Friday, June 29, 2012

New Kind of Friday Playlist #20: The Ten Commandments, Mahler 9, Louie

Movie: The Ten Commandments

If I ever were able to write an opera – and let’s be perfectly clear, if I wanted it to be any good it would take me until I’m sixty if I started tomorrow and until ninety to produce – the first opera I’d ever write is the story of Moses in Egypt. No, not the Book of Exodus, instead it would be the C. B. DeMille Hollywood perversely sexed up yet tortuously boring version which is inculcated into every Jewish kid’s lexicon from the time he’s five until he can recite the whole movie at his Bar Mitzvah.

Let’s be perfectly clear. The Ten Commandments is an awful, awful movie. It’s very nearly unwatchable without copious doses of liquor – and yes I’ve learned that the fun way; when I was about 23, some friends of mine and I watched the whole 220-minute monsterpiece which I could barely sit through when I was six and took a shot every time a character said the word ‘bondage.’ At least one of us threw up (I don’t remember who).  

But let’s be perfectly clear. The awfulness of The Ten Commandments is of a particular time and place that has completely vanished from any modern sensibility. C. B. DeMille made this move, his last, in his mid-70’s. He grew up an upper-class kid in the late-19th century, an era of Empire and Great Power Poltiics when electronics did not exist and the most feverish pitch of excitement was made through gigantic displays like the circus or the imperial army drill. It’s a sensibility as alien to us as James Cameron’s movies will in all likelihood be to our grandchildren. A certain type of person, perhaps a particularly authoritarian one, would respond to DeMille’s gigantic displays of coordination even in our day.

So let’s be perfectly clear. I can’t stand the agonizing loftiness of this movie where everybody speaks in a Hollywood’s vision of the King James Bible and the special effects are not even as effective as a B-Movie thriller. If I have a soft spot in my heart for it, I can’t even call my love for it ironic. It’s simply a cornerstone of my life, something I first watched when I was three or four and which I could never imagine my life without.

Finally, let’s be perfectly clear. If I ever tried to make an opera out of it, it would fundamentally be a popera in which the slaves sing gospel and the taskmasters sing heavy metal. The spirit of The Ten Commandments – with its notes of freedom and shaking off oppression – is entirely contemporary and is why the story of the Exodus still means something to billions of people. The problem is that the sensibility of The Ten Commandments – the gigantism, the loftiness, the sluggish pacing  – was dated by the time DeMille’s career began.

Classical Music: Mahler’s 9th Symphony -

(Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic, which premiered the work 100 years ago this week, perform Mahler 9 in this live recording – two weeks before the Anschluss.)

It’s honestly not one of my favorite Mahler symphonies (3, 4, 1, 7, DLVDE, 5, 9, 10, 6, 2, 8). I love all 11 of Mahler’s Symphonies (and he wrote 11), but while some of them touch the kind of universality you find in Mozart and Beethoven, there are also symphonies which settle either for a kind of doom-and-gloom or a theatrical bombast which we’re supposed to interpret as profound. Less great Mahler is still greater than nearly any other orchestral composer, but by his own standards, perhaps most of Mahler’s later works were not quite as meaningful as the ones which came before.

It doesn’t help that a kind of DeMille-ish sanctimoniousness has come over many Mahler performances in recent years; for the most part the tempos get slower and slower, the playing smoother and smoother. Even at his most classically balanced, Mahler is not a composer who wrote anything by half-measures – too few artists attempt the very peaks and valleys of creation which you find on every page of Mahler’s scores, and if the listener doesn’t feel that overflowing diversity of vision, it’s not a true Mahler experience. As in so many performances of classical music, audiences would be a lot more inspired by sloppy playing if it had more commitment and character.

One of the biggest problems with Mahler 9 is that Mahler didn’t live to hear it performed. All of Mahler’s earlier symphonies underwent a trial-and-error process in which he revised his scores from performance to performance to get precisely the effect he wanted. And as I think about it, my real trouble with Mahler 9 comes from the first movement, often hailed as Mahler’s single greatest composition. I love the other three movements, but the first never does enough for me. It has too many inner voices and too many clumsy transitions (which seem undeliberate) for the ear to follow. Conductors don’t help matters by slowing the tempo down so we can hear everything. A great performance of the first movement, of the  type one finds from Abbado, Barbirolli, early Bruno Walter, Szell, Kubelik, Hermann Scherchen (and now Jukka-Pekka Saraste), has performers who understand that this is every bit the manic Mahler of the early years and there should be no trace of church-like solemnity. All those inner voices are not meant to be heard, they’re meant to be felt. The first movement is every bit as much a fist-shake at the heavens as anything in Beethoven.
Last year, I wrote about Johnny Cash and compared Mahler 9 to his America IV. Both are dirty, almost shitty mud-wrestles with death, but by the end the listener can detect a kind of peaceful transcendence – as though the musician has resolved that he can’t triumph, and peacefully starts his journey into the beyond. It’s only twelve years after what Leonard Bernstein termed the ‘Century of Death’, and perhaps because of the dark experiences of the 20th century we’ve managed to overrate Mahler 9 a little bit. It’s a wonderful piece of music, and it’s not a work completely about death, but it doesn’t embrace life in the way the very greatest music should. If I want an overwhelming spiritual experience, I go to Mahler 3.

TV:  Louie

I just finished watching Louie’s third season premiere. Or should I say, I watched half of it because I accidentally pressed a wrong button and it took me at least ten minutes to figure out how to correct whatever I did. What I saw was what exactly what I’ve come to expect from the show – which is that I have no idea what to expect. What I can say is that Louis CK clearly looks older; he’s even more bald, his ghoti is greyer, his skin hangs further off his face. And true to form, he’s letting us see every bit of it.

I’ve been planning on doing a long post on Louis CK for most of the time I’ve been doing the 800 Words thing. There’s a lot to say that I’ll hopefully get to by the end of Season 3, but no comedian seems to play a truer version of himself than Louis CK. He routinely exposes parts of his private life onstage to which no person in his right mind would ever allude, but the reason his talking about his personal life seems so dangerous is that we can all relate to it. In doing so, Louis CK says all the things about our own lives that we’re afraid of other people knowing.

