Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Utter Insanity

Hide your children from these people. They are teachers, indoctrinated so thoroughly that they are no longer capable of recognizing play. Their ideology takes precedence over all childhood to and fro. Savonarola lives. (Why We Banned Legos)

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Tchaikowsky in the abstract

I recommend the European Union Opera production of Tchaikowsky’s opera Eugene Onegin (1998, featuring Vladimir Glushchak in the title role). If the DVD is in your local library, check it out.

Eugene (Russian Yevgeny) Onegin is a self-absorbed young jerk who thinks that having good looks, intelligence, and wealth means that the rest of the world is supposed to entertain him. At age 22, he is bored with his neighbors, lesser mortals that they are; he is bored with his estate, and itching for some excitement.

The first act describes how an innocent neighbor, Tatyana, becomes infatuated with Onegin and, like the heroines in her favorite romantic novels, she writes him a very passionate letter. Her room is full of romantic novels; they cover the windowsill, the floor, and the table.

Real life doesn’t work like a novel.

Lucky for her, Onegin either doesn’t think seducing her would be enough of a challenge; or else he has just enough honor not to take advantage of her. The scene in which he responds to her letter opens with the romantic books sunken into the floor, still visible; but now Tatyana comes out of the vault of books with a feeling of dread at how Onegin might respond to her letter. He gives her a long speech, saying he’s not the marrying kind, she’s not sophisticated, they’d get bored with each other after a while, and says she’ll fall in love with somebody else sooner or later. He warns her not to be so candid in letters; somebody else might take advantage of her inexperience.

A short time later, Tatyana’s mother hosts a ball in honor of Tatyana’s 18th birthday. Onegin’s friend Lensky, engaged to Tatyana’s sister Olga, drags Onegin along to the party. Onegin decides it’s Lensky’s fault that he’s bored, so he flirts outrageously with Olga. Lensky’s had a little too much to drink, and gets angry. Olga doesn’t know why he’s so upset, and Onegin doesn’t have the good sense to see that his little adventure is getting out of hand. He’s too stiff-necked to back down—other people’s reactions to him are their fault, right? Lensky repudiates Olga and challenges Onegin to a duel, and Onegin kills Lensky, his only friend.

Act III, four years later: Onegin has been running away from his guilt, all over Europe. He has no career, no family, no real purpose. He comes to a reception at the elderly Prince Gremin’s house, and discovers Tatyana is now Princess Gremina. Prince Gremin, sings a truly beautiful aria, telling of his love for Tatyana. He loves her for all the reasons Onegin rejected her: she’s unaffected and innocent, not like the phonies and sycophants he finds himself surrounded by in Society. She has grown into the role of Princess, she is good to Gremin, and she has given him his youth back.

Onegin decides that now that he’s ready to love Tatyana, she should discard her aged husband and come to live with him. She acknowledges her love for Onegin but tells him that she has been a faithful wife to Gremin and isn’t about to go back on her vows. Her duty to Gremin outweighs her love for Onegin, and she leaves him in an agony of emotional torment. Which he richly deserves

The staging is rather abstract but it works. The “furniture” in Tatyana’s house is very simple, covered with white cotton. A garden party is represented by red and yellow kites floating above the bare stage, which slants downward to reveal her romantic books below stage, almost as though Tatyana’s library has become a crypt. The birthday party scene is plain white furniture draped with white cotton, with a few romantic novels strewn among the birthday presents. A white screen shows the dancing behind the refreshment area, where the action takes place. The only color is the red in Tatyana’s gown, the yellow in Olga’s, the blue in her mother’s gown, hints of color in the guests’ clothing, and a huge bunch of hydrangeas on the table.

Monsieur Triquet, French guest of one of Tatyana’s neighbors, gets a delightful little aria. His impossibly round bald head wreathed with grey ringlets that look pasted on, his Louis XIV brocade jacket flapping like butterfly wings, he sings verses written in French in honor of Tatyana’s birthday. He is comically vain and dramatic, bur he is earnest and everybody loves him.

Prince Gremin’s reception hall is a series of black, wavy columns with a red carpet down the middle. The guests, representative of High Society, wear black; and have heavily painted faces and bizarre, intricate coifs, emphasizing the artificiality that Gremin has come to hate. Tatyana is the only woman on stage who looks entirely human, and Prince Gremin wears a silvery grey suit. This production’s Gremin looks a healthy forty years old.

The scene in which Onegin professes love to Tatyana brings back the crypt of books in front of a plain black curtain. He has awoken Tatyana’s old romantic feelings. Onegin’s black overcoat makes a great stage prop in this scene. Tatyana keeps handing it to him telling him to leave. When he declares that she should leave her husband, that he (Onegin) was made to love and protect her, he drapes his overcoat around her shoulders. When she tells him farewell, she throws the overcoat off. When she rejects him, she runs off upstage, and when he tries to follow her, two mirrors appear and block his path.

