Friday, December 19, 2008

on principles and torture

In recognition of my legal and political laymanship, let me defer to others the discussion of the necessity and likelihood of prosecuting top administration officials for their participation in the war crime of torture – about which I see my feelings are well represented – and confine discussion to semantics (sigh) and human integrity (yay!), specifically regarding the concept of “Principles.”

An old friend and I used to argue about “principles” – he surprisingly in favor of them; me, maybe not so surprisingly, against. For fear of misrepresenting his position, I won’t try, but one can imagine. My position at the time was that more often than not, a person’s “principles” marked the boundary at which they have basically stopped thinking about a given topic, its potential consequences or the emerging contingencies the world might have in store. Having recognized that abortions, say, or raising taxes, or infidelity violates one’s principles, one is freed from having to consider any of the myriad circumstances, evolving technologies, or crises that might naturally cause one to reconsider that position. As such, and according to my argument, a ‘principle’ was a kind of license to be stupid, to be stubborn, to confer to others (the reverend, the judge, the pundit) the burden of having to think a topic through in the real world. (“I subscribe to the principles of the Levin diet” is another way of saying, ‘I have no idea what I’m eating or why, but Dr. Levin seems both smart and slender.”)

I think there’s still something to that. What my formulation lacked, however, was a clear recognition of why principles should have to be invoked in the first place. We don’t invoke principles in order to be stupid, after all. We invoke them first and foremost out of recognition of the temptation to violate them. No one says, “I am principally opposed to eating ear wax,” since it’s hard to imagine a circumstance in which one would ever want to. Rather, the sorts of things to which we find ourselves principally opposed are: the death penalty, infidelity, and torture. Why? Because in each case we can see the temptation. My own “principled” opposition to the death penalty, as such, is founded upon not one, but two essential ingredients: 1. the clear recognition that it is barbaric for a nation to murder its own citizens; and 2. the equally clear recognition that in certain circumstances it would be very tempting to do so. It is only when I recognize 2, the temptation, that I make it a principle never to succumb to it, and I do this for the very reason that I as a younger man so astutely pointed out: so that I don’t have to think about it and further tempt myself with crafty rationalizations; so that when the prospect of the death penalty, or torture, comes up, I can say, ‘No, this one is literally a no-brainer. I get to not have to even consider this one, as it represents a violation of my core principles. I simply do not do that, or sanction that, because I know that if I do, I cease to be myself, or the person I thought I was.’

In that context, we do well to remind ourselves that we are a nation founded not on ancestral property claims, ethnicity, culture, tradition or creed, but on a certain set of non-reducible principles, each one of which stands, like all principles everywhere, as a monument to the temptation to violate its own self.

The fact that so many of these core principles (habeas corpus, protections against warrantless search and seizure, torture, etc) were tossed aside, or redefined, in the wake of 9/11, and all precisely because of the special problem posed by terrorism, demonstrates – if nothing else – that the men and women responsible for such policies are not people of principle, which is only worth pointing out because a) they are Americans and should, as such, be bound by certain principles, and b) because they and their constituency have spent the last generation beating their chests about the inviolability of their values and berating the rest of us for having none, and for having forgotten the difference between right and wrong because we’re such a bunch of “moral relativists.” Ironic, but not surprising, then, to find that Dick “the ticking-time-bomb” Cheney should turn out to be the most powerful overt, practicing, and preaching moral relativist in the history of the country.

Granted, that’s not a newsflash. Pointing out that the champions of American torture also happen to be a bunch of hypocrites is a little bit like saying Hitler smoked cigarettes. More valuable would be recognizing that most of the anti-torture crowd, and those who would like to see the likes of Cheney prosecuted, are in fact standing on principle. True, there are vindictive, self-interested and practical elements to their arguments as well – no one knows for certain whether torture is even a particularly effective means for intelligence gathering, after all, or whether in the long run it does more harm than good, and one should remember that the Geneva Conventions were conceived primarily for the safety and well-being of our troops. Still and for the most part, those who oppose torture as an official policy of state, and who seek accountability for those who crafted such a policy, do so out of recognition of its appeal. We, all of us, know very well the compelling arguments and rationales that exist for torturing a would-be terrorist, just as we recognize that we ourselves might be tempted, in certain carefully crafted scenarios, to engage in such activity -- “for the good of the many.” That is exactly why we are forced to make it a principle to oppose torture, any torture, anywhere, for any reason: because we do not want to be tempted, because we know that if we violate such principles, or allow them to be violated in our name, we immediately cease to be the people, or the nation, we thought we were. Ipso Facto, we have lost the “war.”

Friday, December 12, 2008

Musical suggestion #4 - Byron Janis

This is another which would fall under the category of resolving the problem of glut. Prokofiev’s Third is among the most popular of piano concertos, and is assured of being so for the foreseeable future by dint of the fact that it is, among other things, a competition perennial. It poses challenges that a young pianist would, and should, want to surmount, and so they all have it in their repertoire, and so we hear it a lot. In certain circles, the piece is resented for this very reason, as it is so often treated like a kind of steeplechase, which it is, but the grudgingness of such respect overlooks the fact that in addition to being a challenging piece, it is also chock full of terrifically distinctive lyrical melodies, ideas, jokes and jewels. It just keeps coming at you with ideas and surprises and runs and riffs and gorgeous melodies. Richter referred to Prokofiev’s eighth sonata as being “a tree laden with fruit.” The same could be said of the third.

For all these reasons, there are a ton of serviceable versions out there. (Oddly enough, there is no Richter account.) I get the sense that maybe Martha Argerich is given the edge as an interpreter, but let me cast my vote here for Byron Janis.

Janis is an American pianist who peaked in popularity in the 60s and whose career was curtailed for a time by arthritis. (He is also, for those who might be interested, husband of Gary Cooper’s daughter, but sadly no relation to Conrad Janis, Mindy’s Boss on Mork and Mindy, despite the fact that Conrad Janis apparently plays a pretty mean trombone.) He has in recent years overcome his arthritis, enough at least to mount a comeback, issuing recording of not quite so physically demanding Chopin pieces.

In 1960, Janis made a trip to the Soviet Union of which this album (which includes an account of Rach’s 2nd) is the lasting fruit. The crowds loved him, stormed the stage, and when the dust and flowers all cleared recorded his version there in Moscow, with the Moscow Philharmoic under the direction of Kryril Kondrashin.

There are a couple reasons why I would recommend this above all the rest.

First, Janis. In comparison to most other versions, I’d say his tempi are just a teeny bit on the slow side – or to put another way, every one else’ tempi (such as Argerich, and Prokofiev himself) are wee bit fast for the reason already mentioned: pianists feeling obliged to prove their chops with speed. Janis (like the also highly recommendable Grigory Sokolov) draws down on speed, but only so that he can hit a little harder. If this is not the fleetest Third on record, it winds up being one of the more percussive and clear. It is a full throttle attack. There is no smudging, as result of which there are moment, and passages, that come through with a clarity I’ve never really heard elsewhere.

To name the most outstanding instance. About ten minutes into the second movement, a Theme with Variations, Prokofiev comes to what is probably his fifth crack at the melody in question. What Janis and Kondrashin decide to do, precisely by slowing it down,yields what is without question one of the downright funkiest passages is the classical catalogue. If you don’t find yourself actually bobbing and weaving to the downbeat syncopation of the 30 or so seconds at question, you, my friend, do not have a neck

The other glaring virtue of this particular recording is the quality of sound. This is one of those “Mercury Living Presence” recordings, of which there are a limited number. I’m no engineer. I won’t pretend to know exactly why the Mercury Living Presence Recording sound the way they do. It has something to do with the quality of the microphones, (microphones being one piece of hardware that has apparently gotten worse in the last fifty years, not better) – and with how they were placed around the orchestra, and with the fact that the orchestra was playing, more or less live, not all clipped together like Frankenstein’s monster.

Whatever the cause, the effect is extraordinary. I venture to say that on the basis of sound alone, all MLP recordings are (as they say) self-recommending, but the other one that I would recommend would be the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. Like the Prokofiev, it positively blooms in your living room. It surrounds you. It sits you in your chair, lights your pipe, and shoves the ottoman underneath your feet. In fact, the vibrancy of these recordings have always suggested a comparison to me, the explanation of which may be as philosophical as technological or psychological, who knows? But think of movies made in the same era, late fifties, early sixties. Think of all the Douglas Sirk. Think of ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS. Think of THE RED SHOES, think of the actual palettes of those films, how rich and deep they are, almost like blots on the screen. If those colors could be turned into sounds, the MLP recording is what they would sound like. Again, I leave it to the reader to figure out how contemporaneous technologies of two such different media – sound recording and visual recording – were able to yield such eerily similar emotional and aesthetic effects, but I stand by the impression. The Janis recording sounds like Sirk movies look – which is to say, gorgeous in a way that we may simulate, but never recapture.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Eighth Biggest Blunder...

Yesterday, Salon today published their list of “the punditocry’s 7 biggest blunders of the 2008 election.”

Quickly, they were, as titled. 1. The cult of Sarah Palin. 2. Steven Schmidt is a genius. 3. the price at the pump will fuel the mood of voters. 4. Obama should have taken the money…and run. 5. Obama was guilty of hubris in trying to expand the map. 6. down ballet dems will try to flee Obama. 7. the Hillary Hold-outs will never come back;

Not a bad list, and I certainly applaud the gesture of calling out the pundits on their chronic myopia.

But Salon missed one very important one.

8. That this was/is Obama’s election to lose.

Back in August, this was a constant refrain of the most sober Gatekeepers: that Obama was clearly in the driver’s seat, but that to the extent that he was still new to most voters, and to the extent that we already knew (and presumably loved) John McCain, this election would end up being a referendum on Obama and his readiness to be president. If he proved himself ready, he would win. If not, he would lose.

