Monday, February 25, 2019

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

Source of book: I own the complete essays of James Baldwin

This is my official choice for Black History Month this year.

Here is the list of Black History Month selections since I started this blog, and also some related books:

2016:    Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin
    Black Boy (American Hunger) by Richard Wright

Other notable books by African American or African authors:

Poems by Phillis Wheatley
Zone One by Colson Whitehead
I Greet The Dawn (Poems) by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
The Fire This Time edited by Jesmyn Ward
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

Books on Black History by other authors:

The Slaves’ War by Andrew Ward
Devil In The Grove by Gilbert King


Three years ago, I read James Baldwin for the first time: his semi-autobiographical novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain. While the depiction of domestic violence and dysfunction was difficult at times, the book really impressed me with its psychological perceptiveness and nuanced view of various political and religious movements. 

I had a chance to pick up a collection of Baldwin’s essays in the Library of America format, so I did. I decided to start at the beginning, and read the first collection for Black History Month this year.

This collection was fascinating and thought provoking. It is divided into three sections. The first is essentially critical reviews of books of movies - specifically, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Native Son by Richard Wright, and the film version of Bizet’s Carmen starring African Americans, Carmen Jones. (My wife had heard of the last of these despite its obscurity.) The second section looks at the African American experience in the United States. The third is about the author’s experiences in Europe. Preceding all of this is an introduction entitled “Autobiographical Notes,” which is fantastic.

I’ll look at these roughly in the order they are in the book. First are a couple of wonderful lines from the introduction. Baldwin really articulates well the unspoken and unacknowledged role of racism and white supremacy in the very core of our politics. It is impossible to coherently talk about pretty much any issue in our current political discussion - particularly the election of The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named - without acknowledging the past and its effects on the present. As Baldwin puts it:

I don’t think that the Negro problem in America can be even discussed coherently without bearing in mind its context; its context being the history, traditions, customs, the moral assumptions and preoccupations of the country; in short the general social fabric. Appearances to the contrary, no one in America escapes its effects and everyone in America bears some responsibility for it. I believe this the more firmly because it is the overwhelming tendency to speak of this problem as though it were a thing apart.

There is more good stuff about this in the final essay, which I hope to discuss later in this post. The second quote is fantastic, and is one I hope to steal.

I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.

This is a common - and intentional in my opinion - misunderstanding of those of us who criticize America. We love our country, and want to see her live up to her ideals, not degrade to our worst instincts and historical moments. And this is why the Colin Kaepernicks of the world will always be far truer patriots than the jingoistic gun-toting sorts. To love is to expect the best, not enable the worst.

I didn’t note any particular quotes from the literary reviews, but I did want to touch on them. First, Baldwin’s criticisms of Uncle Tom’s Cabin are entirely just. He is right that, to reach her audience, she had to make her Negros either exotic (see: Topsy) or all too perfect to be realistic. As Baldwin notes, they cannot be fully human, with weaknesses and all, or they would be rejected by Stowe’s white audience. And yes, this remains a problem in white portrayals of people of color, from the “magical negro” on down. I won’t get into that further, other than to say that the essay is worth a read. It isn’t so much a takedown of Stowe as a critique of white audiences in general.

I can’t say much about Baldwin’s criticism of Richard Wright’s Native Son, as I have not yet read that. I thought his autobiographical work, Black Boy (American Hunger) was good.

The takedown (and takedown it was) of Carmen Jones appears to be entirely justified. Heck, so much of classic Hollywood has aged extremely badly - particularly on issues of race. I will particularly note his fantastic riff on why Black Carmen - and particularly the black men who desire her - cannot be allowed to be truly sexual. After all, that would get uncomfortably close to the most pernicious stereotypes about African Americans.

The second section is both intriguing and depressing. Baldwin is not much of an optimist, and is pretty much a self-admitted misanthrope in many cases. His view of black politicians is pretty dismal, even as he acknowledges the need for more blacks in politics. Sadly, so much of what he says seems to be true about today as well. Sigh.

I do want to quote one of his percipient statements, at the beginning of his description of the hazards of traveling to the deep south - specifically a horribly botched fundraising campaign involving a friend of his.

It is considered a rather cheerful axiom that all Americans distrust politicians. (No one takes the further and less cheerful step of considering just what effect this mutual contempt has on either the public or the politicians, who have, indeed, very little to do with one another.)

That’s both depressing and far too true these days as well.

In a later essay, Baldwin also makes a thoughtful observation about hate. Baldwin had a vicious, abusive father. In this essay, he mentions that he didn’t want to see his father on his deathbed. Although he told his mother that the reason was that he hated his father, he acknowledges in this essay that the real reason is that he didn’t want to see his father in a condition too pathetic to hate. Baldwin’s level of self-awareness is impressive and admirable. But the quote applies beyond just his situation.

I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.

There is so much truth in this, both on the personal level, and on the broader societal level, as we endure a season where hate has gained a renewed vigor.

The final section was, in many ways, my favorite. If that is the right word. During the Jim Crow era, Europe, particularly Paris, was a bit of a haven for African Americans. It was a place where they would be treated relatively equally, and had access to the mainstream of intellectual and social live. But it wasn’t exactly a utopia, as Baldwin points out. While one wouldn’t be denied food, shelter, or employment, one was always burdened with the assumptions that came with being an American. Baldwin also notes that white supremacy is endemic to Europe too - that whole colonialist enterprise was founded on the idea of white superiority. It just manifests differently.