Sidney J. Harris describes a jerk as “someone who cannot see himself as others do….He is incapable of looking in a mirror of his soul and shuddering at what he sees there.” Does Onegin shudder at his reflection and realize his own folly? The opera doesn’t answer that question.

The production is moving, and beautifully sung. Enjoy!

Mrs James

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Waki Waki

Juli Endee-Tarpeh, Liberia's Cultural Ambassador, gave a special seminar yesterday on "Waki! Waki! Peace Activism, Crusaders for Peace, and the Children's Village of Liberia." So I went.

Her style was pure Liberian: Layers of related statements punctuated with slogans, all pointing towards some rhetorical goal. She did not answer a question in less than 7 minutes, and usually it was more like 10.

She began with a brief history of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee for Liberia. (15 minutes) Then she opened the floor for questions. The only really interesting part of it was the description of the women who had arrived at the peace talks. Not allowed to enter, they in turn barred reporters from entering, until Rawlings agreed to let them in. Then, once in, they interjected all sorts of proposals that the reporters lapped up (the reporters didn't realize the women weren't formal members of the team at first).

She got into a (needless to say) long argument with one woman in the audience who took exception to a blanket statement that women before Ellen Johnson Sirleaf were never able to take positions of authority. I can summarize 20 minutes of her talk with "They don't count, they only got their positions because they had connections."

She stared uncomplainingly into the video projector for most of the hour, until the technician realized that the DVD was never going to work and turned it off.

With 5 minutes to go, she gave us a few cuts from one of her CD's, which were of traditional-style music whose lyrics were appeals for peace and the TRC: some in English and some in Kpelle.

Afterwards I asked her what there was to make "Liberia" for the Liberians--what common culture or aspirations were left. I don't think she understood me. Or maybe she did, and didn't want to answer.

She owns the Children's Village, but it was never made clear what exactly that was. Maybe the DVD would have helped. She also owns a cultural troope that made some of the music, and has traveled a lot.

It was nice to meet a few Liberians in the audience.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Dynamic is sexy

Is anybody really surprised? The movie poster/Playboy/"Photograph my good side" women may be detail-perfect and airbrushed, but they're static--frozen. What catches the eye is motion; motion that accents the differences between men and women. A few more details at BBC

Monday, March 12, 2007

Can't they borrow an anteater from the zoo?

Ang Hock Si vs the fire ants. Could it be "the will of the universe" that an anteater follow its nature?

Sunday, March 11, 2007


”Try it Billy. I spent all afternoon making it.”

”Oooohkay.” Microscopic fragment conveyed to lips “Yuck, gack!” Cough choke and sputter, run to sink for water…

”Ungrateful retch.”

Musings on signage

The dealership’s sign boasted “We buy cars!”

But if you want to be green, you need to reply “We bike ours!”

But the seats are so tiny that we wind up lamenting our “Wee bike arse.”

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Maybe he was sleepy

After replacing my suit at Penneys, we remembered that Youngest Son’s belt had broken that morning, and went to the Boys Department to find him one. Neither of us could remember his waist size, so I called home.

He answered.

I told him to look in the “junk drawer” for the steel tape measure, and wrap it around his waist.

He got it, but complained that it wouldn’t work. He needed Youngest Daughter’s help, because it wouldn’t stay put.

Ok, the rule is a bit awkward, so I told him to get the fabric tape, which was on the lattice by the stairs.

He got it, but complained that he still couldn’t wrap the tape around.

”Why not?”

”I’m holding the phone.”

Pause. “Put the phone down.”

”Oh. OK.”

He’s usually much more creative than that….

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Backing up a step or two from the verdict

Let's see:

Iraqi trade mission visits Niger in 1999.

A trip to Niger is not a luxurious junket: they were on business.

Niger exports uranium, cattle, cowpeas, and onions.

  • The cattle are mostly walked to Nigeria. Not much infrastructure for getting the animals to Iraq.
  • Iraq exports onions too (one of the big exporters of shallots), so I doubt they were looking for trade opportunities in onions.
  • Perhaps they were interested in importing cowpeas? Iraq grows them too, perhaps they had a bad year. Plenty of rain, though; the drought wasn't until 2000.
  • Uranium? I think that must be it.

Setting aside Saddam's well-documented ambitions, he had reason to worry about his next-door enemy's nuclear ambitions. He once had an active nuke development program himself and was playing shell games with the inspectors. (The documents found later suggest that the program was on hold until the coast was clear, though that's more knowledge than anybody else had at the time.) Uranium is for either power production or weapons. Knowing Saddam, its weapons.

