Monday, February 23, 2009

Smiling All the Way

Well, I watched President Obama smile broadly as he signed the boondoggle stimulus bill that sends us, our children, and grand-children for untold generations into economic slavery. This thing had better work, but I have no faith in it. Of course, Congress has no Constitutional authority to bail out companies or citizens who make stupid mistakes, but, then again, they don't have Constitutional authority to enact most of the social legislation they have enacted for the last eighty years or so. The federal Gummit continues to usurp the powers delegated to the states and denied to the feds by articles nine and ten of the Bill of Rights. But hey, it's hard to know what is in the Constitution when you haven't read it since you were in high school, and we all know how well teenagers pay attention to dry stuff like American history. The members of the great Den of Thieves don't amend the Constitution to get what they want, they just ignore it.

Last Friday, my wife, Chris, and daughter, Rebekah, went to the Ballet West production of Madam Butterfly. It was a wonderful production danced to Puccini's lush music, but I did miss the singing. Madam Butterfly was the first opera I saw live. The first memoir I wrote for my memoir class three years ago was about that experience.

Mia Notte Bella
“Hey, kid, are you an usher?” asks the man working the push broom on the sidewalk in front of Melodyland Theatre. I guess I look like an usher in my dark brown, vested suit.
“No, I am here to see the opera.”
“You’re a little early aren’t you? They won’t open the box office for another hour,” he smirks as he pushes dust into the flower bed.
I am a little embarrassed, so I don’t answer. I ignore him and go stand in front of the poster display of coming attractions with my hands in my empty pockets. Empty pockets. That means something, but it doesn’t register. Too excited to think about anything but what is going to happen in a little over an hour, I sit on the cement bench next to the main doors by the box office. The push broom guy glances over at me and smirks again. Yeah, guy, I’m a little early.
OK, so I’m a lot early. I am so early that mine was the first car in the parking lot. After I had sat in the car listening to Beethoven on the radio for half an hour, mine was still the only car in the parking lot. That had made me nervous. I took my ticket out of my shirt pocket a couple of times to make sure I had the right day. Then I turned off the radio and waited there for a few more minutes. The late afternoon sun was heating up the car. I got out of the car, made sure the door had locked when I shut it, and took a walk around the theatre. The Saturday afternoon traffic on Harbor Boulevard a block away was a rhythmic hum punctuated occasionally with steam train whistles and bells from Disneyland on the other side of Harbor Boulevard.
This adventure began last Monday, during morning announcements. The student announcer mentioned that the office had a few student discount tickets for a production of Madame Butterfly staring Licia Albanese[1]. I had just enough money in my wallet to buy a ticket- three dollars. Right after class I maneuvered my way through the crowded halls and across the commons to the office before they could run out of tickets. I was the only senior to buy a ticket. Heck, I was the only student out of 3300 kids to buy a ticket. Silly me for worrying they would run out of tickets before I got there.
Sitting on the bench, anticipation builds. I have seen a lot of plays and musicals in Los Angeles and Orange County, but this is my first live opera, and the principal singers are all Metropolitan Opera stars. I have heard these singers on the radio because I listen to the Saturday Texico Opera broadcast whenever I can. I bought the complete Aida album with Leontine Price a couple of years ago and have almost worn it out. I have excerpt recordings of other operas, and I have seen The Pearl Fishers on television. But this is my first in-the-flesh opera experience.
People finally start arriving. The box office opens. As more people arrive, the chatter grows louder as they stroll around looking at the spring flowers or mingle in casual conversation outside the doors. Everyone is dressed up: suits, ties, evening gowns. I am squirming a bit on the hard bench impatient for the doors to open into the lobby that encircles the theatre. I am ready to move inside to a padded theatre seat.
Finally! The doors open. I slide off the bench and blend into the first group of patrons flowing into the lobby. I maneuver to the left and find “Door B” where my ticket says I am to enter the theatre. The door usher tears the stub off my ticket, and says, “To the aisle on the right, please.” Another usher hands me a program and directs me to row five, section B. I slip into the row and ease into the third seat from the aisle. Melodyland Theatre is in the round, so all the seats have a good view of the stage. I have been here once before, last fall, when the drama club came to see Martha Raye in The Solid Gold Cadillac.
I sit. I wait. I thumb through the four page program and read the half-page insert.
