Saturday, November 2, 2013

Ender's Game (a film review)

I am one of the millions of fans of the Orson Scott Card book, Ender's Game, and it was with a sense of dread that I learned a film was being made from this book.  Having read it more than once, each time with slow relish, I couldn't imagine how such a rich story could be shrunk into a short film.  The trailer also gave me pause--it seemed to be emphasizing all the wrong things.

But at Mark's urging, we saw it today anyway.  And I was very pleasantly surprised.   The cast includes Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley, and they both do a good job of their roles.  But every actor did well, and the screenplay was balanced.  It managed to bring out most of the important issues explored by the book.  There was enough dialog interspersed with action, and miraculously, none of the action sequences or special effects seemed superfluous.  I would even call it a lean, spare and elegant selection of scenes. 

With a surprising deftness, the major philosophical issues which have endeared the novel to so many fans were expressed in the dialog, cleanly and as briefly as possible.  The film does not insult our intelligence by explaining everything verbally.   It shows us.  How rare and wonderful!  I am at a loss to understand the mediocre ratings others are giving this film.

During the biggest battle scenario, I found myself holding my breath.  The special effects were perfect for it, with no extra flash than needed to tell the story.   It was really quite well done, and even though I knew in advance all the plot twists, I was totally engrossed.   So I give it 8 or 9 stars out of ten.  It cannot get ten only because no 2-hour film could not possibly do justice to the novel.  However, the film's makers made good trade-offs.  There were two things I noticed deviating from the book: first, Ender's progress through training necessarily had to go faster than it did in the book.  And second, to make it go faster, some incidents of Ender testing his limits against the supervising adults was necessarily omitted.  But neither of these affected the overall balance of the story.

If you have somehow never read the book, I suggest going to see the film without talking to anyone about it.  There is a major spoiler in the story's ending--a couple of them, in fact--and good as it was already knowing the plot twists, I think it would be even better not to know them when seeing this film.

Go see it!  And enjoy.

Friday, October 25, 2013

“The Round House” by Louise Erdrich

After reading numerous raving reviews of Louise Erdrich's book "The Round House", I was able to check it out of the local library and read it.  Now I'm heaving a sigh of regret.  Although Ms. Erdrich can write powerfully, I feel that this book did not deserve the praise that has been lavished on it.  Furthermore, I feel betrayed by all of the reviewers who plugged the book and called it "brilliant" without giving an accurate account of its nature.  It even won an award, which is beyond my understanding.  The award-givers were either desperate or else, their judgement is vastly different from my own.

In my mouth is a distasteful sense of having been exposed to something ugly, that I did not want to see, and which serves no purpose whatsoever.  Novels about psychopathic crimes should be required to bear warning labels, just as movies about people dying from cancer should.  It reminds me of my frustration upon seeing the 2011 film "We Bought a Zoo"--I expected a lighthearted film, but what I got was a family in grief about losing a loved one to cancer.  Ms. Erdrich's book masquerades as various things, but it was ultimately an expose of a very ugly crime, and all its afternath, and all the ways that human systems for dealing with crime sometimes fall short.

Had I known that it would in fact be this journey into the horror of an ugly crime, I would never have read the book at all, simply because that is not something that I wanted to read about right now.  I'm not afraid to know about ugliness, mind you--especially if there is anything I can do about it--but as an expose, this is useless.  I am not in a position to prevent this kind of thing.  I already knew this kind of thing could happen to anyone.  How has my life been improved by being reminded?  I was not entertained, I was not informed, I was not bettered.   If you care about this sort of thing, write a news article and get it published. 

Now, there are novels about crimes that I have enjoyed.  They have something in them that overcomes the fact that a terrible crime was committed.  They have stories that know what they are, that focus on something worth focusing on.  But not this book; it does not know what it wants to be.  Is it a crime or detective story, or a mystery?  Is it a coming of age story about kids suddenly facing adult realities?  Is it a story about Native American culture clashes a la Tony Hillerman?  It tries, at times, to be all of these, but fails. The story's voice is not consistent enough to be really good at any one of these genres

The fact is, from time to time, this novel focuses in on a victim's pain.  The last thing most of us need is to spend precious hours of our lives reading about someone else's degradations and all the pain that caused.  What I want, when I read a novel, is first to be interested, entertained, and to have hope.  I do not want to be beat down and feel that life is hopeless, or that the costs we must pay for basic justice will haunt us.  My advice is, don't read this book unless you are willing to experience that pain.