Perhaps the most horrifying essay is the one that tells the tale of Baldwin’s experience with the French criminal justice system. So, this fellow American runs into Baldwin, and gets his help in finding lodging in the same dive hotel in Paris. Unbeknownst to Baldwin, this guy stole the sheets from his previous lodging. Baldwin borrows these sheets while he does a protest that he can’t get his own sheets washed by the hotel. The cops are called, and an identifying mark is noticed, and Baldwin and his acquaintance end up in a bewildering cycle of bureaucracy and oppression which keeps them incarcerated for weeks on end on what is the most petty of thefts. (And Baldwin didn’t even do anything!) Finally, after an agonizing and seemingly endless series of hearings, Baldwin manages to get a fellow inmate who is released to go contact a lawyer friend of Baldwin’s, who gets things dismissed in fairly short order. The whole episode is a chilling reminder of the challenges - and abuses - faced by immigrants in our own justice system. Forget not sharing a common language. Baldwin is most horrified by the fact that he can’t read the culture like he could at home. Even in the South, he would have been able to kiss the right asses and get out. But in France, it is a bewildering mystery. This is why a bristle at those who claim that immigrants and refugees should somehow be able to master our own system the first time, without mistakes, and that any mistake should result in catastrophic consequences. I wish that each of those persons might find themselves afoul of a justice system they don’t instinctively understand. (Our own would be good enough - but a foreign one would be even better.) I love Baldwin’s observation on culture:

One had, in short, to come in contact with an alien culture in order to understand that a culture was not a community basket-weaving project, nor yet an act of God; was something neither desirable nor undesirable in itself, being inevitable, being nothing more or less than the recorded and visible effects on a body of people of the vicissitudes with which they had been forced to deal.

I am reminded of Abraham Maslow’s amazing quote about culture:

It is too often not realized that culture itself is an adaptive tool, one of whose main functions is to make the physiological emergencies come less and less often.

This is one of the main arguments I have had with people in the last few years. “Culture” is essentially used as a euphemism for race, of course, but more than that is the argument that somehow a culture is superior by definition because it has subjugated other cultures. Rather, cultures and subcultures are as much driven by circumstances as by choice.

Another essay in this section concerns Baldwin’s experience in a tiny Swiss village, where he was essentially the first black person anyone had seen. It is pretty horrifying in many ways, even though it is predictable as to the human behaviors. One of the best lines in this comes from Baldwin’s notice of a missionary collection box - seeking money to “convert the heathen Africans.” As Baldwin contemplates the irony of “buying” souls as black bodies were bought in the recent past, he makes an observation about his own father, who was a devout preacher even as he was abusive to his family.

I tried not to think of these so lately baptized kinsmen, of the price paid for them, or the peculiar price they themselves would pay, and said nothing about my own father, who having taken his own conversion too literally never, at bottom, forgave the white world (which he described as heathen) for having saddled him with a Christ in whom, to judge at least from their treatment of him, they themselves no longer believed.

This is, indeed, the conclusion I myself have come to about white American Evangelicals. They sure believe in their doctrine, in their beliefs, and especially in their white nationalist politics - but they sure as fucking hell do not believe in Jesus Christ. At least not in a way that might possibly affect their behavior toward their fellow humans.

The final four pages of this essay are some of the best writing on race I have ever read. Baldwin takes the reader on a tour-de-force of the history of European chauvinism and the need whites have to remain wilfully ignorant of their own complicity in harming others. He starts with the idea that the American dream, of the equality of mankind, runs directly counter to American behavior. The expansion of equality to include the black man has caused tremendous cognitive dissonance. Let me quote at length.

[T]o betray a belief is not not by any means to have put oneself beyond its power; the betrayal of a belief is not the same thing as ceasing to believe. If this were not so there would be now moral standards in the world at all. Yet one must recognize that morality is based on ideas and that all ideas are dangerous - dangerous because ideas can only lead to action and where the action leads no man can say. And dangerous in this respect: that confronted with the impossibility of remaining faithful to one’s beliefs, and the equal impossibility of becoming free of them, one can be driven to the most inhuman excesses. The ideas on which American beliefs are not, though Americans often seem to think so, ideas which originated in America. They came out of Europe. And the establishment of democracy on the American continent was scarcely as radical a beak with the past as was the necessity, which Americans faced, of broadening this concept to include black men.  
This was, literally, a hard necessity. It was impossible, for one thing, for Americans to abandon their beliefs, not only because these beliefs alone seemed able to justify the sacrifice they had endured and the blood that they had spilled, but also because these beliefs afforded them their only bulwark against a moral chaos as absolute as the physical chaos of the continent it was their destiny to conquer. But in the situation in which Americans found themselves, these beliefs threatened an idea which, whether or not one likes to think so, is the very warp and woof of the heritage of the West, the idea of white supremacy.
Americans have made themselves notorious by the shrillness and the brutality with which they have insisted on this idea, but they did not invent it; and it has escaped the world’s notice that those very excesses of which Americans have been guilty imply a certain, unprecedented uneasiness over the idea’s life and power, if not, indeed, the idea’s validity. The idea of white supremacy rests simply on the fact that white men are the creators of civilization (the present civilization, which is the only one that matters; all previous civilizations are simply “contributions” to our own) and are therefore civilization’s guardians and defenders. Thus it was impossible for Americans to accept the black man as one of themselves, for to do so was to jeopardize their status as white men. But not so to accept him was to deny his human reality, his human weight and complexity, and the strain of denying the overwhelmingly undeniable forced Americans into rationalizations so fantastic that they approached the pathological.

Dang. The idea of the pathological rationalizations is even more true today of white Evangelicals than when Baldwin wrote it. It goes on:

At the root of the American Negro problem is the necessity of the American white man to find a way of living with the Negro in order to be able to live with himself.