I hated this meme at the time, and notwithstanding the likely insistence of its peddlers that they were/are right, I hate it now, mostly because it was based on an assumption that I, like many voters, did not share: namely, that John McCain had already passed the commander-in-chief test, and that the strength of his campaign rested on the idea that he was honorable, vetted, somewhat bi-partisan, and as such, would certainly suffice as a worthy alternative should Obama prove unready.

Now it should be said, I bow to no one in my excitement for the Obama candidacy, and the promise that an Obama Administration holds out. For reasons both practical, practicable, and symbolic, I see it as being a potentially transformative moment in the nation’s history, and one that couldn’t come at a better time, as it may provide the only possible antidote to the poison of the last eight years.

And yet as important as I believe it is that Obama win (and this is the point I wanted to scream at the screens back in August), I considered it equally important that John McCain lose, for reasons that no one seemed quite willing to articulate back then, but which are now commonly held: that he was a manifestly terrible candidate, not an honorable man in the least, and one who represented, both politically and attitudinally, a heartbreaking elaboration of all the worst aspects of the current administration; in short, a disaster for our nation and the world.

It was my feeling that this needed to be said, revealed, and recognized, so that what took place on election day might be viewed not only as a nation’s positive endorsement of what appears to be an exceptional individual, but also a clear and unmistakable repudiation of everything that McCain’s party – and he, as it turns out -- have come to stand for. In that light, the suggestion that the election was a referendum on Obama was not only unfair, undiscerning, and vaguely racist, it risked obscuring a good half of the message that the nation needs to send itself.

Fortunately, the pundits' suggestion was -- in addition to being quite unfair -- also quite wrong, as the last two months have shown. Obama’s campaign has been marked by the same consistency, deliberation, and equanimity that the unprejudiced eye must now recognize as the hallmark of the nominee’s character. There have been no surprises, good or bad. There has been no turning point, no threshold moment when everyone realized that he could assume the mantel. Just a steady recognition of who this man is, as evinced in the manner in which he routinely conducts himself.

It is McCain’s performance, rather, that seems to have been the real eye-opener. He is the one who has been proving himself…unfit. Unsuited. Unready. Unworthy. This has not only been obvious, it has been the driving narrative of campaign coverage, witness the steady drip of crestfallen conservative journalists, one by one conceding the moral, financial, and strategic bankruptcy of the McCain campaign. One need only feel their dejection, and see the polling numbers, which still find McCain with striking distance, to realize just how little he would have had to do to make this a much more competitive race; if he hadn’t picked Palin, if he had behaved with even a modicum of dignity; if he could have treated him opponent with the same; if he could merely have sufficed, the way all the wise heads assumed he would – relied on his biography, looked the part and let others do his dirty work -- then the forces of his party and American conservatism could surely have carried him, and all of us, to a real nail-biter

But no. By running such a grotesquely cynical, juvenile, and vile campaign, by appealing to what’s worst in us, by embracing everything that is wrong with his party and with American conservatism at the moment, McCain has made plain just how mistaken the pundits were, and that we should never approach an election with the idea that one candidate has to prove him- or herself while the other does not.

As inspiring as Obama has been, he has not been alone out there. This was John McCain’s election to lose, too, and by gum, it looks as if he has done it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Shea's last day, in California

Before the series begins tonight. this, for the record:

I was not at Shea Stadium, or even near it, when the final curtain fell a couple Sundays ago. I was three-thousand miles away, my family having moved out to California a year ago in July. But I watched, as I had watched most games this season, thanks to cable TV and MLB Packages.

For most of the season, I confined myself to the wee-hours, waiting until the kids were asleep before taking to the couch and firing up the day’s game on my DVR. My son is four, my daughter two, and therefore both a little young to subject to the intensity of my interest. But the private viewings are my way of checking in with the place I still in my heart call home, and that includes Shea Stadium. Or it did.

Rooting for the Mets is as ingrained a part of me as there is. My parents weren’t particularly big sports fans back then, so I was only mildly aware of miracle of ’69 – I was four – but by 1973 and the next dash of magic, I was well on-board. That team -- the “You Gotta Believe” team of Seaver and McGraw and Yogi, I knew top-to-bottom, front-to-back, and biblically, stats and batting stances and pitching motions, every one of which I could imitate, and still can. For the thrill of that one late-season stretch-run, ending in a game seven loss at Shea to the Mighty Oakland A’s, I would put in another decade of penance with the Dave Kingmans, the Doug Flynns, the Nino Espinozas, and Lee Mazzillis. It never occurred to me to switch over to the Yankees, even when they got good again in the late 70s. I understood, you’ve got to wear the hair shirt, and that loyalty made it all the more sweet when the Mets revived again in the mid 80s with Strawberry, Gooden, Carter and Hernandez. I was there for the lull that ensued, and the dramatic Piazza vintage that followed that, just as I’ve been there, if in abstentia, for the early part of the Wright/Reyes era.

So I know what it means to follow this team, what it means to “believe,” to accept that disappointment -- and by that token, hope -- are the natural state of things. I know what it means to have to put up with the Yankees and Yankee fans and all the false notions that traffic about the back pages of the local tabloids, where the Mets and their fans are so often portrayed as hapless stragglers. Nonsense peddled by know-nothings. The truest blue in New York has an orange border around it, I know because I’ve been there. The Mets are, and always have been, as beloved as the Yankees, owing in no small part to a core of devotees who, weaned on futility of the early years, understands something about loyalty that Yankees and their fans simply never will.

And I know that much of this wisdom also derives from the stadium the Mets have called home for the last forty-four years, our dear departed Shea, whose manifest ugliness – whether in its early placard-guise or the snazzy neon look of her more recent years -- instilled in all its patrons a tacit understanding that the true measure of a theater isn’t its façade, or the quality of its press box or corporate seats or hot dogs. The true and only measure of a theater is the amount of good theater it provides, and in that regard, Shea needs apologize to no house or cathedral in the business. Her fallow periods only made for more suspense, contributing to the impact and the downright surreality of almost all her finest moment, which aptly testified: a rocking Shea (and those who’ve been there know, I mean that word literally) was as exciting a place as existed in all of sports, and she rocked her fair share, and for a good month longer (I note with no small satisfaction) than her overbearing sister in the Bronx, whose whimper resounded all the way out here.

Still and so, for all of that devotion, and my helplessness to resist the forthcoming chapters at Citifield, I’ve never been sure that my allegiance to the Mets is something I necessarily wanted to pass down to my children. Much like the Catholicism in which both my wife and I were raised (and make no mistake, there is a very real connection between being a Mets fan and being Catholic) there are a lot of good reasons not to burden them with that particular cross – for their sake, to break the chain, spare them the pain, the “trip,” and all those wasted hours.

There is also the fact that my son, Theo, born ten weeks ahead of schedule, still has some tight muscles that may well compromise his enjoyment of organized sports like baseball. It’s a little early to tell, but I remain open to his interest, whatever they may be, and that’s another reason why there has been no indoctrination in the home. He and his sister know I wear the cap. They know I like the game, and that I watch it after they have gone to bed, but even there, their understanding has been vague.

Theo must have heard the phrase “I’m recording a game” a hundred times, but to judge by his usage, he understands it to mean “I am thinking up a game.” When he says to me, “Dad, I just recorded a game,” he will usually follow with the rules of the game, or how it will play out, such as: ‘I will be Batman. You will be the Joker. You will chase me into the Batcave and try to steal the Batmobile . . .”

To his way of thinking, that’s “recording” a game, and I never saw fit to correct him. And that’s the way it worked until this last Sunday, when for the first time since we moved here, I decided to watch the Mets game live – partly because it was do-or-die and I wanted to provide some real-time mojo, but mostly out of respect to the stadium, because I knew this might be the last game she would ever see, or who knew? Maybe she had one last handful of magic dust in her pocket.

So I turned on the game right out there in the open, in the middle the living room, with the kids playing Legos and dragons while I watched. I didn’t mind. It leavened the tension. About four innings in, they went off for their naps and rest time.

I watched the remainder with the sound down low, subdued by common sense and experience. I like this team. It has a lot of virtues and exciting players, but also an Achilles heal that made it impossible to imagine them succeeding in the long run, admonitions to ‘believe ‘ notwithstanding. I watched them fall behind in the seventh. I watched the Brewers pull ahead in Milwaukee in the eighth. I watched another season end in failure, and though I was prepared, I was also sad – for myself, for the fans, for all the old ballplayers who’d come back for maybe one more miracle, and most of all for the stadium.

Moments after the final out fell harmlessly into a spoiler’s glove, my son came in, summoned by the glum silence of the room. I made no spectacle of my disappointment, but I didn’t hide it, either. My wife explained to him that I was sad because the Mets had lost, which he could see. He came over and offered a little consolation. Maybe they would win the next time.

I didn’t explain to him that that wasn’t really going to be a next time, that there were things called ‘seasons’ and that this one was over, and that what I was really most sad about was that a very dear place had just gone out of my life.

I decided to take him to the beach, just the two of us since his sister was still asleep. It isn’t far from where we live, but when we got there, the sky was foggy and raw. The water was cold. We took a quick swim and dug some holes, and the my wife and daughter came and found us. We didn’t stay long.

No mention was made of the game, but I guess I hadn’t completely shaken off the blues, because after we got home Theo started bringing up the Mets again, which up to then was a word I honestly wasn’t even sure he knew. He seemed to have figured it out, though, and he also seemed to have a slightly better idea of what “recording a game” meant. He kept saying that he’d recorded a game and that everyone had won. My wife said that was the sort of game she would like to see, and I agreed that was a nice idea.

He wanted to show me. He went and got a little calculator we have that looks like a robot. He sat in my lap and he did a pretty good imitation of me with the remote control, or at my computer trying to find him something good to watch on YouTube (I’ve taken to showing him old Bugs Bunnies and the Adam West Batmans). He kept punching the keypads and mumbling, “No, that’s not the one. There’s a better one.”

