Saturday, September 26, 2020

When Facebook Becomes Blogging

 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

To Friends Who Are Parents

What some of you now experience for the first time is the other end from what I experienced basically every day from the time I was eight until I was nineteen, and in that sense, what my parents experienced every day lo those eleven years that aged me to a lifelong fifty. So if you have seemingly impossible free minutes to humor someone who thinks his counsel might be of small benefit to you during a task that is clearly already the most daunting one in this already so daunting era, please just indulge me a few small words of advice, encouragement, warning, and hope.
The unnaturalness your children currently experience in class was already the unnaturalness of the classroom for some kids literally every day of their lives. Had my schooling just been to leave me in the Pratt Free Library every day from 5-18, maybe I could have read the entire contents, but instead I was locked into classrooms for which I had absolutely no ability to stay attentive or complete tasks, and over those years, savantish abilities the whole world assured me were so prodigious that my future at the top of whatever field I chose was assured, wore away to a hollow nothing, and any hope for a youth of bright future inhaled by a spiritual void that eventually turned to inner horror that to this day, stares me down at any moment of its choosing.
I'm almost forty. I obviously didn't have kids and I probably won't have kids of my own. In some ways I thank god for that every day. Raising kids could play to all my organizational and emotional weaknesses, and the daily sight of their struggles could be a hall of mirrors that relive all sorts of bad memories for me. But we're just two days into this school year, and so many peers of mine have grade-school kids and I'm hearing stories about their meltdowns in quarantine that feel quite familiar, as though ghosts from the 1990s are being raised.
I never rued the day I didn't have kids, but I always rued the lack of love that came with it. In my twenties, mental health had so put me to the rack that I couldn't help but make a de facto assumption that I was quite literally unloveable. I watched as one good friend after another found love, found meaning and mission, and amid all the frustrations of living, found joy.
I'm not telling you anything you haven't figured out already, but your joy is about to be as sorely tested as it has ever been in your lifetimes. I know that because I lived it for a decade as a kid with some of the most agonizing disabilities on earth, disabilities that only seared their lifelong impact into my mind so much more because they seemed to come from a person who had so much ability that everybody sometimes assumed he was faking it and his inabilities came in part from a lack of character.
In the next year or so, the parenting is the job, just as it was for my parents. You will watch as the kids you thought you knew become unrecognizable from hourly agonizing frustrations, and their agony will be your agony. This all will continue, and it won't get easier. Your kids will melt down many times, and all but the saints among you will melt down many times on your kids. There will be times when they blame you for their failures, and there will even be times when you blame them. Many will be the times you both doubt each other's good intentions, and you will even doubt each other's love. There will be a museum of regrettable phrases said over the next year which everyone will remember forever. And at some point, many of you and many of your children will lose control in ways you'd have previously found unforgivable. All it takes is hearing and reading couple stories about zoom schooling to see almost identical similarities to my own childhood. Every previous familial assumption, every fabric, every bond, is going to be tested to the existential marrow. However much you've braced yourselves already, brace yourselves more.
People shouldn't lie to you, the consequences of moments like these are lifelong. Most of your kids will develop all kinds of skills you neither thought they'd acquire nor have to acquire from a moment like this, but it will probably leave them with a lifelong anxieties - not medical DSM anxieties, though no one tragically doubts that lifelong mental malady can be forged in moments like this, but rather anxieties about what can happen, what will happen, what should happen. No matter what's going on in your houses right now, they know as well as you do that something is very, very rotten. They not only are struggling, but they see how their parents are struggling, and they see how their parents are struggling on their behalf, which only makes them feel the need to struggle more, and they realize that if their parents who love them so much cannot make the world right for them, then something about the world must be very very wrong. The majority of these kids will live well into the twenty-second century (and they will), but all of them know now what kids like me could only intuit. That there are a lot of people out there who claim to have their good interests at heart who really, really don't. They don't take education seriously, they don't take providing for the future seriously, and they leave people with good intentions in the lurch for their own self-indulgence.
Then as now, I was a knowitall little shit. At ten years old, I couldn't tie my own shoes and it took me ninety minutes to figure out ten long-division problems even though I knew how to solve algebra problems when I was three. I didn't really believe that most of my teachers or schools had my best interests at heart, and I don't even believe it much today, but because I was that knowitall little shit - installed with a lifelong belief that I was smarter than everybody from the time I was three, I made sure to know exactly what was going on in the world, if only so I could find people whom I could blame and start figuring out in my child-like way how to fix things. I could name all the Presidents by the time I was six, all the kings of England from Henry VIII to the present day by the time I was seven or eight (we can thank that Almanac lying around my parents house...), I had most of the Bush and Clinton cabinets memorized, I knew the names of every major world leader and every major new head of state, and believe it or not, I made sure to know every major politician's positions on the issues, present and past. Kids are information sponges, and whether the subject is sports or music, if they develop passions for a subject, they will learn literally everything about it. And if kids were information sponges, I was a leechy parasite of information who knew more than most of his teachers, yet had a loathesome lack of ability to translate such obvious gifts to the classroom.
