Ho Ho Ho

Thanksgiving ought to come after Christmas. I have so much more to be sincerely thankful for once the damn Christmas season is over. Thankful not to have to listen for another year to “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Santa Baby” and “Sleigh Ride” being played over the sound system three times a day everywhere I go. Thankful to be able for another year to buy a bar of soap or some ballpoint pens again without having to make my way through crowds of people shoving to be first in line. Thankful that for another year we can all stop taking each other for granted as though all the other people in our lives are just just extras in the movies, all of them titled My Perfect Christmas, that are running in all of our neurotic little heads.

There’s a lot of right-wing hoo-ha over the so-called “War on Christmas” but if you ask me, what has destroyed any spiritual meaning in America that Christmas may once have had is all this insane emphasis on shopping shopping shopping, and if some department store decides that it wants to say “Happy Holidays!” instead of “Merry Christmas!” then why for Jesus’s sake would anybody who actually cared about Jesus’s sake want to try to talk them out of this? Wal-Mart announces that it will no longer use the word “Christ” as part of the advertising slogan for its annual campaign to make a ton of money for themselves, and those who claim to care more about Christianity than you or I do are trying to freaking put pressure on them to change their mind? Do they suppose that Jesus’s beef with the moneylenders was actually that they had just decided to move their business out of the temple?

Looks to me like the real War on Christmas happens when the thoughts and feelings we associate with Jesus are exploited as a means of persuading us to buy a PlayStation 3.

I leave tomorrow for five days at a retreat way the heck up in Humboldt County, an hour’s drive from Highway 101. A chance to unwind, spend an hour writing in my journal every day, meditate a lot, take part in workshops, give a workshop, take long walks through the woods, get a nice long massage, and so on. When I get back it’ll be a new year and hopefully I will be renewed and ready for it.


Dave and I and a few friends went to Berkeley Symphony’s first concert of the season last night. On the program were three short pieces by Avro Pärt and Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony.

The Pärt pieces seemed to me to be pleasant without being very striking. What was striking was how amazingly noisy the audience was during them: constant coughing, some of it really loud (I seem to be nearly the last person left who carries a handkerchief, but couldn’t they at least cough into their hands or shirtsleeves to muffle the sound a bit?), intermittently ornamented with the crackling of candy wrappers. The Pä pieces were mostly fairly small and quiet, so it’s not impossible I might have liked them better if I could have concentrated better on them. Then again, maybe not, as none of the other music by Pärt that I’ve heard has excited me much — but it would have been nice to be able to find that out, you know?

The Leningrad symphony is of course a great big work for a great big orchestra, so I didn’t hear the woman in front of me unwrapping her candy but I doubt I’d have heard her cracking open a lobster either. The symphony seemed very well played to me, though it wasn’t all that long ago that Dave and I heard the same piece very thrillingly conducted by MTT with the San Francisco Symphony, and it’s hard to compete with the memory of that. The middle two movements seemed to me to be played a bit tamely last night, without the fire I remember from the earlier concert, but I thought the outer movements were exciting and I had a good time.

Still, though, the Leningrad symphony always seems to me to be too much of a good thing. It’s got enough thematic material for two symphonies, and it’s developed to enough length for three.

Or It Could Just Be That Uncut Men Are Twice as Likely to Get Laid

According to the New York Times,

Circumcision appears to reduce a man’s risk of contracting AIDS from heterosexual sex by half, United States government health officials said yesterday ….

The National Institutes of Health has its theories about why this is:

Uncircumcised men are thought to be more susceptible because the underside of the foreskin is rich in Langerhans cells, sentinel cells of the immune system, which attach easily to the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS. The foreskin also often suffers small tears during intercourse.

Far Leftist Comments, You Might Say

Oh, this is too funny. Tom Delay has a blog now, only it was quickly overrun by hostile comments. So they took down the site, erased the offending comments, and started screening.