Finally he said, “Here it is. I’ll press these buttons, and that will be the game I recorded.”

I said, “Okay, I can’t wait to see.”

So he went ahead and pressed the numbers, and the first was a six, and the next was a nine, believe it or not. The number that came up on the little screen was actually 69999999999, but that was close enough. I looked at it, and told him he was right. That had been an excellent game and I thanked him for showing it to me. . .

. . . So there is hope, I guess.

Or there will have to be.

Pitchers and catchers report February 19.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Just sayin, part III

A quick follow up. A couple weeks ago, with fourteen games left in the season and the Mets, Phils and Brewers all posting identical records, I offered these predictions about where the three teams would end up:

Phils 92-70
Mets 89-73
Brewers 89-73

And these are the real world results:

Phils 92-70
Mets 89-73
Brewers 90-72


One off, but I think it can safely be said:

I've watched too much baseball in my life.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

So McCain admits it, too

In addition to being a stunt, a ploy, and another bit of grandstanding political theater we can apparently now rely upon John McCain to provide, there is one more aspect of this decision (to briefly suspend his campaign in the face of the nation’s financial crisis) that no one seems to have touched upon, and that is what an extraordinary, downright open, confession it is of the insulting manner in which the Republican nominee has gone about campaigning to this point.

While I don’t for a second concede that he actually has suspended his campaign, I merely note that in pretending to do so, he is as much as saying, “I find this crisis to be so dire, I have determined that this is no time for the kind of bullsh*t that I have been engaged in on a daily basis for the last two months.”

Given the sort of campaign that McCain has run – juvenile, aimless, deeply cynical, and deceitful – he’s actually quite right. Comparing Obama to Charlton Heston or the Jonas brothers, telling lies about his policy proposals, or portraying him as a latent pedophile, just wouldn’t go down well in the current climate. We’re not in the mood. It’s not as cute as it was ten days ago.

If on the other hand, one had approached his or her presidential run as an opportunity to dialogue with the American people about all the most pressing matters that currently face us as a nation – a way of airing positions and proposing your own solutions – well, then it wouldn't occur to you to “suspend” your campaign in the face of a big crisis. You would want to ratchet it up and to take advantage of the heightened focus that the crisis has brought to bear upon your nomination, and the fact that we are all presently looking for the person who will inherit this crisis, among others.

And obviously all the same things can be said of McCain's suggestion that the debate be put off. Does he mean, until such time as we’re all comfortable going back to hearing substanceless, canned answers to questions that have nothing to do with anything? Then perhaps he’s right, we should wait a week or two, and keep our fingers crossed that nothing meaningful or foreboding happens in the mean time.

If on the other hand, one approached a presidential debate as an opportunity to…well, I’m not even going to finish the thought, it’s too obvious, and too sad that it has to be said. The point is, McCain admitted to us yesterday that he knows that his campaign is an unworthy thing, the apparent equivalent of Bush’s golf-game: an unbecoming and impolitic display in a time of national crisis.

How odd.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

re: the bail-out

I'm not nearly smart enough about this sort of thing to offer a useful comment, but I think we can at least all step back and cherish this moment, which surely won't last, as being one of those all-too rare instances when no one seems to know what the entrenched partisan positions are.

In fact, nothing about the collapse, or potential collapse, more convinces me of its seriousness than that when I turn my ear to the wind, it really does sound like every man for himself out there.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

bout of pedantry #2, "begs the question"

Truly, you cannot surf the political blogosphere for ten minutes without running into the misuse of this venerable old phrase, so much so that I’m almost ready to hoist the white flag and let it be, let it mean what everyone seems to want it to mean, which is “prompts the question” or “makes one want to ask the question” (As in, “the sudden reaction of conservative pundits against the prospect of a government bail-out of the nation’s financial system, on the grounds that it vests too much control in the hands of one unchecked entity, begs the question ‘where were you guys for the last eight friggin’ years?’”)

After all, the sheer extent of abuse (of the phrase, that is) speaks to the apparently urgent need for some expression to do the work for which this one has been drafted, so why not surrender the old meaning and give over to the new. Is the original meaning of “begs the question” really all that important?

Well, the truth is, it was pretty good. Back in the day, to "beg the question" meant to give an answer that really only sounded like an answer, but which was, in fact, really just a clever restatement of the premise upon which the question was asked in the first place.

To give an example, you might ask: "How has Jose Reyes managed to raise his average from .250 to .333 in just two short years?" (Just play with me here.)

I might answer, "Well, that's simple. Whereas two years ago he was only getting one hit every four times up, now he's getting one hit every three times up."

THAT is "begging the question." Clearly in asking, you wanted to gain some insight into Jose's swing or new command of the strike zone. My answer, while seeming quite knowledgeable and responsive, was really nothing of the kind, just a more crafty restatement of the premise of your question. No new information was provided.

The technique has many more significant real word applications, of course. When the Bush Administration, asked whether it has sanctioned the use of torture, replies that American Law forbids torture and we follow the Law, that’s a version of begging the question. When your four-year-old son, in the course of one of his why-jags wants to know why grandma’s cat died, and you find yourself, after the eleventh straight “why?” saying, “Because God decided?” and he says, “ Why did God decide?” and you say, “Because God makes the decisions,” that is certainly another form begging the question, and it isn’t pretty, but sometimes it’s the only thing that will allow you to get back to your newspaper. Begging the question is the only thing that will silence him, not so much because you’ve satisfied his curiosity -- you haven’t – but because your son now realizes you’re not really as smart as he thought you were.

But that is neither here nor there. The point is, “begging the question” is a very real, very common, very deceitful little maneuver, and one worries that if we give up the phrase – or the meaning of the phrase -- we may in some way give up our capacity to recognize and to identify what is among the most important weapons in the arsenal of all cheats, liars, crooks, politicians, schoolchildren, ne’er-do-wells, and parents. And that would be a loss. We really can’t let that happen, and so I ask, if we do let “begs the question” mean “prompts the question,” it prompts the question, what should we then call begging the question?

Soon to return to more pressing matters. There seem to be several.

musical suggestion #3, Rubinstein's 960

I’ve never been convinced that classical music really is in so much trouble. Seems to me it’s done quite well for itself, as artisitic genres go. Granted, novels aren’t symphonies, but if someone told me that the finest actors of the day would, two hundred years from now, be routinely gathering in studios every couple of years to read yet another voicing of the best novels written today, for the purpose of commercial distribution – and that these actors could actually make a living doing so – I would be both surprised and encouraged.

That’s not to say that there aren’t certain characteristics of classical music, qua commercial product, that impede its greater success. I would argue that one of these is Mozart, oddly enough. But that for a later post. Another is the fact that there’s just so much to choose from – not just so many different composers and pieces, but so many different versions of those pieces. One doesn’t have to have all that cultivated an ear, after all, to recognize that it matters quite a lot which version of a given piece you happen to listen to. One version – of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, for instance, might drift into the wallpaper for you, while another (and I’m looking at you, Fabio Biondi) absolutely explodes in your head. Given the marked difference in effect between one rendition and another, it’s understandable that one doesn’t want to arrive home (i.e. download) the wallpaper when you could have gotten the dynamite instead. And so the uninitiated customer, prompted by the soundtrack of the movie he or she just saw, is to be forgiven if, standing before the full catalogue of expertly recorded “Nimrods,” seeing that they are sixteen apparently viable options in front of him, not really knowing the good investment from the bad, ultimately throws up his or her hands and returns to the pop-rock section, where there really only are one or two worthy versions of most given songs.

Squeeze played Squeeze well. I'll get the Squeeze.

Of course there are lots of books and Penguins guides and websites that can help an interested party navigate, but the very existence of such an industry – of musical advice – testifies to the problem, a problem which becomes particularly acute when we start talking about the REALLY popular pieces, the war horses, the ones that have been recorded literally hundreds of times. If one is on a budget (as we can assume anyone who takes this kind of interest probably is), one wants to feel he or she is getting the best of the best or his or her ten bucks.

It is with this concern in mind that I would seek the settle the matter on what is surely one of the top ten, if not top five, piano compositions of all time – at least by measure of its popularity and ubiquity in the repertoire. I speak of Schubert’s 960 (AKA sonata in B-flat, AKA sonata number 32) which holds the distinction of not only being of the great piano compositions of all time, but also the last that Schubert ever wrote, during the syphilitic binge of creativity with which he closed his life at the tender age of 31, and which has long tempted me to go out and sleep with the dirtiest whore I can find, just to see if I could contract the same level of genius and creative energy. Truly the amount and the quality of product that Schubert turned out in the last year of his life stands as one of the great and most confounding human achievements of all time. It’s sick and incomprehensible, and among it s purest jewels is 960, for which reason there exist hundreds if not thousands (what with Youtube) of recorded versions.

Further complicating the issue, of choosing which one to go with, is the fact that 960 (and Schubert in general) really isn’t that difficult a piece, either to play or to listen to, which is to say, you can’t separate the wheat from the chaffe by confining yourself to players with the best technique. Most proficient high-schoolers can play the damned thing. Most truly gifted pianist have been playing the piece since they were six, for which reason you will never hear 960 at a piano competition; it just doesn’t provide enough opportunities for the player to show his or her chops. No, as with all Schubert, the challenge is an almost exclusively interpretive one, but even that overstates the case. All the piece really asks is that it be played tastefully, and fluidly, and musically, how to draw out its beauty without sounding foofy, its humor without miniaturizing it, its gravity without seeming ponderous; how, in other words, to let the darned thing sing.

Well, friends, the weird thing is, as subtle a challenge as it poses, and as many extraordinary players as have stepped up and offered perfectly serviceable answers, I am here to tell you that there is one that puts to shame all the rest:

Artur Rubinstein.