I am positive that the one thing kids can learn right now with no trouble at all is history, because they are living it every day, and they will want to know why they are living through what they are. So much of the reason we are here is because Americans do not learn about history, we do not know it, we do not care about it, and we are often called 'The Land Without History.' What little effort we give to history is either learned through sanitized traditional right-wing mythologies that have so little to do with the actual experience, or with a giant left-wing mountain of theoretical academic editorializing which makes blanket assumptions that the lifelong work of centuries of historians was done in bad faith. Neither points of view are at all true, and yet both the traditional myths and all the revisionisms are simultaneously absolutely true.
The one thing that adults can understand (yet usually don't), that kids never can understand is that two self-contradictory truths can simultaneously be completely true: The original settlers of this country were both escaping religious persecution and also intent on founding persecutory states of their own. The founders of this country were unquestionable heroes of moral vision and courage and simultaneously villainous hypocrites who turned a blind eye to suffering of millions that would impact them deleteriously to alleviate. The pioneers who settled this continent were people of enormous bravery and suffering who gave everything of themselves for their families and descendants to have better lives than them; and simultaneously brutal killers, enslavers, violators and desecrators, either complicit in all manner of injustice or enforcers of that injustice. American wars of the last century were simultaneously efforts to make the world a freer, fairer, more prosperous place, and simultaneously an effort to establish American dominion over the entire world in all but name. And now, your children's parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are people who love and loved you and thought we were providing a better future for you, but we were too satisfied by that potential future of infinite prosperity to notice that the prosperity was eroding the future of the entire world, and by the time we noticed, we had no choice but to leave you the most unfair struggle in world history since the generations born into World Wars.
Kids may not be able to understand how people can simultaneously be good and evil yet, but they can be taught both visions of American history, and even if they come to favor one over the other, when they live long enough god willing, they eventually come to realize that the nature of human beings is unreliable, and what each of us thinks is a good cause or an evil one is often not rightly ascribed and always seems to be changing.
So no, whatever you previously thought of as feeling 'whole' is not in your future nor in your children's. It is not in your future because it is so clearly not in the country's future. History is knocking and history accepts a locked door no more than Stalin did.
But families, now more than ever before in American history, are what we have. In these dark days and darker days to come, you may not always feel love, or trust, or appreciation for your closest dear ones, but in particularly those moments more than ever otherwise, blood really does become so very much thicker than water. You will love each other again, you will trust each other again, you will appreciate each other again, and you will even appreciate and love each other's company again, but the point of family is not even love, the point of family is survival itself, and the ability for one generation to live on to create the next, which creates the generation after that, and the generation after that, because all that truly matters is that the future is assured, because that itself is the ultimate act of love.
Families, real families, bonded families, are not the ones in which everything goes right. A family where everything goes right is a family that can pursue its bliss elsewhere and has no reason to stay in close touch. The real families are the ones in which everything goes wrong, and yet they still endure. One foot in front of the other, every minute of every day for generation after generation - the continuity of life itself being the great testament to their love. I don't need to recount, yet again, what my family endured in Europe to survive, my own smallish struggle is example enough of how difficult life can get without bringing genocide or even poverty into it, both of which may yet come for us soon enough. But the joy in living does not come without meaning and mission, and since your kids surely give you meaning, you know what your mission is.
You will know joy again, you will know satisfaction again, but joy grows different with every new experience, and every emotion we feel is a map of all our experiences until that moment. The idea that in our generation, raising children would get easier, or that family bonds would grow weaker, that's all over now. One day, when your kids graduate their schools, when they get their degrees, when they get married, when they have kids of their own with all the frustrations you experienced, you will experience all the joy that you thought these events might never afford you in eras when they meant so much less, and you'll feel that joy precisely because getting your kids to that point was very fucking difficult. You will love the closest people in your life more because of the struggles you underwent together, not less, and that you will give you a joy in living that you never thought possible before.
Good luck friends, to you and your kids, and along the way, you will have good luck.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

