Thursday, March 23, 2017

oh, help

It's a day before I leave for my father's funeral, and my brothers and I get an e-mail from our stepmother with this in it:
I am sorry to emphasise this again but men attending the funeral will be formally dressed in either suit, or pants and jacket but all with shirt and black tie. I am sure you would all like to show the same respect to Robert.
I have to say this threw me totally for a loop. I'm well aware that "black tie" in an invitation is code for formal evening wear, what in Britain is called a dinner jacket and in America a tuxedo. And as Britain is already a more formal country than America, the word "formally" carries special weight there.

On the other hand, could she possibly expect men to wear a tux to a funeral? In the afternoon? Nobody would do that in the US, but I have no idea what British funeral customs are. And the "but all with" last part sounds as if we could wear the bow tie and fancy white shirt of a tux (why mention a shirt at all - it's not as if we'd attend topless - unless she meant a specific kind of shirt?) with other clothes for the rest. That would make no sense whatever.

My younger brother, the law professor, whose judgment I trust, says I'm overthinking this, and it means just wear a dark and sober tie. B. agrees with him, and thinks it's addressed at my middle brother, the engineering technician, who's apt to wear an open-neck shirt and lounge jacket even to a wedding. I already talked to him a few days ago and persuaded him that for this he needs to go out and buy a dress jacket and sober tie, which I gather he didn't already own.

But I just don't know. I mean, mistaking "black tie" on an invitation as meaning "wear a tie that's black" is one of the classic fashion faux pas. I don't even have a black tie, unless you count one with white checks all over it, though I do have a couple dark monocolored ones. My younger brother, who has better diplomatic skills than I, has agreed to query for a clarification, but he may not hear back before I leave. I'm thinking of staying up late enough to phone the Cardiff office of Debenham's when they open and asking them what they think, and whether it'd be even possible to hire evening-wear in my unusual size and shape on two business days' notice. But in the meantime, I can use any advice I can get.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017


Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is from Montana. He is, if my statistics are correct, the first US cabinet officer ever from Montana. (FDR was going to have one, but he died just before taking office.)

My statistics also say that this marks 48 states that have provided cabinet officers. The two states bereft of cabinet representation throughout US history are South Dakota (Obama was going to have one, but he had to withdraw) and Nevada.

He is also the first US cabinet officer to begin with a Z, thus completing that set except for Q and X.

concert review: St. Petersburg Philharmonic

I couldn't resist Shostakovich's Fifth performed by the same orchestra (though not, obviously, the same individual musicians) that gave the first performance nearly 80 years ago. (And to think the work was a mere stripling of 35 when I first heard it.)

The most notable aspects of this performance were the richness of the inner string sound in the slow sections, and the sheer vehemence, especially in the percussion, of the loud climaxes. Not so much the scherzo, which was light and witty, in violation of the current fashion for treating all Shostakovich scherzi as portraits in terror of Stalin; but the climax of the first movement and the entire finale were drastically enhanced. Even the slow wandering section in the middle of the finale seethed with looming menace.

But what I most appreciated were little touches of superb ensemble, such as the absolutely perfect meshing of celesta and harp in the final bars of the slow movement.

The other work on the program was Brahms' First Piano Concerto, a heavy warhorse of a different color. Garrick Ohlsson was the soloist, and as there's no pianist more capable of a light, silvery touch than he, it was quite a surprise in a hefty, dramatic Brahms concerto. But Ohlsson can pound it out with the best, too.

No surprise that it was conducted by Yuri Temirkanov, who's been leading this outfit since Mravinsky died some three decades past. Yes, I know. It's hard to keep track of famous Russian conductors making fools of themselves offstage, but Temirkanov is not the one who's cozying up to Putin, nor the one who thinks women are not properly suited to be conductors. He's the other one who thinks women are not properly suited to be conductors. Yes, there's two of these idiots.

It's self-evidently true that a lot of women can conduct just fine. But so can Temirkanov. He and his band gave a good show up in sopping wet San Francisco.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

an ending

Well. The news is, my father died yesterday.