And here is why.

In my borne days I’ve never heard a recording that so sensationally adopts of faith in which a piece like 960 was composed: of casual intimacy. Rubinstein is one of those who had been playing the piece since he was a boy, and boy, it shows, what an old friend he is returning to here. And making plain to the listener, by dint of that familiarity, that this really isn’t a concert hall piece. It sounds dismissive to call it a salon piece. It’s better than that. It’s emotional scope is tremendous, and yet, in Rubinstein’s hands, one is quickly convinced that the proper confine of the piece – at least physically, is the parlor. The sound engineer clearly agrees. He sits you very close. You are five feet from him. You are sitting in the living room while he plays, sipping the drink of your choice, and if you didn’t know better, you’d think he was improvising. There is not a moment of strain or hesitation. All the notes are so found. In addition ot being a liltingly, achingly simple and beautiful, it is also an exceedingly funny one. Rubinstein was, by all account, a charming man. This performance leaves no doubt how lucky one would be to count him a friend, or dinner companion -- sympathetic, dry, self-effacing, elegant, and profound.

Different pianists seem to get the humor of different composer. Horowitz -- of whom, I have to confess, I am not always so fond -- clearly gets Scarlatti in a way that others (Pletnev) don’t. Richter gets Prokofiev. Rubinstein, whose affinity for Chopin is more famously noted, really gets Schubert. The third movement, what industry writers will routinely call a bit of "quicksilver," is uncommonly dry and delightful here. The main phrase of the second section ends with a a three-note repeptition. One wonders if Schubert knew that he was being funny when he wrote it, or knew how funny he was being. Probably, but none ever told the joke better that Rubinstein.

And of course, if a player (or person) gets the humor of another, the likelihood is that he or she gets the rest as well. In 960, there is a world of emotion, and youth, and age. Rubinstein emcombasses all of it and every note. He simplifies. He clarifies. Her serves.

If you are inclined, shove the heap aside and rest easy. You will have two new friends.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Empathy vs Sympathy in the race for the Wild Card

If a blog is good for anything other than chiseling down our predictions for all the world to see, it has to be the occasional bout of pedantry. So here’s one.

The other day, the Milwaukee Brewers, with whom my Mets are currently battling for a playoff spot, looked as if they might be righting themselves from a late season nose dive. They were leading their division rival Cubs by four runs in the ninth, in Chicago, only to blow the lead, and then lose the game in the bottom of the 12th, having put runners on second and third with none out in the top of the 12th and failing to plate them.

A brutal, brutal loss. As I wrote to a couple fellow Met fans that same evening, in advising them to check out the boxscore: “Now THAT’S empathy.”

My point, in saying so, was this:

Back when I was a kid, and into my early teens (I was born in ’65), it was enough to say that you sympathized with someone. If they were going through a difficult time, broke their leg during the summer vacation, for instance, it sufficed to say, “Hey, I sympathize” or even “I can sympathize.”

Then roundabout 1984, a whole new word was discovered. It had been there all along of course, but for some reason, the word “empathize” got unearthed. (I’m now wondering how much this had to do with the emergence of the concept of “empaths” in comic books and on Star Trek: The next Generation, which featured, as ship-counselor, an attractive young “empath” of a stubborn Greek/Turkish lineage, Deanna Troi.)

In any case, the difference between empathy and sympathy is a subtle one, and like most all English words, subjective. Generally, though, sympathy is understood to represent an expression of shared feeling with the subject (usually a sufferer), while empathy expresses an actual identification with the subject, usually based upon the shared experience – again, usually of suffering.

That’s all a little fudge-y, granted, fudge-y enough that the popular understanding of this difference, at least to judge by the steady creep of the word “empathy” between the early 80s and now, was that empathy, insofar as it expressed a kind of One-ness with the Other, was basically like sympathy times two. The early, pioneering usages of the term were a little more furtive. They’d have gone something like “Broke your leg? Hey, I sympathize – no, actually I totally empathize – with you.” Empathizing was a way of ratcheting up your expression of sympathy – going from a peck to a French kiss -- while at the same time permitting a not-unsubtle note of egoism. As in, that’s how much I care. Screw sympathy. I have empathy, because of what I know and where I’ve been. I AM you, my friend.

And slowly but surely, as this widely accepted view gained purchase, that empathy was just a larger, greater, more potent version of sympathy, sympathy got kicked to the curb, it got treated like a rented mule; like the notion of “giving 100%” (having suffered so in the face of athletes giving 110%, then 115%, and now 300%), to the point now where now, in 2008, you almost never hear it mentioned anymore. You would never hear a TV newsman say, “I think we can all sympathize with the victims of Katrina.” At this point, one would have to say, “I think we can all empathize with the victims of Katrina,” as if we all know, we’ve all had our houses swept away, we are all Louisianans, and Georgians, AND Berliners, we are all Christ and Buddha, and Deanna Troi. To express anything less than complete unity and oneness withal – that is, to be merely “sympathetic” with what someone else is going through -- would sound like an insult.

See, but needless to say, I’ve always felt this gets the whole dynamic wrong. My take on empathy was always that it was a (potentially) compassion-free expression of identification with someone else’s plight, insofar as it was based (assuming one is not either Christ or Deanna Troi) upon a perceived common experience. So an easy example from my life would be, if I heard about another married couple who were having trouble conceiving a child, I could very quickly say, “Oh, I empathize,” meaning simply, “hey, I’ve been there,” Which is true, I have, so I know, I can feel, and to that extent, I can identify with much of what they’re going through, the same as I can identify with much of what the Milwaukee Brewers fans have been going through this past week. As a Mets fan, I empathize.

Does it mean I care? Does it mean I sympathize? Hell, no. As I say, I'm a Mets fan. To my way of thinking, there’s nothing remotely disconsonant in saying, “I am giddy with empathy for Milwaukee Brewers fans right now.” I know exactly what they’re going through, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

And this is my point. Not only do I not understand empathy to be a more powerful or potent expression of sympathy, I believe it to be a far less powerful expression – of compassion, at least. All empathy ever really meant (in my book) was that I identify, or I can identify with the plight of the person at question, having been there. It says nothing about whether that identification moves me to have actual compassion for the Other. What moves me to feel compassion for them is…well, sympathy, which is based either upon the inherent magnanimity of my spirit, or the fact that I am for whatever reason fond of whomever we’re talking about. Perhaps this is all an explanation of what makes me a class-A prick, because maybe I should sympathize with everyone I empathize with, but I don’t think I do. That couple heading in for their fifth unsuccessful IVF? They could be horrible people for all I know. Maybe they hunt baby seals on vacation. Maybe they voted for Bush twice. I don’t know. So they can have my empathy, sure, when they find out the “bad” news. My sympathy, I keep; I keep for when I feel it, and let me point out in defense for what may sound like a pretty heartless position a) that I’m not advocating the judgmental portioning of one’s compassion so much as trying to define the use of a term, and that b) I don’t even sympathize with myself most of the time. I empathize with myself – all the time – but as for the sympathy I extend my own lament, my own personal tales of woe? Eh.

By the same token, when the shoe is on the other foot, when I am on the receiving end of these same two expressions, my feelings are commensurately distinct. If someone says to me, “I empathize with you,” I take it for what it’s worth. I appreciate what they’re saying – that they must feel they have been through something similar and to that extent can “feel” me – but I also can’t help but detect a taint of pretentiousness and self-aggrandizement in their saying so, in the first place because I don’t really believe they know what they’re saying – for me, the word always sounds like someone using “whom” when they shouldn’t – but also because I feel like, to the extent they actually do know what they’re saying, all they’re really doing is using my plight to call attention to themselves and what they’ve been through, which suggests a very high likelihood that they have no idea what I’m going through, they’re so trapped in their solipsistic little universe.

On the other hand, if someone comes out and says I “sympathize”, well, there I hear an authentic expression of support and compassion, borne of nothing other than the mysterious generosity of the human spirit, a desire to share my suffering not because this person has been through it, too, but because they are a friend, and because they WANT to bear my burden with me.

When someone says to me, “I empathize,” I feel like I’m supposed to reply, “Oh, really what happened to you?”

When they say, “I sympathize,” I just want to say, “Thank you, brother, that’s very kind.”

In the coming days, look for similiar installments on the expressions "buck naked," and "begs the question."

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

it looks like a job for...

What with the markets and the country's whole financial system embarked upon a death spiral from which only apparently the Fed can save it, let me just say this:

a) we now officially have a fourth branch of government. It’s called the Fed.

b) though it’s not a program I watch with anywhere near the attention that I pay to most of the other shows my children enjoy, it has come to my attention that Higgleytown Heroes vastly overstates the importance of the pizza delivery boy in the lives of most children.

Maybe I’m naïve.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

NL East predictions

If blogs are good for anything, it's gotta be predictions. So time to lock in visavis Brewers, Phillies, Mets.

All three with 83 wins. 12-14 games left. Brews, in the throes of a 2007-Mets-like swoon, play Chicago 6 times (plus cincy and pittsburgh). Phils close out with a melange of Atlanta, Florida, and Washington, two of whom are proven pains in the asses. Mets? Well, does the schedule even matter when you boast the worst bullpen in ML history for a team that's this good (Wash, Atl, Chicago, Fla, without a single day off).

So. (and bearing in mind that we only predict things in order that such outcomes are made LESS likely for having been foreseen, Fate hating the futurist.)

Phils in. They know they can do this. They can close out 9-4, easy, going 92-70 for the season.

Which leaves Mets v Brews for the wild card. One thing is for sure, whoever wants OUT of the post season is going to have to want it bad. Mets can scratch out six more wins, requiring Brews to go only 6-7, which sounds like maybe as much as could be asked of them at this point. In fact, they'll have to be "heroic" to pull it off (as will Mets).

