Tuesday, May 26, 2020

What a pity he never did anything with it

Depending on your disposition at any given moment, you’re always free to focus on the glass half full or the glass half empty. Given over to a natural crankiness, which I justify by puffing myself up and claiming I’m simply a good “critical thinker,” I tend to dwell on what’s wrong with the world. Pollyannas annoy the hell out of me. Things need fixing. Don’t just sit there. Get off your ass and fix them, I say.

Must be my Calvinist background. I like to claim I’m an ex-Lutheran, but the truth is the Calvinists got to my young mind at a much earlier time, when I was more susceptible to the idea that if I were a good little boy not only would the adults in my life smile at me more, but God himself would be pleased. I was put on this earth to do good works. There is no finer goal one can have in life than to die knowing you made the world a better place than you found it. It gets confusing at times, like when I get the bug to try to convince people their hopes and dreams are false and fanciful and they need to be more realistic. But the goal remains the same

For years I’ve looked back at my early child-rearing and complained that they did a piss-poor job of training me to be a mens sana in corpore sano, a healthy mind in a healthy body. What we got with physical education was a coach who would line up all the guys and have them choose teams, football in the fall, baseball the rest of the year. I was always one of the last chosen and it set me on a path where I hated physical education all my life. When in later years I saw how other countries did it, by stressing individual development, through soccer or through gymnastics carefully guided, I came to resent my P.E. training as a classical example of mis-education.

More recently, though,  I’ve come to appreciate the fact that I grew up at a time and in a place where music and art were part of the school curriculum, and we had a marvelous soul for a music teacher who was able to develop in us not only our skills as singers and players of instruments, but a love of music itself. I took seven or eight years of piano lessons, became the accompanist of our high school glee club and for a time I even got a job as the organist of the local Methodist Church. I played in recitals, got other jobs - playing for ballet recitals, for example, and people regularly told me that I was going places as a musician.

Alas, what was missing was the push from parents or other mentors who might have tied me to the piano bench, forced me to practice my Czerny finger exercises and cram music theory into me that might have opened the door to such possibilities. Instead, I coasted, playing one not too challenging tune after another when my piano teacher thought I was ready for it, until finally I concluded that it had become clear that I had no special talent for music. Working relentlessly at it would simply have cut too sharply into more rewarding activities. Both the external pressure and the internal discipline were just not there.

More than once I heard somebody remark, “He’s so talented! Pity he never did anything with it.”

The thing is, I did do something with it. Every morning during the current lockdown I start the day with music. YouTube gives you access these days to the best musicians in the world. You are not limited by money and geography by an inability to get to concerts at Carnegie Hall. You can watch Carnegie Hall concerts on your computer screen. Two boys from Manchester, England, play piano/organ duets at the Royal Albert Hall. I come back again and again to the winners of the Moscow Tchaikovsky piano competitions. Watch folks with superhuman hands, like Yuja Wang. And folks who can expose you to the soul of Beethoven, like Igor Levit, that you never realized you’ve been missing all your life. 

Never did anything with it? Nonsense. I developed an appreciation for what’s involved in nurturing such a native-born talent through discipline, and even to this day, when I wonder if I’m just going to sink into the ground with cynicism about American democracy or even the ability of the human race to be human, I find I am still lifted right out of my chair at times with wonderment at the virtuosity of those who did make it to the top. And joy at the power of music to move you up onto the floor to move your body. How is it that tragedy can leave you dry-eyed but beauty that enters the brain through the eyes and ears brings the tears?

Four years my friend Harriet got up at 4 a.m. to bring her daughter to ice-skating lessons before school until one day her daughter simply announced she was now tired of skating and didn’t want to do it anymore. “What a waste,” her grandmother said. “All those hours practicing. For what?”

Harriet had a quick answer. “It wasn’t a waste, mother,” she said. “Amy got to make the connection between effort and accomplishment. It doesn’t matter than she didn’t become world-class; she learned a valuable lesson for life.”

I’m told, now that I’ve passed my 80th birthday, that I’m officially old. So I think I should be able to get away with concluding that the purpose of life is preparing for the time in your life when you won’t be able to get around all that much and will have to live with your memories. But it turns out it’s more than memories: it’s the ability to appreciate things that a good education gave you, whether it was the joy of reading and the knowledge that it’s a big world with endless exciting new surprises, or places of refuge, or insight into the full breadth of human experience. Or the ability to distinguish the trivial from the enduring.