I can't speak for any other of Erdrich's work.  This is not a story I am glad to have read.  What is the point?  I was not thrilled; I was disgusted and disturbed.  And there was no redeeming inspiration to be had for me in there, anywhere.  It's just not what I'm after in a novel, sorry.  And I am unlikely to move on to any of her other works after this.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Gertrude Stein and the end-times for language

No teacher, during my English-major undergraduate years, required me to read anything written by Gertrude Stein, but the literature about literature kept mentioning her name.  By repute, I gathered that Stein was a radical, artistically well-connected, feminist, living in Paris, confounding to understand, and either brilliant or unimportant, depending on who said so.  But everything I knew of her was second-hand.

Recently, as I re-read Ulysses S. Grant's Memoirs, I read on the internet that Stein is alleged to have admired Grant or to have said she could not "think of Grant without weeping".  I began to seek the source of these claims.  It was necessary to resort to the deep web (proprietary libraries and databases that someone must pay for) to determine that the quote probably came from a book called "Four in America", written by Gertrude Stein and published in 1947..   I sought to find this book so that I could read the quote in context, but the book was not at all easy to get hold of.  An extensive search revealed there to be one copy in the Philadelphia Free Library, another in the Princeton University Library, and a used copy for sale via Amazon for $40.

Not ready to shell out $40 without at least a look-see, I asked a friend to check the book out of the Princeton University library for my perusal.  After sincerely attempting to make sense of the book, I then turned, in some desperation, to the book's 26-page introduction by Thornton Wilder.  Wilder's introduction turns out to be a masterpiece, and does a good job of explaining Ms. Stein's opacity--her deliberate near-repetitions which further develop an idea, and her occasional stunning insights, and her startling claims, her dense and mangled sentences, painstakingly and poetically mishapen by their maker.

I bravely plowed into the book and eventually, on the 77th and last page of the quarter of Stein's book devoted to Grant, I found the actual quote I had originally been seeking, which is: "I cannot think of Ulysses Simpson Grant without tears."  However, this lucid-looking sentence is the beginning of one of the most abstruse, dense, and discouraging paragraphs Stein has perhaps ever written.  And thus I conclude that the popular quote is generally mis-used on the internet, where people were taking it to mean that even the writer Gertrude Stein admired Grant, or perhaps that she felt his life was tragic.  Whatever she intended by the sentence (one of the few grammatically sensible sentences in the entire book), it likely wasn't that.  And the fact that so many people have passed the quote along, often somewhat mangled and without context, struck me as being noteworthy.

You see, the quarter of the book "Four in America" which is devoted to Grant (the other sections are titled "Wilbur Wright", "Henry James", and "George Washington") is not actually about Grant, although he is constantly mentioned.  Stein was perhaps interested in the fact that Americans admire Grant, but where Stein's writing is concerned, it is difficult to be sure of anything.  She seemed to have believed that we are now living in a sort of "end times" for language, that language now is strictly superficial in effect, its meaning hijacked by the idiotic, unceasing thought-stream in our heads.  According to her belief--and I'll have to say it makes a kind of sense--normal or regular writing never reaches our true self (the inner intelligence that ought to be running our lives instead of our egoistic thought-stream, which has enslaved us instead).  So she tried a variety of unorthodox mechanisms to cut through.

Possibly, to want to read anything by Stein has perhaps something to do with spiritual readiness, in the same sense that Wilder's introduction to "Four in America" mentions spirituality.  Where Stein uses "human nature", an Eckhart Tolle would later use "mind", and where Stein uses "human mind", Eckhart Tolle would later use "the real you" or "the observer of the mind".  But that both writers employ signposts to the same important matter is not in doubt.