The requirements of justice and drama therefore incline me to predict both teams sputter to utterly disechanting 89-73 records. In Milwaukee, alas, (poor Shea) Mets lose unspeakably see-saw one game playoff, in extra innings, when Heilman is charged with a bases loaded balk for actually urinating in his pants.

But seriously, no.

It'll be a "single" over the head of a draw-in Endy Chavez.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

ms. flick's speech

on the bright side, it appears that this is already beginning to shed some much deserved light on the brilliant work of Alexander Payne.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

McCain just lost his 'base'

I have nothing more to add about Palin herself. For once, I can say that I’m actually quite satisfied with the job that the mainstream and independent press is doing in devouring the stupidity of McCain’s selection, and having the common sense to recognize that real story here isn’t the fact that Palin is a book-burning, Christianist, secessioniast. The story is McCain and his appallingly slipshod decision-making process.

And that, I think, will be the real fallout of the affair, regardless of whether Ms. Palin recuses herself. (Yesterday, I’d have said ‘no way’. I have to say, today, I’m not so sure, but if I were Tim Pawlenty, I’d made sure my cell-phone was charged.)

The fall-out is that this entire imbroglio has finally given the press license, and the apparent willingness, to do what it has been so unwilling to do up to now: criticize John McCain. Shine the light on him. Make this election as much about him and his judgement as it is about Obama. I frankly wasn’t sure that was ever going to happen, and my fear was that the fundamental imbalance of the TM's overriding campaign narrative – that this election was a referendum on Barack Obama, not John McCain – was going to keep this race so annoyingly, unnecessarily, and ridiculously tight.

I think that whole frame is gone now. Being a POW is apparently no excuse for not even vetting your VP pick. I think the Press now sees and openly admits, this is not the man they came to know and love back in 2000. Just as important, McCain is now discovering that this is not the same press either. This is not his 'base’ as he so charmingly used to like to call them. And having lost them – through this single act of stunning arrogance and laziness – he’s kinda got nothin’.

Look for much anger and recrimination from the Right, that the current firestorm just goes to show that the 'liberal' media is out to get their candidate. Look for the silent majority of Americans to once and for all flip them the bird they so richly deserve.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Just sayin', part II

Last Thursday morning I wrote a post ('Storm Steals Thunder') suggesting that, for the GOP at least, the silver lining of Gustav's mighty cloud could be that it would give Bush an excuse not to attend the Republican Convention.

Today from Yahoo news:

The looming threat of Hurricane Gustav forced President Bush to cancel his planned valedictory address before the GOP national convention Monday night.

For many delegates gathering here, that's not a bad thing.
Everyone assembled in St. Paul hates the circumstances that forced Bush's absence; concern about Gustav dominated every conversation. But given the deeply conflicted emotions that swirl around the president from within his party, Bush's decision to forgo the occasion saves Republicans an awkward moment.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

the new decider

OK, but just cause I guess I gotta.

As great as Obama’s speech the other night was, and it was, if this whole presidential campaign were a movie that I was watching on TV, it actually wouldn’t have been until yesterday morning, with McCain’s announcement that he has selected Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential nominee, that I would begin backtracking in my mind to try to figure out when the dream sequence actually began.

In fact, I may go back to bed, lie down, close my eyes, open them, and see if it’s still true, this strikes me as being so utterly ridiculous. Where is the backwards-talking midget?

But let us set aside for now the question of whether the woman is worthy, or whether her background or credentials even remotely qualify her to take over the Presidency of the United States in the event that the actuaries prevail again.

Let’s just look at this pick, and Obama’s, from the perspective of what it tells us about how these men run things, and make decisions, because in both cases, their methods are on such vivid display.

In Obama’s case, the selection of Joe Biden turns out not merely to have been correct, it is the clear product of reasoned assessment – not cynical assessment, mind you – but a capacity to step back, take a slow, calm look and the pluses and minus of all the various candidates, include the politics of the choice, the personality, the intangibles and the tangibles, include the all-important question of whether he can present a running-mate with whom the country can rest easy, knowing that he or she would be capable of taking over at a tragic moment’s notice -- take all that in, check your gut, look in the mirror, and you come out with…Joe Biden. Correct. Ding, doing, ding. And it’s a choice that looked better and more obvious on day two than day one, better on day three than two, and today, well, today it practically closes the deal.

Now look at John McCain's selection and ask yourself if it doesn’t vindicate all of one's deepest suspicions about how this man goes about making decisions at this point in his life, even the very important decision which he has been given ample time to think about and mull? To be blunt, this is transparently alf-assed, ill-considered, seat-of-the-pants, hail-Mary bullsh*t, the only remotely legitimate appeal of which is that it gives the appearance of being gutsy, of being "out-there," of being “so crazy, you know, it just might work,” when in truth, it represent the worst imaginable combination of desperation, spinelessness, recklessness, and cynicism. Even those singing the praises of the choice can only do so by the tortured logic that it makes political sense. It’s only brilliant if it’s a brilliant shake-up, a way of winning a state, and some women, or shoring up the "base," but it has nothing to do with what the country needs out of an actual vice-president. It’s running-mate as prop. Moreoever, it demonstrates that McCain has no grasp of how the world actually works today – by which I mean, no apparent awareness of the fact that as of 11:00 AM ET yesterday there was some guy eating donuts for breakfast in his mother’s basement who already knew more about Sarah Palin than John McCain did, or his staff did, or anyone else in the Republican party did. I'm sure there were all thrilled.

In that respect, and with all respect to Ms. Palin, her selection as McCain’s running mate is a spit in the face; it’s an insult to his party; it’s an insult to the American people; it’s an insult to the grains of truth that still lingered in McCain's ever-diminshing arguments for being president – that these are serious times when we cannot afford to gamble. So serious that you would throw a completely unvetted political novice into the lion’s den of a presidential campaign, an assignment that will oblige her to face-off with Joe Biden (and God helps us all in watching what happens to the bar of expecations prior to that engagement – absence of drool will crown her the victor) and then maybe, just maybe, once she’s cleared that bar, have to go face down Vladimir Putin and Ahmedinajab and whatever other boogeyman that Republicans has self-generated when the great day of cosmic thermo-nuclear reckoning comes.

Donnez Moi un freno, as my cousin would say.

To all but the dead-enders, who are regrettably both legion and certifiably insane, there is simply no positive argument that can be made on behalf of McCain’s candidacy at this point – not simply because his policies are out of touch; not simply because he is temperamentally unsuited to the office; not because his command of polity of so scandalously uninformed; not simply because he has become an inveterate and shamleless liar in the course of this campaign; not because he has clearly made a deal with the devil and gives the appearance of being a man hollowed of his very soul; none of that, but because we can all see now, this is how he makes his decisions; these are the sorts of decisions he makes. Decisions where, if he can actually thump a table when he makes, well, it must be good. These are the decision of a gambler, which we know McCain is, a craps man (dumbest game there is) – a reckless rich gambler who plays with lots of money he didn’t make.

All along I’ve been of the mind that the very best argument for Obama, the best evidence we have for his worthiness, his readiness, his preparedness, consists is the campaign we have all watched him run, which by any objective standard has been a marvel of strategic execution, of economically and expertly deployed resources, of setting achievable goals, figuring out what needs to be done, and then doing it, whether we’re talking about his state by state, caucus by primary, breakdown of exactly what he would need to do to beat Clinton; or, say, pulling off a two week trip to the mid-east and Europe without a glitch; or holding rousing part convention that builds to an unprecedented climax. If this man can run the executive office with even a fraction of the aptitude he has shown running a campaign, I dare say we will be a very good and capable hands, (Indeed, on the basis of having watched his run so far, I’m willing to admit that Obama is one of the few individuals I might actually trust to go try and topple a foreign government and install democracy where it had never existed before. God bless him, as with all people who might even be able to pull such a thing off, he would never try.)

But that is not the point, the point is (and which needs be remembered as an answer to those fatuous boobs who would suggest that Palin and Obama come to this with equivalent experience and preparation): no. As has been said countless times by the Presidents themselves, there is no preparation for being President, other than life itself, but outside of that, maybe the best and only viable training ground for the Presidency is actual campaigning, and Obama has campaigned far better, more hitchelssly, with a stronger grasp for tactic strategy, integrity, purpose, theater, substance, ground game, air game, rope a dope, rebuttal, you name it, than any candidate we have ever seen. That’s how come he vanquished the most powerful political machine in his own party party. That’s how come he’s the first black man in the history of the United States to stand this good a chance. That’s how come we know he’s “ready,” because we have all been watching him in the hottest spotlight on earth for over a year now, and we have yet to see a bead of sweat.

While over on the McCain side of the ledger? An Amy Winehouse tour is run with more efficiency, more integrity, a more abiding sense of purpose...

...and certainly more recognition of the needs of the people in the seats.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

'Storm Steals Thunder'

So I think most Democrats would agree that the convention is working out pretty well. The Traditional Media got to have their fun, tittering about PUMAS and party rifts, chiding the Dems for maybe possibly screwing up this one, too, only to have the Clintons pull through and redeem themselves, and Kerry and Biden both step up to the plate and demonstrate that you can be tough on an opponent without being petty or personal or sounding like one the Heathers. Really, all that Clinton business and the tepid beginnings of the convention just provided the necessary suspense to up the ratings, and the TM and progressive bloggers played their part in wringing their hands, as I’m sure they’ll continue to do on the Dems behalf – ‘what suicide! A politician speaking in front of columns!’

