Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The difference a chong-chong makes

Somebody posted a scene from a gangster flic on YouTube and turned it into a scene where the president of GM meets the president of Toyota. Very topical. Akio Toyoda comes looking for his 10% cut and the GM president shoots him dead. It might have been clever if it had not contained the line, “I’m gonna give you till the count of ten to get your ugly yeller no-good keister off my property.”

Toyoda isn’t ugly. And he isn’t “yeller” either.

Sad, how when there’s a story that involves those funny overseas people how the rats come out of the woodwork. An opportunity to wave the flag. All together now, “U-S-A! U-S-A!”

The Japanese right wing, too, has made noises about “Japan bashing” because the Congress has forced Toyoda to appear before them to explain all the recalls lately and the threat to public safety they represent. Wish I had a nickel for every time a criticism by anybody about anything Japanese got labelled Japan bashing by those morons.

Toyota’s black eye is inviting not just the rats to a free-for-all; it’s also got the Explainers out on the job.

Some of the explanations involve good questions and reasonable guesses at answers. Did Toyota mess up because they got cocky? Lazy? I’m thinking the answer has as much as anything to do with the inordinate complexity of modern automobiles. One site I just checked gave about 1800 different “diagnostic trouble codes” for representing malfunctions. Remember when you first got a look at the control panel of a 747 and wondered how anybody could operate it? Looking into a car’s computer will give the same sensation these days.

That doesn’t explain how floor mats get in the way of accelerators, of course, but it may explain other problems.

There’s even speculation now that your cell phone may be interfering with your car’s electronics.

From the BBC today I heard a report on how the story is playing in Japan. They are unused to having CEOs appear before legislative bodies to explain themselves. So, I’m told, some news reports are providing floor plans of the Congress so Toyoda’s countrymen can see exactly where their Mr. Toyoda is going to be sitting. If you know this curious land of raw fish and Hello Kitty, this information will not strike you as peculiar.

On the American end, I just heard a news report where the reporter was going on about how Toyoda changed the name of his car to Toyota because “Toyoda (with a d) means “bountiful rice paddy” and they wanted something smart and modern and technical, not something associated with the farm. If you know Japanese, you know that’s all cockeyed, since the name still means "bountiful rice paddy" no matter how your write it. The reporter didn't get that part of the story right, in other words, but no matter. His audience will never know, most of them. And he did get the other part right, about the muddy business. In kanji, the name is 豊田 and the second character can be read either “da” or “ta.” Apparently, the Toyoda/Toyota people responsible for naming their cars switched the da to ta because they felt voiced consonants sounded muddy.

B, D, G, muddy. P, T, K, not muddy. You gotta love it. Memo to Lady Gaga: Can the name, honey. Change it to Caca. Less muddy.

But wait. That’s only the beginning. If you really want to get down off the farm and look modern, you’ve got to go to katakana. Katakana is a syllabary (i.e., there is a “character” for each possible syllable in Japanese. Kanji is based on word meanings, katakana (and hiragana) on sounds. Japanese use kanji for basic content words, hiragana for grammatical endings, and katakana is a parallel system to hiragana, kind of like italics, used for stress and for writing foreign words. So katakana = foreign = international = modern, you see.

And then, so the story goes, once the Toyoda folks who choose the names for Toyoda’s automobiles got that far, and started writing the company nameトヨダ (Toyoda in katakana) instead of 豊田, (to be more modern and international) and then took the second step and went from Toyoda to Toyota (to be less muddy) there was a bonus waiting for them! It takes ten strokes of the pen to write トヨダ, you see, but only eight if you leave off the chong-chong and write it トヨタ, and eight is a lucky number! Isn't that marvelous?

All this work just to avoid a hint of muddiness (and get lucky at the same time) is lost on Americans, of course, since in American English, “t” between two vowels takes on voicing and therefore, in most people’s speech, it is indistinguishable from “d”. That means “Toyota” and “Toyoda” are pronounced identically in most Americans' speech – like duh!

Why are we talking about this and not about sticky accelerator pedals?

Oh, right. The world wants to know background stuff. Besides, you can’t keep the story alive with analyses of brake systems.

In any case, I’m with you Akio. Sorry that cork in the asshole of progress known as the U.S. Senate is jerking you around like this. I, for one, absolutely adore my thirteen-year-old Camry and if it ever wears out (it only has 116,000 miles on it, so it may actually run longer than I do), I intend to rush right out and buy another one.

I once owned a Mitsubishi, as well. But any chance I had of buying another went up in smoke when I noted they named one of their cars the Pajero. "Wanker" in Argentine Spanish. If they could screw up on the name, how am I to trust them when it comes to brakes?

Ain't that one on me!

Anyway, I'm a died-in-the-wool Toyota man now.

My next car will be a Prius, if I can afford one when the time comes. And if they get the brakes fixed.

In any case, I’m on Akio’s side. He has to sit before the U.S. Senate and let them make political hay and show the world you can’t mess with Texas, er, Mississippi, er, the U. S. of A.