The stage is set like a Japanese garden, and the lighting gives the impression of evening sunlight filtering through trees. It reminds me a bit of the Japanese decorations for the junior/senior prom theme “Sayonara.” I wonder what Karen McNeil, my prom date, is doing tonight as the small orchestra starts tuning up. I wonder if I had had enough money for two tickets if she would have come with me. She likes popular musicals, but she’s not really into classical music.
None of my friends and none of my family like opera, and they can’t understand why I do. It’s hard to explain why it is so enjoyable for me. Once I got hooked on classical music, opera seemed to be the next step for me. I know that there are many people who like classical music but don’t care for opera. To me it is the ultimate theatrical experience: the heightened sense of drama, or melodrama, the characters, the staging, the voices, the extreme emotions intensified by beautiful music. I have always been a sucker for schmaltz, so it doesn’t matter how outlandish or sentimental a production might be, I’ll most always enjoy it; and, unless a production is completely awful, I have a complete suspension of disbelief.
The lights dim. The conductor comes out, and we acknowledge him with polite applause. Everything is silence . . . the music begins. Now there is no reality except for what is happening on the stage, in the music, in the voices. Life is wonderful.
The action in act one is stopped a few times by applause, almost like the audience has control over how the plotted events of the story will proceed. In act two, the emotional tension is building as Cio-Cio San (Albanese) refuses to accept the fact that she has been abandoned by that bounder Pinckerton. She begins to sing softly “Un Bel Dì.”, a melodious whisper murmuring over the tremulous strings of the orchestra. Her voice rises with strength and power until she pulls out all the emotional stops and soars triumphantly into the climax of the aria. Almost before she hits the final note, the audience explodes. I am on my feet with the rest of them cheering and clapping. The man next to me yells, “Brava! Brava!” I hear others calling out the same. I am too self-conscious to yell “Brava” myself, so I clap louder. My hands hurt, but I keep clapping. Albanese is bowing to each section of the auditorium. Several people throw roses onto the stage, and she gracefully picks them up. The conductor tries to proceed, but we drown out the orchestra. From across the auditorium I hear someone call out for an encore. In a moment, I am yelling “Encore! Encore!” and clapping to the rhythm of this powerful chant along with the rest of the audience. The conductor, surrendering to our demands, nods his head to the audience, then, turning, nods to Albanese. He faces the orchestra and holds his baton at the ready, waiting for the audience to settle back into our seats. There is a cough here and there as the rustling fades, and it is silence again. The introduction of the aria begins, and she sings again those hopeful words: “One beautiful day, we shall see a strand of smoke arising over the far horizon on the sea, and then the ship appears …”
The last act is hard to get through. I didn’t bring any Kleenex. I struggle through the last half of the act trying to keep my tear ducks under control. I have done my opera “homework,” darn it! I know the plot; I know the characters; I am familiar with the music. I just want to enjoy the music and the voices and not get emotionally involved. But that darned Puccini music sucks me in, beats me up, and leaves my heart beating painfully in my throat, my face flushed, my eyes rheumy. When the final dissonant cord rattles through me I am emotionally exhausted, but I jump to my feet with everyone else, cheering and clapping.
This spiritual and emotional cleansing, this catharsis, is what opera is all about. Non opera lovers might feel the same at a raw, emotionally charged sporting event where two closely matched teams clash on the brittle edge of exultant victory or humiliating defeat. In an opera, regardless of the interpretation of the production, there is no question about how it will end: it’s in the script; the plot is always the same. But as with sport, it is the glorious struggle to reach that end which is so satisfying.
I relax in my seat watching the rest of the audience flow out of the theatre with happy after-the-show chatter and laughter. My hands are red and throbbing from clapping. Finally, I leave my seat and amble out into the cool May night. It is long after midnight, and there is a moist, early morning chill in the air. The parking lot is quickly clearing out as I saunter to the car savoring mia notte bella, my beautiful night.
Then I remember: empty pockets.
Stunned, I lean against the hood of the car and take a deep breath to clear my mind. The last few cars rumble out of the parking lot abandoning me to the dark beneath the faint glow of the lampposts. I stride anxiously back to the theatre, the joy of the evening trammeled by my stupid carelessness. I take my emergency dime out of my wallet, put it in the pay phone, and dial the number. After a few rings my dad groggily answers the phone.
“Dad, I’m sorry to wake you up, but I locked the keys in the car.”
[1] Licia Albanese, b. 22 July 1913

Thursday, February 12, 2009

February Musings

Happy birthday Abe. 200 years old today, and look what a mess has been made of the country you kept together. The Constitution hangs by a thread, and the government of the people, by the people and for the people has been hijacked by a den of thieves, but happy birthday.