Once all that is happily behind us and focus shifts to the Republicans, once we have learned whether McCain has decided to counter Biden with Droopy Dog or Lyle Waggoner, one wonders what bogus memes, out of fairness, the TM will be taking to the Republican Convention, what false sense of suspense will they be shoving down the throats of the American viewers who haven’t managed to find CSPAN. The obvious and most accurate backdrop for the event would be one of depression and apathy, that this is not a good moment for the GOP so who even knows who’s going to show up. Tagline: Has John McCain garnered enough loyalty within the party that its heavy hitters (whoever they are) will actually set aside their own self-interest, (which would dictate they be somewhere in the Cayman Island right now, or on a mushing holiday) and muster up a rousing endorsement of McCain, or an equally rousing smear of Paris Horton, er, excuse me, Barack Obama?

That’s probably too loaded and lengthy and disrespectful a meme for the TM to play. More likely they’ll buy the line that McCain should be getting trounced right now so it just goes to show what a resilient fighter he is that the polls are all so close. ‘Don’t count out John McCain!’ But they really can’t avoid such questions -- the ones about the awkwardness of the occasion -- when it comes to the President, can they? He kinda has to go. He’s scheduled to, anyway, which does make one wonder: how IS the McCain campaign, not as yet noted for its finesse, going to finesse the fact that what, under normal circumstances, would represent the high-point of their party convention – i.e. the full-throated endorsement of the sitting president – could very likely, in this instance, play like a cough at the funeral of someone no one ever really liked?

Seen from that perspective, and wishing only the best for those now standing in harm’s way, this storm off the southern coast that everyone seems to find so ironic, Gustav, could be a godsend for the GOP -- politically, at least -- insofar as it could provide Bush a legitimate out, whereby he has to go pretend to do his job, roll up his sleeves and help move crates in a fireman’s line. His endorsement can literally be phoned in from the flooded front porch of some desperate victim (preferably, a you-know-what). The Republicans can give the appearance of actually finally “getting it.” More important, they can avoid the prospect of writing, lighting, producing, and distributing the best campaign ad the Obama people ever came up with: George W Bush taking McCain’s hand and shouting, “This man here is my choice for the future of America!” all to conclude with another one of those delicious arm-pit sniffing hugs.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

musical suggestion #2, Yekaterina Ervy-Novitskaya

I have to confess, I’m a little embarrassed that my first entry under what I hope to be this blog’s most recurrent category, musical suggestions, turned out to have been such an obvious one. Shostakovich’s Seventh is a great symphony, granted, and the Bernstein/Chicago rendition is tremendous. Still, recommending it to a potentially interested listener out there is a little like recommending Gone With the Wind to a cinephile.

So, just to establish a little more steet cred, let me for my second recommendation suggest a recording that’s a little farther from the beaten path.

Yekaterina Ervy-Novistkaya was 18 years old when she recorded most of the selections on this LP in that most blessed of years, 1969. A devoted Prokofievian, this US debut featured are Sarcasms (which I’ve never really gotten), the Fifth Sonata (the second movement of which is kind of a must-listen), Fugitive Visions (an all-time fav), and the piano transcription of ten selections from Romeo and Juliet.

As far as I can tell, this is Ms. Novitskaya’s only solo recording. In a moment of far-flung procrastination a while back, I think I tracked down the fact that she married and moved to Belgium, where she is still teaching. Whether the brevity of her recording and performing career is a function of illness, bad luck, stage fright, or domestic obligation, I just don’t know. Whatever the cause, it is, like the death of Jeff Buckley, a point of intensely selfish regret to me personally, I consider this recording to be such a glittering (if sharp) gem. Fair to say, based upon the performances in this recording, I would listen to this woman play anything, anytime, anywhere.

That said, there is no quintessential performance on the record. For the Fugitive Visions, I would still have to give the nod to Richter. For the Romeo and Juliet, I’m not sure there is a #1 piano version just yet, and the same as with Glenn Gould, everything Ervy-Novitskaya plays should probably be heard as played by someone else, just for context. Her decision are not all agreeable. As with Gould, the virtue of the recording resides in the fact that she is such a distinctive player, and CLEAR. Spiky is a word that comes to mind. If she uses the pedal at all, I’m not aware of it. This is distinctly percussive playing for a distinctly percussive (piano) composer, but hers is a very heavy, sonorous finger as well. She hits harder and more emphatically than Prokofiev himself, whose playing can be heard on Pearl issue I am going to recommend just as emphatically. Most of the pieces on the Pearl LP were recorded in 1935. The sound is not good – a version of the third piano concerto, played by the composer and conducted by Piero Coppola, is unfortaunately distant (and a little hasty in parts), but the solo material burns through the mist more than clearly enough to substantiate what was often said about Prokofiev’s pianism, which is that for such a radical and brash composer, he was remarkably restrained player, one willing to the notes do the talking. The playing on his recording is all very respectful, subtle, at no point showy.

Ervy-Novitskaya is not exactly showy either. She clearly means to be a humble servant to the material, but her playing does call attention to itself, again, just because her sound is so distinct: emphatic, clear, very serious and ironic at the same time. Even so, and even though her decisions does not quite match Prokofiev’s, and even though he was famously cruel to players who took liberties with his scores or who seemed to have misunderstood his purpose, one gets the sense that he would have found Ervy-Novitskaya’s playing deeply, deeply pleasurable and affirming of his gifts. As idiosyncratic as it may be, she gets at an aspect of his music more directly than any other player I’ve heard, including Richter, and including Prokofiev himself.

For highlights, let me suggest the second movement of the fifth sonata, and just about all of Romeo and Juliet (with the possible exception, sadly, of the Knight Dance, which I’m ready conclude just doesn’t translate well to the keyboard). There’s a moment right at the end, though, track 38, as the bodies of the two young lovers are being taken away, the music is fading beautifully, drifting (yet marching) away, when out of nowhere, eleven rapid-fire chimes sound. In Ervy-Novitskaya's hands, a chilling, evanescent appearance of the devil himself.

For that, and countless other moments contained in this LP, my thanks to you Ms. Ervy-Novitskaya. If you are out there, if you have ever been tempted to reenter the fray, send up a flare, I will be first in line.

noun, verb, I told you so.

A little over a week ago (8/18/08) I wrote this to Andrew Sullivan in response to a pair of links he’d provided to separate pieces by Megan Mcardle and Dean Barnett, chiding the likes of Sullivan for harping on the ‘cross in the dirt’ story, suggesting it played to McCain’s advantage to draw attention to his time in the HH. McCardle and Barnett, I wrote,

‘should recall the Giuliani campaign. Was a time it would have been unthinkable that his connection to 9/11 could actually work against him as a candidate. But it did. Amazingly, 9/11 and Giuliani, juxtaposed, became a punchline, and it ultimately killed him.

...We should not assume the same couldn't happen to McCain-as-POW. ...if his campaign continues to double-down on his time in the HH, and uses it to try to deflect every single complaint against him - and there's no question that they will - it could easily begin work against him. One deft, viral YouTube rapid-firing the shamelessness with which McCain exploits that one chapter of his history - and a little help from Jon Stewart - could turn the words 'Viet Nam' into an embarrassing albatross for McCain.

A lot of people are already beginning to roll their eyes, and it's August.'

Just sayin'...

Monday, August 25, 2008

Pat Burrell, latter-day Hojo

Now let me cleanse the palette by saying this: the Philadelphia Phillies have just pulled to within a half-game of the Mets, largely on the strength of the play of Pat Burrell, latest in a long line of ‘Met’ killers – that is, players who, if they played against the rest of the league the way they play against the Mets, would be first ballot hall-of-famers. Jay Johnston comes to mind as another. Terry Pendleton, to a lesser extent. Derek Jeter, of course (though he will be first ballot anyway). But Burrell may be the Met-killer to beat all Met-killers, and this year it appears that he has begun to show the rest of the league what he has been showing us for years now. I think he’s hit 30 HRs so far.

For some strange reason, however, I refuse to give the man his due – perhaps because I know that up to now, his performance against the Mets has been so odd and freakish. I don’t buy him, and I actually don’t think I’m alone in this. Seems to me he comes close to leading the league every year in outfield assists, which is less a measure of the quality of his arm than the fact that everyone always runs on Pat Burrell. They just do, and I would too. No matter how many times he throws runners out. No matter how many times he cracks crucial late-inning home runs against us, I still wouldn’t want him. I still expect to get him out every time he steps up to the plate...

All of which is to say, I think I feel towards Pat Burrell exactly the way Whitey Herzog felt towards Howard Johnson.

Was less respect ever shown, or more soundly punished?

musical suggestion #1

If I keep this up, one element I’d very much like to include as a recurring feature would be musical recommendations. I don’t pretend to be anything other than a fairly avid listener. I was never a student of music, per se. Not a scholar. I play, but I’m not particularly proficient. I have, however, spent a scandalous amount of his time on earth listening, fairly closely, and quite repeatedly to a lot of music. There is no hyberbole in suggesting that some of my best friends in life have been pieces of music, and certain performances of certain pieces of music. They have carried me through difficult times, absolutely, and taught me. They have done that thing that art is supposed to do: Thery have refined me and my emotions. For better or worse, I would not be who I am without them.

In that regard, I’ve always considered that one of the kindest and most generous things a person can do for another is recommend a piece of music – say simply, “this means, or has meant a lot to me. Perhaps you should give it a listen, too.” Speaking for myself, I don’t think I’ve ever NOT taken such a suggestion, usually within a day or two of its having been made - just because I also think that being able to enjoy a piece of music is one of those rare pleasures in life to which there is no downside – as opposed to, say, eating, where some of the most delicious dishes also happen to be bad for you; or sex, where to have it with one person often means betraying another. With music, if someone else I know has managed to find a way to love a given piece, well, I want to find that way too. Why wouldn’t I? It’s pure profit.