I once said I wanted to live a life with no regrets. I wanted to get things right. Wanted to be one of those people who, when dying, didn’t have to worry he’d spent too much time at the office, too little time with his children.

But it turns out I do have regrets - lots of them. I wish I had learned Chinese. Wish I had brought my German and French and Spanish to a higher level. Wish I had traveled in Africa. Wish I had not told everybody that Kenny Rizzi had pissed his pants after promising not to. Wish I had not terrified my friend Pete by threatening to tell his mother he was gay because I thought he needed help curing himself. 

But I don’t regret not become better at the piano. I took it as far as I was able to and then channeled my love of music into the joy of listening to others perform. I’m proud of my appreciation of music.  I’ll match my appreciation with anybody else’s. Any day. So there.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Getting it right

Getting it right. Such a simple goal. So hard to achieve.

We spend our days listening to the latest bunch of horseshit coming from Trump's mouth. Or citing Voltaire and telling ourselves just to tend our own garden, and still coming back for more. And turning to Rachel Maddow as she documents how he lies, or Morning Joe as he and Mika rant about how he lies. And passing on terms like "Liar-in-Chief."

And some of us, like me, when we talk about him at all, insist we should ignore him and focus on the real problem, America's willingness to follow a liar for various self-serving reasons, because we're white supremacists, because we're greedy, because we're just clueless. Part of the school of thought that suggests we have the government we deserve. We have a narcissistic/mean/lying leader because we didn't work hard enough to create a government that would protect us from one, didn't elect leaders that would prevent gerrymandering, would get rid of the Electoral College, would make sure the Supreme Court remained apolitical, etc.  Didn't vote in large enough numbers, so that the swamp critters were able to take over. We have met the enemy and he is us, in other words.

If that's the case, that what we have is a working democracy after all, but it's just that we're not living up to the fact that a democracy only works as well as its constituent members, then we're faced with two options: throw in the towel and live with our fellow stupid/lazy neighbors as best we can, or get more involved and use every trick we know to maintain optimism and work to make things better. We can fix this; we simply need to get more involved.

That's been my approach for years. I've admired friends who travel to other states to knock on doors at election time because they know California is already in the Democratic camp and our vote doesn't make a difference - it's not about voting; it's about getting to people in places that will ultimately turn the tide and making a more effective difference and allow myself to believe that's just not me. I can't do that much. It's not that I believe it's a foolish use of resources for such a meager payoff - I do believe that, but I also believe one engages in the right cause because not to engage in the right cause, no matter how futile it might be, makes you a lesser being. I shoot my mouth off because it comes naturally, and call that my contribution. It ain't much, but it's what I've got to offer, and it beats doing nothing. Not by much, but it is not nothing.

Another thing we can do is pass on bits of information to friends and anyone who will listen we think will help make a more informed electorate. Get those who read to read the right stuff. Stop worrying about the fact that so many of us don't read, or read only what confirms our current understanding of the way the world works, and keep forwarding things, or posting them on Face Book or on blogs or even on the nearest telephone pole.

I've been thinking a lot lately about stupidity. First off how easy it is to be stupid, to not think before speaking or acting impulsively. In the best of times I have defended stupidity, arguing that one of our most important rights is the right to be stupid. What I mean by that is that if you are wise you will recognize that life is an endless process of learning how easy it is to be wrong and that you have to allow others to speak freely so that you can claim that same right and we can all engage with the knowledge we have at any given moment and hope that somehow, in the exchange of views, truth will out and those of us who are wrong can be put right. Or you might want to defend the stupid by declaring it's more important to be kind than to be right. The older I get the more I'm inclined to take that route, as well.

But I'm not inclined to be kind, at the moment. I'm inclined to want to be right. Like many people, I'm overwhelmed by the pandemic and how it sheds light on the need to be right. False information isn't merely distracting at a time like this; it's dangerous. Watching the First Idiot suggest we might ingest bleach or use an unproven medicine to cure the disease is bound to kill people, perhaps even more than withholding the truth is. His enablers are not going to correct him and warn the public. It's up to people who become aware of the mendacity to do it somehow.