When Facebook Becomes Blogging

 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 Facebook Becomes Blogging

 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.

My only point is this - just as sometimes yesterday's liberals are today's conservatives, sometimes today's moderates are tomorrow's progressives. You write off the center at your peril, because one day, the center may be to the left of you.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Underrated Classical Musicians: Ignaz Friedman

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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.

But after that music was written, it took an entire lifetime to figure out the best way to perform it. Before the generation of Hofmann, Rachmaninov, Friedman, Cortot, Schnabel, Gieseking, Landowska, Hess, Godowsky, Backhaus, Horszowski, Lhevinne, Gabrillowitsch, Levitzki, Moisewitsch, and early Rubinstein and Kempff, the piano was such a different instrument. As many people played the piano in the 19th century as played the guitar during the last sixty years. And since the piano was such a direct experience, nobody expected pianists to get every note right any more than they expected rock or even jazz singers to sing with good vocal production. What mattered was individuality, personality, attitude, charisma. At its worst, like rock at its worst, it must have been a purely cosmetic experience, much more about attitude and lifestyle than music: long hair, choreographed movements to mimic passion, rewarding blatant effects over creativity. But surely there were truly great nineteenth century pianists, and if anything, if you listen to the extreme passion of Eugen d'Albert and Frederic Lamond in Beethoven, I have to imagine the late 19th century Beethoven performance you got from Liszt, Rubinstein, Bulow, Tausig, d'Albert in his prime, etc. was even better than whomever else is in your personal pantheon (for Beethoven: Schnabel, Gulda, Richter, Kovacevich, Hess, and Gieseking - my Beethoven needs animal passion).
But there was, of course, a sweet spot, a golden generation, born to 19th century culture and all the idiomatic secrets of its culture and style, but sufficiently distanced from the sloppy rock-idol pianism of Paderewski to understand its demerits. The ego of former perfomers was gone, with emphasis placed squarely on the composer, but after them began a slow but steady fetishization of technical accuracy and score fidelity.
There is no composer who so belongs to the values we commonly think of as the 19th century's exclusive property as Chopin. He is entirely great, but do not go to Chopin expecting insights greater than a motion capture those primary emotions of the heart with 100% accuracy. His music, even at its most dramatic, is the values of the 19th century bourgeois personified. His evocations of war, like in the Heroic and Military Polonaises, look forward to battle with overwhelming excitement. His evocations of death, as in the famous funeral march, are the grandeur of state death, not the tragedies of ordinary people. Those trying to locate a greater eschatology in Chopin will only come up with air.
Even the greatest pianists who truly belong to the 20th century don't really know what to do with him - Richter and Gilels, with the tragedies of their era baked into their playing, can only offer Chopin distended, Arrau and Barenboim, with their Mann-and-Heidegger like metaphysical speculations, bring Chopin to a loftiness for which Chopin has no use, Pollini and Ashkenazy, with their scientific accuracy and literalism, simultaneously impress and make you wonder why you're listening. Like the Beatles, Chopin is truly great, but he is folk music for the bourgeois, and he requires pianists who can play as spontaneously as a folk musician - neither literally what's on the page nor an imposed concept, simply using one's personality to play the music simply, and letting it speak.
No one played Chopin better than the Poles of exactly a hundred years ago: Hofmann, Rubinstein, Horszowski, and Friedman.
Hofmann has been relegated to the background of piano history, but Friedman has been virtually forgotten by all but piano nuts. He is not quite as awe-inspiring as Hofmann (nobody is nor ever could be). He is slightly more spontaneous and romantic, but next to Hofmann, I doubt there's ever been a better Chopin player - including Rubinstein. It's not just the nimbleness of the finger work, or the spontaneity of the rhythms and the dynamic extremes, it's the general esprit and elan, which if anything, is much warmer than Hofmann, who seems more god than man. It is not just naturalness and idiom, and not just technique and intelligence, it is the ability to let Chopin be Chopin and communicate from the heart to the heart.