Let me begin, then, with a recommendation that was specifically recommended to me. This would have been probably 18 years ago. I bumped into a college friend on Hudson Street in NYC – not someone I knew all that well, but he was working in the classical music industry, as an agent, and offered up the fact that he had been obsessing recently over the Bernstein/Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance of Shostakovich’s 7th. I was not all the familiar with Shostakovich at the time, and in fact, my classical interest, which I’d stoked pretty wildly in my teens, had gone dormant in my college years and early twenties, but I was at that time Jonesing for more than my pop/alternatice collection was giving me, and so on the strength of this quick recommendation, and the look of bliss in my friend’s eye when he made it, I went right out and purchased it.

I know from the first four measures that this was exactly what I’d been needing, longer and more flexible, more unpredictable lines. Only later would I come to recognize the relative disrepute into which the 7th had fallen. It’s one of those warhorses that suffers critically from being too popular, largely on the strength (or weakness) of what is widely considered to be a gimmicky first movement, the final twenty minutes of which is given over to a march that plays a deliberately goofy melody, oh, I don’t know, maybe twenty times in a row, upping the ampage, heightening, and wringing the thing until by the end it has literally become a monster (some say Hitler; others Stalin). Bartok apparently thought the passage so musically ridiculous that he went ahead and ridiculed it, to nearly equally inspired effect in the third movement(?) of his Concerto for Orchestra (a version of which I will also be recommending). Me, I like the Bartok spoof (surrounded as it is on one side by a gorgeous woodland idyll, then followed by one of the loveliest melody lines Bartok ever penned), but I also like the Shostakovich march, because it is catchy, and absurd, which just goes to show something I’ve often found to be true with the more melancholic composers: the fact that I’m always initially drawn to them by their humor. I thought Shostakovich was funny before I thought he was sad and beautiful, and the same is true of Schubert – I couldn’t believe how funny and charming the fourth movement of 960 was. Or the third. Loved it, and came to love the rest of him only subsequently. In the case of Shostakovich, there was the march in the 7th; the scherzo of the fifth; the middle section of the third movement of the seventh, which is actually my favorite movement of the symphony. His cello concerto.

Shostakovich snobs wil turn up their noses at much of this, tossing the the Seventh and the Fifth in the category of Shostakovich compromises, kowtowings to the pressure Stalin was putting on him (the composer’s own dedication of the Fifth refers to it as his response “to just criticism," Stalin’s proxies having been unkind about the Fourth.) Well, I poo-poo the poo poo-ers. True, the more radical and personal and defiant Shostakovich is beautiful, too, but if Stalin scared Shostakovich into writing the fifth, well, good for him – at least on that one count.

I’ll be writing more on this topic, I suspect – how different composers' respond to political pressure, and in particular Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Indeed, it was the purchase of the 7th that, in addition to single-handedly reinvigorating my taste for the big, muscular symphony, set off a joyous years-long competition between Shostakovich and Prokofiev in my living room, one that could be said to have yielded several books for me, and my style in general. For now, however, let this entry stand as an obvious recommendation of another obvious recommendation. It’s not news that the hungry ear of an uninitiated listener, yearning for long lines and dynamism and scope and lilting beauty, will find pleasures in the Shotzy’s 7th. What is news is that the particular recording at question should be so exceptional. (There is no exceptional, or consummate, recording Shostakovich's Fifth, so far as I can tell, which is odd, and a problem.) This version comes packaged with a recording of Shostakovich’s First Symphony, which is also pretty darn good, especially considering that he wrote it when he was something like nineteen, or seventeen. But it is the 7th which shines, and changed the game for me. This is an oozing, passionate, very live, very well recorded performance. It’s Bernstein being Bernstein, blooming and breathing. He and the engineers stand you right in the orchestra’s midst. The music enters the mind directly, and cultivates aggressively. I don’t know the last time I actually listened to it. I don’t know when the next will be, but thanks eternal to all involved, but especially Mssr. Bernstein, Shostakovich, and Bagdade, my generous friend on the street.

Friday, August 22, 2008

...and Mother Theresa, as herself

For the record, this post is really more about writing than politics.

Andrew Sullivan, among others, has been tracing the evolution of John and Cindy McCain’s adoption story, noting that, as with other stories the McCains like to tell, this one has undergone some noteworthy revision over the years. Specifically, it is only the later versions that make mention of the fact that Mother Theresa herself helped convince the McCains to rescue two girls from the Bangladeshi orphanage, one of whom they ended up adopting – their daughter Bridget.

Again, who knows? They did what they did. It’s a wonderful thing. Assuming the girl is happy and that the estate tax can be abolished, I wish them all the best.

What’s curious to me is the idea that Mother Theresa’s role in the McCain’s decision somehow makes it a better story. And I’m not denying that most people would agree it does. Juicier, anyway. But really it just goes to show what a bunch of hopeless suckers we all are for celebrity, even sainted celebrity.

Because from a pure storytelling perspective, the McCain’s revision is a mistake. It’s actually fairly common, in the course of conceiving a story (and I’m not suggesting that the McCain’s made this one up, I’m just speaking from the perspective of someone who does make stories up) that quite often you want for your protagonist to do something – say, get off the bus. The plot requires it. The question is, how do you get them to do it? Well, the easiest and least imaginative way is to have another character - a friend or a sidekick - urge them to: say, “buddy, get off the bus.” (The entire Academy Award winning screenplay of GOOD WILL HUNTING is nothing but this, so far as I can tell: one scene after another of girlfriend, friend, and therapist imploring Will to stop diddling and do something with his brain, which finally in the end he does).

So you create the sidekick and write the scene, and oftentimes the scene helps you figure out why the protagonist should do this thing (as in “get off the bus or you’re going to be late for school” or, alternately, “adopt the child, you’ll make her life much happier and you’ll feel better about yourself.”) And then the protagonist goes ahead and does it.

Something you come to learn as writer, however, is that more often than not, now that you’ve gone and written in that character, you’re actually better off without it. Now that you know the motive, all the sidekick is doing is taking power and initiative away from your protagonist, making him or her seem like a passive follower of advice. Far better to just go ahead allow your protagonist to do the thing you wanted him or her to do in the first place – get off the bus, or adopt the child. He or she will instantly become a much more dynamic, potent, and powerful character; one worthy of telling a story about.

Obviously, this is not hard and fast rule. Sometimes advice plays a role in our lives. Not all protagonists need to be dynamic and decisive. I’m just saying, it’s a natural part of the creative process, making up characters or situations that help you understand what your protagonist should do and why he or she should do it, and then cutting them in order to allow your protagonist to proceed thusly and heroically and compellingly. (Why did she get off the bus just then? How intriguing. I must find out!)

So the weird thing with the McCain story is that they added the sidekick in the revision. Now, obviously we know why. Mother Theresa is an excellent character. It testifies to the McCain’s own celebrity and importance that they actually got to meet her, and frankly there isn’t a producer in the world who wouldn’t go with the “Mother Theresa” version, provided her agent doesn't “bust my balls.” The downside, however, is that McCains actually come off as less powerful, less interesting in the Mother Theresa version than if the story had simply been, “we went to Bangladesh, we saw the child needed us and that we needed the child, and we knew what we had to do.”

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Obama hatred

The Anonymous Liberal has, as usual, a nice piece this morning about the hysterical, but predictable nature of Obama-hatred that is now taking shape in conservative corners of the TM and blogosphere.

It’s an especially interesting, and troubling, phenomenon in regard of this particular candidate, since the portrait of Obama that people like Andy McCarthy are painting in their minds is so completely, and comically at odds with the Obama that exists in the real world – that is, the one we see and hear when we actually bother to look and listen.

One can disagree with Obama’s policies. One could think he’s all talk. One could mistake his rope-a-dope for weakness, if one likes, but honestly now, go to Youtube and check out a clip of the man, ANY clip, and ask yourself if a more moderate, reasonable-sounding, measured, likeable, dignified, respectful, or ultimately calming presence ever graced the American politic stage.

Not in my lifetime.

This is not to say the man is a saint, or that the devil isn’t known to wear excellent disguises, merely that one is hard pressed to find, in Obama’s comportment, his demeanor, or in anything he has ever said or written (with the possible exception of the gun-clinging line, which was merely sloppy), any evidence that he is anything but an uncommonly thoughtful, balanced, evolved individual, or the kind in which evil does not happily find harbor. Face it, being a malicious or destructive thought trapped inside Barack Obama’s head would suck. There would be nothing to eat. And even if Obama did not seem so basically decent, the emerging right-wing portrait is so internally inconsistent, such a mess of spittle and contradictions, one wonders that it doesn’t dissolve from its own complete lack of integrity. The arugula chewing elitist subversive? Pick one and go with it, fellas. You’re giving Spock a braincramp.

It is, in fact precisely that - the figmentary nature of the current right-wing portrait, that ultimately calms the nerves regarding all these narrowing national polls. The truth is, a lot Americans probably haven’t gotten to know Obama very well yet. All they’ve seen are the negative ads. Roundabout convention time they’ll tune in and judge for themselves, and I suspect they’ll be amazed at how much they like the guy. You really have to hate yourself a lot not to.

And that is my point, I guess, that in order to preserve and nurse the supremely paranoid view that Barack Obama, of all people, is the human embodiment of some profound and dangerous liberal malignancy, people like McCarthy and those who read him are forced to shutter themselves from reality almost entirely, to go to the closeted place where only the purest fears and hatred can fester and grow, free from the sanitizing bother of fresh air and sunlight.

They are, that is to say, going to a very dangerous place. For all of us.

not glad you belong to me...

Here’s the problem. I’m PC. Windows XP, which may or may not be the explanation, but whenever I unplug an external component from one of my USB ports (which I have to do every day), the computer responds with a musicalized version of a tool falling to the ground. That’s fine. What’s not fine is that note-wise, this sound is a quarter-note interval of a fifth (G down to C, for instance), reminding me EVERY SINGLE TIME I UNHOOK MY HARDDRIVE of the first two notes of “You’re My Best Girl” from MAME, which is not a musical I really know that well, or like all that much. Even worse, it puts me in mind of a late vintage Lucille Ball, singing, which is not a good thing. Or Rosalind Russell, for whom I never found a warm spot. Point is, I don’t want to have that song, or those women, looping in my head every g*dd*mned moment of every g*dd*mned day, but I do and it has to stop.