So now there are only, um, supportive comments allowed on Mr. Delay’s blog. Here are a few that are up there right now, as of this posting:

You’re absolutely right.
Our children are way too precious to sacrifice for
unproven bogus scientific cures. From conception, babies have a
right to live a long, happy life.

Mohers shouldn’t have the right to kill a baby for her
own personal greedy desires. Those are the actions of an evil
monster, not a mother.

I think that there needs to be more in the way of scientific
studies to show how conscious an unborn baby is.

A lot of liberals could change their mind on the matter

What else can we do to stop abortions, stem cell research and
harvesting of babies for science? Well, here is a great
one: Write letters to your senators, congressmen, and other
representives to the government. We can get the ball rolling if
everyone pitches in.


Bring back NEWT! He was
Unfairly forced out!
Liberals will be the death of this country.
Liars they are.
Some day Delay will be hailed as a hero.
He is being smeared by a liberal.
I believe in you Delay.
The country needs you!


Inredible! There are
Many bloggs out there, but i
Prefer those that consider
Each side of every
Argument. We need more
Champions like yourself
Here on the internet.
Be assured I will
Use this blog as my homepage!
Sure, some may object, but to
Hell with them!

We’re Shutting Down Your Website Because Some of Those Smileys Look Underage

According to an article on CNET News.com:

Millions of commercial Web sites and personal blogs would be required to report illegal images or videos posted by their users or pay fines of up to $300,000, if a new proposal in the U.S. Senate came into law.

The legislation, drafted by Sen. John McCain and obtained by CNET News.com, would also require Web sites that offer user profiles to delete pages posted by sex offenders. …

Internet service providers already must follow those reporting requirements. But McCain’s proposal is liable to be controversial because it levies the same regulatory scheme — and even stiffer penalties — on even individual bloggers who offer discussion areas on their Web sites.

The problem is that there is no clear definition of what material you could be fined for. According to the article,

… the reporting rules could prove problematic for individuals and smaller Web sites because the definitions of child pornography have become relatively broad.

The U.S. Justice Department, for instance, indicted an Alabama man named Jeff Pierson last week on child pornography charges because he took modeling photographs of clothed minors with their parents’ consent. The images were overly “provocative,” a prosecutor claimed.

It also seems that any website that allows users to create profiles would be required to delete even completely innocuous profiles of users who are listed as sex offenders, or face staggering penalties.

So if a registered sex offender manages to put up even an empty profile page on some website, even if it contains nothing more than his user ID, it’s the website that can be slammed with a six-figure fine. Seem a bit overboard, maybe? I mean, we already have laws against child pornography and solicitation of children on the Internet; the only power these new laws seem to be giving the government is the power to punish websites brutally over innocuous webpages, or over pretty much any photo of a child.

Giving the government that additional power is not going to help protect any children against anyone. The only ability the government would gain that it doesn’t already have is the power to harass pretty much any website it chooses to. Whether it has a good reason or not.

And this administration would love to shut down the Internet. But they can’t because they’d alienate big business.

Next best thing, though, is to go after anyone using the Internet to spread ideas. The spread of ideas is hurting this administration real bad.

And ideas are a perfectly safe target to go after because doing so doesn’t affect big business in the slightest.

Ice Glen and The Bear

Dave and I went back to see the final performance of Ice Glen last night. We were both very glad to have gone back, as the play and the performances seemed both richer and funnier on a second seeing.

With The Bear fresher in my mind from a rereading a few days ago, I thought the parallels were very clear, particularly in the long argument between the poet Sarah Harding and the editor Peter Woodburn near the end of the first act. In each case, the play is about a reclusive widow living in the country (well, in Ice Glen there are two reclusive women, one a widow and one divorced; looking at the two plays side by side, it’s a bit as though Popova in The Bear had been cut in two to create Sarah and Dulce in Ice Glen, and the one servant in The Bear becomes three in Ice Glen) and a brusque man who comes on a matter of pure business. As they argue, the widow’s increasing anger moves her to come out of her shell of mourning and assert her independence, and the man discovers he has a capacity for feelings he didn’t know he had. In the last few minutes of the play, the two realize their affection for each other.