But at last, I was satisfied!   I paid the $40 for the book via Amazon (for the Thornton Wilder introduction alone), and returned the borrowed copy to the university library.  The purchased treasure still sits on my shelf, and from time to time I open it to allow myself to feel more confounded than usual.

Thinking back to my youthful college education, I now understand that the professors themselves might have been bemused and confused by Stein's opus.  Requiring a youthful me to have read a Stein work would not been exactly like casting pearls before swine; it might have been much more like casting plastic before swine, with my swinish self unable to ingest the plastic no matter how much chewing went on. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Regiments, divisions, brigades, oh my

Scotts-Fitzhugh Bridge, Paris Landing to Dover (1960's)
On a warm Sunday afternoon long ago, my family undertook a road trip in Dad's new used car, a black-and-white '56 Chevy. With the windows open to summer, we headed to an uncle's house in Erin, TN. Upon crossing the Tennessee River bridge at Dover, I cried because of the high bridge, and to distract me, Dad slowed at a small marker and veered off of Highway 79 onto a barely passable gravel road.

Bouncing down the winding road for several minutes, we arrived at a hill, where an old cannon stuck up over a low wall, pointing out into the river. My brother and I gleefully climbed and sat astride upon this iron plaything. This was Fort Henry, but neither my parents nor teachers ever provided me with an explanation of why a cannon was to be found there. I thought nothing of it; in parks throughout Tennessee, one can find these old civil war cannons--objects of mild curiosity. Imagine my surprise when, decades later, this particular childhood cannon belched forth black smoke and a missile intended to kill, as I was reading Ulysses S. Grant's Memoirs. Where was this action-packed thriller, truth stranger than fiction, during my education? Totally missing, is where.

Are you looking for a good read? The Memoirs are free at Project Gutenberg. Grant assembled his book hastily during the last year before his death, and Mark Twain edited and published it. The book's subsequent popularity restored Grant's family to prosperity after his continual failures at money management during his lifetime. The tale includes Grant's childhood, his army service in the Mexican war, his being busted out of the army for alcoholism, his eventual reinstatement to the army during the civil war, and it glosses over his tough period of poverty between the wars. Then follows the nugget--Grant's civil war years, as gripping a story as any work of fiction ever written--except that it wasn't fiction.

One interesting thread throughout the story is Grant's emphasis on the role of luck in human affairs. Again and again he describes how plans went awry, new plans were made, and many times yet something else completely ended up occurring. These are life lessons for any of us. An example is how Grant almost didn't get reinstated into the army at all when the civil war was starting up. He had done a lot of volunteer work, people had noticed him, but his requests at rejoining the army as an officer (due to having graduated from West Point) had been ignored. He declined to join as an enlisted man, and was on the verge of giving up and going home, when (due to the private intervention of friends), a governor made him colonel of a brigade (a troubled one whose previous colonel was unable to control them--but Grant could!).

Recently, I also read Jean Edwards' excellent biography of Grant, appropriately called Grant, which draws heavily from Grant's own Memoirs but fleshes out the story with explanatory footnotes, battle maps, and more context. It might even be best to start with the Edwards book, and then read Grant's own book later. But do consider reading them. Don't be in a hurry. This will keep you off the streets for a good long while, and make you happy in the reading.

In order to plow through either book, you'll need to know: What is brigade? What is a colonel? Here the definitions are (thanks to a footnote on page 99 of Edwards' book):

  a company = 100 men
  led by a captain

  a regiment = 1000 men (10 companies)
  led by a colonel

  a brigade =  4000 men (4 regiments)
  led by a brigadier general

  a division = 12,000 to 16,000 men (3-4 brigades)
  led by a major general or a brigadier general

  a corps = 24,000 (officially) to 30,000 men (2+ divisions)
  led by a major general

  an army = several corps
  led by a major general

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Winter's Tale: Not McCarter Theater's Finest Hour

the statue

Last night, I attended a production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale at McCarter Theater. I had spent the day reviewing the play's plot and history, and it's a good thing that I did, because this production, directed by Rebecca Taichman, turned out to be disappointing. Prior to the performance, I had sought some online reviews, but there were none, other than the glowing but, I fear, exaggerated praise for Ms. Taichman's directorial skills.

