Wednesday, August 25, 2010


For no reason except that I always wanted to I decided to read all of Shakespeare's plays.

I read many of them before, but decided I would approach Shakespeare as a tabula rasa, as much as I could -- his being so deeply engrained in our collective minds. I would read them all. I started with "As you Like It" for no particular reason, and have pretty much read randomly, depending on whim and happenstance. Whichever caught my eye at the library or at Half-Price Books became the next.

Che meraviglia!

Each play is a parallel universe triggered to envelope us in mystery and magic. The perfect metaphor, arrived at (apparently) last, is Propsero's Island. But whether in the Forest of Arden, Sicily, Bohemia, the fairy dells of Athens, the splendor of Venice or the crummy inns of Eastcheap, the characters are all wrestling with love, death, honor and responsibility. Their solutions are as varied as there are characters; some are similar, none are the same. Each is the real embodiment of a human response to life's treacherous gauntlet.

I was particularly taken with Hal and Hotspur, those twinned opposites of power and ambition, fighting for the crown. Of course Hal wins; he is the (more or less) legitimate heir. Hotspur, passionate, impatient, masculinely glorious, goes down both through his own conviction that he is invincible (or willing to die if he isn't) and because Hal -- equally passionate, masculinely glorious, of equal conviction -- holds the birthright. But what a contest! Hotspur's brilliance makes Hal's victory more brilliant still.

The scenes of Henry IV and Hal as the old king lies dying reduced me to tears. Here Shakespeare makes it unequivocally right that Hal has triumphed and will be Henry V. "Henry V" elaborates with gorgeous humanity Prince Hal's flowering as warrior king, completing his transformation from prodigal to hero.

The women run the gamut from Lady Macbeth's chilling "Unsex me here!" to Hermione's virtue breathing life into dead marble. How can you not love impetuous love-sick Juliet, or pining, conspiring Rosalind? The courtroom scene in Merchant of Venice is one of my favorite scenes, and not only for the dark crushed figure of Shylock but for Portia, inspired by love to a brilliant coup de theatre, dazzling everyone in the room. And in the theater. And in the world, century after century.

One of the things that struck me this time around was the amount of dramatic time given to the themes of greed, corruption, ambition and power. But greed above all, in both comedy and tragedy, time and again, is the root of all evil. Radex malorum est cupiditas. This is nowhere more graphically portrayed than in Timon of Athens, that scathingly grim jeremiad on greed.

And if that all sounds a bit heavy, visit the magic glades of Midsummer Night's Dream, where everything is animated by fairy dust and ends, as all proper comedy must, with weddings, the union of the real and the unreal, the magic and the mundane, into the ecstatic.

I understand now Shakespeare is not a monolithic entity. Style and language and humour change from play to play, from year to year and decade to decade, constantly evolving. This transforming process explains why so many of the plays are truly unclassifiable as Comedy or Tragedy. This is what makes them so intrinsically modern. They are neither and both; the distinctions are fluid. Who's tragedy is "Julius Caesar" -- Caesar or Brutus? How can we embrace Coriolanus as a hero? The substance of these plays is too protean for easy classification although provisional categories have been devised since people must classify them: the "dark comedies," "the romances." The "Histories" seem more clear cut, but they are not good history and they are as chimerical as the "dark comedies" hovering between comedy and tragedy. And how could Falstaff be classified? Fat Jack looms over all, so amazingly, appallingly human, not heroic and yet so tragic, so irresistibly funny and so comically bad. He, more than Cleopatra, beggars description.

I had a lot of trouble with Love's Labour's Lost. It is early; its formal design is intricate; its language is as complex as the Metaphysical poets. It is absolutely gorgeous, but must have been ever so much easier for the audiences of its time, accustomed to the vernacular of the badinage and the conventions of its verse. Here patience was the key. It was like reading Scerbanenko in Italian, book in one hand, dictionary in the other. Shakespeare requires that extra effort and attention. His field of reference is so vast, especially in history, mythology, the Bible, astrology, astronomy and alchemy, that he is hard to keep up with. His ear for the music of language is so finely tuned that we must sometimes strain to hear it. But it all pays off.

It brought to mind a similar feeling when I was reading Marx and Engels. The sheer volume of what these men knew was staggering, not only languages from Greek and Latin forward, but history, science, mathematics, mythology and religion (and Shakespeare). How does one mind retain and creatively process so much information?