I read an article the other day on Slate (I think) which claimed that Louie is the best show on television. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but the writer made the best possible case: think of all the TV shows you watch – now think of how many in which you have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen from episode-to-episode. No matter what the show is, 99.9% of them have a genre and a style, so even their surprises aren’t all that surprising.   The plots of most shows are either linear or surreal, which mean that you ultimately know exactly what kind of sensibility the show will give you. But occasionally, and I mean really occasionally, a show comes along that expands the Universe – TV’s that is. The universe of Louie is so large that literally anything can happen from low comedy to high tragedy, linear realism to the most surreal turns, and yet it all feels truer to life than most ‘realistic’ shows. Every episode is completely different from the one before, every moment of every episode can be completely different from the one before. In this way, Louie is truer to life than most ‘realistic’ shows. But when I think about that question, the only TV shows I can come up with which can do what Louie does are The Simpsons and I, Claudius. Is Louie really that good?


Thursday, June 28, 2012

Quote of the Day:

HaZmora:  i don't have enough conservative friends on facebook. where is their indignity!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

800 Words: It’s Called Pigtown – A Barely Fiction

“You’re not moving to Station North. You’re going to get stabbed!”

“No I’m not Mom, I haven’t even told you about the place.”

“But that kid was stabbed right near Penn Station!”

“That can happen anywhere in Baltimore.”

“Don’t think I don’t know that. Are you sure you wouldn’t want to live in the County? It’s closer to work!”

“Mom if I live another year in the county it’ll be me who stabs someone. And this apartment is an entire floor for $600 a month and comes with a full basement.”

“Is there crime on this block?”

“There was apparently a big drug bust across the street last week. But everybody who lives there's now in jail so it’s totally sa-...”

“-You’re not moving to Station North!”

“It’s all I can afford.”

“We’ll help you make rent. Just find a place in Roland Park!”

“Good luck getting that past Dad.”

“Let me worry about Dad. You just keep looking for places.”

Oh how different this is from Washington – that magical city where the Washington Post announces that a black neighborhood is gentrifying, and within the next six months a mob of rich white hipsters descend upon it to fix the housing stock and repaint when they’re not watching The Wire or listening to Robert Johnson. Within two years there’s inevitably a Best Buy and an IHOP and hipsters bemoan how the neighborhood’s losing its black roots. Those of them who still haven’t bought baby bjorns move on to whatever next neighborhood the Post tells them.

Washington! My Washington! That shining city upon a hill where you can debate the latest economic numbers until four in the morning and nobody will beat you up for it. That thriving metropolis where the scariest person on the street is the Republican congressional aide holding his blackberry. Washington, the only place in America where people can get a job!

Yet here you are back in Baltimore. Anyone in America can get a job in Washington, except you. And day after day you sit at the desk in your father’s office, endlessly posting on twitter during whatever minute Dad isn’t telling you to turn the music down. You try to turn every business meeting into a political argument – and Dad inevitably takes the bait and the two of you spend twenty minutes debating whether we should buy more urban properties because America has to fix its public transit system. After twenty minutes your brother asks what this has nothing to do with why people park overnight in the lots of our buildings, and
you then have nothing of value to add and stare intently at your cup of tea.

And so you move into that Roland Park apartment which for which your parents help pay… If it gives them peace of mind, sure, I’ll take your money… But you don’t meet anyone in Roland Park. You bike in the evenings, and everybody you pass on the street looks like a Hopkins sophomore or a WASP-y housewife walking her dog. You ride your bike through Hamden and Remington and watch hipsters with all the ripped clothes and asymmetrical hair of those in Washington. But the Baltimore hipsters look less talkative, less energetic, sadder, like real hipsters. Regardless of how; people move to DC to change the world. People move to Baltimore to…does anybody move to Baltimore?

So you go back to Washington every weekend to relive the ever fading glory of your Washington existence – always visiting with your latest group of close friends whom you once thought of as friends of friends of friends before another circle of yours moved away. At parties you talk to all the girls you never hooked up with, and they're all now married. And as you push thirty, the mere thought of driving forty miles to get drunk and sleep on couches makes you feel ever more pathetic.  

At work, you complain daily about your Baltimore exile on g-chat to some of your best friends who’ve long since left Washington to chase such political glory as to be an aide in the Maine house of delegates, or an economist for the State of Massachusetts, or an elected New Jersey school board supervisor. Their inevitable response: “You just need to meet more people.”

Every day is a reverse commute to the county, which means that you drive ten miles in 40 minutes rather than 60. Lunch is at the house where you grew up, and three-or-so times a week you save money by eating dinner with your parents too. Baltimore is home, yet you hardly know anyone because even your childhood friends moved to DC. In point of fact you neither know this conurbation nor barely a soul in it. Every time your Dad navigates you to assist him looking at some out of the way run-down building in East Baltimore, you’re astonished that anyone could know their way so well around this phantom megalopolis.

Your parents have long since moved out of the old neighborhood. Dad swears that its main intersection is currently an outdoor one-stop-shop for heroin and meth disguised as a wholesale market, but he hasn’t been back there in thirty-five years, so how does he know? Mom lived there until she was 20 with her parents, grandparents, and great aunt: her and her brother the youngest members of her block's last white family. Some of their new neighbors let them know just how unwelcome they were to stay.

Even if you haven’t inherited their fear of Baltimore, you can’t help inheriting a certain dispiritedness at having come back. Baltimore is a city which peaked more than two hundred years ago. For centuries, it's been one of the East Coast’s ‘other' metropolises: a city whose low prices attract immigrants in the hope that their grandchildren can one day have the unlimited opportunities which DC or New York can afford them. You were going to be the one who got those unlimited opportunities, yet here you are, back in the family business, so that one day maybe your grandchildren can get the opportunities you didn’t.