Baldwin goes on to note the history of lynching and segregation - and calls this an insanity which overtakes white men. Indeed. Baldwin then goes on to get to a really raw nerve. One which is at the heart of both our toxic excuse for religion and our equally toxic politics. I have to quote the final two paragraphs in their entirety, because they are so prophetic in explaining both our current political moment and indeed the way that white Evangelicalism has self-destructed over the last few decades.

Yet, if the American Negro has arrived at his identity by virtue of the absoluteness of his estrangement from his past, American white men still nourish the illusion that there is some means of recovering the European innocence, of returning to a state in which black men do not exist. This is one of the greatest errors Americans can make. The identity they fought so hard to protect has, by virtue of that battle, undergone a change: Americans are as unlike any other white people in the world as it is possible to be. I do not thing, for example, that it is too much to suggest that the American vision of the world - which allows so little reality, generally speaking, for any of the darker forces in human life, which tends until today to paint moral issues in glaring black and white - owes a great deal to the battle waged by Americans to maintain between themselves and black men a human separation which could not be bridged. It is only now beginning to be borne in on us - very faintly, it must be admitted, very slowly, and very much against our will - that this vision of the world is dangerously inaccurate, and perfectly useless. For it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality. People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.
The time has come to realize that the interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too. No road whatever will lead Americans back to the simplicity of this European village where white men still have the luxury of looking on me as a stranger. I am not, really, a stranger any longer for any American alive. One of the things that distinguishes Americans from other people is that no other people has ever been so deeply involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa. This fact face, with all its implications, it can be seen that the history of the American Negro problem is not merely shameful, it is also something of an achievement. For even when the worst has been said, it must also be added that the perpetual challenge posed by this problem was always, somehow, perpetually met. It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.

I have read and re-read these paragraphs over and over a few times, because they are so fantastic. Really, the political and cultural moment we find ourselves in is contained therein. Trump ran on a platform which is essentially what Baldwin describes as “European innocence.” That state in which the existence of non-whites can be denied. MAGA is really - and has always been - “make America white again.” But the world is no longer white, and it never will be again. These warring ideas play out in so many ways, from the debate about immigration, to the Black Lives Matter movement, to our discussion of taxation and public benefits. The undercurrent of white supremacy has yet to be fully addressed, a full 75 years after Baldwin wrote these words. And it is nowhere as fully unaddressed as within white Evangelicalism. So many things here apply, from the naive (or, more likely, malevolent) insistence on a black and white morality (literally and figuratively), to the pathological denial of reality, to the way that moral high-mindedness and false innocence turns one into a monster: these are literally the defining characteristics of white Evangelicalism these days.

This collection of essays is well worth the read. Baldwin, even though he wrote decades ago, seems more prophetic and relevant than ever. His writing seems, like Jean Sibelius’ music, to be “cold, clear water” offering that clarity so needed today.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown (Empty Space 2019)

This is one of those plays I had never heard of but decided to go see just because it was an Empty Space production and I had an evening free with my date. It also sounded like an intriguing concept.

The basic idea is that there are two actors, portraying Jamie and Cathy, a couple who meet, fall in love, get married, grow apart, and split up, all within five years. Their stories are told in reverse order, so Jamie starts his with them falling in love, while Cathy starts hers with the aftermath of the breakup. As the play progresses, they meet briefly in the middle, during the wedding. Then, we see his progression toward the breakup, while her story goes back in time to the beginning.

Furthermore, there is essentially no dialogue, and nearly everything is told through song, not spoken lines. It is an interesting way of putting a play together - but also a challenging one to pull off. The hardest part, in my opinion, is creating chemistry when the two actors are rarely on stage together, and when they are, the either interact solely through acting, not dialogue, and are often even at different places in the story. The second hardest part is pulling off the challenging music. More about that later.

Jason Robert Brown wrote this play - and the music and score and everything - it is essentially a one-man show. That is pretty impressive from the level of difficulty. Wagner, of course, did the same thing, although his were decidedly longer and more turgid, although they contained some of the most transcendent music of all time. There are pitfalls to this approach, however. One of which is that generally either the music or the poetry is good, but rarely if ever both. In this case, I think both had some issues. The music was sometimes a bit too obscure to serve the plot, and the stream-of-consciousness lyrics were sometimes a bit hard to follow.

The play was apparently inspired (if that is the right word) by Brown’s own failed marriage. When the play first came out, she threatened to sue him. He changed one song so it wasn’t quite as obviously autobiographical. The irony of this is that Brown actually wrote the play so that “his” character, Jamie, is pretty unsympathetic. Bluntly, he is an asshole most of the play, obsessed with his career, callous about Cathy’s own failures, and fully expectant that she will be the little trophy wife and go to all his publicity stuff with him. And then, he cheats on her, and then complains that “I could never rescue you.” Ouch. I have to wonder if Brown’s ex-wife actually listened to the play, because she comes off as the better person.

The Empty Space took an interesting approach to the casting. They cast two actors in each role, and then used each combination - a total of four - for different nights. In addition, while two women (Megan Jarrett and Ellie Sivesind) played the part of Cathy, the role of Jamie was split between male and female (namely, Alex Mitts, and Baeleigh Bevan.) This meant that there were two opposite sex couples, and two same sex couples. I was only able to see one particular combination - Jarrett and Bevan - so I cannot say how the other combinations worked. Although it is safe to assume that each combination had a different feel to it. 