The answer is it doesn't happen often. It is what makes genius genius.

Reading Shakespeare is like learning about the world all over again, not the facts of its existence -- its "history" -- but its personality and its soul.

More later.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


"Even the names of the four Ministries by which we are governed exhibit a sort of impudence in their deliberate reversal of the facts. The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy: they are deliberate exercises in doublethink. For it is only by reconciling contradictions that power can be retained indefinitely. In no other way could the ancient cycle be broken. If human equality is to be forever averted -- if the High, as we have called them, are to keep their places permanently -- then the prevailing mental condition must be controlled insanity."

George Orwell, 1984

Glenn Beck on Unemployment

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Minnesota Monet

Pond out back, Sunday morning, August 15, 2010

Friday, August 6, 2010

I am Death, Destroyer of Worlds

Before HUAC and the lunch counter it-ins, before the Civil Rights Movement, before LSD and the Anti-War Movement, before Nixon, Reagan and the Bushes, there was The Bomb.

The mushroom cloud overshadowed everything. We had drop drills in school, as if ducking properly under your desk could prevent you from being turned to ash in an instant. There were back-yard bombshelters prepared for life in the twilight of nuclear radiation. There was the omnipresence of instant annihilation.

Look at the photos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombing. Look at the photos of the mushroom cloud, the symbol of universal death. I grew up in its shadow. In junior high I read John Hersey's "Hiroshima," and watched as nuclear annihilation poisoned the far Australian skies to the tune of "Waltzing Matilda" in "On the Beach."

I vividly remember a dream I had at the age of 10 or 11. My family huddled under the dining room table. For some reason, if we touched wood, we would be safe. We gripped the legs of the table and watched the world map on the dining room wall as the red buttons of the bombed cities lit up, wondering if we would see Los Angeles light up before we were incinerated.

This was a city.

Before The Bomb, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were cities; after The Bomb they were charred, skeletal remains. We should never forget the world-destroying power we possess and remember, always, that we are perched precariously on the brink of the abyss, and we have only ourselves to credit and to blame. Anything is possible; but that means everything.

What we do with that information is a matter of individual choice. But it is best not forgotten. We are still clutching the wood, waiting. Whatever you do, make it count. The only thing we truly have is the present moment. Make it good.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Double Ds

[from Act 2, Scene 2, Nonny in the Sky with Love]
[CLARICE is a young Nurse's Aid hanging on to her job by a bra strap.]

You have big breasts; he likes breasts. Of course he likes you.

Nice, aren't they? They aren't real, but what the hell!

It doesn't matter if they're real,
all that matters is how they feel,
and that what you got affects
persons of the the opposite sex.

Your sex appeal definitely triples
with cantelopes underneath those nipples!
So what if they're as phony as all get out?
That's not what it's all about.

I'm talking about boob-appeal!
Give 'em something they can squeeze.
Boob appeal! Guaranteed to please!
Bubblicious bowls of peaches and cream.
Every old horndog's dream!
Great big beautiful bouncing double Ds.

Some guys go for legs or thighs.
OK. Some guys go for brains.
Some guys go for big blue eyes,
or Harleys or electric trains.

But you don't even have to be too pretty;
a knockout pair of gorgeous titties
is catnip for seven guys out of ten.
If the rest want sticks, or smarts, or men...
Who cares!

It's all about boob-appeal!
Give 'em something they can squeeze.
Boob appeal! Guaranteed to please!
Bubblicious bowls of peaches and cream.
Every old every horndog's dream!
Great big beautiful bouncing double Ds.

You're barking up the right tree.

The Colonel...

NONNY nods.

S-w-e-e-e-e-t!! OK honey. Gotta run. You made my day!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Bieito's Stuttgart Parsifal: the fabulous conversation

For those of us who love opera, to whom it matters, the ongoing discussion of Calixto Bieito's production of Wagner's Parsifal in Stuttgart on Parterre Box, an opera blog molto particolare (to which I've been addicted for nearly a decade) and carried over into the blog of Andrew Richards, the tenor who sang the role of Parsifal in the production, is an absolute treat: impassioned conversation of the highest order, from outrage to transport, and covering most of the burning questions not only of the role and meaning of art in general and opera in particular, but also the vision and mission of directors and performers, and what is their proper responsibility both to the composers' "intent" and to the audience?