But all is not lost. You do have two good friends in Baltimore - from the Washington days of course - a married couple who commute to Federal Government jobs whom you knew long before they were married or working at the Commerce department; and in all those years you never once observed them fail to curse the soul-crushing fakery of our capital. It’s a high-gloss high-priced, synthetic city full of synthetic people who pretend they mean to change the world as a means of massaging their egos and keeping it exactly the same. You always thought this argument was stupid, merely the ersatz sour grapes of people who failed to find what they wanted in Washington - but now the person who failed is you. And everything you loved about that celestial city of your dreams is now seems as smelly as rotten cheese. Something in you dies every time you meet a guy at a party who says he plans to move back home to build connections for a congressional run or yet another girl who tells you she works at a non-profit.

These two don’t know many people either, but the three of you are pretty happy together - seeing each other at least once a week and bound together by mutual resentment of your old stomping grounds. They take you to what they tell you are all the great Baltimore establishments: Does Washington have a bar devoted to nothing but scotch? Does Washington have an entire Greek enclave? Does Washington have crabcakes as good as Faidley’s? And you have to come around to them in some degree, because if there’s anything which Baltimore does better than any city in the world, it’s crabcakes, nostalgia, and venereal disease. They even tell you about a group for which you can get a political fix; a liberal politics meetup where you discuss the latest outrages at a bar while getting drunk. They can’t go this week, but you should.

You arrive for the meetup and the waitress points you to a table with four people. You make your introductions: a post-grad resident at a Hopkins biology lab, a MICA graduate who teaches high school art, a musician who quickly lets it slip that he knows Dan Deacon, and a retired government file clerk.

The conversation goes something like this:

“It’s terrible what’s happening with the Supreme Court and healthcare.”

“Could you believe how Scalia’s gloating?”

“It’s like he doesn’t even care if people know he’s openly partisan.”

“Well, what’s especially ironic about Scalia was that he was appointed to the court because he convinced the Senate that he was an impartial arbiter of the law after Robert Bork was absolutely upfront about advocating for conservative doctrine. But a year after he was appointed, Morrison vs. Olson happened and everybody knew that was bullshit. Scalia's dissent was thirty pages long and Harry Blackmun said it could be cut down to ten pages if Scalia took out the screaming.”

(long silence...)

“Yeah! And Alito’s just like him!”

It goes on like this for two and a half more hours, and after fifteen minutes you’ve already resolved that you’re not going back.

That Friday night, you’re back at your usual seat at the front bar of Club Charles with your married friends. Is there anywhere in Washington like Club Charles? You and the wife play the usual game: spot the cute hipster girl - on scales of 1 to 10, you rate them on attractiveness, ironic fashion sense, and the sourness of their demeanor. There are a plethora of over twenty-fives in the bar tonight, and you admit, you’d find every one of them attractive enough strike up a conversation if you didn’t think they’d be completely unimpressed by what you have to say.   

But then a completely new type, a familiar type, walks through the door. Everybody else in her group has the usual cute hipster attire, but this girl is wearing a black women’s dress jacket with a matching miniskirt and leather boots; a career pantsuit in a bar where most of the women make jewelry.

This bears more checking out. You walk past her table on the way to the to the bathroom just to see if your impression is right. Even from the top of the staircase you see that she’s extremely cute in that weird-faced way you like. But the second thing you notice is that all the other girls are drinking Natty Boh, but she’s drinking what looks like whiskey. You haven’t seen a girl like this since well... you know...

You force yourself to take a whiz, and then you double back. But right as you walk by, a little more slowly so you might get a little earful of what the girls are saying, you hear one say:

“It’s like that Scalia guy doesn’t care if anybody knows he’s got an agenda.”

“Well, everybody’s known that since Morrison vs. Olson.”

You know what’s coming...

After a silence a little too long, you turn to them just so you can say “don’t forget Mistretta vs. United States when Scalia called the Sentencing Commission a junior-varsity congress.”

Everybody but the pantsuit laughs uncomfortably, a bit shocked that someone heard their conversation. But this girl turns to you and says she’s going to buy you a drink. When you get the waitress's attention you order a Laphroaig and offer to pay for it yourself, she says that's nonsense and ‘Make it two.”

Over the next two hours you learn that she’s an environmental lobbyist who moved to Station North just three weeks ago and commutes every day on the MARC train. She’s exactly your age, worked on six congressional campaigns, and lived for two years in Northern Africa when she was in the peace corps. You tell her some of your history with Washington, and your lack thereof lately. The two of you discuss how Anthony Kennedy is going to find a way to kill the Individual Mandate while still looking like he’s compromising, what obscure justification Roberts will find for his majority opinion, and how this will affect Obama’s campaign in Ohio and Florida. Within two hours, you’re back at her townhouse on the corner of St. Paul and Fayette to spend the night.

Late the next morning, you wake up in her bed. She left a note on the pillow saying she’s already downstairs making brunch. You go down two flights of chandalier-adorned staircases to see her on the other side of her cavernous kitchen. She's still cooking, but on the counter you already see 
blueberry pancakes, french toast, belgian waffles, steak, smoked salmon, applewood bacon, eggs benedict, homemade bread, grilled scallops, wild mushrooms, pickled olives, sliced bell peppers, fresh fruit, danish, orange juice and champagne on ice. She points to a door and says to go through there to the dining room to meet everybody. 

So there are three people sitting at the dining room table; her flatmates - or technically her tenants. Directly to your right is one of the hipster girls from last night. She tends bar part-time at Ottobar and sells homemade jewelry online. The other two are much older - to your left is a 50-ish divorcee who tells you her kids are now in college and she’s looking to start over. Sitting across from you is a gay guy in his sixties who goes from house to house redecorating in exchange for free room and board.

You’re called back into the kitchen because she needs somebody to help wrap up brunch - lots more people are arriving in an hour and she needs somebody to put everything back in one of her two refrigerators. It’s an amazing spread, but why are you helping her instead of the roommates. You can’t ask her, because she’s on the phone explaining to someone how to get to her house from route 70.

“I should really be going.”

“Oh no, please stay. You’re going to love the other guests. They’re all coming out from Washington - all people I’ve worked with over the years. They’re great. Besides, you never know who you might meet.” ..then she gives me a wink..