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Monday, September 14, 2020

When Facebook Becomes Blogging

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

The Artistic Non-Season

 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?

This is not priority 1, it may not even be priority 100, in no way is the shutting down of the arts in America or even the world a political issue on par with coronavirus or global warming or potential war with China or Russia, but I refuse to feel bad about feeling bad about it.
America always took religion very seriously, and the arts was the best way the world ever came up with of pacifying the religious urge. The country clearly takes science very seriously, but whether people were of the right or left, embracing the wrong kind of science destroyed millions. And there's nothing America takes more seriously these days than politics, and how's that working out for us?....
Current America's a country that exists not just at political extremes, but at intellectual extremes. Americans seem to be completely in thrall either to the rationality of applied science, or in the irrationality of applied religion, and even after so much disappointment in the last generation, and in spite of a mountain of evidence forming in front of us to the contrary, the entirety of America still believes that through political solutions, once our point of view gains in power and influence, we can turn our dogmas into political solutions and make life better for everyone. And yet the more we believe in political transformations, the more distant seems the possibility enacting any political solutions.
If the last five years have proven anything, it's this: life does not get better. One way or another, it is meant to be failed. Whatever the details, it is meant to be a struggle, constant disappointment, constant anxiety, with long term hopes ultimately dashed, and every victory should be celebrated to the ends of time, because all victories are stolen from the jaws of defeat, and defeat is what awaits 99% of us far more than 50% of the time.
So the one intellectual pursuit that we, particularly as Americans, don't take seriously is those transitional humanitarian, metaphysical thoughts in the space between science and religion, eternally facing politics like an oppositional force. If we took the arts and the humanities seriously, we'd realize what artists have been telling us for thousands of years, that what gives life meaning is a series of conflicts, questions, goals, and longings, the vast majority of which are unresolvable, unanswerable, unrealizable, and unfulfillable. To believe that is directly in contradiction with the entire American ethos, and no matter what our political orientation, no matter whether we believe that America is (or was) great merely by virtue of being America, or whether we believe that America was never great, there is not a single part of the American political spectrum that isn't acting like stereotypical Americans who believe that with enough goshdarn effort, we can create the society we want. It's clear that our country can only let go of that notion with the greatest of difficulty, and it may take a price even now unfathomable to contemplation for us to learn the lies within that ethos.
The arts are supposed to be challenging, but the challenge is not necessarily inherent in its intellectual content or even its political content. A necessary work tells you what you don't want to hear. Today's generation of up and coming artists is absolutely correct that recently we've done a far too lacking job of afflicting the comfortable and that art could, perhaps should, have far more subversive political messages, but it goes the other way too. One of the most challenging messages of all in so much great work is that whatever our heart's fondest wishes, we will never achieve them, and we may be punished for pursuing them. Lear never sees peace again after he relinquishes the throne, Oedipus discovers the worst possible truth because he sought to alleviate his people's suffering, Anna Karenina never knows happiness again because followed her heart, Don Quixote can only feel fulfilled by going insane, Satan can only be happy by embracing his hellish role, Tristan and Isolde can only consummate their love through death, and Moses never reaches the Promised Land. Hell, the price for getting rid of the Lannisters was allowing Daenerys to sack King's Landing and burn it to a crisp.