I guess what I’m saying is, I need to open my control panel.

Fred and Ted

we’ve been reading a fair amount of Fred and Ted around here lately, and I’m still not sure what defining characteristics of those two dogs are - other of course than that Fred is tall and Ted is short. I guess it seems like Fred might be a little more fun, while Ted is a little more responsible, but I’d do much better on a test about Frog and Toad.

The Boy in the Red Hat

There was a small playground at the ‘Baby-house’ – which is what they called the orphanage we were visiting in Ust-Kamenogorsk. Tucked inside a plot no bigger than half a tennis court, they’d managed to fit a rock garden beneath some beech trees, a plank bridge, a puddle-sized pond, a little swing, and a slide. The pieces were all hand-carved, as were the four or five figure-posts that stood sentry throughout – a bunny, a cat, a bear.

The whole set was a donation, most likely – a gift of some appreciative parent-- and a thoughtful one, but maybe more picturesque than functional. During the three weeks we were there, I never saw a single child on it other than Theo, our son, and even his attentions drifted. Raised on the noisier, more ‘hardcore’ playgrounds of Central Park, he paid lip service to the swing – gave his pretend friend ‘Ding a few pushes – but soon enough he’d gravitate to the adjacent lot to inspect the wheels and windows of whatever car happened to be parked there.

We were there to find him a sister, and ourselves a daughter. Two years had passed since my wife and I had brought Theo home from Siberia. They were the two happiest years of our lives, so we’d returned to that general neck of the woods, looking to press our luck.

We prepared Theo as best we could, warming him to the idea, nugget by nugget. At first we told him that we were all going to take a trip together to meet some babies, and he was all for that. He likes planes, and babies too. But now that we were actually there, now that we were visiting the same baby girl every day and sprinkling our conversation more liberally with that word – “sister” – it was beginning to dawn on him what was really going on here.He had shown moments of characteristic largesse – offering hugs, smiles, and some uncommonly vigilant supervision of the babygirl’s pacifier (we weren’t allowed to use her intended name yet) – but there were other moments when he reacted the way you might expect any two-and-a-half year old to react, dragged half-way round the world to watch his parents coo and oogle and dote over a complete stranger – with his old toys, no less – and all for reasons which remained completely mysterious and therefore a little painful. He was dismayed. I was dismayed. I think we were all a little dismayed at first, the baby girl included.

So that’s why, for a certain portion of every visit, either my wife or I would take Theo outside to burn off some energy, get some fresh air, but really just let him know he had nothing to worry about. We loved him no less and beyond all measure. Hearts have room, that’s the great thing about them.

This morning was my turn. Theo had found a fairly large dump truck the day before, in the corner of the visiting room, so we took that down with us because, as I say, that windswept little playground offered only so much consolation. There also happened to be only car to look at that morning, and it was occupied, so Theo and I ventured over to the far side of the carport that divided the lot – a chevron ‘T’ cobbled together from concrete, plywood and corrugated tin. We found some rocks and soft dirt and loaded up the bed of the truck. I was suggesting we find a good construction site to dump the stones, but Theo didn’t seem all that interested. He’s still more in the hauling-for-hauling’s-sake stage, but even that proved more frustrating than fun. The pull-string on the truck was too short, so the fender kept barking against his heels and spilling stones, and none of that was the point anyway. He wanted to be held. I wanted to hold him, so after a few minutes we set aside the truck and I picked him up.

We were just standing there in our coats and hats, swaying in the wintry air, when a troop of children came round the near side of the building – orphans. Weather permitting, the caregivers at the Baby-house liked to take the toddlers outside once or twice a day. Here there were maybe a dozen of them, all bundled up in parkas, hats and scarves, and all moving very slowly, as I’d seen most such troops do – hand in hand, or mitten in mitten, looking down at their boot-tips as they walked, heal-toe heal-toe. It’s the caregivers who set the pace, of course – there were two in this instance, walking backwards – but I suspect the reason the children comply so readily is because they know these outings are precious: two times around the building and then it’s back inside, so no need to rush.As they came round the turn, one by one they lifted their heads and saw us, me standing there with Theo on my arm. They all appeared to be at least three years old, which is older than most parents like to adopt. I know that first-hand, and that the chances of any of these children being plucked from this place, and far grimmer futures, were growing slimmer by the moment. On some level, the children understood this too, but their expressions remained hopeful, entirely free of bitterness or self-pity.

There was a very pretty little blond girl who even used the word, “dada.” She smiled at us and waved. I waved back, thinking to myself how on earth, how on earth a jewel like that slip through, and how much longer could it shine?

The boys, just as precious, were a little more divided in their attention. They saw Theo and me, but they also saw the truck, loaded up with dirt and stones and abandoned there, so tantalizingly close to the path they were taking. A few of them stopped to gape, crouching down with yearning, pointing at it. Machina! Machina! they said, almost involuntarily, but still keeping an obedient distance. They knew - not theirs to play with. Not today, anyway. They made due with the view.

There was one boy, though, standing straight up, and he wasn’t looking at the truck. He was looking at me. He was wearing a black parka, dark green sweat pants and boots, and a bright red ski hat which clung tight to his head except for a knob at the top, which was flat like a spade.

He was a very handsome boy who would be a handsome man, strong and stout, I could tell from his posture – which resembled a sprung genie, or a lumberjack posing for a portrait. His chest was puffed out. His chin was high, and his expression as he looked back at me was entirely winning – like an old friend, like someone I hadn’t seen since college and hadn’t expected to, but here he was, of all places, taking great pride in his surprise appearance.

Yes, it’s me, he grinned.

I replied instinctively with an old in-joke – puffing out my cheeks like a blowfish. He laughed in recognition and did the same, at which point the caregiver called to him in Russian – Come along now. Let them be.

He took a step or two to leave, but he couldn’t resist. He looked back. I couldn’t resist either. I puffed out my cheeks again. He laughed again. The caregiver gave a firmer tug, and off he went, disappearing behind the cement side-wall of the carport.

I didn’t think he was quite finished, though, so I waited. A moment passed. Another moment, then sure enough, his head popped from behind the wall again. I responded with mock surprise – “You!” – and he ducked from view again, giggling.

I figured that was probably enough, even as much as I liked him. I didn’t want to disrupt the group’s walk any more than I already had, and I’m sure the caregiver wasn’t too keen on our game either, or my leaving the truck out there to tempt the children.

But of course it wasn’t only up to me. There was a ply-wood door in the middle of the wall, and through the slim crack I could now see the bright red of the boy’s cap, and his eye beneath. He was peeking through to see if I was still looking.

I pretended I wasn’t. I turned my attention back to Theo, who’d abided this whole exchange quietly and without jealousy. There was no threat here, just a nice little boy playing peekaboo. And when I did look back at the crack in the wall, the red sliver was gone. The caregiver had prevailed.

It was the truck that now beckoned, still bearing its load of stones and dirt. As Theo and I started back over to fetch it, I again suggested we find a place to dump it – maybe the playground on the other side. There was a spot next to the swing that looked like it could use some filling in.

Theo’s interest was still only mild. He didn’t object, but he clearly preferred to be held, so I obliged. I bent down and took up the string myself and started pulling the truck behind us. It was actually a fairly an awkward maneuver, given the length of the string, the fact that Theo – in parka and boots – probably weighed forty pounds, and that in order to get back through to the playground side of the carport we had to duck through the small opening that had been busted – literally sledge-hammered – into the concrete wall separating the two sides.
I took it slow for all these reason, but also because I wanted to give the three-year-olds time to move on ahead of us. I was hoping they might have rounded the far corner of the Baby-house by now.

Unfortunately, they were still very much there – still creeping along their little lane – as Theo and I emerged into view again. Worse, the sound of the plastic truck wheels on the pavement was intensely loud for some reason. The concrete was rough, and the carport must have been acting as a speaker, but all the children were looking back at us now, and the caregivers, and the boy in the red hat obviously, hoping this meant I’d come to resume our game.

I hadn’t. I kept my eyes straight ahead. I’d made my decision, but there was still a fair distance between me and my destination, the playground – maybe twelve paces, but twice as many of the slightly crouching mini-steps I was taking. I didn’t see any other way, though. With Theo sagging lower and lower in my arm, and the dump truck rumbling and thundering at my heels, I crossed the lot painfully slowly and in full view of the curious children. I could feel the confusion of the boy in the red hat, waiting to see if I’d quit acting now and look up at him; wondering why I’d turned so cold. Had I forgotten? Did I not see him?

We reached the playground finally, but there was a curb. I did my best to finesse the truck up and over, but I couldn’t. The truck bed flipped. The stones and dirt all spilled out into a neat little pile on the pavement. I could have scooped it up, but instead I left them there as if that’s what I’d meant to do. My arm was giving way, and I’d nearly made to the softer, quieter dirt the playground, where I knew I could take cover behind the posts, the trees, and Theo’s passing interest in the little swing.So that’s what I did. And at some point, I assume the boy in the red hat gave up on me and caught up with the others. Knowing him, I suspect he shook off his disappointment fairly quickly and turned the bright beam of his personality onto the next fortunate stranger.

But I’d been stung, reminded again, for all the talk of boundless hearts, how limited we are in our capacity to exercise them. I wondered if it was just me and something I still didn’t get, or could it possibly be true – testament to the dastardly rigging of the human condition – that sometimes, often times, what keeps us from extending ourselves further, giving more, loving more, is our sense of compassion.

Because that just doesn’t sound right.