Speak out. Share stuff. My Lutheran background implanted the voice of Luther in my head which I hear all the time saying, "Be sure you're right. Then go ahead."

That's where it came from, probably, this sense that it's important to be right - from my religious upbringing. Don't kill. Don't steal. Don't lie, yes. But also Be Right. This highly imperfect man, Luther, he continues to speak to me. It's important not just to act. You've got to be right, as well. And that includes knowing where Luther was wrong, as he was with his anti-Semitism, but where he was right, as he was when pointing out the need to stand up to corruption and abuse of power. And with the importance of being right.

A heavy responsibility. It means lots and lots of work. You've got to gather information, check it, check it again. Argue with the conspiracy theorists and the willfully ignorant and the lazy thinkers, recognizing the risk you have of falling into any of those categories yourself.

But you can do it, I tell myself. It means getting a good night's sleep so I can go through the day with a clear head. Exercising more so I keep the oxygen flowing to the brain. Eating well, so I don't give in quite so much to the allure of chocolate, which makes me fat and lazy and inclined to waste time with lousy movies on Netflix. Resisting the urge to bash what you don't like, like organized religion. Recognize and embrace Luther - when he's right - not when he's wrong - and also Ecclesiastes, when he says "Let your moderation be known to all men."  Maybe don't cut out the chocolate entirely. Just keep it down.

OK, that's enough of a pre-breakfast ramble this morning. Time to go down for my morning allotment of butter. With the vehicle that supplies it, called toasted bread.

But first, let me share with you somebody who I think has gotten it right. His name is Conor Friedersdorf. My first inclination is not to take him seriously since he obviously misspells his first name. Unless he intends it to be pronounced "Coe - ner," which I doubt is the case. I know the rules of English spelling. I think he should get it right and fix that.

But in the spirit of following Luther, with all his imperfections because when he's right, he's right, I'm recommending Conor to you this morning.

His article in The Atlantic is right on, I think.

Trump isn't the liar we all insist he is. Sure, he lies. Over a month ago The Washington Post published an article entitled, "President Trump made 18,000 false or misleading claims in 1,170 days." But Conor has made the case that we're focusing on the wrong thing. What's really wrong with Trump is not that he lies or that he lacks a moral compass but that he lacks grey matter. He's a stupid man.

And if the Democrats do the right thing, they will spend less time calling him a liar and a scoundrel but then crediting him with being a crafty fellow. And more time pointing out what a mistake it is to allow somebody who lacks what it takes to lead the Executive Branch of government. Until we have a legislature willing to stop ceding so much power to the Chief Executive, we can at least get rid of Stupid.

Have a look at what Conor has to say, and tell me he doesn't make a great case.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020


Jehovah, so the ancient Hebrews tell us, took six days to create the earth, divvying up the tasks one day at a time. On the first day he created light; on the second, the firmament of heaven. On the third he did two things, actually, separate the water from the land and create plant life. On the fourth he created the sun, moon and the stars, which was useful, I suppose, because he had to have someplace to put the light which he created on the first day. On the fifth day he created marine life and birds and don’t you believe for a minute that the birds evolved from dinosaurs - t’wouldn’t be biblically correct. And finally, on the sixth day, he created land animals like koala bears and kangaroos, as well as man and woman.

The Greek word for this whole business is Hexameron, or more precisely,  ξαήμερος Δημιουργία - the “hexameron demiurge,” a fairly obscure way of referring to the six days of creation, if you ask me. But I’m neither a theologian nor a biblical scholar, so I’m moving on here.

This kind of turned the number six into a magic number, you might say, and the ancients played it up big time. Saint Basil, the purported inventor of the soup kitchen (i.e., a real Christian, not a “swear-on-the-Bible-or-die-you-heathen” make-believe one) wrote a sermon for each of six days, others followed suit and voilà we have a literary genre known as “hexameral literature.” Many of the early greats contributed to this genre, including Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure and the thirteenth century saint, Robert Grosseteste, whose name does not derive from the English “gross testes” but from the French for “fathead,” in case you were wondering. But I digress.