So the wink either means she isn’t thinking relationship or she’s super-clingy and already trying to get a DC job for a potential boyfriend. Either way, this is probably win-win. And as you muse on that, you remember that you have a meeting at 2 to look at a building in Parkville. You dial home to try to get out of it.

“Dad, do you need me at the meeting?”

“Why didn’t you call earlier this morning?”

“I was asleep.”

“Well you should be driving already. We’re late too.”

“I thought the meeting’s at 2!”

“It’s at noon.”

“Is there any chance I can get out of this meeting?”

“It’s with Ted Diakanos. We can’t have this meeting without you.”

“Well can’t you just explain...”

“We need you there.”

“...Alright, I'll go...See you then....Bye” 

You hang up the phone and before you can form a word she says:

“You have to go. I’ll pack you a plate.”

“I really have to rush.”

“Don’t worry it’ll just take a second.”

It takes a little more than a second. But as she packs you three plates from her spread with a special bag with three compartments to separate them, she also makes you a mimosa in a plastic cup for the road, and in the seventy-five seconds she takes to do all this you two get to talk in the light of day. She gives you her number and she tells you she's busy during the week but she'd be up for something some weekend.

“Yes, I‘m the dream. Living in Baltimore, working in DC. I don’t understand why more people don’t do it. Even if all the jobs are in DC there are so many cheap places to live here.” She says as she finishes wrapping up the plates and hands me the bag. We start walking to the door.

“Well I can’t imagine it’s quite as easy unless you’re near the train station.”

“That’s not true, there are all sorts of neighborhoods around the 95 junction that are getting all kinds of Washington people. They’ve even called one of them Washington Heights to attract DC’ers. It’s gonna become known as a DC enclAAAAAAH!” She let's out a scream a split second after she opens the door.

And on her stoop lies a man whose mouth is wide open as though he’s snoring. His lips are invisible from his Hemingway beard but 
clearly he has no teeth. He’s wearing pea green suit but with no shirt to wear underneath and his fly is completely open. It’s obvious he’s neither wearing underwear nor circumcised. Out of the corner of your eye, you think you see a needle on the stoop.

The scream made him open his eyes, he raises his head up for three seconds, then says “It’s not Washington Heights. It’s called Pigtown,” and goes back to sleep.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Abbado Mahler 9

Mahler 9 and the upcoming centenary of its premiere will probably be the subject of this week's playlist. But I have never heard a better performance of this piece than the recording Abbado made in Berlin. No other by Abbado, or anyone else, can touch this performance. Furthermore, no conductor has quite the same private hotline to late Mahler. Few conductors can do all 11 symphonies (and it's eleven!) well. Many simply don't perform ones they like less, and others - like Haitink, Gergiev, Boulez, Chailly...make your own list - can e amazing in certain works and sound utterly adrift in others. For the entirety of Mahler, I generally rate Rafael Kubelik (still) as the greatest of all Mahlerians, with an honorable mention to Lenny. And among living conductors I'd probably give that title to the ever-underrated  Eliahu Inbal and rate Michael Gielen and Rattle above him (meanwhile postponing final judgement on Manfred Honeck and Ivan Fischer). But starting with Mahler 7 (and with a layover at Mahler 5), nobody captures the bittersweet but gloomy fatalism of fin-de-siecle Vienna like Abbado.

Monday, June 25, 2012

800 Words: A Brief History of My Weight

I don’t know where it is anymore, but I used to delight in showing friends my High School ID. I remember that it was the one day of my adolescence for which my face didn’t look like a pebble beach, I made sure to bend my school uniform with a loose-necked tie with an open collar, and I posed with shit-eating, almost thuggish grin. For two minutes of high school, I managed to convince the world that I was cool.

 And most importantly, I was 145 pounds – I managed to be both short and gangly. My face wasn’t particularly handsome, my thinness only emphasized my camel-like nose and Jay Leno-like underbite. But damnit, I was fucking svelte. Six months later, I was down to 131, and my wrestling coach was telling me to gain the weight back so I could get more muscle.

Yes, I, Evan Tucker, an adult who would run halfway around the world to avoid playing a team sport, was a high school athlete – and an absolutely terrible one. At my second high school, we were all required to play sports. In my first term I got stuck with football, and my coach put me on the line as a guard because I was so awful that he didn’t know what else to do with me. From elementary school recess until high school sports, I logged thousands of hours coerced into the realization of how terrible I was at football, and nobody could show me how to be otherwise. My coaches tried all sorts of things to ‘toughen me up’ like sticking me in the middle of a circle of varsity players who could tackle me from any side, or taking me aside after practice to push a whole contraption of tackling dummies by myself. But nothing worked, nothing at all. At the last game of the season, my team still hadn’t won a game all year, and we finally had the lead. My coach put me in for a single play during that game, and during that play the other team’s guard swept by me to tackle the quarterback and recover a fumble for a touchdown. The game ended with a tie.

 Wrestling was much more pleasant, but even in wrestling, I won a single match in two years. As my coach told me, I was New England’s foremost expert on the ceiling designs of New England Prep School Gyms. In order to make weight, we would have to go on five mile runs at five in the morning in the dead of the Connecticut Winter. I would wear five layers of clothing to sweat off as much weight as possible, and at least twice arrived back at school five pounds lighter than my weigh-in two days before.  I suppose you expect to hear that I hated every minute of this, but there was a sick part of my psyche that almost enjoyed this regimen. I was in by far the best shape I’d ever be, still acne-ridden but a couple muscles away from a real sixpack. I hated wrestling itself as much as football, but I occasionally enjoyed the excruciating calisthenics.

I suppose I can’t talk about my weight without talking about the high school itself which to this day controls my feelings about my body, a subject I try not to let come up on this blog too often. I avoid talking about Hyde in part because there’s far too much to say about it, and in part because I worry how some people might co-opt anything I have to say about it for their own agendas. I will say very simply, I don’t have any truck with most of the students who pick fights with the methods of that place. Nevertheless, few people will be happier than I on the day that the Hyde Schools are shut down for mistreatment of their students, and it’s only a matter of time before they are. To this day, I view Hyde as the defining experience of my life, as I imagine most people would who went there, for good or ill. Opinions on that school differ from student to student, teacher to teacher. But given the extremity of their methods, it is impossible not to have an opinion.

