which we most value can disappear overnight, sacrificed to necessity's expedience as they must in moments of true crisis. But if something like the Proms disappears, all that remains is memory, and the memories of it will eventually die along with the people there to remember. Life is fragile, beauty is fleeting, but as the things die which make life worth living, so then, more gradually of course, does the motivation to continue life itself. The Proms has been nearly two months every year for the last hundred twenty. It is not out of the realm of possibility that no music festival in the history of the world in any genre has generated that amount of joy for that many people as the Proms has, and all the moreso in an age where radio broadcasts can transmit over the internet. For fifteen years, I've listened faithfully, in the years following that first experience of them, I listened to every.... single... broadcast..., and I still listen to many of them even now. It is a memory of how joyful life can be; if you try hard enough, if you sacrifice enough, if you endure the stressors and strains to live your best life. This year, there have barely been any Proms at all, and all that there have been was broadcast from an empty hall. Classical music as we once thought it, art as I've always conceived it, is clearly dying. Perhaps what takes its place will be just as meaningful and joyful, and even if it isn't as meaningful and joyful to me, there surely must exist millions out there for whom it is, and they can have what they love to celebrate it. But the fact that so much of the music I love is clearly passing on is a tragedy too, and I refuse to not be sad about it.
Monday, September 7, 2020
She came into my life without warning, she left my life without warning, and she has returned to my life without warning. She is the great mystery of these years, she is id to my superego, she is action to my introspection, she is self-reliance to my permanent invalidation, she is at once the acme to zenith of responsibility where I am irresponsible, yet where I seem to be responsible, she to be honest was not to be in a way that nearly destroyed me. She is whom I'm just beginning to truly know, whom I prayed would return, and whom I pray we can somehow find a way through the chaos to work with each other as a team for many years to come.
I will not say her name in public, but she was born here in Baltimore, the daughter of a Bronx Jew and a Delaware WASP. When she was born, her father was fifty-three, his mother eighty-seven. Her Bubbie, like mine, lived to her centenary, before Baltimore, the Bronx, before the Bronx, pre-Israel Palestine, before Palestine, Turkey, before Turkey, the Pale of Settlement. Walking miles every day of her life unto the very end. Her son, from the Bronx complete with the accent and abrupt manner of so many New York Jews of those years, three daughters, and two wives, one properly Jewish, the other the product of a marriage he undertook to get out from under the thumb of the same Jewish community he found constricting as I did. A cyclist like me, an architect who founded 'architects row' in Baltimore - a row of townhouses near Spring Valley in East Baltimore where lived many of the architects of Baltimore, the city's modern designers who did what little they could to stem the irreversible tide of urban decline. He was, in his time, which began in 1927 and stretched to his seventy-sixth year, extremely involved in civil rights, and like so many New York intellectuals of that generation, perhaps even in New York's burgeoning folk music scene.
Her mother, now beginning her octogenarian years, and especially fascinating; born on a farm in Michigan, where her idealistic and highly educated father, progressive for his time, lived to milk goats and make cheese, before he moved to Delaware to become an engineer for Dupont, but hailing from a generation when American progressivism was associated as much with the right as the left, an era when socialism could be nationalized, and by accounts I've heard a racist with a particular antipathy for the peoplehood she married into. Perhaps it's not surprising his most idealistic period was spent in the state for whom Henry Ford was the most famous resident, but let's be honest, his attitudes were hardly atypical for his time, and we're hardly through with them.
The mother was the apple of her parents eye, perhaps even the favorite - talented and beautiful while her siblings sounded more ordinary, and extra money was spent developing her talents, much to her siblings chagrin. When she left the nest, perhaps not a moment too soon from what's described, it was as a trained ballet dancer, ready to take on New York, but then as ever, New York is not taken on, it takes on, and the mother's experience in New York was just as difficult as the father's if not more, and she ended up in Baltimore, smart enough to get a PhD but scared of the workforce as anxious people are, and a third marriage which ensured she didn't have to work much.
Their marriage seemed in some senses foreordained, father and mother neighbors who were both transplants, both divorced, and already family friends who knew and were liked by the children and the exes. Their marriage was not without its complications, including a seven year separation when my belle was just a baby, with the father living just down the street to help take care of her, then reuniting in her seventh year, but always living down the street from each other in separate townhouses.
My belle was born to an eccentric, unique family, so different from my own, but just as loving, and just as neurotic, as my own family. She and I apparently played in the same orchestras, went to the same camps and concerts, read the same books. All four of our parents highly intelligent people, but my parents priorities were almost entirely Jewish, and certain wings were necessarily clipped to fit my parents priorities, for which as I get older I understand that they obviously had their reasons for believing and doing as they have. She was brought up a relative bohemian by intellectuals who'd chose the nest of their backgrounds as my parents didn't. They had their reasons too.
The belle of my ball went to the Baltimore School for the Arts, and then never went to college but rather became a landscaper who nursed a habit of reading on the side, every neighborhood in Baltimore seems to have a house and yard she worked on. Shortly after her father passed on from cancer, she moved to northern California to be near her half-sister, where she stayed for nine years, and had two children by an ex, considerably older than she just as her father was considerably older than her mother. They had 'a business' as it were that was entirely typical for California and not entirely legal, but when the business went under and they lost the house, a house which could soon be lost to fire as so much of rural California is, my belle realized she needed a more stable environment to raise her sons, and returned to Baltimore where she and her mother raise two highly precocious and energetic boys, the father living in the county and taking them part of the weekends, which is when we see each other. For now at least, until COVID strikes again. Yesterday was the very first time I met her clan, I'm told I made a great impression, an impression I can only hope will remain great but I of course have my trepidations.
I have no idea what is in store for us, it fills me with equal excitement and terror, and can promise nothing. I have so little to offer but my brain, so different from other people's, with both its skills and its troubles. She has hardly seen me at my worst yet, and I have given her more than forewarning of its horrors, but nobody knows what it's like to see a person in the grips of insanity knows what it's like until it's there. I hope that in a few years with increased success and confidence I can get certain things under control as I never could before, and in the meantime we will take it somewhat slowly as we must. All I know is that from the moment we first met, I valued her company as I have valued no one else's in the short yet very long history of my life. Her natural instinct is for whirlwind romance, attraction like magnet to metal, and my instinct is always as I do, to worry that whirlwind depletes shelf-lives, increases instability, and every beautiful experience meets its reactive ugliness. And yet it is so long, so long...., since I have thrown any caution to the wind in any aspect of my life, the wall of my caution and worry is so thick that only alcohol, which I've basically given up, and a gorgeous creature of the moment like her, could ever find its way through it. She is the embodiment of the hope which the universe whatever its creator may be, seems to have thrown me, and in these two brief periods has given my life a beautiful meaning it never has ever had in any other moment. I hope, I pray, for its stability, through whatever turbulence and terror makes itself known. All close relationships, of whatever type, are a boat through waters stormy and calm, the storms will come as surely as the beautiful views, and to whatever possibility of predestination is out there, may we please be blessed with your good grace and better angels.
Sunday, September 6, 2020
Thoughts imbue upon my brain at a mile per second. Unwanted thoughts, disturbing thoughts, psychotic thoughts, as they have for twenty years. Thoughts of distant past I can only hope are delusions, thoughts of recent past I can only hope are misinterpretations. They hound me for a couple hours nearly every day before I can talk myself down with what I can only hope is my more rational side. To conquer them is a multi-decade struggle, and I can only fear, a lifelong struggle.