Hurrying on now, we turn to this marvelous lady named Cristina Trivulzio Belgiojoso, born to privilege in the 19th Century in time to throw her weight behind the formation of the Italian state, even though she was so timid that she would often burst into tears if you looked at her directly - did I mention she was an Italian princess? One of the many things she did with her big bucks was to arrange a competition in 1837 to see who was the best piano player in the world, with proceeds to go to the poor. The contest came down pretty much to Franz Liszt and Sigismond Thalberg.

Cristina persuaded Liszt to see what he could do to jazz up a march for the occasion, the one from the opera I Puritani by Bellini. Liszt collared several of his musical friends, namely Chopin, Czerny, Henri Herz, Johann Peter Pixis, and his rival Sigismond to contribute to the piece, each writing a variation on the march theme, the one that goes dum-dum-de-dum-dum dum-de-dum (you’ll know right away what I’m referring to when you listen to it). He wrote the intro and the second variation himself, as well as the bang-up finale. If you can’t find thirty minutes to listen to the whole thing, at least have a go at that incredible finale. Not written for ordinary human fingers.

I find the question “What kind of music do you like” a strange one. Doesn’t everybody like all kinds of music? I can’t imagine just giving a single answer. Music is for all occasions and for all moods, and there are times when it’s up there with sex, food and drink, just because. For no reason at all other than why not? I may not be able to go as far as Igor Levit does when he equates music with life, but I’m pretty close.

Sometimes you want a lovely melody, music for the head, music for the heart, something to make you to get up and go, something to calm you down. When you come across a virtuoso performer like Igor Levit, you’ve got everything. He can bring you to tears with the old and familiar, like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. And he can knock your socks off when he demonstrates that he is, in fact, a modern-day Franz Liszt when it comes to technical fireworks. Up there with the greats when it comes to making you believe there must be a machine doing all this. Like when you watch Olympic athletes and say to yourself, “That’s not humanly possible.” 

Levit has brought me back to Beethoven, as I’ve said before, after years of thinking he’s basically a bore. I think the problem has largely been I haven’t found many of the performances I’ve heard all that inspiring. Levit inspires. He’s got it. He brings you into his performances like nobody I’ve heard in ages. I know there are lots and lots of splendid performers. I’ve mentioned my fondness for Marta Argerich and for Yuja Wang. (Listen to Yuja perform Prokofiev’s Toccata when you get a chance.)

But after nearly overdosing on Beethoven with all of Levit’s Hauskonzerte recently, I came across his performance of that Hexameron piece Liszt wrote for Christina. The show-off piece where those wonderful 19th century musical geniuses outdid each other. What fun. What absolute fun. It’s like watching kids play and marveling at their creativity. Only it’s watching geniuses at play, moving from razzmatazz to whimsical fantasy. It’s the whimsy, most of the time, that grabs me. You can see that these guys really enjoyed their musical lives, had fun with it. 

Friday, May 15, 2020

Igor Levit

Igor Levit
Where to begin with my latest lockdown journey into the mind? If I’m not careful, I’m going to start displaying Stockholm Syndrome, to the extent that I’m beginning to give the lockdown the credit for all that I’m discovering, when I might give it to YouTube, to myself, or to those most worthy of the credit, the artists themselves. In any case, my latest discovery...

The most recent (May 18) issue of The New Yorker has what is part profile article, part music review, of the German pianist Igor Levit by Alex Ross, and I recommend it highly. If you don’t have a subscription, it’s available online here.

One obvious place to start, if you're not familiar with him, is to go straight to a demonstration of what he is capable of. I'd suggest the Waldstein Sonata as he played it recently at the Schloss Bellevue, the residence of Germany's President. There is an English introduction following the German introduction.

Or you could just start with Levit himself. A good way to get a sense of the man is to listen to him talk about Beethoven and what he means to him.  Here he is giving another demonstration of what he can do with those stunningly beautiful fingers when he sits down at the keyboard: 

Over the past several days I’ve been listening alternatively to his music and to interviews he has given in a diverse variety of venues, with the directors of the Salzburg Festival, with fans, with other musicians and with philosophers. He is a terribly interesting man, a man of strong opinions which he expresses openly and directly and assertively. He describes himself as citizen first, a European second, a musician third. He lives by the motto "have no fear." When he talks of music, he resists any distinction between music and life - music is life, and when he talks of politics he insists that the world must engage, that we are living in a time of existential crises, of the possibility of destroying the planet, and of losing democracy to a new rush of national movements on a global scale.