 Ellie Sivesind and Alex Mitts

 Megan Jarrett and Baeleigh Bevan

One of the advantages of seeing this performed by a same sex couple is this: all the stupid male privilege and entitlement looks a bit different when it is a woman doing it. So, as a great example, one of the better songs, “A Miracle Would Happen,” is Jamie’s experience being the popular guy that all the girls hit on. Seriously. Read the lyrics. Jamie is a total asshole, and it sounds even more horrifying when it is a woman singing the lyrics. (Blame my gender essentialist upbringing for my response to that.) Once you strip away the “boys will be boys” and the wink and nudge about supposed male sexuality, and see a woman treat another one that way, it is pretty clear that it is just atrocious behavior.

I should mention the other really clever song, “Audition Sequence,” which is brutally honest about the pressure that theater puts on women.

As a musician, I did find the score to be fascinating. The style is pretty broad, from pop and rock to jazz, classical, and klezmer. And within that, the keys are ambiguous and rapidly modulating, the time signatures and tempos variable. As a result, the vocal demands are really high, and the songs difficult to pull off. The instrumentation is sparse and eclectic: piano, acoustic guitar, bass, violin, and two cellos. At first, I thought is was a string quartet - because the one cello essentially takes the role of both viola and second violin. Which means you had better have a badass cellist. TES has no space for live musicians, so it was a recording. I would have love to play this score, though, challenging as it would be. It is quite impressive how Brown covers the various musical genres without a drummer. In my opinion, the score is the strongest part of the musical for that reason.

The downside of this, though, is that the vocal demands are really high. I’m hardly a great singer, and couldn’t even fumble my way through this. But as a violinist, I know enough to see the difficulty level. The venue didn’t help, either, as TES doesn’t use microphones, and the audience is a full 270 degrees, so it is imperative that vocalists make sure every nuance comes through.

So, even though I hate to say something negative about a local production, the vocals were a weak point. Specifically, there were times when Bevan simply could not be heard. We were seated at stage right, and when she turned to the left, we just lost the voice completely. This was particularly an issue when the song took her down into the low range, or when there were a lot of those stream-of-consciousness lyrics where every word is crucial. So, for her opening song, “Shiksa Goddess,” I didn’t figure out the key point that Cathy isn’t Jewish - which is why Jamie’s mother is going to freak out in a way that she wouldn’t even if Cathy came from an incestuous family. I just lost too many of the lyrics to get the picture.

To be fair to Bevan, she was covering a “male” part, so the low range may have been a struggle for her anyway. And then add the difficult pacing and often unusual syntax, and I sympathise. I got the impression that she actually sings quite well, but that this had just too many difficulties for her to overcome. That said, I will forgive a lot, but I have to be able to hear the lyrics. On the plus side, I thought Bevan did a fine job of making Jamie a more nuanced character, not just the jerk his part suggests.

Jarrett was better. I think the range was more comfortable for her, and she just belted it out. I will give particular credit to her for some extended notes that she held without going the least bit flat. Because I have played enough music theater to have winced at plenty of otherwise outstanding performances which suffered from at least one note that deflated by the end.

Singing aside, I thought both actors did pretty well considering they rarely got to interact. The format is interesting, to be sure, but does make it difficult to really see if there is chemistry between the actors. As with the songs, I would have liked to have seen if any of the other combinations made a strong connection despite the challenges.

With the flaws aside, I do want to give TES credit for trying unusual works, and not just recycling the same 20 favorite musicals and plays. Not everything always comes together perfectly, but credit for taking some risks.

One final note: as usual, TES has such creative sets in a small space. The whole exploding clock thing was excellent. Credit to Brian Sivesind and Jesus Fidel for their design - and to the small army of volunteers who bring every set to life.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Our Common Wealth by Jonathan Rowe

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This little book has been on my list for a while. One of my kinda-sorta new years resolutions was to order a couple of books on my list and read them.

At less than 100 pages, this is a super quick read. It consists of short chapters, which are more about the philosophy than the implementation of author’s ideas. Since Rowe already distilled his ideas into a concentrated and succinct form, I risk quoting the entire work in summarizing.

The basic idea is this: alongside our “official” economy, there exists a giant parallel and complementary economy that he calls the “commons.” These are things, like the ancient version, which entire communities hold together, and which benefit everyone. These “commons” are not counted in economic reports, because they don’t register actual economic activity, even though the “official” private and public sector economies depend greatly on their existence.

The ancient idea of the commons is easier to understand. Certain places were held in common, for everyone to use, subject to unwritten understandings about how to protect them. These included, of course, the common grazing lands of England (and elsewhere in Europe), the fisheries and forests, and so on. There are modern equivalents too. Our oceans, atmosphere, sidewalks, and the internet are specifically mentioned. In Rowe’s view (and I tend to agree), the commons are under assault in our time, the prey of powerful corporations interested only in the next year - or next quarter of profit, rather than the long term. Because the Commons are less visible, they are not protected. Thus, a lot of what we call “profit” or “economic expansion” is really just the raping of the Commons.

While I don’t think this book and its ideas are the entire picture, I do think Rowe does capture a significant part of the reason why we are facing runaway inequality, a crumbling environment, and a lack of commitment to the common good. Rowe is absolutely correct, however, that this is largely a modern phenomenon, driven by a certain worship of private profit above all else. He may blame Adam Smith more than I do, where I think Ayn Rand and others are more to blame, but his underlying premise is solid.

Let me start with the quotes at the beginning of the book, which are fascinating:

First is a couple of lines from Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village,” one of the first poems to deal with the urbanization caused by the Industrial Revolution. (The whole poem is all too applicable today, with our rapacious profiteering, vulgar ultrarich, and more…)

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay

The second is a quote from Wendell Berry, who I have come to love - and need to read more of.