I went over to Wales to see him last November. He had just turned 88 and was very frail, but seemed to be puttering along adequately. But he'd had medical scares in the past, and over the last month went into a serious decline. So I was mentally prepared for this. When I spoke with my stepmother on the phone after she came back from the hospital, she seemed more weary from accumulated stress than anything else. But she has a good support network and will be OK.

I will of course return for the funeral. The date hasn't been set yet. Lightning trips overseas are not something I'll find easy. But it will manage.

My relationship with my father was a complicated one which will not easily fit in this space. When I was a boy, some facile guidance counselor once suggested that Dad and I bond by tossing a ball around in the back yard. Neither of us could think of anything we were less interested in doing. Our ability to communicate in other ways was often at about that level.

Nevertheless, my father did much for me for which I remain grateful. He provided his part of a solid and secure family home life throughout my childhood. He, also with my mother's help, kept books and music around the house which I drew on for self-education. The books were mostly history; I was reading then-new tomes like The Arms of Krupp and Alistair Horne on the Fall of France when I was 12 years old.

He drove us on long vacations which took us to 36 of the 50 states before I left home. He paid for my undergraduate education (which is something a successful upper-middle-class income could easily afford in those days), and never raised any objections over my career choice of librarian instead of a more "manly" occupation like his own of physician. (He was an ob-gyn, which in any case is hardly the most macho of medical specialties.)

And he taught me two obscure but useful skills which I celebrated on his last birthday anniversary.

Friday, March 17, 2017

I'm not Irish

I'm seeing more St. Patrick's Day references in my reading list than usual, so this may be a good time to explain the effects of my not being Irish. Not even a little bit, unless something really surprising comes up when I take the genetic spit test.

B., however, has some Irish (though she's mostly German), and that came up when we were discussing what to have for dinner tonight. She's Catholic, and it's a Friday in Lent, so nothing with meat, and I won't have time today to make a complex dish. But the Irish in her didn't take to the idea of tofu or polenta on St. Patrick's, so I said all right, I'll roast her some tiny potatoes. She likes that, and there's nothing more Irish than potatoes.

I, however, do not eat potatoes. At all. I'll have to have something else. Which is OK, but it gives me the opportunity to bring up a natural phenomenon in the form of a rule of thumb (that is, it's not precisely true, but it works as a generalization) that applies only to me.

[My liking of a culture's food] + [My liking of that culture's music] = [constant]

That is to say, the more I like the one, the less I like the other.

The two extremes of this are Irish and Cajun/Creole. Potato is, I'm reliably told, entirely ubiquitous in Ireland, and not eating it would be a real burden there. (I've never been.) On the other hand, I adore Irish folk music. It is my favorite folk music in all the world. I can listen to it endlessly. Do you know a 1970s group called the Bothy Band? Gee, I'd like to be able to sing like that. I even like a lot of ersatz Irish music, like Enya and the stuff from Riverdance.

At the other end, I love Creole and especially Cajun food. I have visited Louisiana four times in my life, and each time my primary goal was to eat. There's nowhere else I've taken entire trips to for that purpose. But I don't like their music. 95% of jazz does nothing for me; zydeco doesn't appeal either.

That applies across the board. What's my favorite European cuisine? Italian. (Special virtue: it eschews potato.) But what's the biggest hole in my appreciation of classical music? Italian opera. Just don't care for it. My Italian music canon consists of Gabrieli canzonas, Rossini overtures (just the overtures), and Respighi suites and tone poems, not a representative selection.

Even in the rest of the world. I eat Asian food of almost all kinds, except Japanese which I have to treat with great caution. But Japanese composers have written by far the finest Western classical music in all of Asia, really great stuff.