We have our great arts in America, mostly popular arts, and the popular arts are great for all sorts of reasons and features. But they're popular for a reason, and that reason is not that they're not as sophisticated or as smart, or that the people who consume them hungrily are in any sense intellectually or morally lacking. All of that is self-evidently false, but the reason popular arts are popular is because the vast majority of the time, they ultimately give the audience what they want. Happy endings, well defined heroes and villains, short melodies. Obviously, that's beginning to change in recent decades, when superheroes turn into watchmen, and TV protagonists into madmen. But in a democratic society, so long as only a small minority consuming that kind of stuff against the vast majority still chasing unadulterated popularity, the American population is not learning much about life's ambiguities, and they're going to believe that the world rewards populism.
The only solution is, somehow, and I obviously don't know how, for more people to spend more of their time taking the humanities seriously. Not just to spend their time in political advocacy as so many millions of Americans do on social media these days, but in intellectual advocacy that grounds what they believe about how to practically make the world better. And that means not just reading the few writers who conform to what you already believe, but reading all sorts of writers who challenge you and make you mad. Reading fiction outside our preferred genre, reading political philosophy that isn't just the flavor of the moment, or god forbid, reading poetry, or god really forbid, reading conservative political commentary... Not just listening to the music that confirms to your niche or scene, but music that is very far afield from your cultural comfort zone - perhaps Fela Kuti and Um Khulthum on one side, Frank Sinatra and Ted Nugent on the other, and Bach and Ligeti on a third, literally entering the headspaces of people who believe completely different things about the world than you believe. Not just going to the theater for more Marvel and Star Wars, but finding the littlest known independent films, foreign movies, and documentaries that can barely get a showing in any theater, and god forbid, maybe showing up occasionally to a classics revival.
Some people would read this, if they're reading it at all, and call a steaming pile of bullshit: this has no conceivable impact on our lives! You're not going to be a better person because you listen or watch all this stuff! And the answer to that is, of course you're not going to be any better, but you're going to be more thoughtful, more skeptical, less easily swayed, because you're no longer in the positivist world of applied science. You're now in the humanities, where everything is vague, ambiguous, and contemplative, and while you're busy contemplating the world rather than acting, the practical world is left to be run by policy makers who have been studying their fields their whole lives rather than demagogic ideologues who so easily exploit people who believe in their politics with quasi-religious faith because their views are uninhibited by deep study except in texts approved by their movements. That's what it means to think freely, and that's also what it means to maintain a society where the population has the knowledge to not let the whole thing come crumbling down.
Over the internet years, the idea that people should be free to like what they like gained enormous traction. Back in the day, 'there's no such thing as artistic quality,' no such question as 'what is great art', occasionally you could even read there's no such thing as poetics, there's only the quasi-anthropological question of why people like what they like.' But after all that talk of artistic libertarianism, the populist internet idea: 'don't yuck people's yum' couldn't even be sustained for more than fifteen years before the very people who advocated for it rebelled against it, and replaced it by the idea that many cultural products people like are politically problematic at best. 'Don't yuck people's yum' is the artistic equivalent to libertarianism. The world of problematics and content warnings is a new form of artistic conservatism, and as with other forms of conservatism, it can have its place if truly used with the best intentions. But the humanitarian equivalent to liberalism is the world of cultural exploration, and this year, so much of the way the world explores the arts will not exist at all, and may never exist again. If people had patronized it enough in the past, there might have been enough money in the tank to guarantee things keep going, but now they all may die, people will never know what they're missing, and many more people may die with these artistic organizations which, believe it or not, might have saved them.