A proper a commonwealth: a place, a resource, an economy. It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members - among them the need to need one another.

In the introduction, Bill McKibben references Garrett Hardin’s essay from the 1960s, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Rowe refers to it in the body of the book. The problem is that this essay was highly influential...while turning out to be almost entirely bullshit. The Commons existed and functioned for literally hundreds of years - far longer than our imploding klepto-capitalism has been in existence. Communities around the globe have been able to manage the Commons wisely and carefully. It is when the commons are invaded by profiteering that they break down.

With this idea, Rowe aligns himself with an older version of Conservatism, that of Edmund Burke. While Burke had his wince worthy moments (colonialism anyone?), his conservatism was a vastly different breed than today’s Right. I share Rowe’s natural affinity for classical conservative thought - that concerned with the preservation of social institutions and the Commons. I too have been appalled at the takeover of the Right by “billionaires, yahoos, and zealots.” (All of which found their Platonic “form” in the person of Donald Trump.)

Rowe pretty much nails it when he notes that the operating principles of the Commons are different from the Market.

Unlike the market, which is organized to maximize short-term private gain, the commons is (or should be) organized to preserve shared assets for future generations and to spread their benefits more or less equally among the living. If government nurtured this sector as zealously as it nurtures the market, the modern world would be a healthier and happier place.

I also liked Rowe’s attempt to define the Commons - a task as difficult as defining “the market” or “the state.”

In fact, the commons includes our entire life support system, both natural and social. The air and oceans, the web of species, wilderness and flowing water - all are parts of the commons. So are language and knowledge, sidewalks and public squares, the stories of childhood, the processes of democracy. Some parts of the commons are gifts of nature, others the products of human endeavor. Some are new, such as the Internet; others are as ancient as soil and calligraphy. What they have in common is that they all “belong” to all of us, if that is the word. No one has exclusive rights to them. We inherit them jointly and hold them in trust for those who come after us. We are “temporary possessors and life renters” as Edmund Burke wrote, and we “should not think it amongst [our] rights to commit waste on the inheritance.”

Rowe then notes that the need is not for the government to run or own the commons, but to use laws, rules, boundaries to protect it - just like it does aggressively for for private property.

Later, Rowe directly addresses Hardin’s essay. As Rowe sees it, Hardin assumed that people exist outside of social structure, and lack the basic ability to communicate with each other, let alone cooperate for the common good. It is this idea of economic “rationality” which dominates our discussion of how people behave, despite overwhelming evidence that people don’t actually act like this. (Witness as one example, the fact that whole groups of people consistently vote against their economic interests, in favor of their tribalistic interests.)

There is a whole section on a story which has a lot of personal significance to me: that of Pacific Lumber.

Those of us who live in California are usually familiar with our majestic redwoods - the tallest trees in the world. They grow in a limited band in the coastal hills of the northern part of the state. While they were once widespread, only five percent of the original old growth forests remain - fortunately these have been protected.

 Old growth Redwood forest, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, 2016. 
Picture by me.

Well into the 1980s, most of the forest that was still in private hands was owned by Pacific Lumber - a family operation dedicated to sustainable operations. When I was a kid (age 9 or so - 1986?), we visited the redwoods for my first time. As part of that trip, we took a tour of the mill in the town of Scotia. It was a real highlight, and I remember all of the documentation of sustainable practices and so on.

What I didn’t know then, was that that the year before, Pacific Lumber had been taken over - in one of those 1980s hostile takeovers - by a predatory company, Maxxim, which shortly thereafter started clearcutting. Hey, maximize those short term profits!

In early 2002, the first year of our marriage, Amanda and I took a trip to the redwoods ourselves. Because of my memories, we stopped at the mill. But it was largely vacant, and you could just see a little bit of ongoing operations. By the time we visited with the kids years later, the company had gone bankrupt, and the mill was shut down, leaving environmental devastation in its wake.

 The Scotia lumber mill back in the day - click to enlarge.

As Rowe notes, the forests are gone - perhaps forever, or at least for hundreds of years. A few people made huge profits, and the rest of us lost. It was a classic case of plundering of the Commons. Had the forests been viewed - and protected - as belonging to everyone, this predatory behavior would have been stopped. And this applies to pretty much every pressing environmental issue today: private profiteers aren’t actually creating wealth - they are plundering it from the commons.

Rowe correctly notes that this is permitted - nay, encouraged - because the benefits of the Commons are not easily tied to money. My electric bill may be lower because I have shade trees, but they don’t figure in the economy the way that PG&E does.

I’ll also briefly mention the concept of “community of goods” as being of interest to lawyers. In general, thinkers from Locke on down have recognized that the right to property is superseded by necessity. As Lock put it, the property claims of the rich man “must give way to the pressing and preferable Title of those who are in danger to perish without it.” Something to keep in mind in our own times, when the modern Right insists that it is more important that the ultrawealthy keep more of their income than that everyone else have enough to survive. As Rowe points out, this was justified historically by the idea that the needy had a prior property right which came before the right of private property.

I think my favorite chapter was on Conservatism, however. As one who is temperamentally a conservative, and yet who is morally appalled by the modern Right, with its racism, social darwinism, and reactionary politics. Let me quote a bit.

Few things would shake up American politics as much as clarifying the term conservative. From the daily media one might surmise that conservatives are people who hate taxes and gays and love markets and religion. But the conservative tradition runs deeper than that, and in some ways contrary to it.

Yes!! Rowe goes on to quote Burke as noting that society is an organic whole, and those with more have a duty to support the common good with their taxes. (Say what?!!) And how about this Burke quote?