I suppose I should wish Chuck a happy 200th birthday too. He turned the world upside down with his theories on the origin of the species. He has been misunderstood and misinterpreted by his devotees and his enemies alike. Look what Social Darwinism has brought to the world: euthanasia, the perverted racial theories of German National Socialism, and Planned Parenthood-originally founded to make poor minorities even more minor.

I watched a little of the President's news conference on Monday. When does telling only half the truth really telling a lie? He said we are in this economic crisis because banks were making loans to people who could never make the payments. That part is true, but why would banks, which are in business to make money, make so many loans which would not make them money. Hmmm. What the President conveniently neglected to say was that the banks were under extreme pressure from powerful liberal Democrats in the Senate lead by the great whiny liberal Barney Frank and his cronies. They threatened and pressured Fannie Mae amd Freddy Mack, Freddy and Fannie passed it on to other lending institutions. So, Mr. President, tell the whole truth or you are telling a lie. But this is how you are making capitalism and individual liberty the villans as you enthrone the new national socialism as the savior of the American collective. Of course, all the idiots who want the Great and Abominable Federal Gummit to take care of them don't care about truth. President O could recite "Mary Had a Little Lamb," and they would fall down before him and call him blessed.

The unfunny comedian, Al Franken, is still trying to worm his way into the Senate, the unfunny den of thieves. I see that he owes between $50,000 to $70,000 in back taxes and penalties. If he does manage to weddle his way into the Senate, he will fit right in with the rest of the thieves. The liberal Democrats love to raise taxes, as long as they don't have to pay them.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Gray February

February should be red or red, white, and blue, but I look out the window and all I see is gray. I took down the winter decorations of January from the library and put up the red hearts and cupids for Valentines Day and portraits of Abe and George for Presidents' Day. But it is still gray outside with the threat of snow this weekend.

I just read an article by Pat Buchanan about the New York Times editorial page (whose editors relish labeling as racist hate mongers anyone who has a differing opinion or disagrees with their liberal/progressive view of the world) which seems to have been purchased by Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire who gave the Times $250 million to stave off bankruptcy. The last lines of the article say:

Let it be said. There is nothing wrong about Americans fighting to preserve the culture and country they grew up in. That is what patriotic conservatism is all about. And if the Times can understand and support the right of native tribes like the Navajo and Apache to preserve their unique character and culture, why this viral hatred of those of us who wish to preserve the Western and Christian character of America? Why does the Times want to see our America destroyed? From what poisoned well comes this hatred of the America we love?

It was an informative article.

This is a scherenschitte (paper cutting) I did several years ago. I am thinking of using it as a valentine card cover this year. It isn't mounted on red paper, but I think the blue sets off the negative space better. I also used a computer manipulated version of this cutting as an ATC (Artist Trading Card).

Here is another memoir which is basically from the Lordsburg period:

Darktown Strutters’ Ball

It was a source of disquiet when I grew up and discovered that a seemingly innocent song I heard my father sing in my childhood had racial undertones that have, with the passage of time, become what some people call “politically incorrect”.
When I was very young, I would hear my father early in the morning getting ready for work. He would sing or whistle while he was shaving and combing his hair and getting dressed. Our house was small and compact, and the thick, outer adobe walls seemed to amplify the sound of his voice on those cool, dark mornings. Sometimes I would pull myself out of bed and shamble into the bathroom to watch him shave.
“Some of these days,” he’d croon while carefully dragging the razor across his cheek, “you’ll miss your honey. Some of these days, you’ll feel so lonely.[1]” The words would get distorted when he shaved under his chin, and he would just hum while maneuvering around his upper lip and chin. Once in a while he would nick himself, and a thin crimson line would streak the glistening white shaving cream on his neck that vibrated when he warbled a note.
He liked to give a lot of vibrato to certain words like “woman” and “rings” if he were singing “Saint Louis Blues.[2]” I liked that one. It was supposed to be a sad song, but he made it sound happy. “Saint Louis womaaaaan, wid all her dimon’ riiiings, pulls dat man roun’ by her apron striiiings. Da da da daaaaa, da da da store-bought hair …” There was whistling the melody or “da da das” to cover the places where he couldn’t remember the words or chose not to sing them.
The song I liked best was “Darktown Strutters’ Ball[3]” because he sometimes picked me up and danced me around. “I'll be down to get you in a taxi, Honey,you better be ready about half past eight.” We’d jive down the hall, and my mother would tell him to “pipe down” before he woke up my brother and sister. She said he sounded like a sick cow. His singing was wonderful to me, and I wish I could hear it again. “Now, Deary, don’t be late, I want to be there when the band starts playin’.” He’d flop me down on the bed and sashay over to the closet to get his white shirt.
“… Goin' to dance out both my shoes, when they play the ‘Jelly Roll Blues,’tomorrow night, at the Darktown Strutter's Ball.” He’d adjust his tie, slip on his jacket, give himself a last look in the mirror, and he was ready to leave for the high school where he taught history, P.E., and coached football, basketball, baseball, and track.
I asked him what “strutters” were and he said something about “high steppers” or “fancy dancers.” When I asked what “Darktown” was, he said, “Oh, that’s where Negro people live, black people.”
“Is that like Mexican Town?” That was the area of Lordsburg north of the railroad tracks where at that time all the Mexican families lived.
“Yep, like Mexican Town.”
“Do we have a Darktown?”
And that was true. There were no black people living in Lordsburg. In fact, there were no black students in any of the eight schools I attended in New Mexico and Southern California until I went to Long Beach State College in 1965. I was not unaware of people of color, but I had no connection or contact with them growing up. While I believed in equality and civil rights and never heard racial put downs or slurs at home, my early impressions of African-Americans were stereotypical, based on old movies, songs, and television. As my age and experience grew, I recognized attitudes and actions that were offensive and demeaning to African-Americans through most of the 20th century. Although I still love the songs and the performers, I cringe when I hear Bing Crosby and the Rhythm Boys sing about the “darkies” dancing in the Mississippi mud, or see Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Judy Garland, and Mickey Rooney in black face putting on affected Negro accents.
While “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” isn’t as blatantly racial as many other songs from the period, often written by Black composers but sung by White performers, it now gives me a twinge of mental discomfort and colors my memory. My father knew the racial undercurrent of the song, slight as it might be, but he sang it anyway because he liked it. I can hear his voice in the back of my mind, and I sing along because I like it too. We both know that innocence replaced by knowledge is no fun.

“I'll be down to get you in a taxi, Honey
You better be ready about half past eight
Now, Dearie, don't be late
I want to be there when the band starts playing.
Remember when we get there, Honey
The two-steps, I'm goin' to have 'em all.
Goin' to dance out both my shoes
When they play the "Jelly Roll Blues"
Tomorrow night, at the Darktown Strutter's Ball”

[1] Brooks, Shelton, “Some of These Days” 1910. Sophie Tucker’s theme song.
[2] Handy, William Christopher, Father of the Blues, “Saint Louis Blues” 1914 Bessie Smith did possibly the best version of this song in 1929 in a 16 minute sound film, Saint Louis Blues, directed by W. C. Handy himself.
[3] Brooks, Shelton, “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” 1917

You can hear some versions of this song on Youtube here. (The best one, by the Charioteers, has been removed, darn it!)

Here is Sophie Tucker singing the original 1911 version of "Some of These Days."

Here is the only film recording of Bessie Smith singing "Saint Louis Blues" in a 1929 film directed by W. C. Handy himself.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

February Is Here Already?

Wow! I have been so busy getting things ready for the Utah Educational Library Media Association (UELMA) conference that I haven't had time to do anything that I want to do. That is the way of the world-you always have to do the things you have to do before you can do the things you want to do, or something like that.
I won't go political today except for two comments: The regime that was to bring us change certainly hasn't (same old/same old - politics as usual); and the regime that was to unite and bring us all together certainly hasn't (the divide is wider). Of course, it has only been a couple of weeks, so any time now we may have change and unity.


As I continue to write memoirs for the class I take every year, I have decided to group my memories around the places I lived. That gives a loose chronology to what I have written to date and will focus future writings. The sections would then be: 1) Clarksville, Indiana and Clovis, New Mexico, 1947-1951(mainly my memories of what my parents told me about the time); 2) Lordsburg, New Mexico, 1952-1954; 3) Roswell, New Mexico, 1955-56; 4) Hobbs, New Mexico, 1957-59; 5) Westminster, California, 1960; 6) Huntington Beach, California, 1961-70; 7) Provo, Utah, 1971-72; 8) Sandy, Utah, 1973; 9) West Jordan, Utah, 1974-until too old to write.
This memoir sample is from the Lordsburg period, 1952-54, and is the last one I wrote for my class:

The Old Green Chair

What I remember as the “old green chair” wasn’t really much older than I was. It was one of the first pieces of furniture my parents bought after they were married in Clarksville, Indiana. It was a bulky, hardwood and steel wired, over-stuffed living room chair covered in a soft, velvety, “true-green” colored material and had a solidly-built, matching ottoman. My dad said it had a long seat that was just right for his long legs. It was his newspaper-reading, radio-listening, and storytelling chair. I assume my mother curled up in it under a comforter when she was expecting, feeding, and holding me as she later did with my sister and brother. Sitting in that chair, I held my baby sister for the first time. Whenever I was near that chair, I would slowly rub the palm of my hand over the soft material and watch it change to light or dark as I reversed the direction of the fabric nap with my hand.
My folks hauled that chair and the few other pieces of furniture they owned in a makeshift trailer across the country to Clovis and Portales and Lordsburg, New Mexico. In Lordsburg, the chair ruled the living room sitting a foot or two away from the tall, narrow window that overlooked the east side yard of Bermuda grass and bottle brush trees.
Mornings, the warm, sun-bright space between the chair and the window was a delightful place to play. The window sill, wider than the thick adobe wall and only a couple of feet from the floor, held an army of small toys and was completely shielded by the chair. The dust flap at the bottom of the chair back was a perfect hiding place for contraband.
When I was four or five, all the kids used to buy little six packs of candy cigarettes at the ramshackle grocery store around the corner from my house. They were hard, white sticks of candy like peppermints are made from, about a quarter inch thick and four inches long, with one end dyed bright red. We practiced holding the candy between our fingers like we had seen our dads hold the real things and pretended to puff out clouds of smoke. A few practiced holding the “cigs” lazily out of the corner of their mouths like the grizzled old-timers and leather-skinned ranch hands we often saw lounging on the sidewalks down town. I usually just chewed mine.
My father’s real cigarettes were much more fascinating than candy, so one morning I took a couple from his pocket before he left for school and hid them behind the chair. The pungent, earthy odor of the shredded tobacco smelled much better unlit than when my dad was actually smoking. Behind the green barricade, I was pretending to blow smoke rings like my dad when my mother appeared next to the chair.
“So,” she said, “think you want to smoke?”
“Sure,” I said, elated and excited about entering into real adult activities at the age of five.
She plopped me down in the chair, slipped one of the cigarettes between her lips, struck a match and “lit up.” She handed me the cigarette and said, “Puff away.” I managed two, maybe three, drags before I became violently miserable and threw up on the polished, hardwood floor. Without comment, my mother extinguished the cigarette, picked me up and carried me to my bed, cleaned up the mess and never mentioned it to me again. However, from my bed that night, I heard her have a laughingly good time telling my dad all the sickening details. “That’ll be a lesson for him,” she declared, and it was; I never ever had a desire to smoke again.
After she painted the living room orange, my mother decided the green of the chair didn’t harmonize. While recovering the ottoman with a print fabric, she determined that she wasn’t up to a full re-upholstery job on the chair. She told my dad to move it out back for the trash men. So my dad muscled the green monster out of the living room, down the hall, and through the big kitchen, being careful not to gouge or scratch the wood floors or rip a hole in the kitchen linoleum. He had to turn it on its side to angle it top first through the back door and inch it onto the small open porch. Then he dragged it down the steps, across the gravel path, and through the gate to the trash cans outside the back fence.
Some neighbor kids were playing on the old buckboard by the barn, and they immediately ran over to watch. The chair was larger than either of the metal trash cans or the burn barrel, so it had to be broken down to either burn or cart away. My dad figured he could use some of the wood and nails and wire, and he set himself to carefully taking the chair apart. With all us children close up watching his every move, he carefully loosened the chair back-panel with a screwdriver and popped it off the chair.
Everyone jumped back a few feet with a horrified shudder. There, infesting the yellowed padding of the old green chair was a writhing colony of at least a hundred, huge BLACK WIDOW SPIDERS. We strained forward to examine this awful sight. A breathless moment passed before spiders on the perimeter of the undulating mass dropped to the ground and wobbly walked toward us.
Then all was pandemonium. Girls screamed and ran to the buckboard. Boys picked up sticks and rocks to pound the ugly creatures or stomped on them with their boots before they could escape to a dark hideaway. My dad grabbed a gas can from the shed by the back gate, sprayed the wriggly mass with gasoline, and flicked a flaming matchbook on the ground under the spiders. The chair exploded in flames and black, acrid smoke mushroomed into the warm afternoon like the atomic bomb on Bikini Atoll. The cremation of the old green chair and all its poisonous cargo was an exciting end to an old friend.