I listen for a time to his music, then to his interviews, and love being able to go back and forth, discovering the man as an artist, a world-class talent and a brilliant mind. He is already widely known in the German-speaking world, and no doubt among those who follow concert pianists more closely than I do. I’m not going to waste time bewailing how long it has taken me to come across this inspiring artist, but simply celebrate the fact that I have a new one to add to my already large collection. 

I’ve written at different times about my fascination with one young prodigy from Russia, Alexander Malofeev, and another from Georgia, Sandro Nebieridze. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing several concerts by the wonderful interpreter of Chopin, Garrick Ohlsson, and if I were to pick an all-time favorite pianist, it would probably be the Argentine, Martha Argerich. These favorites are in my life not because of any systematic search for excellence, but because they have come across my path purely by chance, either because they gave concerts at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco or, more recently on YouTube. I’m aware that piano prodigies are actually not rare, and now, thanks to the internet they have become more accessible. All you have to do is take the time to check in.

So far, fortunately, though this might suggest one could get jaded, or at least come to take exceptional talent for granted, each new discovery only seems to add to my appreciation of the beauty to be found in the performances of these artists with talents I'm tempted to call superhuman. 

What draws me to Igor Levit in particular is the way he speaks with such excitement about his own musical journey, how he discovered the Italian composer, Ferruccio Busoni, for example - which then leads you to try to find what he found and before you know it you’ve spent another day wrapped up in brilliant talent and rich musicality and you wonder why you wasted so much time fussing over the wretchedness of the American political scene, for example, or wasted so much of your precious little time left on this planet watching the crap Netflix and Amazon put out these days. I don’t want to dismiss crap out of hand - there are times when escapist crap is just what the doctor ordered to keep you sane and balanced, but one needs to keep perspective.

I haven’t been bored since I first learned to read, so that’s not the issue. But I do live by the motto of my old friend Gretchen who responded to my question once, “Do you have any regrets?” “Over the things I’ve done, no,” she said. “Every experience I’ve had has made me what I am today and I like what I am today.” Then she added, “But I do think I’ve done some things too long.”

That’s where I am. I want to stop doing things any longer than make no sense. I now put my fork down when I’m full. I never stuff myself at the table anymore and so I don’t have to worry about losing weight. And I never hesitate to turn off a bad movie mid-way. I no longer feel obliged to keep going just to see what will happen. And I now have a rich repertoire of good music I can keep coming back to and the knowledge that there’s always another artist out there who I’m going to find a childlike enthusiasm for, as I have this week with Igor Levit.

Just to give you an example of how one can spin off from one good piece of music to another, I followed up Levit’s excitement about the American composer Frederic Rzewski, who was born two years before me and less than thirty miles away. Rzweski wrote a piece that grabbed Levit’s attention when he, Levit, was just sixteen. He has credited the piece with keeping him going in pursuit of a life as a musician. It took him years to master it - it is wildly creative and unconventional, or what Levit would call liberating in the way Beethoven was for his time. 

The piece is an adaptation of the march written for the Chilean movement behind Salvador Allende by the composer Sergio Ortega. It’s called “El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido (The people united will never be defeated).” It speaks loudly to me, not only because I find the music incredibly rousing, but because, as I’ve explained elsewhere, the CIA overthrow of Allende is one of the reasons I think I’ve probably lost forever the ability to be proud to be American. 

That move often gets overshadowed by the Vietnam War and the War in Iraq, and now by the surrender of Americans to their worst white supremacist instincts in following Donald Trump.  The phrase has been picked up around the world and it takes me back to one of the darkest moments of my life, the killing of Harvey Milk. The crowd I was in in front of San Francisco City Hall picked up the "people united" chant when his killer, Dan White, was let off with a slap on the wrist.

But don’t be distracted by my political views, if you don’t agree with them. Have a listen to Levit playing this piece and see if you don’t agree with me that it is super powerful. I’ll give you just a short version of it hereBut you can find the full-length version played by Levit and by Rzewski himself with a quick YouTube search.