“[Society is a partnership] not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

Kudos to Rowe for pointing out as well that Burke and Smith and the other founders of Conservative thought defended individual private property, not corporate property. (Smith, for one, loathed corporations and banking, and considered them serious threats to society.) Rowe goes on to note that even some of the most doctrinaire libertarians eventually expressed reservations about unregulated corporate klepto-capitalism. One was Wilhelm Ropke, a disciple of the rather loathsome Ludwig Von Mises, who eventually wrote a book entitled The Humane Economy, which questioned much of the market-based views he had previously held. A key quote:

“The highest interests of the community and the indispensable things of life have no exchange value and are neglected if supply and demand are allowed to dominate the field. The supporters of the market economy do it the worst service by not observing its limits and conditions.”

I have to quote the last paragraph in its entirety, because it is so good:

In recent decades, authentic conservatism - the kind that respects community, locality, tradition, and virtue - has been displaced by a phony kind that is politically expedient and cynical to the core. It channels the conservative impulse into a few red-meat issues - abortion, gays, school prayer - that pose no threat to the bankrollers of either party. Thus, one does not often hear a Fox News commentator talk about the limits of the market, as opposed to what else should be given over to it. What this phony “movement” really professes is not conservativsm, but the opposite - a belief that it is okay to waste the patrimony so long as somebody makes money doing it. Edmund Burke would be turning in his tomb.

I want to mention a few other ideas in closing. The first is the idea that time is part of the commons. One of the pernicious developments during my lifetime is the idea that work should bleed over into an increasing share of total time. Hours have increased, and more take work home via electronic devices. In essence, the Market claims ever more of our time - and it isn’t workers who benefit from this, but the corporations which demand it. This leaves less time for the uncompensated work which keeps society functioning. (Side note here: this “worked” for decades because women were expected to do all the uncompensated work. Now that this has changed due to a combination of feminism and declining wages, a lot of “women’s” work just isn’t getting done…)

Another thing I want to touch on is the fact that the Internet is the “sidewalk” of the 21st Century. Rowe mentions this, although the book was written before Facebook and other social media became such important parts of our lives. Rowe was prescient in this. Thus, when we discuss Net Neutrality, for example, what we are in a sense discussing is whether the Commons of the Internet (which was invented by government and academics using government funding) will be taken over by private profiteers. Will it remain a commons, or will it be entirely monetized. In large part, the last election was evidence of the monetization of the sidewalks of our century. Fake news pushed by foreign governments was allowed to squat and take a shit on our public spaces. It is every bit as offensive as nailing posters to the trees in our national parks.

The book is a little less solid on concrete solutions. Given its scope, this is understandable. It isn’t intended to be a policy manual, but a book of ideas. And I think it succeeds at that.

After all, the most important thing here isn’t a specific policy, but a different way of looking at things. A way that recognizes the Commons as a property right that deserves protection. A view of pollution, for example, that views it as a theft of the Commons - a taking of property from everyone else, that deserves full compensation. An idea that libraries and schools aren’t expendable luxuries - or assets to be sold to private interests -  but part of our Commons, to be preserved for the benefit of all. A return to the idea (common until Disney) that a decade or two of copyright protection was the maximum before ideas (which never occur in a vacuum) are returned to the public domain for the benefit of all.

I want to be clear about this: Rowe is not a communist by any stretch. He is not anti-capitalism. He’s not arguing for a government takeover or anything. Rather, he notes that the private sector, the public sector, and the Commons exist (and have always existed) side by side. It is in recent times that the private sector has metastasized to endanger the Commons, and it is now the Commons, more than the private sector, which needs a renewed effort of protection.

Our Common Wealth is an interesting book, and one that really resonated with me as an old school Conservative who is alarmed at the replacement of the idea of preservation for future generations with a reactionary push to re-create all the injustices and cruelties of the past. It is a good reminder that the great Conservative thinkers of the past were genuinely concerned with the common good, and willing to place limits on the market as much as on government. And that they recognized the need for preserving our Common Wealth for the benefit of all, not just for the ultra-wealthy corporatists and those most skilled at exploiting and plundering the Commons. I, along with other classical Conservatives, wish to see the Commons available again for our children and grandchildren - like they were for our grandparents.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Crazy For You by George and Ira Gershwin and Ken Ludwig (Stars 2019)

George and Ira Gershwin occupy an interesting place in my history. Both of my parents enjoy classical music - a good thing with three string player children - but they have one significant source of disagreement. My dad likes George Gershwin - in part because of the old United Airlines ads using Rhapsody in Blue. (He was an amateur pilot and professional air traffic controller back in the day.) My mom? Not so much. She never has liked jazz in any of its forms, and Gershwin’s jazzy harmonies and blue notes never did it for her. So, my dad and I would listen to Gershwin, and she would tune it out as best she could.

Later, I met my now wife Amanda. She loves the whole era of music, from classical to jazz to Broadway. In particular, she loves Ella Fitzgerald. Over the course of our courtship and early marriage, I carefully collected the Songbooks in CD form off of Ebay one at a time. The first one was the George and Ira Gershwin songbook - four disks of delicious interpretations of classic American tunes with witty lyrics. During our day trips out to the beach, we played these over and over, and I got pretty familiar with them. (For the record, “Nice Work If You Can Get It” is one of “our” songs.)

In 2001, which would either have been right before or right after we got married, I had a chance to play Crazy For You with what was then Bakersfield Music Theater (now Stars/BMT) when they played at the Harvey auditorium. Back then, they had the budgets and the space to hire a larger orchestra - including strings, which are so rare these days. When you are in the pit, you can’t see everything, but there were some extended scenes without music, so I had a pretty good idea of the plot.