Friday, September 11, 2020

9/11 in the Coronavirus Era

September 11th had a mystical significance in my family even before the famed attack. On September 11th, 1985, my grandfather, Zaydie Witow, husband to the 'famed' Bubbie, passed away after a long career as an electrical and missile engineer at the Pentagon who worked on foundational designs for the smart bomb, radar, ICBM's, and Arpanet. He began his life the oldest son of a strident communist, he ended his life part of the original generation of neoconservatives, the Richard Nixon generation of lower class strivers who grew to maturity during the Great Depression, and grew to prosperity through a mixture of hard work, national sacrifice, the GI Bill, the highest and most wealth redistributive tax rates in American history, and most importantly, a period of American Gross Domestic Product without precedent or successor, when America was the one world power whose economic capabilities were unbridled by world war and untouched by bombs, and therefore held in its hands more than half the world's manufacturing and purchasing power.
Today, we look at a story like my grandfather's and it's impossible not to notice the legs up he had, but the lesson Zaydie took from it was that America was the land of unbridled opportunity. His parents fled the Czarist tyranny of Russia only for aristocratic tyranny to sumersault into a demotic, Marxist tyranny of the masses, and like so many men of his generation, he spent the best years of his youth fighting against still another, third tyrannical vision of human destiny, whose fondest wish was to consign Jews like him and his grandchildren to oven stacks. When the twentieth century gave so many examples of how attempts to control human destiny resulted in a slippery slope to still worse tyranny, who can be surprised when tens of millions of politically active Americans determined that the best hope for the world is not only an America with the smallest possible government, but an America whose government's highest priority is to use their resources to promote limited government throughout the world?
American history seems to have accelerated so exponentially from my generation's childhoods. Over and over again as we were gradually formed into sentience, we heard from our parents' generation: "You're too young to understand how big a deal this is, but we never thought this day would come and now you all have a brighter future than we ever did." We heard that at the fall of the Berlin Wall and its consequential fall of Communism, we heard that at the peace agreements between Israelis and Palestinians and again at the agreements between Israelis and Jordanians, we heard that at the cessation of Northern Irish hostility. The only people who didn't believe it all were conservatives like my grandfather and his son, leftists like the people they so loathed, and a very particular sub-demographic of pessimistic, cynical liberals like my father, and eventually like me.
But no matter how cynical you are, and no matter how politically dogmatic of the right or of the left, 9/11 was a shock. It was not just the spectacle of it, though the spectacle only emphasized how horrific it was, it was also the human cost of it, which was objectively enormous. It may have seemed more enormous than it was to our generation of Americans, unaccustomed to the death tolls of mass tragedy as perhaps no one in the world has ever been, but even in absolute terms, the tragedy of 9/11 was breathtaking even for an average day in 1945 Dresden or Tokyo. and those who didn't experience it can't possibly remember what it was like for that brief moment when it seemed as though the attacks were only the beginning of a long series of attacks for which 9/11 was hardly guaranteed to be the largest. Nobody knew what was in store for any sporting event, any public square, any airplane, any public transit, even any city. We all spoke as though a nuclear or chemical or biological attack was simply the next inevitability, and some American city would simply disappear from the map along with everyone in it.
It may have seemed during the 1990s as though History was over, but it was just a brief ten year lull, and since then, with Iraq, with the Great Recession, with the election of Trump, with COVID-19, with whatever crises will yet come in COVID's wake, with the slow but spectacular unwinding of Global Warming, 9/11 is still an overwhelming tragedy, but it's just another major American tragedy for a country whose history could, until recently, be interpreted as riotously un-tragic. Not un-tragic because America has never experienced tragedy of course, but because the tragedies seemed to be spooling out at lesser and lesser rates. Perhaps people have to be forgiven for thinking until recently that America was gradually getting better, and that America could consequently lead the world into a better era. But 9/11 was just the first of a long series of unambiguously bad events in the American story happening in absurdly quick succession, which is probably the precise impact Osama bin-Laden wished to have in however infrequently his most realistic and rational moments came upon him.
The spectacle of 9/11 was not a major historical event in itself, it was, rather, a spectacular heraldry of a new era of American history, and therefore world history, announcing that this seemingly blessed and unbothered country, invincible to all evidence in spite of its lack of willpower to see its projects through, its lack of curiosity about other peoples and their beliefs, its lack of self-awareness about how willing the world was to listen to its evangelizing for its way of life when it failed to practice its preachings so often and spectacularly, is in fact exactly as vulnerable as any country should be who is this lazy, this hypocritical, this supercilious, this ignorant of reality.