After three years at Hyde, a boarding school for bad high school students who’d exhausted normal options, I swore to myself that no one but me would ever make me do any physical activity for the rest of my life. When we all read the reports about the detention camp in Guantanamo, certain methods of theirs rang eerily true to the punishments which Hyde faculty administered (or that students administered to one another). The more I read about the methods of authoritarian regimes, the more similarity there seemed to the methods of extracting information to which Hyde students were subjected. The more I read how propaganda machines manipulate language to create submissive citizens, the closer Hyde seemed to such a model. One day perhaps I’ll write about my experiences there, but even now – eleven years after it was over, much of it is still too painful to revisit.

By no means should anyone compare the methods of a New England boarding school to a totalitarian regime (I feel ridiculous even writing that), and as someone whose grandparents lived under both Stalin and Hitler I should feel particularly sensitive to that sort of comparison. But even my father, a PhD in Eastern European history who spent a year living in Caucescu’s Romania, agrees that the comparison is not without merit. So have Eastern European friends to whom I described what students like us were subjected. Even so, on a basic level, it is absolutely ridiculous to make any comparison between Hyde and any sort of police state. Nevertheless, I can’t deny that in its own infinitesimal way, Hyde School gave me an insight I never wanted into what my grandparents endured.

The greatest benefit Hyde gave me was that it was the greatest possible training for a budding writer – forcing its (often fascinating) students to observe one another to the minutest possible detail. At any moment, any one of us could be accused of doing something wrong – sometimes truly and just as often falsely, and every student there had to evaluate whether or not another student could stab them in the back with these sorts of accusations. In theory, we were all supposed to evaluate one another to help each other achieve our best in all areas of our lives. In practice, such evaluation usually dissolved into a mob mentality in which bullies found an outlet to pick on weaker kids that was completely sanctioned by the school.

Whatever else Hyde did, it gave me one other benefit. In college I found out I was a much better student than I ever was before. But were I a still better student and have managed to get the PhD in political science I’d been contemplating in the years after college, my thesis probably would have been something on the nature and methods of authoritarian states. It was Hyde which endowed me with a lifelong interest in that endlessly fascinating subject, and I suppose that at least in those two ways, I owe Hyde an enormous debt of gratitude.

...But back to the weight problem. Even in my last year at Hyde, where for my last six months I managed to ‘trick’ the school into not making me play sports, I began to put on weight. By graduation, I was certainly well over a 150 pounds, perhaps even 165. During the last ‘punishment-workout’ I ever had to do at Hyde, a mere two days before I graduated, I did the one thing I’d avoided in three years of extreme physical activity – I threw up.

Six months later, my wrestling coach saw me for the first time when I came back to visit. The first thing he said to me was: “Tucker!....Step on the scale!” I was 184 pounds. By the end of my freshman year I was probably 190. By the end of sophomore year, I passed the landmark I thought I’d never reach, two hundred pounds. By graduation, I was 220.

I don’t doubt that there was an enormous confluence of reasons that made me gain so much weight in so little time; everything from laziness to medication to gluttony to anxiety played its own part. Like so many college students, I was eating like there was no tomorrow, drinking like a fish, and smoking like a chimney. All the healthiness I’d gained in those three years I happily gave up for the chance to be a different person. I felt as though I had three years of my life to make up for, and if I could help it I was going to enjoy every minute of it. I can’t say that I derived enough enjoyment to justify gaining eighty-five pounds in seven years (maybe forty-five…), but at least for days at a time, I managed to dispel the crippling fear, guilt, and insecurity with which 3 years at Hyde would leave any student with a shred of humanity.

After college, I went to live in Israel; and as Israel has done for a century of Jewish kids, it boosted my health - to the best it had been since before college. I found a workout partner who became a close enough friend that we’re travelling Europe together for a month this summer. The Harris is a good four inches taller than I, yet weighed less than 130 pounds. The experience of working out with him was everything Hyde was not. He never pushed me to overexert, was always understanding when I couldn’t complete a set, and our workouts often took three hours because we’d talk for twenty minutes between each exercise. By the end of my time in Israel, I was down to 190 pounds, and could do a strenuous, hour-long workout with no break that made me feel better by the end than I did at the beginning.

But when I returned to America, I had no idea what I was doing with my life; without a job, utterly without prospects, stuck in my parents’ house in Baltimore with no sense of direction. Within a year, I’d gained another 45 pounds. At this time five years ago, I was a full 235 lbs. It is, I vow, the largest I ever will be. For normal sized people, 235 pounds is not really that fat. But when you’re 5’4 ½, 235 pounds is enormous – not quite morbidly obese, but certainly obese with a capital O. Were I a foot taller, it would be the equivalent of being well over 300 pounds.

Most of this extra weight is carried my Falstaffian gut. My physique is surprisingly well maintained in other areas, but for years I’ve had a paunch to rival any sexegenarian. A pot belly usually comes with a greater risk of heart disease, and at my largest, I had all the symptoms of heart disease at far too young an age; pain in my chest, tingling in my arm, dizziness, windedness, and constant fatigue. On the other hand, I was eating some damn good food.

I can’t help that I love food – I love all types, all flavors, from the most gourmet to the grossest fast food.  If left to my own devices, I would probably eat every minute of every day. For whatever reason, my body has very little sense of when it’s full, and I can’t understand why people would leave some food on their plate untouched. What an alcoholic is to booze, I am to food. I long since gave up cigarettes with little trouble. I could even see myself cutting out alcohol completely with little regret. But the mere thought of limiting my food intake seems like a cross too great to bear.