I have found this conversation exhilarating. You can start here. The discussion is in the Comments section; follow-up in a newer thread links to tenor Andrew Richards' blog for his take on the discussion.

If you aren't passionate about your opera, don't waste your time.

Youth in Revolt

Luke called me the other afternoon and said, "Dad, I have a movie I think you're going to enjoy. It's really smart and really funny."

We watched it last night.

Based on the novel by C.D. Payne, Youth In Revolt is a deadpan screwball comedy, as if someone had thrown American Pie and Breathless into a blender. It is almost self-consciously nouvelle vague and yet not. The plot is driven by adolescent horniness and loneliness. It is not simply insane; and not simply funny. It is insanely funny, as in, one of the headiest cocktails to be found.

The cast is stellar, chock full of new hotties and seasoned pros. Fernwood is well represented by Mary Kay Place and Fred Willard. Jean Smart is the slutty mom, Steve Buscemi the beleaguered dad, Ray Liotta, a randy cop; and the youngsters -- hero Max Cera, his Juliet, Portia Doubleday, his pals Erik Knudsen and Adhir Kalyan -- are all originals. These are not characters you've seen a thousand times. This is probably your only opportunity.

You know when the hors d'oeuvres are stuffed psilocybin mushrooms that you're in for a wild ride. You'll never think of your pinky the same again!

I laughed my ass off.

My problem with "Inception"

I went to see "Inception" with high hopes. I even liked the beginning, but mid-way I was ready to scream; by the end I felt like I had been pummeled by jackhammers.

I admire Christopher Nolan's penchant for complex psychological enigmas. Interesting always trumps dull and predictable. "Inception" began interestingly, but soon lapsed into recycled Star Wars-Bourne-James Bond-car crash and explosion neo-video game mayhem. Very little original material there; a lot of recycled tropes trying to tell a story about dreams. Loudly. Much of the time the music and/or ambient noise masked the dialog, either spoken softly over the mayhem or else delivered in the action-movie telegraphic shout, the functional equivalent of subtitles in silent movies. The decibel level was often-mind numbing and frankly, if I never see another white-suited ski chase through the snow with machine guns and helicopters and mayhem it would be too soon.

Here's the thing: Nolan has a brilliant and often subtle mind. $160,000,000 was spent; the technology was envelope-pushing. All of this was harnessed into the service of a story about the complex enigma of dreams and reality. What was missing?


Where it could have taken off into the stratosphere, its feet were stuck in the concrete golashes of a million other action movies. When in doubt, more mayhem ensues.

But what if? What if these resources, even a tenth of these resources, had been harnessed to the imagination? What if, instead of the predictable car-smashing, ear-drum shattering, blood-gushing, adrenalin/testosterone cocktail, we had been served up a true flight of imagination?

Who could ever forget the landing of the Mothership in "Close Encounters..." or the bridge of mist in John Boorman's "Excalibur" or the waltz of the satellites in "2001"? Fred Astaire danced on the ceiling with greater effect; zero gravity is so twentieth century. It is possible to blow minds in fresh and wonderful ways. Makes you wonder why it doesn't happen more often...

Subject: the relationship of what we call "dreams" to what we conveniently refer to as "reality."

This is solidly in the quantum parallel universe multiverse. Nothing new there. It is also the substance of much of Shakespeare's greatest work. Dreams within dreams and dreams v. reality is a noble and ageless literary genre.

Granted, even Shakespeare had to work within limits. The conventions of the Elizabethan theater were almost as iron-clad as the minds that green-light today's big-budget movies; but they were different. At the Globe Theater you had to have magic, shipwrecks, separated twins or siblings, love at first sight, witches, cross-dressing... the list goes on and on. So Shakespeare used them, again and again, using pre-existing stories, but he did it with endless invention. He worked within the system, but he did so by re-inventing it. Thus he fulfilled the artist's true responsibility to the audience: to give them a great experience by making them laugh and cry, taking them places they've never been, physically or emotionally.

And, quite frankly, it breaks my heart that all those resources and all that technology and all that money, time, effort, and talent, vast talent, were spent on something so leaden as "Inception." No patch on "The Tempest." Why was nobody there saying, come on, guys, what if... instead of another car chase, we do something else. Something really interesting?