I'll preface my complaints by admitting this play is widely recognized to be challenging to stage, and even as literature it has troublesome complexities. Despite the laundry list of grumps I am about to make about this particular production, I'll begin by praising a bright spot near the end. The climax of the play is undeniably the final scene in a garden, where a statue of the king's deceased wife is unveiled for the first time. Encased with a frosty crust and facing away from the audience, the statue is such a good likeness of a dead, dear one that the watchers work themselves into a frenzy of remembrance and grief. The eventual dreamlike awakening of the statue is powerful and effective in this production, and much can be forgiven by such a good ending. Imagine the impact of this awakening on the first audiences to see this play, or for anyone living under a rock who did not know that the wife was actually still alive. It makes the skin crawl, and that is a good thing.

I have no opinion--or at least, no complaint--about the use of American accents and modern cloths and sets for this play. That is a matter of taste. I found it mildly dissonant for people in modern clothing to be consulting the Oracle of Delphi, but small matter. These matters did not weaken the performance.

Now my complaints, beginning with excessive fast talking, shaking heads, wavering bodies, trembling hands, raised voices, and gruff voices. These may have been intended to impart the seriousness of the characters' emotions--but in my opinion, being utterly overused, they soon lost their effectiveness. Such devices should be employed very sparingly by an actor, perhaps only once or twice in an entire evening and certainly not almost constantly. Furthermore, the blazing speed of the dialog indicated that, perhaps, the cast felt impelled to squash the entire story into 2.5 hours. Personally, I'd rather listen for 3 hours, or even more, to hear these worthy lines delivered as if people were actually thinking of what was being said, rather than reciting prepared speeches. Over-emoting was particularly apparent in the portrayals of Leontes, Paulina and Hermione in the early parts of the play. However, I'd note that Mark Harelik, who was at best a weak Leontes, did shine in his additional role as the scoundrel Autolycus, where he sang his lines: in singing, he was distinctly easier to understand than in speaking.

Music was used intermittently throughout the production, sometimes requiring the actors to speak their lines over it, and unfortunately it was sometimes too loud in comparison with the dialog. The most glaring case of this was the synthesized buzzing hum used, along with lighting changes, to highlight asides intended to be addressed directly to the audience. The buzz was so loud that I actually had to stop up my ears at times. The tendency towards overacting by some performers, combined with this unfortunate pacing and the uneven musical volume, left me with a sense of certain actors being in a perpetual state of frustrated yelling which was far from attention-commanding.

Ms. Taichman is apparently of the directorial school of thought that no actor may be allowed to speak unless facing fully forward towards the audience. This led to some very odd stage actions, where people conversing with each other were seldom able actually to look at each other, and the attempt to keep one's body angled forwards was simply obvious. This continual awkwardness was not the only victim of this in-my-opinion misguided value--whenever the actors needed to make an aside to the audience--which is frequently, especially in the opening act--there was no "aside" action left for the actor to make other than relying on the overly obvious lighting and the imposed buzzing sound. The other actors also continued to move around during asides, further distracting from audience struggles to understand the asides.

My last grievance is the most serious: we were promised a bear, and none was delivered. The famous stage direction

Exit, pursued by a bear
was ignored. There was of course still the somewhat effective scene where a bystander shortly describes the man as having been eaten alive by the bear, but the advertisements for this production promised a bear, and no bear appeared. This is an outrage! Not only was there no bear, but there were butterflies--lots of them--which possibly were intended to portray the passage of long time. When the butterflies (huge ones carried on long sticks by anonymous people) began to fly around the stage, my companion whispered to me,
What the (bleep) are those butterflies for?
. This is not what you want to audience to be whispering to each other.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The twelve books that impacted my life the most

A friend posed the challenge: which 12 books have impacted me the most?  (Note, not those I enjoyed the most or am most proud to have read).  So here it is, in the approximate time order.  On a different day, the list might be different.  I am a little surprised at the list, myself.