In the last two years, I’ve been to two cardiologists, both of whom told me that I have no heart problems whatsoever. I do, however, have rather severe heart burn, terrible back pain, a probable ulcer, and still more severe hypochondria. The last few years have been a steady stream of constant diets and inconsistent physical activity – Atkins, calorie counting, biking, and weight lifting. Today, I start the severest diet of them all – a week-long ‘detox’ diet of nothing but fruits, vegetables and six ounces of protein a day that will hopefully take the edge off some of my most extreme cravings.  For all that effort, my weight has steadily yo-yoed between 225 lbs and 200, and never below 200.

Thin people simply never understand why a person would go to such weird lengths to lose weight. Why not simply limit your food intake and consistently get exercise? Why not indeed? Fat people have been wondering why they’re incapable of following these prescriptions for good health at least as much as their thin friends. There are only two options to believe – either fat people are simply lazy, or we have a biological problem that is not easily cured. Many people, particularly many thin people, believe the former. Perhaps they're right, but my experience tells me to doubt them. Bulimia is considered a disease, yet the condition still involves the somewhat involved process of a bulimic person finding a drain in which to throw up. In the same way, even if one has a choice to stop eating, perhaps one doesn’t. Alcoholism, compulsive gambling, anorexia are all diseases that involve a free choice as much as compulsion – yet they’re still considered diseases.

One day, I will be thin again. I truly believe this. I just hope it’s before I turn 35 or 40 or whatever age it is when ailments from bad body maintenance become truly irreparable. I want to be thin, really I do. But it’s goddamn hard. Asking me to stop eating so much is asking me to amputate one of the biggest parts of myself (no pun intended). It’s almost as though can no longer imagine my life as a thin person.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

800 Words: Why Religion Always Wins - Part 4

And so we moved out of the Middle Ages. And thus ended the age when man seemed to know its place in the cosmos best of any age hence,;and with it left the certainty of mind which divided man from man in religious belief and castes. Was there room for doubt in the minds of this Gothic Age? It seems unlikely to our democratic minds that people could once be so unquestioning, yet there is scant evidence of doubt. The art of that age, the philosophy, the historical record, all point to the fact that there was only belief. The true conflict of the age, perhaps the only non-negotiable conflict, was over what belief was true: Christian vs. Islamic, Catholic vs. Orthodox, Caliph vs. Caliph, Greek Orthodox vs. Syrian Orthodox, Pope vs. Antipope. In an age of feudal chaos, belief meant order. Submission to an absolute ruler, heinous as it seems to the 21st century mind, was likely an improvement for their time on the alternative.

But once order is established in place of unremitting chaos and fear and action, then must come an age of contemplation; and from contemplation comes doubt, and from doubt comes despair.  The most considerate of people can use this forced rumination, and skepticism, and melancholy to achieve a greater self-understanding. But it’s a misnomer to believe that freedom will automatically make most people happier, there is no guarantee of happiness gained from greater knowledge. But it does endow us with the ability to pursue a bit more of our personal vision of happiness, and from this we can gain greater understanding of our world and a greater sense of responsibility for it, and even if we don't achieve happiness, we can achieve self-respect. Freedom may not make us any happier to be alive than we'd be without it, and in time may still prove itself a pyrrhic victory. But freedom certainly made us more interesting.

Nevertheless, regardless of the benefits which freedom bequeaths; many people, perhaps most, find this sense of freedom a curse beyond curses. Even when given all the freedom they could possibly have, they still retreat to the constriction of belief. Whether their dogmas are religious, or political, or cultural, many people find much greater comfort in being told what creeds to believe than to arrive at their own personal creed. They see the world as irredeemably broken, and long to return to their personal version of the Gothic Age, when certainty reigned and we all knew who we were. They look at a planet beset by doubts and see a world almost irreparably broken (though never quite all…) and look to Christianity, or Communism, or the Free Market as our savior. And even when these people are given power, the promised land never seems to arrive, no matter how many lives they ruin in the pursuit of it.

The reason? According to them, it’s because the world didn’t believe hard enough or act with sufficient purity. The irony of what they say is that in every case, they are absolutely correct. If we had a world perfectly run under the kingdom of Christ, or Mao, or the Koch Brothers, the world would then be a perfect place. The only problem with each of these beliefs is that the world is incapable of being run in any such way. People are imperfect, and every attempt to run them by the dictates of a perfect state is doomed to failure.

And once the dynastic feuds of the Early Middle Ages were resolved, and once Western Man became held under the province of a few Kings, it immediately began to see the results of this contemplation. What God would allow the Black Death to kill a third to half of Europe? If men existed under the rule of God’s anointed King and chosen Vicar in Rome, why then was He still angry enough to kill so many?

Beginning in the fourteenth century, Man was neither Medieval nor Renaissance. He lived in a world of unending violence, unbridled superstition, unmitigated greed, and still more virulent hatreds. The world, but a century before so close to achieving the Perfect Kingdom, was a mere Paradise Lost. The infections, both physical and spiritual, festered everywhere and educated people drained them by any means they knew how. Everywhere on the continent, Inquisitions tortured and burned suspected heretics. The grandchildren of absolute monarchs lost their grip on their feudal lords – who in many cases now elected their monarchs and initiated wars between themselves that lasted a century at a time. In their efforts to retain the certainty of the Late Middle Ages, rulers only succeeded in bringing back the chaos of the Early Middle Ages, perhaps with a greater vengeance than ever.

And while the character of our age remains to be seen, the spirit of the transition between Medieval and Renaissance is one which those who lived the twentieth century would find all too familiar. Even now, we can only hope that out of Auschwitz and Hiroshima has risen a new class of persons just as did out of the terrible wars of the 14th and 15th centuries. Out of the those ancient wars rose the Middle Class as we still know it, people whose support the noble class deemed essential though they were not lords themselves; a class of tradesmen, burghers, merchants, and seamen - people whose services proved too indispensable to be kept in peasant squalor and whose talents demanded remuneration.  From such people we gained modern business methods, a much greater desire for education, wider patronage of the humanities, and a discovery of a globe much larger than previously thought. The world was again full of unexplored possibilities, and suddenly a bigger, more interesting place.