What other food is Irish? I think mostly of boiled meat, a method of cooking it that doesn't much appeal to me; it's usually served inextricably mixed with potato (e.g. Irish stew), and is out on a Friday in Lent anyway. Irish-Americans traditionally eat corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's, though I dunno what they'll do today (descendants of Ulster Protestants in this country tend not to consider themselves culturally Irish), and the dish's claim to be Irish and not just Irish-American is dubious. Jews also eat corned beef, but as a Jew I have to say that I find Irish corned beef to be exceedingly goyische. I think they boil it.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

victory over wordage

Wednesday was a successful working day. I tackled the one remaining item I needed to cover for the Year's Work in Tolkien Studies: a large anthology of commissioned articles. Too integrated to be appropriate to set out all the papers separately, but too important to treat as if it were a monograph, I ran down each paper in turn. (If this were a book review, I'd never have written it this way: I hate reviews that do that. But the Year's Work serves a different purpose.)

And I wrote all 2400 words of it in one day. I'd read all the articles before, months ago, but I only had notes for about half of them. So a lot of reading was involved too. And a whole lot of potting: it's rather challenging to describe 36 well-researched articles in an average of 64 words each, including the titles of the articles.

But that's done, and the next-to-last missing piece from other contributors has also come in, so the ship is that much closer to sailing.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Tolkien studied

Found in some of those journal articles I was perusing yesterday:

Gay landsmanship argument no. 1: When Sam finds Frodo in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, Frodo has been stripped naked by his captors. Nudity = sex, therefore Sam and Frodo are gay.

Gay landsmanship argument no. 2: W.H. Auden was wildly enthusiastic for The Lord of the Rings. Auden was gay, therefore - since he liked it so much - The Lord of the Rings must also be gay.

Gay landsmanship conclusion: Tolkien may have been married for decades to a woman and had four biological children, but either 1) he was gay; 2) he was subconsciously gay; 3) since he was writing a mythology for England, he realized that England was gay.

Moooviefan argument: Tolkien's dialogue is stiff, wordy, and antiquated. It's boring for Eowyn to say "But no living man am I," but when J-Eowyn says "I am no man!" instead, that's hot stuff, and the audience cheered because Jackson's dialogue is so much better, not because of the exciting plot crux. (You don't hear them cheering when they read the book, do you?)

Moooviefan misprision: OK if you want to write an article about Jackson and not about Tolkien. You are, after all, writing in a film studies journal. But in that case, why put Tolkien's name in your title, and not Jackson's?

On the other hand, I was convinced by the proposition that George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire owes less to The Lord of the Rings than to Lord of the Flies; and I chuckled at this anecdote (unrelated to Tolkien, but good) from an interview with Peter Beagle in Foundation:
I can remember being the middle man on a panel in Oregon State. Lord, this would have been 1975–76, with Ursula Le Guin on one side of me and Vonda McIntyre on the other; they’re both old friends, both marvellous writers. For me, Ursula is still the master. And I was enjoying myself immensely just listening to the two of them, but there got to be rustling and grumbling in the back of the hall, a number of male students complaining they had come to hear talk about some good ol' rocket-jockeying science fiction, and not all this 'shrill feminism'. I remember the phrase. And as though they had been planning for it, Ursula peered around me and said, 'Vonda, I don't know how many times I’ve told you about being shrill.' And Vonda, without missing a beat said, 'No, Ursula, dear, I’m strident. You're shrill.' I remember that as a great moment in show business, me in the middle just listening.

Monday, March 13, 2017

concert review: Andras Schiff

For some reason I've never cottoned to Schubert's piano sonatas as I do to his string quartets and symphonies. Schiff played very clearly, but it still didn't strike any emotional resonance with me.

This may have been partly explained by the set of Schubert Impromptus. These can be charming and pretty music, but Schiff's compressed phrasing and his uniformity of tone made them sound sing-songy.

But I wasn't in the most receptive mood, true. I'd just driven up the scenic coast road from the UC Santa Cruz library, where I'd spent a full day hunched over a set of hot research databases. I had my work on my mind, and the news, plus some distressing personal news that's been coming from overseas via e-mail.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

hinky figures

Here's the thing. All winter long, I turn on the front porch light each afternoon that B's at work, because it's dark when she comes home at 6 pm.