I enjoyed that experience so much that I jumped at the chance to see it again, 18 years later.

While George Gershwin died in 1937, and many of the musicals his songs appeared in have been largely forgotten, the songs themselves have endured. In 1992, Ken Ludwig did an extensive re-write of an original Gershwin musical, Girl Crazy, added in other songs by the Gershwins, and created Crazy For You. While the plots have some similarity, Crazy For You does differ from the original in many ways - even more than the three Hollywood adaptations of Girl Crazy.

My wife described the plot to our kids as “Every musical’s plot: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. There is singing and dancing.” Which is pretty accurate. There is, of course, a little more to it than that. Boy (Bobby Child) is an aspiring song and dance man stuck working for his mommy’s predatory bank. He tries to get Broadway impresario Bela Zangler (modeled after Florenz Ziegfeld) to notice him, but is repeatedly rebuffed. He does, however, win the hearts of the showgirls. Mommy sends him to an old Nevada mining town to foreclose on an old theater. Upon arrival, he falls hard for the girl (Polly Baker), the daughter of the theater owner. She learns who he is, however, and rejects him. He then has the brilliant idea of disguising himself as Zangler, and inviting the showgirls (who are on vacation) out to put on a show to save the theater. In disguise, he wins Polly’s heart. And then the real Zangler shows up, chasing head showgirl Tess. Hilarity, love, songs, and dancing ensue. 

In this local production, the cast was pretty close to a “who’s who” of local dance and song talent, featuring some of my favorite actors. In a reprise of the pairing in My Fair Lady at The Empty Space last fall, the lead parts were played by Tevin Joslen and Tessa Ogles. While it was obvious from previous productions that both can sing and dance quite well, Crazy For You was a real showcase of their talents. Joslen had several extended tap and soft shoe sequences which were excellent. Ogles got to expand her big voice into a larger space, and she had no difficulty filling the theater. The two of them have believable on-stage chemistry as a couple (or as frenemies in My Fair Lady.) Unfortunately, it appears that Joslen is moving on to bigger things, departing for Los Angeles. Bakersfield has enjoyed his talent the last couple of years and he will be missed. (I will never forget that epic tea-spitting in My Fair Lady, or his riveting performance as Belize in Angels In America.)

Kevin McDonald has been one of my favorite local actors since I saw him in Twelfth Night as Malvolio. (His single hand practically deserved its own billing.) As Bela Zangler, he was as good as ever, from the crusty and dismissive producer of the first act, to the pathetic heartbroken drunk in the musical’s best scene (see below), he was perfectly in character. 

 Tevin Joslen and Kevin McDonald
Selfie shamelessly stolen from Kevin McDonald

The supporting cast was quite good as well. I’ll give special mention to stage veteran Paula Einstein as the controlling Mrs. Child, Brian Purcell as saloon owner and villain Lank, and Kelsea Johnson as Bobby’s wannabe fiancee Irene. (And also, Perrin Swanson’s facial hair, which, along with his coif, deserves an award for its many manifestations over the last 12 months.)

I was particularly impressed with the extensive choreography in this production - it was definitely more involved than any show I have seen locally in decades. I already mentioned Joslen and Ogles, but there were quite a few in the dance corps who brought a lot of energy, precision, and athleticism to the production. 

 Tessa Ogles (top) and assorted cast in one of the ensemble dance scenes.
Stars/BMT publicity photo.

There are two scenes which I think deserve some comment. The first is the one between Irene and Lank. Smarting from her rejection by Bobby, Irene seduces Lank while singing “Naughty Baby,” playing up her kinky side. I remember this being a pretty steamy scene when I did it before - although I was a bit more prudish then, so who knows. At the angle I was at, there were definitely unmentionables visible, and the two actors involved set the scene up with a fairly nasty edge. In contrast, Purcell and Johnson were more toward the PG end of the spectrum. A lot of that has to do with who they are as actors (and perhaps as people too.) Purcell excels as the loveable boy next door, the nice, quiet guy you bring home to meet your parents. Because of this, his version of Lank isn’t a melodrama-style cackling villain, but the goofy and hapless comic villain. He just wants to expand his saloon, and maybe even help out the theater owner by buying him out, but he gets bullied by the Fodors and caught by a designing, if sexy, woman. Likewise, Johnson literally thanked her wonderful boyfriend and God in her program blurb, which is definitely more “good girl next door” than dominatrix. She definitely nailed the uptight pissy feline in her scenes with Mrs. Child, but wasn’t quite a sex kitten later. So this version was a bit different than the last I saw.

Don’t get me wrong - I actually thought the scene worked well. Here’s why. With Johnson’s initial characterization, her later seduction was believable as the “librarian gone wild” kind of kinky seduction. Behind the facade, she is sexy and even mildly kinky. But you never forget - and she never forgets - who she is. This is then combined with Purcell’s naive and goofy villany, and he looks genuinely shocked and stricken when she unexpectedly goes after him. Even her mild naughtiness threatens to overwhelm him. The two of them are a match, which is why I could see them living happily ever after - rather than worrying they would kill each other someday.

  Brian Purcell (center, seated) and Kelsea Johnson in "Naughty Baby." 
Also, to Johnson's right, Perrin Swanson's facial hair.
Stars/BMT publicity photo.

The very best scene, though, is the “two Zanglers.” Both Bobby (in disguise) and the real Zangler, reeling from rejection by their respective flames, get fall-down drunk, and stagger into the hotel with their bottles, and proceed to pour out their grievances in song. The whole time, they mirror each others actions, and in fact appear to think they are seeing themselves in a mirror. This requires, naturally, a great deal of coordination, and careful memorization of every gesture for a scene which lasts a solid ten minutes. The humor is all in the gestures, the facial expressions, and the irony. Particularly delightful are the places where one Zangler fails to precisely mirror the other. This causes a momentary confusion, before they decide the mistake was just an artifact of the booze. 