And if this leads you to a discovery or rediscovery of the appeal of Beethoven, as it appears to be doing for me, so much the better.

I refuse to give credit to the U.S. Army for turning my life around by offering me all manner of insights and a life of intimate friendships. And I refuse to credit the lockdown with the discovery of what's out there in the world of music. I see them not as the source of the most meaningful parts of my life, but as merely the venue.

And as with my very difficult three years wearing a military uniform and that challenging year I spent in Saudi Arabia, I'm counting on what I learned from those past experiences to hold true now, that all hard times come eventually to an end. I trust that this lockdown, as well as this nightmare in the White House, will one day fade away.

But the richness of the encounter with beauty that comes out of the hard times, well, I've got to believe that will be with me forever.

photo credit

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Celle, Dumfries, and a long line of Georges

Heartthrob of the Highlands, Jamie Fraser,
and his true love, Claire, 207 years his senior.
The details, as the saying goes, may well be the dwelling place of the devil, but so are many of the motivations for what keeps us engaged as the plague rages across the land.  I was able to come up with a dozen reasons to stop watching Outlander - too much violence, too much cheap dependence on the kissy-kissy - but the Scottish history grabbed hold of me early on, and I was able to use it to offset a bucketload of sloppy Hollywoodish features, particularly the story of Scotland’s early attempt to get out of from under English hegemony under the Hanoverian kings George I and II. (There was to be a third and a fourth before they stopped naming them all after their fathers, but let’s not get distracted.) When the allegedly bonnie (but clearly foolish) Prince Charlie pushed the effort to put the Catholic Stuarts back on the throne, he tragically overestimated the strength of his following, and got wiped out at the Battle of Culloden, near Inverness, in 1746, putting an end to the clan system and making the wearing of the tartans illegal. Scotland would continue as the junior partner of the United Kingdom into the present day, having to endure the world thinking of the United Kingdom as “England” as often as not. 

Born to binge, evidently, I find myself still up at 3 a.m. all too often. Last time was when I was unable to say no to “just one more” when streaming the seventy-two hours of Un Village Français. I love historical dramas and the way they give me a whole new purpose in life as I can’t help digging around online for more historical background. Who, exactly, was Bonnie Prince Charlie and where did he come from? How did Mary, Queen of Scots, fit into the picture? Where exactly was Culloden? What’s the connection between Henry VIII, who I remember was a Tudor, and the House of Hanover and the Stuarts? So much ground to cover. A real blast, in the end. Can't help myself; I'm so easily hooked.

And, as if I needed more motivation, two bits of trivia popped out at me and reminded me how tightly I am tied to the continent of Europe. One was the fact that the House of Hanover began with yet another George, the Duke of Brunswick (German Braunschweig)-Lüneburg, who was born in Celle in 1582, where my mother was born in 1915. And her father was born in Braunschweig. The other is that Sam Heughan, the lead actor in Outlander,  was born in Dumfries and Galloway, in Scotland, where my paternal grandfather was born in 1886.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, when the current Queen of England (why don’t we refer to her as the Queen of the UK? or at least as the Queen of Great Britain?) passes on, the throne will go to her son Charles, and then to his son William, and then to his son George, who, unless he does something really stupid, like convert to Roman Catholicism, will be the seventh George on the throne of the United Kingdom. Unless Scotland decides, of course, to make up for the loss of Scottish independence at the Battle of Culloden, and secedes from the United Kingdom, which might well lead to Northern Ireland’s seceding as well, in which case he might well be declared King George the First of the Rump State of England and Wales. (Not really. My guess is they would still call themselves the United Kingdom, even if reduced to just two wee little states.)

The socialist in me finds the fascination with the British royal family, particularly by Americans, tacky. Don’t wish anybody ill, and I enjoyed watching William and Harry grow up and Harry marry an American, but really, people, can’t you find something better to do? I ask this as I dig around and look for mnemonic devices to keep all the Charleses straight - the first one lost his head, the second was restored to the crown when the country got tired of the Puritans the way America got tired of Prohibition. And the Williamses and the Georges. How can I sneer when I wake up in the morning dashing for my computer to remind myself who William of Orange was, or William of William and Mary? It’s like an addiction, this need to dismiss and to know more simultaneously.