And now America exists in an era when excess casualty statistics seem to demonstrate that as many as three 9/11's seem to happen every single week. Go on twitter or facebook if you dare, and look at how leftists are positively crowing right now about the triviality of 9/11 in the face of coronavirus. And I can't deny it, the truth is, they're almost absolutely right. Compared to the mass death that's everywhere we look, 9/11 was a brief and spectacular orgy of lethality, but the consequences were mostly over the day after they began, unless one counts the Iraq invasion as happening under 9/11 consequence, and of course, there's a lot of evidence to show that the Bush Administration would have found a reason to go into Iraq anyway...
But history is the deadliest joker on Earth, and just as coronavirus both dwarfs 9/11, and also the very election of Trump can be seen as a direct correlation of consequence from the Republican party's authoritarian mobilzation that happened after 9/11, the consequences of coronavirus and the mass violence it unleashes could then dwarf coronavirus itself. Conservatives have rightly been shamed and held to contempt for trying to minimize coronavirus and making it seem as though this is just a consequence of living in the world. But in 2002, a large part of what once won moderates over to conservative causes was when progressives and leftists made precisely the same points about terrorism. Terrorism prevention and public health are both essential requirements in the battle against premature death, and people who minimize the importance of either are pro-death.
Nobody knows yet what's coming in the wake of coronavirus, in the wake of the 2020 elections' results, in the wake of increased Global Warming and all its meteorological terrors, and nobody knows what belligerence might be provoked in Russia or China against an administration who takes the threats they pose to us seriously. But who can doubt at this point that something is coming, and that after months, perhaps years of staying inside and letting destructive thoughts percolate to a boil, violence not unlike 9/11, perhaps quite like 9/11, and perhaps quite a bit worse than 9/11, could in fact be visited on us, and when that happens, all the security precautions which leftists refused to take seriously last time will become matters of much greater necessity than they ever were in the 2000s, and everybody who didn't give money to Warren or Sanders this year will hold left feet to the fire for reasons that may be counterproductive to mention right now, and with much more reason this time?
We are all prisoners of our perceptions, and can only perceive the ways of the world through our experiences, and even in the same place, even in the same family, the experiences of one generation seem to exist on another planet from the experiences of a different generation. Zaydie was a man of the Nixon and Reagan generation, while the most prominent spokesperson for my mini-generation thus far seems to be Pete Buttigieg, while younger more woke peers seem to be of the generations of AOC and Greta Thunberg. It goes without saying, everyone has their reasons, and everyone thinks they're right. The great tragedy of the world is not due to conflicts of right vs. wrong, but of right vs. right. Lots of people come to all sorts of conclusions in bad faith, but one of the deadliest mistakes in the world is to suspect that people who come to a different conclusion came to it in faith any less good than your own. This is the 'sin' of 'monism', which Isaiah Berlin, my favorite political thinker, defines as these three fallacious points:
1. All genuine questions must have a true answer, and one only; all other responses are errors.
2. There must be a dependable path to discovering the true answer to a question, which is in principle knowable, even if currently unknown.
3. The true answers, when found, will be compatible with one another, forming a single whole; for one truth cannot be incompatible with another. (This, in turn, is based on the assumption that the universe is harmonious and coherent.)
America may seem to many residents like the worst place on earth right now, and compared to the future we still thought we'd have until recently, things are pretty goddamn bad. But compared to what may come, this may yet still seem a golden age, and no matter what our political orientation, what best guarantees the worst possible future is the belief that our side of the argument has the true answer. Nobody but an American has ever been raised to believe that the world is or should be harmonious or coherent, and once we get into our thick skulls that anything more than chaos is a fundamental right of living in the world, the sooner we can be chastened by tragedy into building some corner of that harmonious, coherent universe that even after the last twenty years, we still assume is the way the universe operates.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Proms

 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

Second Love

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

Intrusive Thoughts


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.