The Senate is missing entirely the fact that in Japan, Akio no doubt has nothing to do with decisions on how the car is made. He’s in place to grovel for the family and its marvelous little car company when they screw up. The real guys responsible are out of sight.

And that’s how it should be.

Put a guy in place to take the blame so the guys who know how to fix things don’t have to waste their time. They can get to work while the Senate beats on Akio.

That’s how Toyota got to the top.

And that’s how I’m guessing they’ll get back there again soon.

Hang in there, Akio.

For the family name. It’s still a proud one.

With the chong-chong, or without.

Monday, February 22, 2010

I wish I were a chicken

Cultural event of the season – for me, at least – was the appearance of Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester at the Paramount in Oakland the other night. If you have never been in that wonderful art deco theater built by Timothy Pflueger (who also built the Castro Theater in San Francisco) it’s worth making a special effort to get there. It was declared a U.S. national landmark in 1977.

Max Raabe made it look and feel as if the place was built expressly for him. Described in the New York Times as "a wised-up adult choirboy with a slightly seductive glint in his eye," Raabe appears in white tie and tails and a high collar, has a Fred Astaire frame and proud bearing and seems born to the task of reviving the music of the twenties and thirties. Raabe’s voice is unmistakable. He is a baritone but sings much of his repertoire in a high tenor. His range is prodigious. And the band is his match. Except for the pianist and main violinist, the twelve artists all do more than one instrument or do vocals as well. Together they display a breathtaking array of talent.

I cannot do a critical review of the performance. Not only do I lack the skills to be a decent music critic, I can’t get past the feeling that writing about artistic performance is like writing an essay on a sexual experience. It’s something one throws oneself into, not something one writes about. Besides, watching Fred Astaire dance or singing Cole Porter tunes is Geschmacksache (a question of taste). I understand there are people out there who actually don’t like opera. A man who sings in a falsetto about his friend the gorilla with a villa in the zoo or the cactus on his balcony or the times he wishes we was a chicken is not everyone’s cup of tea. So let me just say I think this was more fun than I’ve had at a concert in many many years. If you are into the music, give a listen. And if you can possibly catch these guys live sometime, don’t let it pass you by.

What I do want to share is a couple of background bits of a story that might easily be missed. The program was introduced by the German Consul General in San Francisco, Peter Rothen. When Rothen mentioned the German Consul’s sponsorship of the event there was thunderous applause. Germany’s in the groove, as far as Bay Area locals are concerned. Raabe sang a good part of the concert in English, but there was no mistaking this as a German, and specifically a Berlin, cultural event. Thinking back, there have not been a whole lot of those in past years.

What the audience experienced was a return to the music of the Weimar Republic and a time when Berlin was known as a world class center of popular culture, theater, cabaret and music. The postwar division of Germany pretty much kept Berlin from regaining its former position, but the signs are appearing that Berlin is back. Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester bring back not only the age of flappers and big band music; they bring back a time when Germany had much to offer internationally.

Raabe doesn’t come out of nowhere. What may not be very widely known is the debt he owes to a musical group called the Comedian Harmonists, six musicians of the 20s and 30s I learned about not long ago from Australian friends of mine who grew up in what was Czechoslovakia but emigrated to Germany before settling in Australia. Despite their awkward name, one has no trouble understanding why they inspired imitators. They themselves were inspired by the American group, the Revelers, a male sextet, part vaudeville, part barber shop, known for such songs as Baby Face and Dinah.

In 1927 the Comedian Harmonists formed a group in Germany to sing the Revelers’ kind of music. The group had enormous success for about five years until the Nazis came to power, far exceeding that of the group they originally intended to imitate. The made a dozen films, appeared with the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Josephine Baker, and sold millions of records before they were forced to disband and flee the country. Three of their members were Jews and a fourth was married to a Jewish woman. Their leader attempted to revive the group in New York, but was unable to make it work, in large part because of hostility to anything German during the war years.

Various attempts have been made to draw attention to the Comedian Harmonists. A documentary about the survivors (they all survived the war) was made in 1975, and more recently, Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman have been trying to get a play entitled Harmony to Broadway, all without a lot of success. There’s also a 1997 movie made about them available from Netflix called The Harmonists.

With the growth of Max Raabe’s popularity, some of that may be beginning at last to be put right. Raabe is calling attention to the fact that much of the art and talent of the Weimar Republic was Jewish. The connection with the Comedian Harmonists makes that obvious to anyone who looks into the origins of Raabe’s repertoire, but Raabe has now taken a step to make the connection much more explicit. His latest recording is a CD entitled “Über’s Meer” – “Across the Sea” – and it refers to the Germans, many of them Jews, who lived their lives out in exile but kept their music alive. It is not yet available for distribution in the United States, although most of the songs are available as MP3 downloads.

Max Raabe’s success should go a long way to helping bring that lost history to light. The CD is on the best seller charts in Germany – no mean feat for a singer doing thirties music with only a piano for accompaniment, even if it is the accomplished Christoph Israel. Raabe decided the band had too much razzle-dazzle and slapstick to suit his purposes. Where the band pieces are slapstick, Übers Meer is contemplative. Instead of irony, this time there is melancholy.