Its a no-brainer: Iraq wanted to buy uranium, or at least set up channels to do so later. Maybe it wouldn't be possible right away, but the intent is clear enough.

So why in the world would Wilson say anything else? (BTW, "I don't think they could succeed" is not the same as "They didn't try.")

If I assume that Wilson is reasonably bright I come up with only four reasons; maybe you can think of others:

  1. As Wilson sat with the Muyaki over dinner, Muyaki told Wilson that "No, we wouldn't dream of selling uranium to him, and anyway he never asked." Wilson "got a sense of Muyaki's soul" and believed him.
  2. Wilson thought he saw a way to a fast buck.
  3. Wilson was/is a political partisan who wanted to embarrass the administration.
  4. Wilson was/is a departmental partisan, and the infighting between Washington departments is worse than we realize.

I don't know which is more likely, though I lean to suspecting 3 or 4. Over the past dozen years I've been noting whiffs of something nasty in the air: nothing I can put my finger on, but enough to suspect that the various major departments in Washington are not all on good terms with one another.

That worries me a lot. Political partisanship we as voters have something to say about: we can complain and try to find principled candidates. But the giant bureaucracies are insulated from the citizens, and when their empire-building gets out of hand there's not much we can do about it.

If it isn't on the state news, it didn't happen

This is scary "The French Constitutional Council has approved a law that criminalizes the filming or broadcasting of acts of violence by people other than professional journalists. The law could lead to the imprisonment of eyewitnesses who film acts of police violence, or operators of Web sites publishing the images, one French civil liberties group warned on Tuesday."

A law originally designed to target "happy slapping," where thugs make movies of beating up bystanders and circulate them for amusement, was deliberately widened.

I hope this gets shot down quickly.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Returning home

I hadn’t slept well all week, and Friday night was no exception. Bed at 10, and my mind won’t slow down. Why didn’t I say X; what could I do about the lasers; I have this question about the church—and endless round of tireless mental wanderings—what I’d do differently if I had charge of border security; how to get around airport security; why had I been juggling pine cones in the middle of the Carrefour; wait a minute—I must have been dreaming in there somewhere. Repeat until I feel like the alarm must be about to go off—and lo and behold, the clock says I’ve only got 15 minutes before it will.

I set off alarms in Geneva, Brussels, and O’Hare. Pen, watch, belt. I really didn’t need that—they’d closed the boarding door for the flight to Madison by the time I got there. (They graciously let me on anyway.)

In Brussels a young white man waited at the gate with a small black baby. He looked American, and given the tiny rate at which white men marry black women I figured this was an adoption. Later on he was a little behind me in the second line and mentioned to the fellow beside him that he’d just gotten in from Monrovia. I turned and asked him how Roberts Field was.

After a bit of joking he said it was terrible. He’d had to “dash” the inspectors not to search his luggage (that’s a kind of extortion, for those used to Western airports). And yes, it was an adoption: actually 3 at once. (The nine-month old had been pretty fussy on the flight from Monrovia, but the others were more or less content, and all fairly sick.) Turns out they’d stayed with a Baptist missionary at Sinkor (name completely eludes me, though—names do that). He’d not stopped sweating once while he was there (yep), and told of having to drive off all the baggage carriers when they arrive, and trying to select two (and keep an eye on them) when they left.

There was a nine-month-old, a two year old girl, and a three year old boy who was being introduced to the marvels of a portable DVD player in the airport. The new mother told him to just watch the movie and stop fiddling with the controls. I was seriously sleepy, or I’d have mentioned that he wasn’t used to “just sitting and watching,” and that that was probably a good thing.

I gather he was a little street-wise already. The new parents had been told to bring lots of dollar bills, so they packed a hundred in singles. That made a pretty big wad, and when the lad saw them poking out of the pocket of the suitcase he urgently pushed them back in out of sight. So says the new proud papa.

I was in the second-to-last row in the 767 out of Brussels. We loaded early, and were set to go. And set. And set. Eventually we were told that there was a “discreet situation” at the door and they were waiting for a doctor’s opinion. We left late.

8 Below looks like a good movie (I never try to listen on an airplane anymore). Greenland didn’t look very green—what I could see of it. My seatmate on the flight to Madison works for a family knife-making firm, specializing in industrial knives. Apparently most such knife makers are out of business, because the US only makes rolled steel anymore. I hadn’t thought about it, but industry uses a lot of knives—from paper slicers to blades used in emusifier vats.

As for American Airlines in Brussels—remember how you bought goods in the old socialist paradises? You’d stand in one line to pick out the items, stand in another to pay for them, and then stand in another to pick them up. At the American Airlines gate in Brussels you had to stand in one line to verify your baggage tags and identity, another line to get your correct boarding pass (the one issued in Geneva was no good), and another line to board the plane.