Maybe it comes from the time I was at the house of Pardon Tillinghast, the professor of intellectual history at Middlebury who used to play games at the dinner table with his two nerdy daughters. One of them would suddenly shout out “George the Fourth” and they’d go around the table naming all the monarchs in reverse order. I felt so out of place at Middlebury because it was filled with rich kids with private school educations and I came from a two factory employee household. Here I am nearing eighty and I’m still marked with a lifelong sense of class inferiority, now playing itself out in a whole new way as I binge watch Netflix and Amazon Prime.

I was spared this much mental masturbation while I was working. Had too much else to occupy my mind. But here we are now with all this time on our hands and I’ve got no defense against these curious obsessions.

I’m being too hard on myself. They are not obsessions. They are interests. And I balance them with lots of music videos, Alexander Malofeev playing Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos with Sandro Nebieridze, for example, which I watch at least once a month, often more frequently, again and again, and videos on Face Book of little doggies being rescued and fixed up by a vet and groomed and given forever homes.

Not obsessions at all. All good stuff. All wonderful ways of sitting out the Black Plague.

photo credit: two main characters in Outlander

Friday, May 1, 2020


Flag of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland
When I was in the fourth grade, our teacher asked the class one day, “Where do you all come from?” It was a natural question at the time because in the New England where I was growing up most of us in the class were born into immigrant families.  As we went down the aisle, everybody had a ready answer. “Italy. Italy. Ireland. Italy. Poland. Canada. Italy.” When they got to me, I answered, “Germany.” There was a stunned silence, and I had one of my earliest experiences of feeling like an outsider.

Later, on the playground at recess some kids decided to beat me up. “Italian” kids.

They were no more Italian than I was German.  We were all born in the United States. But despite the fact that we were taught that America was a melting pot, we all learned to identify with the country of origin of our parents. Much of Connecticut, where I was born, identified with Italy and in time I would come to have more Italian-American friends than friends of other backgrounds. In 1949, however, the war was still part of the present, and while it infuriated me that I could be blamed for Hitler while these little shits hitting me in the face could get away with not acknowledging a parallel Mussolini connection, there was nothing I could do but take the blows.

When I told my mother and father what had happened on the playground that day, instead of getting sympathy, my father was annoyed. “You’re not German,” he said. “You’re Scottish.”

Flag of Scotland
He didn’t need to explain. I knew his father, my “Grandpa,” was born in Dumfries and that I bore a Scottish family name. And that his mother, although technically an “English-Canadian,” was from Scottish Canada, from Nova Scotia. But when I was born, the first child on both my mother’s and father’s sides, my German grandmother had swooped in and made me her special little prince to spoil. I was fond of my Scottish-Canadian grandparents, but had an especially close relationship with the woman I called Großmutter - she lived close by and was part of our everyday lives - and that connection would come to determine my identity more than the family name ever could.

Flag of Nova Scotia
In time I would come to embrace three countries, Germany, Canada and Scotland, as somehow “mine.” I absorbed the loyalties that lingered in my parents and grandparents, began thinking of Nova Scotia as our other, summer, home, and immersed myself in the history, language and cultures of all three. I felt powerfully rooted and those roots gave my life meaning. As years went by, the roots grew stronger.  The German connection got two booster shots - a junior year abroad in Munich, and a stint in Frankfurt and Berlin in the army. In time, I grew a new identity when fate determined that I would begin my adult life among the flower children in California in the 60s. Never rebellious enough to identify as a hippy, the move to California both outlined my New England ways and gave me the most enduring of my many identities, that of a Californian. And the rooting didn’t stop there. I would come to spend twenty-four years of my life in Japan, and could declare - and mean it - that I now had three homes: San Francisco, Tokyo and Berlin. And several identities: Scottish, German, New Englander, Nova Scotian, and ex-pat American of Japan.

Land of the Mikado
The notion “Jack of All Trades/Master of None” holds true for multiple national identities, I think. I identified so closely with Berlin during my time there in the Cold War, in large part because I developed such close ties with a great aunt and uncle who lived there, that I found myself planning to emigrate and become a German. And yes I still identified intensely with Nova Scotia where, at 16 I had had an accident and ended up in the hospital in Antigonish. My aunt and uncle, whom I had driven up there with, had to leave me behind, and one of the priests from St. Francis Xavier University began visiting me regularly, taking pity on the “boy from Conneck-ticut” who was alone and far from home. One of my major paths-not-taken in life was deciding to pass up the chance of making St. FX my college choice. I developed a powerful crush on Father John, and it was a near-miss.