It is eminently possible.

It only requires imagination. That is ultimately what "Inception" lacked.

Monday, August 2, 2010

What I've Been Working on....

This song ends Act 2 of "Nonny in the sky with love" (my working title for the libretto I am writing.)

The Scene: BEVERLY GARDENS, a care facility in Santa Monica, California. Many come; all leave; feet first.

THE COLONEL, 94 years of age, is an old school gentleman from Australia and he is dying. NONNY is 75. She will never walk again, but she will go on living (for Act 3 ;-)

THE COLONEL is in his bed. NONNY sits in her wheelchair at his side.

I believe in Love.
If that's God, so be it.
Love heals us and makes us whole;
we wither and fail without it.
Love makes the heavens dance,
Love causes the earth to spin,
Love makes time dissolve into itself
and start all over again.

You're lucky. You know it.

I didn't until I met you.

I believe we plant seeds in the past,
plant them without even knowing.
But they grow and they grow and they grow
even though we forgot they were growing.
And then, poof, in the future,
you never know when or where,
the seed you planted deep in your heart,
that barely flickered like a prayer
in the last and final hour
blossoms like paradise
bursting into flower.

I never knew what love was,
I was always afraid,
and now that I know what it is
I'm afraid that it's too late.

It's never too late.
Once you know,
the work is done.
You can fall into it
and never drown;
it buoys you up like
the warm salt sea
with high blue skies all around
and if you close your eyes
you can hear the sound,
and then, a beacon of light,
a phoenix rising
into the night...

THE COLONEL's monitor beeps erratically, lights flicker and die.


The image from the previous post, of Wotan wishing to turn back the rolling wheel of fate, made me think of an poem I wrote in 1983 after a visit to the Avery Brundage collection in San Francisco...

(at the avery Brundage Collection,
De Young Musuem, San Francisco)

The ladies with grapefruit breasts
smiled in the rain. Bodhisattva sat
across the room. Ganessa, the laughing
elephant, danced upon his rat.

Entwining like boughs around him,
their bodies interlaced.
Bodhisattva danced between them
as they embraced.

The centaur around his neck
had traveled from Greece to spy
on Kinrin, the gold wheel-rolling King
lighting fires in the Western sky.

San Francisco, 1983

The image is from the production of Die Gotterdamerung now at Bayreuth. I find it intensely powerful and moving. This is the prolog; these are the Norns, the weavers of fate, seated in the starry firmament upon a pile of human skeletons, the classic memento mori. It has a stately beauty that the Norns are rarely granted these days; they are usually found in dusty basements or hanging from bungee cords or buried in garbage heaps or in the shadow of hydroelectric dams or the detritus of space stations. This image pleased me tremendously.

Earlier, in Act III of Siegried, when Wotan awakens Erda, the eternal earth mother (who does not like to be awakened from her sleep), she asks him why he doesn't ask the Norns what he wants to know? Wotan replies that the Norns can only spin; they cannot change destiny. He wants to know how to hold back the rolling wheel of fate; if its course can be altered?

Of course it can't. The king of the gods is as unfree as the Norns. All bow before the endlessly unrolling dreams of eternity. Erda goes back to sleep. Wotan understands that his dream is ending. Erda knows, from the depth of her dream, that there will be others.

So these are the marvelous ladies who weave the strands of fate they cannot control. It is how I might imagine them.

What's in a name?

I started blogging while living in Venice and called my effort "My Own Private Venice" because it was not a blog about Venice. There are plenty of blogs about Venice; I wanted mine to be not about Venice per se, but about my experience there.

Having left that place, and having decided to continue to blog as a creative discipline, I wondered what to call this new state of affairs, these further experiences and other imaginings. I was clear on one thing: I didn't want it to be geographically oriented; I wanted something to denote and accommodate my peripatetic life and, above all, the limitlessness of imagination.

Another part of the island. An oft used stage direction in Shakespeare's Tempest, speaks to an imaginary location on an imaginary island in an imaginary sea in an imaginary world quite like our own. Without a subject, this object effectively ceases to exist. It lives only in our experience of it, in our minds, emotions, imaginations. It has infinite shores and coves and hills and caves. We call each into being and send them away like sleep, like dreams.

So this is my new place. Welcome to another part of the island.