1. (1960's) The King James Bible, by (various authors): I was required to read this in church from about the age of 8 years old, and read much of it again later in life out of sheer fascination for its beautiful language and varied content, as well as to help fend off attacks by my near-ultra-religious relatives.  Though I am no Biblical scholar or an expert, I've also read several books about The Bible, and during my graduate studies, I translated several fragments of the old testament written in Old High German and Middle High German.  I've even read about the history of the Bible and its myriad translations and all the politics surrounding that.  It's a pretty fascinating and raucous history.

2. (1970's) The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan: I didn't exactly enjoy this book, but it expressed so much of my own frustration that had never before been uttered,ranging from whether having children should be the entire focus of a woman's life to why women shave their legs and dress as they do.  This book was, for me and many others of my generation, sane-making.  It helped rescue us from a deep sea of expectations surrounding our femaleness.

3. (1970's) Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge) by Rainer Maria Rilke: This rambling novelette is, among other things a retelling of the prodigal son tale; it contains an unforgettable description of death by illness, as well as many thought-provoking, poetic sequences.   There exists no more thorough an exploration of how people live than this.  All of Rilke's writings remains on my bookshelf in both English and German.  Read it in German if at all possible.

4. (1980's) Unwiederbringlich by Theodor Fontane:  This haunting novel is not generally available in English, though one can find (with difficulty) an out-of-print British translation entitled "Beyond Recall".   The title literally means "Unbringbackable".   The plot is deceptively simple: a religious and serious-minded woman marries a responsible but light-hearted nobleman, they have two kids and live by the sea peacefully for years, until the husband becomes infatuated with a young woman at court and leaves the wife (only to be rejected immediately by his young girlfriend).  Husband and wife eventually reunite, but soon afterwards, she commits suicide.  The novel has linguistic motifs in the same way that "Peter and the Wolf" has musical motifs.  Reams have been written about this book, and it has been televised and made into movies (in German) more than once.  The German text is available free for electronic readers.

5. (1980's) The complete set of books by George Ohsawa and Herman Aihara about food and health:  These two authors first explained to English speakers how to eat (seasonally, locally, and by other measures) for good health per the philosophy of traditional oriental medicine.  In this crazy world, it's still probably the best food advice to be had.  I forgave the authors some excesses and distilled the best of their writings for my own use, with good results.

6. (1990's) The Religions of Man by Huston Smith: Smith was a well-known professor of religious studies, and he wrote this book as a teaching aid. The first dozen pages of Smith's two chapters on Jesus and the Buddha are without parallel; Smith presented Jesus and Gautama as great and compassionate radicals with much in common with each other.  Because of this book, I did a bunch of additional reading about Buddhism and Taoism, in particular.

7. (1990's) Mary Baker Eddy by Gillian Gill.  This description of a woman who started out life penniless and homeless, and who in her middle years founded a religion which is still going strong decades after her death, is astonishing.  It is also well documented due to the Christian Science church having given the author unprecedented access to their archives.  The wealthy, elderly Ms. Eddy ended up becoming the nemesis of Mark Twain, of all people on earth--which only goes to prove that reality is stranger than fiction.

8. (2000's) Lincoln Reader, by various; edited by Paul M. Angle.  This dog-eared old book, dated 1947, was found in my father-in-law's library.  Like many before me, I found myself glued to this book, rereading parts of it many times, and then I read several additional books about Lincoln, whose life defied all expectations.

9. (2000's) Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy.  This book by a bug expert spoke to the bird lover in me, and as a result, I completely changed my gardening habits and which trees and plants I would tolerate in my yard.  Bug-eaten plants which I had formerly rejected started to look good because I realized they were "in the food chain" of wildlife and thus helped the native flora and fauna, as opposed to imported plants which are resistant to local pests and also quite often dangerously invasive.

10. (1990's) Jesus, A Life by A. N. Wilson: This iconoclastic "biography" of Jesus sifts through the morass of myth surrounding this historical figure and discusses what is knowable--and not knowable--about Jesus as a man. 

