Sunday, April 29, 2007


Our weekend can pretty much be summarized in one word: mulch.

My father and Josh and I spread mulch all day Saturday. We spread it around trees, front, back and side, we spread it around bushes, front, back and side, we spread it alongside the house, front, back and side, and we spread it along the entire length of the back yard fence. We used so much mulch that we had to make five trips to the garden center before we had all the mulch we needed. One or two or three of us spread mulch from 8:00 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. When we were not spreading mulch, we were pruning bushes and pruning trees, and fertilizing the grass.

Of course, we got frightfully dirty, so dirty that we had to eat lunch Saturday on the back deck, since my mother would not allow my father or Josh or me into the house.

Yesterday morning, before the mulch festivities began, my father and Josh and I rose very early, and we went out to eat breakfast at a Bob Evans, after which we made our first of five trips to the garden center. When my brothers and I were kids, my Dad would often take us to a Bob Evans for breakfast on Saturday mornings, in order that my mother not have to concern herself with preparing breakfast on those Saturdays. Ever since, I have always been fond of going to a Bob Evans for breakfast, especially on a Saturday in which there is work to be done. When I go there, I always order bacon and eggs, AND pancakes, and that is what I ordered yesterday morning, and so did Josh, and so did my Dad. I think that all three of us were determined to get meaningful cholesterol injections into our systems before we began our yard work.

Last evening, when the yard work was finally done, we were so dirty that my mother made us clean up in the basement bathroom--she was not going to allow us, she said, to track dirt into her house. She rewarded us, however, with a very nice dinner: beef tenderloin, with a special potato dish made with cream and chives, fresh green beans, sweet corn and a tomato-cucumber salad. For dessert, she had made for us an apple pie.

It was after 9:00 p.m. by the time we were done eating dinner, and we were tired, and we went to bed not too long after.

Today, after church, my father and Josh and I washed windows for my mother. My father washed windows on the inside, and Josh and I washed windows on the outside. It took us all afternoon. There were other projects around the house we had planned on doing this weekend, but we ran out of time and we will have to do those on some future weekend.

When we were done washing windows, we had an early and light dinner, and then Josh and I came home.

I am scheduled to go to Baltimore this week, for two days, to assist at depositions, but the depositions have been scheduled and postponed two times before, and the lead attorney on the case has told me not to be surprised if the depositions are postponed, at short notice, for a third time.

I would be happy not to go to Baltimore. There is one place, however, where I have a hankering to go--I have a hankering to go to Denver, to visit my middle brother. I have not been to Denver to visit him there since the summer of 2005, and Josh has never been to my brother's place in Denver. Josh and I want to go soon, and my brother wants us to come. It seems difficult, however, to schedule a time, as we always seem to be so busy.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Finns

Last evening my parents and Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to hear a recital by Karita Mattila, sponsored by the Schubert Club.

The Ordway Center, with 1900 seats, is too large for a song recital, but almost all recitals by artists visiting the Twin Cities are held there, as it is the most suitable venue we have.

Mattila is a striking woman. She is tall and lithe, and she cuts a commanding figure onstage. From a distance, she appears to be very attractive but, when one sees her up close, one cannot help but notice that she is not a pretty woman, at least in the conventional sense.

Her eyes, too, are disappointing. They are not warm, they are not expressive, they are not inviting, they are not lively. She has the cold, dispassionate eyes of an efficiency expert.

Mattila's voice is large, and she knows how to manipulate it. She sings on pitch, and her voice is even throughout its registers.

However, her voice is a "white" one, and she does not have a wide array of colors at her disposal. Having a "white" voice did not hamper the careers of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Lisa Della Casa or Elisabeth Grummer--if anything, having a "white" voice helped those artists--but Mattila is not in the same league, musically and artistically, as those great singers of the past. Her musical phrasing is generalized, she does not make much use of texts, and her singing, of everything, is cut from the same cloth--she emits an all-purpose, undifferentiated flow of sound, whether the music be Verdi, Richard Strauss, Janacek or from the song literature, and this singing becomes less and less interesting as the evening wears on. It is easy to understand why she has never been a successful recording artist.