What equivalent is there to these developments in our day? We have our equivalent to the printing press in the Internet, but sites like Google and Wikipedia (or their successors) may yet prove unreliable fonts of knowledge – with governments policing the dispersion of inconvenient facts as easily as they did with any previous information system. Certainly the Middle Class is larger than ever, but so is the number of people living in poverty and wage slavery. After an amazingly promising beginning, we have virtually abandoned space exploration. So many democratic revolutions end with dictatorships still more despotic than those which came before, and still we live under constant threats of meta-viruses breaking out in the general population, rising temperatures and sea levels simultaneous to dwindling icecaps and food sources. In recent years the financial system comes eerily close to a superdepression every few months, and the birthrate of the hyper-religious exceeds the birthrate of secular people by a factor of much more than 5. The world as we know it today stands on the precipice of a four-fold collapse: financial, environmental, religious skepticism, and resource. Perhaps the world has always been under such dire threats, but statistics rarely lie (no, I’m not going to quote them), and the world’s dangers have to be faced if there is any chance of overcoming them.

I don’t doubt that skeptics of their time viewed the development of the Middle Class in the years before the Renaissance with all the same apprehension in the days of the Middle Ages as we might in our own. But that does not change the fact that history does not happen until it happens, and if the world becomes a more dangerous place, we may stand on the brink of another age in which people turn to certainties as the only bulwark against utter chaos. Is our age more like the Early Middle Ages or the Late Middle Ages?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

ET Almanac


My independence, self-sufficiency, or even frivolous impudence, my taking potshots at everyone, universal provocation and exclusive reliance on myself – all of this was a result of my social and geographical situation. I was forced not to pay attention to anyone because no one paid any attention to me – I was formed in almost complete isolation – then I was crushed by the war – then I was put on the censor's index by the Communist regime – and here, in Argentina, I was deprived of even a literary cafe, of even a group of artist friends in whose bosom every gypsy, innovator, and avant-gardist can curl up in the cities of Europe. I became bold because I had absolutely nothing to lose; neither honors, nor earnings, nor friends. I had to find myself anew and rely only on myself, because I could rely on no one else. My form is my solitude.


To be nature or against it? The thought that man is contradictory to nature, something beyond and in opposition to it, will soon cease being an elitist thought. It will reach even the peasants. It will penetrate the entire human race from top to bottom. What then? When the last reserves of "naturalness" deriving from the lower strata exhaust themselves?

Yesterday evening a neighbor, Tadeusz Czerwinski, came to visit and right off began to tell us something, but we were not listening closely and his narrative took shape very slowly . . . Dus's hounds (we finally understood him to say) had run into Garanio's field and attacked a sow. Garanio had jumped out with a shotgun, killed one of the hounds and wounded another – the rest escaped. I am giving only the crux of the narration, which was rich in branches, like a tree.

Dus ran out onto the porch with a flashlight, and the golden hounds, as usual, rose at seeing him and surrounded him. But there were only five--Step and one young hound, by Saeta, were missing.

Thirteen year old Andrea burst into tears. Dus's rancor – rising like the song of Isolde – prevailed over all else. He would have exchanged his most beloved horses for Step. He had a desperate face – and this was a face that was strangely weakened, like the face of a small child — weakened perhaps by the pettiness of that despair, on account of a mere dog . . . for which he could not demand full recognition from us.

He took a revolver out of a drawer — got on a horse — and a gallop bore him away into the nice. We waited, disturbed and helpess in the face of the anger that vanished into the fields, carried off by a horse. Would he kill Garanio for killing the dog? No, it didn’t end that badly. Dus, upon arriving at Garanio’s estancia and seeing Garanio’s dogs, wanted to shoot them — but the estanciero came running out and bgan asking his forgiveness, explaining that he had acted in defense of a sow, whom the dogs would have torn to pieces. So the anger left poor Dus and only sorrow for his most faithful dog remained: Why did you do this to me? He asked. I have always been a good neighbor. He left. He began searching for the bodies in the night. He found them. It turned out that Step was still alive. Hidden in the bushes, he was dying. He was brought home on that strange sleigh that one uses here on the ground as one might elsewhere on snow.

Dus, Jacek Debicki, Miss Jeanne, and I went to the stable — there was the dog, gasping and shaking spasmodically. Council: cut short his agony? His suffering was terrifying — and he was locked in it, inaccessible to us, separate, alone.

The scene that disturbed me: night, the stable, all of us practically in the dark hovering over an unleashed, diabolical pain. We were capable of putting an end to this . . . . It would have been enough to shoot. Would we shoot? We, four human beings “from another world” a higher world, four demons from antinature, four antidogs. The only thing that joined us to this creature was our understanding of its pain—we knew the taste.

Should we put an end to the torment? A vote. But this demands a more detailed narrative.

The first antidog, Miss Jeanne. Handsome, twenty years old multi-millionaire parents, herself shuttled from Paris to Rome, from Rome to London to the States, on ships, airplanes, first-rate schools, luxurious institutes, always different, out of which she has gotten nothing except the five languages she wields like a native. Which language does she think in? Lxurious — and a Communis—because luxurious—from the excess, the surfeit . . . . Sober, energetic, spunky — modern and an atheist. Seeing her bent over the dog, I realized Communist justice, just like Catholic justice, does not include animals. Within this doctrine humanity ends with man. It forbids the exploitation of animals. Which is, let us add, incomprehensible. It is not all well and good. For if religion casts animals into the margin, as soulless, then materialism acknowledges no basic difference between this suffering matter and human mater . . . . How then will Miss Jeanne act toward the suffering dog — if her reasoned morality has nothing to say? What will she do?

She made a female of herself! Strange . . . in a wink, she undressed herself . . . not so much of her communism, but of her humanity. She suddenly changed into a female – she took refuge in her sex . . . what a sudden eruption of gender into the realm of pain, as if gender could cope somehow with the pain . . . . She became a female, that is, love, that is, pity. She bent over the dog with a mother’s tenderness. It is possible that as a female she could do more than as a human being? Or did she retreat into her sex in order to escape her own humanity?

When she became a woman, however, death seemed worse than pain to her. She began to love the dog cruelly — demanding his life even at the price of his pain. – No, no — she said, trembling. – Don’t kill him!