11. (2000's) Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui by Karen Kingston.  The war on junk, materialism, and stuff is endless in American society.  I already knew I needed less stuff and more meaning in my life.  This practical how-to manual, filled with humor, helped me know how to go about it.  I ignored a lot of the Feng Shui part, but the clutter-clearing advice in this book is unsurpassed.  And, she will make you laugh.

12. (2010's) The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.  This book by a modest and honest man impressed me and reminded me what is important.  Tolle has studied all over the world in order to distill out the best parts from many traditions in an attempt to suffer less emotionally and to know how to live.

We all contribute to the killing of as many birds as cats do; we just don't get our hands dirty in the process.

A recent New York Times article about feral and outdoor pet cats "killing billions of birds" annually is showing great popularity.   And it's helpful to urge people to spay their cats and to keep cats indoors whenever possible.  However, cats have already been introduced into the wild, and the overall problem is now insoluble.  You might reduce feral cat numbers significantly by killing outdoor cats, but they are so smart that some would survive, and those would multiply again.  I write this not as a cat lover, but with a cold assessment of all the factors involved. That cat's out of the bag, as the old saying goes.

I'd like to put the cat problem in perspective against overpopulation, climate change, weapons, and pollution.  To me, these are more basic problems that also lead to situations that "kill billions of birds" every year.   To explain why I think this, let me first pose a question.   The Zaire strand of Ebola, a dreaded hemorrhagic virus, kills 90% of infected people; thousands have been perished from it in multiple outbreaks. Why then has it not spread to kill everyone around the world?

You might think the answer would be sanitation or modern health care--and those may be factors.  But the main answer turns out to be that the ebola virus multiplies too quickly within its host, and the host tends to die before the virus has a chance to spread widely enough to keep on going.  Similar to ebola, humanity can be viewed as a virus that is killing off its host, the earth and its plants and trees, much too quickly.   We all see it around every single day--construction, building, growth--much of what people like to call "progress".

Many people act as though they live in isolation, instead of realizing they are stranded on a planet with seven billion other humans.  They are selfish when sharing space locally with others, and they continue to destroy necessary resources more quickly than they can be renewed, living mainly for almost immediate gratification.  And they vigorously defend "their rights" to do so.  Noise, air pollution, water pollution, guns and crime, over-consumption of non-renewable fuels--all of this is a result of there being too many people needing too much too quickly.   Do you doubt that humanity cannot survive forever this way?  Perhaps not even for much longer.

But, but you say--I can't fix any of those problems any more than I can solve the feral cat problem.  In a fit of despair, it is easy to say, why even recycle?  Why deprive myself of anything now?

While I cannot control other people, I can make my own choices. I can decide to restrain myself in several ways that will not constitute a terrible sacrifice for me.   I can choose not to cut down trees that would otherwise live for centuries longer than my own and provide habitat for animals.  I can choose to eat less meat (which beside improving my own health, kills fewer animals).    I can also choose not to create more humans by having children, which is arguably the single most effective thing a person can do to help save the planet.  I will even go so far as to argue that not having children can improve the lives of many people.

This opinion of mine, of course, is destined to be very unpopular.    I am certain to be made fun of, if not threatened, by folks who haven't looked deeply enough into the matter, or who simply don't care.   People will feel they are being judged if they have had children.  I'm sorry, it's true, I am judging them in a sense, but not with hostility.  I just want this to be talked about going forward.  All of the kids and adults who now exist, exist.  But why do so many people make having children a major life goal?

Now, I don't advocate banning people from having children; it wouldn't work anyway.   The efforts by China, for example, to persuade people to limit family size to just one child per couple has been met with all kinds of resistance.  But I do want to express what I believe--that's the big right of a free country, right?  To express views that might be deemed unpalatable to some.  I do want to stop the intimidating taboo of silence about overpopulation.  It is too important not to talk about it.   The question of why everyone wants to have children deserves examination. Does having kids--or more kids, as the case may be--really make life so much better?  I am not persuaded.