It began at what America used to call a 'school for truants.' As an adolescent I was already far gone quite, even in late childhood beset from depressions and anxieties, unremitting agony complete with an absence of all good feeling in my chest that felt physical. The slightest provocation would stimulate violent outbursts, followed by still more depressed remorse. I was almost certain that making it to 38 was an impossibility, and I'm sure the thought occurred to my family as well.

The boarding school was a place for badly behaved teenagers, whose animating philosophy was that a person's character was responsible for their actions. They were therefore in control of their actions, and any amount of mental and physical pressure was justified in the pursuit of behavioral reform. It was the kind of place that poured gasoline on mental fires, and what until then was merely agonizing depression became full-blown lifelong psychoses.

In my twenties, I nursed a terrible psychotic illness, and developed a tendency to confess everything else about what I was feeling so as to hide a shameful yet egoistic conceit that I was literally speaking to God all day every day and God was answering back. It was He who breathed life into every decision I made, and threatened retribution most terrible if I contravened laws he would make for me moment to moment. To this day, I have some sort of obsessive voice threatening punishment for all decisions I make that contravene it. I try not to listen, but the voice speaks to me all the time - often sending me signs, basing decisions on a value system of numbers, letters, and even colors. During college, I would have full blown visions of angels and demons, and it goes without saying that however merciful angels were when they consoled me, they were quite severe in their judgements.

Those particular voices and images quieted somewhat in my thirties, but they come to me with each decision I make, and every choice I make over the course of the day is never entirely my own.

But terrific agonies such as those are fully replaced now by obsessive thoughts, thoughts of past and present, thoughts of every sin I ever may have committed, and many which I may not have committed yet with details which, if they haven't, come fabricated fully within my head, detail by detail, along with interpretations of what people may think of me and my actions in the recent past that are of the most severe judgement, and cause in me the most severe of panic. These details could not come more abruptly, without warning, and with moral judgement so draconian I cannot help but often think myself deserving of being known to everyone as the most reprehensible creature on earth.

In recent years, the inner horror has been so dreadful that headaches have become more and more frequent. Numbness on the side of my face and all throughout my body with a feeling of a drooping mouth, a headache two weeks ago that circumambulated the whole head, and markedly increased day-to-day difficulty with spelling, remembering words, remembering what I was talking about, and all that accompanied of course by the further fear that my days are now numbered.

I will be seeing a neurologist next week, and am going in this week for both an MRI and an ultra-sound on my liver. Blood results show that my ast and alt levels are very high, my Vitamin D is low, and of course, very high cholesterol for a 200 pound, 5'4 and a half frame in its late 30s, itself probably caused by anti-psychotic medication I've had to take for over a decade that is only semi-successful. It is probably not a brain tumor or anything of the like, but if it is, who could doubt it is not ultimately the result of a brain already beset by so much illness?

It is a terribly insidious form of OCD, yesterday I tried to count all the intrusive thoughts I had, and I gave up when it numbered nearly fifty over the course of barely more than an hour.

This should be the greatest month of my life: I am relatively flush with success in work and love as never before, and yet the success only increases my fears. I can only hope, as my therapist does, that the success will bring me greater confidence, but with greater success comes greater chance for failure and humiliation. I earnestly hope to hope, and one of the many purposes of a daily podcast is in some ways more personal, a diary of hope's glimmers against overwhelming fears.

There is only one thing which has reliably saved me over all other options and therapies the years, and that is writing. And therefore, I shall write all the more in its face.

See you tomorrow, dear listener.