The second antidog from a higher human sphere, Jacek Debicki. A zealous Catholic. Yet his Catholicism is as useless here as Miss Jeanne’s communism. Nor is God a factor. There is no salvation for the dog. And hence my impression that in leaning over the dog, he was leaning away from God – he is now “face to face” with the dog and therefore not “face to face” with God. An entirely different register of existence. He is “with the dog” as if, giving up his immortal soul, he put himself on its level, identified with it in its suffering. And out of the blue an animal — rebellious and blasphemous—terror of pain mounts in him. But what do I see? I see (because I almost saw this, rather, I “knew” this) that in another register he is not getting rid of even an iota of his Roman Catholic dignity, and the terror changes into pity . . . a legalized . . . civilized . . . well brought up . . . ah, I almost forgot that God, himself ruthless to animals, allows man to pity them — so he is allowed; he even has the “approval” of the Church! But the humanity that he rediscovered in himself is not a fraternal socializing with the animal but with his own humanity, that is, with his feeling of the dog’s pain from on high — from the distance of that soul — and, what’s more, he again possesses an element of nonchalance and cruelty. The decision he makes will be dictated by three considerations: first of all, by his animal compassion, which is almost wild, spontaneous; second, by his more human and spiritualized calculation that the soulless life of a dog is not of great significance; and third (a thought even more spiritual), that one should end this ordeal — which is somewhat embarrassing to God and the soul — as soon as possible.

Kill him — he said. – He won’t make it.

The third antidog. Me. For me, there is no higher authority. Even the dog doesn’t exist. Only a piece of suffering matter writhing before me. Unbearable. I cannot stand it. Gripped by the suffering in this stable, I demand that an end be put to it. Kill him! Kill him! Stop the machine of pain! Let this not be! There is nothing else one can do, just this! But this we can do!

The fourth antidog Dus. Agronomist, landowner, a hunter, sportsman, horseman, and lover of hounds. Between him and us — a complete disharmony; he is from a different reality. He is not afraid of pain “as such,” as I am. He does not seek universal justice, like this Catholic or that Communist. He disregards abstractions, does not grasp them, does not want to. He exists among creatures of flesh and blood, he is a creature among creatures, a body among bodies. In the depths of his spirit, he does not know what equality is. He is the master. He has come to love this dog; therefore, he would, without a scruple, sentence forty million ants and ten thousand whales to suffer . . . if it would bring relief to the dog. For this creature close to him, he is ready for any sacrifice but he does not want to know everything, identify with everything, he wants to remain within the circle of his own limited feeling. He would rather not see what is beyond his gaze. And he has come to love the dog with the love of a master. He loves the dog because it adores him — he loves the canine adoration in the dog. Therefore, the egoism of the master and ruler, the aristocratic feeling born of a ruthless human superiority, all of nature exists for him, it serves him, he, subordinating to himself all inferior beings, is the dispenser of favors. And he seemed to me to the be the most “anti” of all of us – in that dark stable, leaning over the dog, the absolute king of creation, proclaiming, everything exists for me.

But perhaps this is the most consistent with nature. And if the dog could understand, he would understand him, not us!

With the delicacy of a griefstricken mother, he said: Let us wait. Perhaps he won’t die.

It is a fierce love that prolongs agony in order to save the dog – for itself.

This dramatic scene would not have been so tense and urgent if not for the wheezing of the dog, his eyes following our every move.


I met an Austrian at Pocz Oddone’s. An architect. He clamors for urban planning and rationally aesthetic, functional interiors, etc. I told him that people had more important concerns than aesthetics. I also said that an excessively subtle sense of beauty can get us into deep trouble! To explain to the average member of the middle class that his mirrored dresser, commode, and little curtains are frippery would make life altogether repugnant to him. We, in our poverty, could use a more universal skill – the discovery of beauty in everything, even in frippery.

He didn’t understand me. Conceited. European. Didactic. Educated. Modern. Architect.

Witold Gombrowicz - Diary 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Friday Playlist #19: Third Stream Music

Third Stream technically refers to the fusion of jazz with classical. It was a movement in jazz music for two seconds, but the implications of what it means are much, much broader and can be felt all across both classical and jazz music all throughout the century. The truth is that Third Stream can truly be the fusion of any popular idiom with the classical tradition. But for the purposes of this list, we’ll stick to jazz-influenced classical, and classical-influenced jazz.

According to Gunther Schuller - this is what third stream is not:

  • It is not jazz with strings.
  • It is not jazz played on 'classical' instruments.
  • It is not classical music played by jazz players.
  • It is not inserting a bit of Ravel or Schoenberg between be-bop changes—nor the reverse.
  • It is not jazz in fugal form.
  • It is not a fugue played by jazz players.
  • It is not designed to do away with jazz or classical music; it is just another option amongst many for today’s creative musicians

To this day, Scott Joplin may still be the purest example of how this works. 

From the Classical Side:

Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin

The Creation of the World by Darius Milhaud

Ebony Concerto by Igor Stravinsky (written for Woody Herman and his orchestra)

Piano Concerto in G by Maurice Ravel

Le Jazz by Bohuslav Martinu

Jazz Symphony by George Antheil

Four Piano Blues by Aaron Copland

Johnny Strikes Up by Ernest Krenek

Jazz Suites by Dimitri Shostakovich

Derivations by Morton Gould

The Age of Anxiety by Leonard Bernstein

Conversation by Gunther Schuller

The Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weill/Berthold Brecht

From the Jazz Side:

Abstractions by Charles Mingus

Django Variants by Gunther Schuller

Sketch by John Lewis

Perceptions by Dizzy Gillespie and J.J. Johnson 

Street Music by Bill Russo 

Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo/Miles Davis/Gil Evans

Blue Rondo A la Turk by Dave Brubeck

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach/Jacques Loussier

Suspensions by Jimmy Guiffre

Mood Indigo by Duke Ellington (shorter form classical influence)

Reminiscing In Tempo by Duke Ellington (longer form classical influence)

Dvorak Humoresque by Art Tatum

Interlude in B-Flat by Artie Shaw