From the American Revelers to the German Comedian Harmonists to German Jewish exiles in America to Max Raabe in Germany to the Oakland Paramount Theater and an evening in which people show up in top hat and tails and arrive in well-preserved Packard Automobiles to hear songs that tie Cole Porter to Kurt Weill sung by a cross between Cary Grant and the Marx brothers.

So much to take in.

The cultural history.

The politics.

The poetry…

Ich wollt', ich wär' ein Huhn,
(I wish I were a chicken)

Ich hätt' nicht viel zu tun,
(I wouldn't have much to do)

Ich legte vormittags ein Ei,
(I'd lay an egg in the morning)

Und abends wär' ich frei.
(And in the evening I'd be free.)


Sunday, February 7, 2010

Fair and Impartial

Now how did I miss the fact that Judge Walker is gay?

(For you Rip van Winkles, Judge Walker is the judge in the trial going on in San Francisco to determine whether the referendum – known as Prop. 8 – which removed the rights of gays to marry in California was constitutional. The case is known as Perry v. Schwarzenegger.)


He’s also 65. You know. Homophobe generation.

He’s also conservative enough to have been appointed by Papa George Bush.

More libertarian than conservative, I understand, so maybe that’s non-newsworthy.

He is also the lawyer who defended the U.S. Olympic Committee when they successfully fought off gays' attempt to use the Olympics name in the Gay Olympics of 1982. Way to go for the team, Walker.

I still have a "Gay Olympics" T-shirt printed before we were forced to change the name to "Gay Games." I still remember the bitter taste in my mouth that lasted for years. The fact they permitted Special Olympics for kids with disabilities, the Police Olympics and even, I understand, the Nebraska Rat Olympics, until the Olympic Committee got to them, too, in 2004.

Reminds me of that iconic Isherwood story, where he knows he's in trouble entering Britain back in the 60s, I think it was, with his German lover. He sees in the eyes of the customs agent that he's going to be turned back. Why? Because the agent is gay and closeted and working hard to be accepted by the homophobic world. Iconic because gays (well, of my generation, at least) are likely to tell you experience suggests people happy with their sexuality have no interest in yours, and gay bashing is usually derived by fear one might at some subconscious level be “that way” himself. Nothing more fear-inducing for gays than another gay with internalized homophobia.

Damn, I wish I could be sure I was discussing a no longer relevant historical phenomenon. I fear I’m not. I fear there are still lots of people “bending over backwards” to prove they’re not “one of them” or “too easy on them” or in some way putting the tribe over the world at large.

It’s hard to talk about this issue without getting insulting. I suspect Walker would cry foul and argue he was simply being a lawyer and lawyers whore for their clients and that’s the way things are supposed to go, the law being bigger than all of us, don’t you know. And shame on me for casting aspersions on his integrity.

But we have to ask, at least. No offense intended. We live in a world of polarized ideologies which extend right up and into the courts. Suddenly the issue of neutrality is on the table again. Will Walker decide for the plaintiffs and pronounce Proposition 8 unconstitutional and overturn the ban on gay marriage in California? If he does, will his being gay (Is he really gay?) play a part in his decision? Will he write an opinion that will solidify the case when it goes to the District Court and ultimately to the Supreme Court, as lots of people are predicting? Will he bend over backwards to show he’s not too pro-gay? Or will he really find this narrow band called neutrality and not let all the homophobic crap that came from Pugno et al at the trial influence his decision?

Why would he not let that stuff influence his decision?

All this suggests there could be a nasty fight and charges of bias down the line.

Nasty could be an understatement. Gays are smelling victory. If Walker goes against them they will scream for blood and they will have righteousness on their side. The defense was a poster boy for incompetence and the fact that, try as they might, they couldn’t come up with argument (other than God-hates-fags, I mean) suggests homophobia in America may, at long last, be slinking into the shadows. The fact that their two witnesses, Miller and Blankenhorn, actually made the case for the plaintiffs was more delicious than Chocolate Heart-Attack.

The money is on Walker deciding for the plaintiffs, though, and that means Pugno and the folks claiming to "protect marriage" will be tempted to claim Walker’s being gay made him a bad judge. If it goes that way, how much money would you lay down on their not being led into temptation?

We have to remember that Walker was assigned the case. He didn’t ask for it. And his work for the Olympic Committee should give evidence that he is more lawyer than gay liberation advocate.

And then, too, everybody will have to be reminded that gay issues are decided far more often by non-gay judges than the other way around. Nobody worries about hetero bias.

In time, we will be looking past Walker to the Supreme Court where Scalia and Thomas are known to be raving homophobes. And the question of whether these guys can determine the case on its merits. (Did I say nobody worries about hetero bias?)

Stay tuned. Future law students may be getting some rich material to chew on in the question of whether neutrality exists in the courts of this postmodern world any more. Or ever could.