Then, just as it's starting to get light enough in the spring that I don't have to do that any more, the clocks change, and she comes home an hour earlier. What's the good in that? If it has to change at all, shouldn't it be going the other way around?

Especially as, just as it's also starting to get light enough for her to see in the morning as she leaves, suddenly she has to leave an hour earlier and is plunged back into darkness again.

Truly it has been said that Daylight Saving Time is like cutting off the end of a blanket and sewing it on to the other end.

It seems to me that the real beef of the proponents of DST is not with human time measurement, but with the axial tilt of the earth. Perhaps they should try passing a law modifying that, and see how much luck they have with it.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Buffy signal-boosting

I found this site averaging out ratings of BTVS episodes. It's several years old, and I also looked up some new 20th-anniversary best-episodes lists, which showed some strong consensus. (Google "best buffy episodes," you'll find plenty.)

It occurred to me that, rather than make my own tiresomely repetitious best episode list (the major variant is that I'm less fond of the season-ending Big Battle episodes than most people are), I should offer my opinion of the most under-rated episodes. I mean, we all know that "Innocence" and "The Wish" and "The Zeppo" and "Doppelgängland" and "Something Blue" and "Hush" and "Who Are You?" and "Restless" and "Once More with Feeling" and "Conversations with Dead People" and the like are great, right? But what about the ones that don't make all the best-of lists or get high ratings in complete evaluations?

DB's Most Under-rated Buffy the Vampire Slayer Episodes (chronological order)

Lie to Me (2.07)
During the show's heyday, I was on a lot of convention panels about it. On one, we were posed the interesting question: since this show took a while to hit its stride, what's the best episode to introduce people to it with? Had to be a stand-alone, had to hit the major themes, had to be good. Ben Yalow suggested "Lie to Me," the vampire wanna-be episode, and I think he was right.

What's My Line, part 1 (2.09)
Worth it for the (at the time) stunning final line: "I am Kendra, the Vampire Slayer."

Faith, Hope and Trick (3.03)
The first episode I saw. Evaluations mostly diss Mr. Trick. I thought he was a great villain, so suave and cool.

Revelations (3.07)
Gwendolyn Post! Another great guest spot, and an interesting preview variant on Wesley. I was so sorry when Joss didn't hire the same actress to play Adelle on Dollhouse.

Gingerbread (3.11)
The "witch-hunt" episode is important as the only one to face head-on the peculiar premise of mid-period Buffy, when the vampires had become too common to support the early seasons' "secret history" premise, but were not yet openly acknowledged. People were just in denial of the obvious, and this one shows that in operation.

Enemies (3.17)
The "Mr. Light Show" episode. Awesome drama with sinister implications.

The Freshman (4.01)
Had a particularly good gang of guest vampires. "Are we going to fight, or just have a giant sarcasm rally?"

This Year's Girl (4.15)
The essential prelude to the immortally-good "Who Are You?" Faith's blistering encounter with Buffy and Willow is one of the most dramatically intense scenes of the entire series.

Superstar (4.17)
The Jonathan episode. No further comment should be necessary.

Real Me (5.02)
A lot of viewers dislike Dawn, who's the central figure here. I don't; I find her funny rather than annoying. But even better, this is the episode in which the airhead vampire Harmony had her gang of minions, one of whom was played by Tom Lenk, who later returned as Andrew.

Family (5.06)
The yet-to-be-famous Amy Adams plays Tara's Cousin Beth. She only has one big scene, but it's a stunner.

Intervention (5.18)
Introduction of the Buffybot. Her computer readouts are a delight, and so is her Anya-like conversation, especially with Anya. Another demonstration of SMG's acting versatility.

The Weight of the World (5.21)
Widely disliked, but I found this episode in which Willow rummages around inside Buffy's comatose subconscious to have some of the same surreal quality that made "Restless" so good.

And that's about where my real good memories of lesser-known episodes runs out, sorry.