Father John would often bring other priests with him. Antigonish was, along with Cape Breton Island, a Scottish Catholic Center, and the Gaelic-speaking priests had a direct connection back to Mary, Queen of Scots and to Bonnie Prince Charlie, whose failure to put the Catholic Stuarts back on the throne meant that Scotland would go down in history as a Protestant country. Lying there in the hospital with bagpipe music on the radio every afternoon and with the sound of Gaelic in my ears, though, I found my horizons extended just as they were by means of the Italians I came to know and love in Connecticut. I credit these moments with the formation of my conviction that no single religious institution could ever hold sway over the way I would come to understand the meaning of being rooted in identities - plural.

When a 20-year-old madman named Adam Lanza went into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, I dropped my California identity and ached for the people of Connecticut. When another madman, named Gabriel Wortman, just recently went on a rampage and killed 22 people in Portapique, Wentworth, Debert and Shubenacadie, in the very heart of Nova Scotia, I observed the tragedy at some distance, at first. But then the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation projected the blue and white colors of the province onto Niagara Falls, and I kind of went to pieces.

If I had to pick just one...
Loyalty to a geographical location is a mixed bag. I’m watching how well Germany is responding to the Coronavirus pandemic these days and wanting to put on the black, red and gold cap I picked up when I was in Berlin in 2014 and I got to call my friend Luis in Buenos Aires when Germany took the World Cup from Argentina and rub it in. And as I watch how poorly the United States is coming across to the world these days, I want to hang my head in shame. I am not above falling prey to patriotic sentiments, no matter how well or how poorly these feelings are justified. It's both fascinating and embarrassing to note how easily one can be manipulated by jingoists into joining the crowd. 

On the other hand, there is something steadying, and maybe even uplifting, about knowing where you belong, by being able to articulate a sense of connection, a primal, tribal means of preventing yourself from being tossed around like a rudderless ship. As I turn eighty, I’m ever more conscious that we’re here on earth for but a limited time. When all is said and done, I think, there are worse things than having a place to call home for the duration.

What set me off, if anybody is interested, on this rumination on my tribal connections, is a Netflix Series called Outlander. It's not the worst binge I've engaged in.  I’d give it a B- as a work of art. If they had made it as a movie, and trimmed it radically, I might even want to give it an A. But, as is inevitable with TV series, they need to pad it to keep it going, to give the actors and writers and other crew work. And to keep eyeballs on the tube, so that advertisers can make a living. So it veers over into soap opera subplot overdose and abundance of coincidence.

Outlander is the story of an English woman who goes back in time to the Scottish Highlands of the 1740s, as Bonnie Prince Charlie is seeking ways to put himself back on the British throne. It’s a pretty good look at life among the highland clans. Beautiful people in the leading roles, a Scot named Sam Heughan, born incidentally not far from my grandfather’s birthplace in Dumfries and Galloway, and Irish actress Caitriona Balfe, who plays his “Sassenach” (Gaelic word for “English” - i.e., “Saxon”) love interest. Lots of quite explicit sex; you could even call it soft-porn, although those much younger than me  who are sure to have trouble believing that in the world I grew up in even married people in TV dramas had to sleep in separate beds, will see it as routine love-scenes. Lots wrong with it - like the far too fancy furniture and tapestries for an impoverished locality like the rural Scottish highlands - but for anybody interested in English and Scottish history, very much worth a go. I’m barely into Season 3 and I understand it goes for a couple more. I’ve stopped several times because I get annoyed at the swashbuckle and the violence, but I keep coming back for the history.

That’s the problem with having an ethnic identity: the history sucks you in and you get hooked.

But it’s a time when staying behind closed doors is the better part of valor, and besides walking the dogs, what’s a body to do? 

Music is good.

And so is history.

And so, apparently, is using the time to figure out who the hell you are. Even if you’ve worked at this before, this is a chance to do it broader and deeper.

If you haven’t already gotten into the process, I recommend it highly.