Done well, this scene is the true peak of the musical. A few factors really made this scene pop for me (and for my kids - seeing this for the first time - thought it was hilarious.) First, Kevin and Tevin do not look alike, even with the makeup. Kevin is, like me, “fun size,” while Tevin is quite tall. The age gap (sorry, Kevin) is significant (although this is accurate to the story), and the athleticism gap is even greater. So the whole idea that Polly might mistake them for each other is humorous to start with. However, what they share is key: they both are fantastic physical actors with impressive skills at gesture and language. They actually sound fairly similar, and move their bodies with the same movements. So, in this scene, they may not be physical twins, but they are convincing as the same character. Also, both nailed the stumbling drunk schtick. I’m surprised neither of them hurt themselves with those falls. I guess you practice it until you get it right. I went into this scene with high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

While most of the show was great, I was a little disappointed by the Fodors. After a brief attempt at the British accent, which never quite worked, they pretty much gave up. Perhaps they should have enlisted Ron Warren or Mendy McMasters to help with that, given their attention to linguistic detail.

Let’s see: acting, choreography, singing...oh yes, good sets and costumes too. I can’t think of any sour notes there.

One more mention: while lacking strings, the seven piece live band sounded great. Brock Christian, conducting from the piano, followed the singers well, and handled the many tempo changes fearlessly. As I noted, I have played this one, so I remember the challenges. (I’m also totally biased because I know several of the band from my other musical gigs.) It always makes me happy when there is live music, so applause for the musicians is well warranted.

Living in Bakersfield presents one with a dilemma: contrary to popular belief, there is actually a lot going on here. The arts community is particularly vibrant with (at last count) over a half dozen drama venues (plus the colleges and high schools), the Symphony (shameless plug!), art shows, live music, and more. It is impossible for me to see everything, alas. However, I am grateful for the opportunity to experience a sampling of the passion and talent that so many in our community bring to the arts.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Source of book: I own this.

I have had this book on my list for a number of years - my list is too long and growing...too many books, too little time. However, I found a used copy for a couple bucks, and decided to get it. It won the Pulitzer for literature in 2000.

Interpreter of Maladies is a short story collection. As I have noted before, I rather like the short story format, and I find it is good to mix them in with longer books for variety. This particular collection covers Indian and Indian-American characters as they navigate relationships, cultural differences, and strive for a sense of home.

There are a total of nine stories, and they are set either in India or on the East Coast of the United States, mostly New York and Boston. They offer a window into a particular slice of Indian culture, particularly the differences between the older generation and the younger - the ones born in the West.

I think I will remember some of the stories for a while. Ones that stood out included “A Temporary Matter,” about the fallout of a miscarriage. The ending is ambiguous - will the marriage survive or not? The central scene involves them taking turns telling secrets in the dark, and is handled brilliantly.

“When Mr. Perzada Comes to Dine” is set during the Bangladesh War of Independence. The title character is living in the United States when hostilities break out - but his family remains behind, and he loses all contact with them. He comes to dine with the young narrator’s family so he can watch updates on the television. He forms a grandparent-like relationship with the narrator, and prays for him daily until he is able to reunite with his daughters and wife.

The title story is excellent as well, a picture of Indian Americans visiting India as tourists. The narrator, a private driver, tells of his other job, interpreting for a doctor (some patients speak an uncommon language) to the wife, who confides in him about her failing marriage.

“Mrs. Sen’s” is a story told by a young boy who goes to the title character’s house after school while his mother works. He is a (presumably) white American, while she is an Indian immigrant trying to maintain a connection with her past - and her family. Since she cannot seem to learn to drive, she is isolated from places she wishes to go, particularly a fishmonger who sells whole fresh fish. It was an interesting look at both the interplay of the marriage and the challenge of living caught between two cultures.

I think “The Third and Final Continent” might be my favorite one, however. The narrator, having immigrated to the United States, gets a job at the MIT library. He has recently married a woman in India - an arranged marriage. It will take her a couple months to get through the immigration process, so he needs to find lodging until she comes over and they can move to an apartment. He ends up renting a room from an older woman - over 100 in fact - who has some interesting quirks. However, he is a good guy, and rather wins her heart, and they become friends after a fashion. Later, he brings his wife to meet her. It is at this meeting that something happens that makes the husband and wife see a side of the other, and enables them to bond. It is a gently optimistic and tender story.

I thought Lahiri did a good job of portraying complex emotions in a short space. The characters are often unhappy for various reasons, but they are thoroughly human, and work through their challenges in psychologically believable ways. Lahiri also took pains to give a broad picture of Indian Americans. She portrays a great deal of diversity, from those newly arrived, to those born here, and various shades in between. She also focused on women to a significant extent, which was refreshing. When we think of immigrants, all too often we imagine men, and don’t envision the female experience.

I should mention a couple of references that I found interesting. In one story, the characters visit the Mapparium in Boston, a three-story tall stained glass globe at the Mary Baker Eddy Library. If I ever get to Boston, it is one place I want to visit.

There is also a reference to Mahler’s 5th Symphony, which I love, so that was rather fun. It’s not too often that Mahler makes it into a book - particularly in a way which shows the author’s knowledge of a particular work.

This book is pretty short - about 200 pages - and is a quick read. I definitely enjoyed it, and recommend it to any lover of short stories.