As I wrote before, some papers that the widow finds hidden in her late husband’s dresser drawer — love letters in The Bear, poems in Ice Glen — are significant in both plays, and of course there’s the bear in Ice Glen, who we never see but who is practically a seventh character in the play, and who may or may not be a real bear.

Actually, after seeing the play a second time, I think it’s made clear that there is a real bear, and there is also a metaphorical bear in Sarah’s poems, but Sarah herself seems to get them mixed up in her mind.

I don’t want to push the parallels too far, because The Bear is nevertheless still just a fifteen-minute farce, though a wonderful one, and Ice Glen is a full-length and very rich comedy with a lot of different levels and layers. But the former must have been in the writer’s mind as the latter was written, and it’s fun to look at the parallel structures, to see what Joan Ackermann used from The Bear to provide some of the skeleton for her play.

The acting, as I said, seemed even sharper to both of us last night than it had before, and I don’t know whether the actors’ energy was higher because it was the last performance or because our better knowledge of the play let us catch nuances we didn’t notice the first time. The long dinner scene at the end of the first act, with Dulce (Lauren Grace, who was Hilda in last season’s The Master Builder that we liked so much) trying to attract Peter (a very handsome and likeable actor we hadn’t seen before named Marvin Greene), and Peter trying to be polite but really wanting to get through to Sarah (Zehra Berkman, who we also hadn’t seen before and who gave a beautiful performance, making the poet’s warmth and fury, self-doubt and pride, all seem perfectly understandable parts of the same character) — the dinner scene was a thorough joy, a beautifully constructed scene and beautifully acted, and if we still lived in an era of encores I might have shouted for them to do the whole thing again.

And the second act scene in which Dulce at last breaks out of her shell and asserts herself by telling off Peter (who by this point well deserves it) was a real highlight, and again both more powerful and funnier than I had remembered it being a week ago. Whether that was the actors or me, I couldn’t say. Probably some of both.

Later: Dave discovered that the Ice Glen of the play is a real place.

Hour Eight Nine Ten

I am in the eighth hour of a headache I have had since I woke up at 5:30 this morning. For the last three hours I have also been feeling nauseated. Work is going slowly. Lunch is going to be ginger tea, a cup of soup, and a digestive biscuit.

Later: Closing in on the tenth hour. Mood not bad until a few hours ago, but now I am rapidly sinking through the Six Stages of Unkillable Headaches: Doggedly Determined to Irritable to Quietly Grim to Petulant and Whiny to I Gets Weary an’ Sick o’ Tryin’ to Maybe It Would Have Been Better After All If I’d Just Died on the Operating Table.

Still later: Whew. About half an hour after two more Excedrin and yet another big cup of coffee, the headache is clearing. I can concentrate again, I can focus again, life is starting to look not so crappy again.

Rambling Thoughts About Melodrama

The discussion about The Seagull has got me thinking again about the differences between 19th- and 20th-century theater. I don’t really believe in the timelessness of art, and Chekhov’s plays, like any works of art, will change in the feelings and thoughts that it evokes in its audiences over time, because the audiences themselves change over time.

This is unavoidable because art itself depends on making use of the audience’s unconscious expectations, symbolic meanings, conventions, shared attitudes and experiences, and so on. The artist’s use of those things, both skillfully and intuitively, to evoke thoughts and feelings in the audience is the very thing that gives art its power.

One major reason, I think, that Chekhov can seem puzzling to a modern American audience is that we no longer have the same expectations of the theater and the same history of shared theatrical experiences and attitudes and references that Chekhov’s audience did. I think this is also an obstacle to our really understanding Ibsen and Shaw and even David Belasco and all sorts of playwrights from around that period. The theater was going through enormous changes, and all these playwrights were writing very much in reaction to the older theater. Shaw, for example, loved to start a play with a clichéd situation of the popular theater of the time, and then turn it on its head and say, you’ve seen this in the theater a hundred times but now I’m going to show you how it is in real life. And a lot of the comedy stems from the counterpoint, the differences, between the familiar expectations of the audience and what actually happens this time.