I'm tired of the argument that children are what make peoples' lives worth living.  A child, or children, may be a source of great joy to parents, or sometimes, a source of great suffering too.  But either way, do parents really think that people who do not have children are to be pitied?  Yes, that is the stifling assumption that underlies the everyday platitudes that I hear.  People make their choices.  If they have children, they definitely shoulder more financial strain, just like people who build on the shore get their houses flooded more often.  It's a choice, and we don't all have to make that choice.  And we don't have to encourage more people to make a choice just because lots of other people made that choice before them.

If I could make any single change in the world at this moment, it would be somehow to persuade those who are now young not to have children.  I can say first hand that being childless is not so bad.  There are so many things to make life worth living, your budget is not as broken, you have time to develop yourself in many other ways.  And there is no shortage of other people around me needing nurturing and help, so my nurturing side easily can be fulfilled.  Nor am I afraid of what will happen if I live to be quite old (do people really have children merely in the hopes that those children will care for them as they age?),  Nor is there any danger of there not being enough parent-less children--if I wanted a child in my life, I could have that rather quickly, by fostering or adopting.  I can even enjoy the children that friends, neighbors and relatives already have.  So it must be that people mostly want to reproduce a child who has their own genetics, whom (ideally) they can relate to and understand better.   But does it really turn out that way?  I know a lot of parents locked in a state of struggle, either with their children or because of needing to send their child to college, or for many reasons related to their own children and the child's needs having to be a life priority.

Think about this then, if you are considering having a child.  You can no longer expect children to be living in a friendly world.  The world is not friendly to adults even now.  Jobs are scarce, affluence is hard to come by or retain, and the natural environment is rapidly disappearing.  War and crime are spreading.  People are overcrowded in their living spaces already, and have trouble getting along with each other.

Young people, please to look deeply into this "urge" to have children.  Are you going to reproduce by accident?  From social pressure?  At least, if you do decide to have children, do you know deeply within yourself why you are doing it, what kind of life you are setting yourself up for as a parent, and what kind of world your child will inherit?  There is no need to have a child unless you directly choose to do so.  In my opinion, bearing a child is unlikely to improve your life in any way whatsoever, and is in fact quite likely to make your  life more difficult.  Children being born now are less and less likely to thank their parents for having had them as time goes on, because the future of the planet does not look so bright.  I hope I am wrong, and that a significant portion of people become more restrained and more conscious of how we are all connected with each other.  That would indeed be a miracle, and I believe such a thing is possible.

Given my pessimism about the future, all the more reason to enjoy the present.  I'm going to stop now and go have a day.  If anyone even reads this, I fully expect to be considered a kook.  That's how crazy the world is.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A little Schubert therapy

It was around 1820 that a twenty-something Prussian named Wilhelm Müller, survivor of several battles in the uprising against Napoleon, managed to publish a set of about two dozen lyrical poems called Die Schöne Müllerin (which translates to The Lovely Maid of the Mill).  The poems describe a shy, young miller's apprentice whose unrequited passion for the miller's daughter leads him to such despair that he takes his own life.   Within three years, most of the poems were set to music by Franz Schubert, also twenty-something at the time, as a song cycle to be performed by one pianist and one singer participating equally as partners.  

I first heard about Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin song cycle from German professors at the University of Tennessee in the 1970's.  Their praise was so distinctive that, approximately four decades later, I found myself forking out $68 for a seat in the next-to-last row of a side balcony at Princeton's McCarter Theater to hear a rare performance of these songs by tenor Jonas Kaufmann and pianist Helmut Deutsch.  And I did not regret it; although Kaufmann and Deutsch have a very good CD of this song cycle out, they have continued to refine and deepen their understanding and presentation of the songs and have gone beyond even their own CD.  Jonas Kaufmann performed at the pinnacle of what is humanly possible, and so did Helmut Deutsch in his tender and responsive framing of the songs with the piano.

And oh my God, Franz Schubert and the dissonances and the sly changing from major to minor, and all the rest of the tricks of a composer's trade that I might not even know about--all this has kept these lieder popular for nearly 200 years.  And I think they might go another 200 years if the world survives.  And never, in all this time before or after, has any performance been better than this one was.  For what it's worth, it contained rare and precious moments of perfection so that even people who needed to cough were unable to cough, unable hardly to breathe at the time.