It’s the same thing that happens in, say, Into the Woods, where a lot of the fun comes from the way our knowledge and expectations derived from the familiar fairy tales comes into conflict with what we see really happening. We’re set up to expect this, and then that happens. If we’d never heard of, say, Little Red Riding Hood before, a lot of the fun of her part in the musical would be lost.

But in the case of these late 19th-century/early 20th-century playwrights like Chekhov and Ibsen and Shaw, the theater they were rebelling against has been thoroughly dead for so long that the audience doesn’t come in with the same expectations. They see that happen, and all they think is, Look, that happened. They weren’t expecting this to happen in the first place, and half the point of that is invisible to them.

Here’s one important way in which I think Chekhov overturned the unspoken conventions of the theater of his time: The popular melodrama of the 19th century was about characters who did things to get what they want. Characters were straightforward: Each character had a goal and each character acted so as to try to get what he or she wanted. If the hero wanted to marry the heroine, he put on his best behavior as he wooed her; if the villain wanted to break up the engagement and force her to marry him instead, he forged the hero’s signature on a love letter to another woman and purchased the mortgage to her father’s farm so that he could threaten to foreclose. The interest came from watching the conflicts among these cross purposes work themselves out; if any one character were free to pursue his or her goals without the interference of the other characters, he or she would surely achieve them.

Chekhov, though, wrote about characters who are constantly shooting themselves in the foot, who do have goals but either those goals are unrealistic and unachievable or else the characters will not act in ways that would bring those goals closer. Chekhov’s characters suffer, but he shows us that nearly all of them have created their own suffering. They have created their own ruts, but he makes it plain to us that each of them could escape his or her rut simply by stepping out of it and walking away. None of them ever does.

To audiences accustomed to a theater in which characters behaved sensibly in order to achieve their stated goals, this must have seemed baffling. But Chekhov was, I think, saying, People aren’t like that in real life! This is how they are: They shoot themselves in the foot and they refuse to change even when change would plainly alleviate their miseries!

Nowadays, though, the idea that people can be neurotically unable to break out of recurring and self-defeating patterns of behavior is commonplace, and we have every expectation of seeing it represented in the theater. And I think people go to something like The Seagull and of course they know, they’ve been told that the play is a great classic and that it was revolutionary and so on, but they only know that intellectually, they don’t feel what it was about the play that caused such strong reactions at the time.

Which may be a shame, or maybe it isn’t. It seems inevitable to me, in any case. Society changes from one place to another and from one time to another. Somebody in the discussion last night used the word “evolved”, but that has a connotation of progress that I’m not sure I agree with. I don’t think modern theatrical taste is better than the taste of 19th-century audiences; I think it’s just different, and if the “progress” in theater had run in the opposite direction, I’m pretty sure that we would have no trouble believing that our taste for good strong melodrama was superior to the taste for psychological truth.

It is just the opposite in, say, painting, isn’t it? 150 years ago, the paintings that got the most praise from critics and academics were naturalistic; today they are abstract, and the critics and academics will remind you at every opportunity how superior it is to appreciate a painting for its own sake, as an arrangement of fields of color, than as a reflection of reality. While 150 years ago, the plays that got the most praise from critics and academics were unrealistic — abstract, you might say — and were praised for their skillful construction, and actors for their larger-than-life qualities; nobody even dreamed of going to the theater for a dose of lifelike psychological truth. And nowadays what we value in theater and in acting is naturalism, and it’s accepted as a commonplace and obvious truth that this is artistically and even morally superior than the popular farces and melodramas of 150 years ago.

I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with the theater of the last 150 years, or that I’d rather trade away Ibsen and Shaw and Chekhov to get back those farces and melodramas. I’m just saying I think a lot of what gets touted as progress in theater is really just change.