Such singing can work in the theater, and Mattila is a very successful artist in the theater. Because she is a very physical singer and actress, she can project emotion and portray a character, convincingly, even when her purely vocal performance in the theater may be perfunctory and bland. However, on the recital platform, such skills from the theater are of limited use. In fact, they can even be counter-productive.

Mattila tried to use those theatrical skills a little too much and a little too often last night. She moved around the stage far too much, and she played with her arms and her legs, and she offered a large (if not outright dismaying) assortment of facial gestures to let the audience know what she was feeling. However, her eyes, dull and blank, gave the game away: she was play-acting.

Last evening's program did not include any of the most-beloved songs of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Strauss. Instead, Mattila offered Barber's "Hermit Songs", songs by composers from Finland, some Wolf songs, and some Spanish numbers. She was probably wise to steer away from well-known lieder.

The Barber and Wolf songs were dutiful. In the Spanish songs, Mattila tried to have some "fun", but her attempts were labored and unsuccessful. Only in the songs from Finland did I sense that Mattila was singing music that she fully understood and loved.

Successful opera singers are generally not good song recitalists, and last evening's recital only reinforced this point. Mattila seemed uncomfortable the entire time--out of her element, working outside of her natural realm, a square peg in a round hole. And this is entirely understandable, as the broad skills needed in the theater are not the same as the requirements of precision, specificity, characterization, individuality and subtlety needed to bring twenty different and varied songs to life in the recital hall. Everyone would have been happier last night--the audience as well as Mattila--had she simply offered a program of operatic excerpts.

Last evening's recital was not sold out. My parents and Joshua and I observed many empty seats, and I believe that this was the only Shubert Club performance this season that was not sold out. The audience was quiet and attentive, but there were many more empty seats after intermission than there were when the recital began. It was a very disappointing evening.

Perhaps concert-goers in the Twin Cities are finally tiring of the Finns.

In the last year, sentiment has started to turn against Osmo Vanska at the Minnesota Orchestra. He is a very limited musician, with a very limited repertory, and I have noticed that I now hear people talk about how they are tiring of Vanska and his ridiculous podium theatrics and his superficial performances. At my office, there are large numbers of persons who have already had enough of him, and who now try to give away their tickets almost every weekend--generally without any takers (if we wanted, Josh and I could go, free, to practically every single Minnesota Orchestra performance).

Just this season, my mother has started to dislike Vanska. Even my father, whom I like to tease is more devoted to Vanska than Vanska's own agent, now admits, with some reluctance, that Vanska has nothing special to offer outside of the Scandinavian repertory. My parents always get a full season subscription, and I know that they will renew their subscription next year. However, I suspect that they will skip a fair number of concerts next year.

The members of the orchestra, however, are still extremely positive about their conductor. There is very, very little unenthusiasm about Vanska among the players.

One thing the Minnesota Orchestra needs to do is to upgrade the quality of its guest conductors. This is one step the orchestra can take to maintain a high level of interest among its long-term subscribers.

And the Minnesota Orchestra has the financial wherewithal to hire the very best guest conductors in the world each and every season. The orchestra's endowment is one of the six largest in the country, dwarfing the endowments of the Cleveland Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. There is no excuse for the Minnesota Orchestra not to present a fine array of guest conductors each season.

Before last night's recital, my parents and Joshua and I ate dinner at an Italian restaurant, in order to save my mother from having to worry about dinner.

This coming weekend, I think that Josh and I will go over to my parents' house and spend the entire weekend there, even staying overnight. I think that we will help my father get the yard ready for the summer, and wash windows for my mother, and help them with some other projects around the house.

It is good to have them back from Oregon.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Happy And Excited

My parents returned safely from Oregon, and they are now back home, settling in.

Joshua and I went to the airport to pick them up and, as soon as I saw them, I knew that they were fine.

We took them home, hearing about their week en route. On the way, we stopped at our apartment to retrieve Rex, who was happy and excited to see my parents, and to take him home, too.

Tomorrow night, Josh and I will have my parents (and the dog, too) over for dinner. We will give them a relaxing evening, which I know they deserve.

The Alternative Is Unthinkable

During our reading this weekend, Joshua came across the text of a speech given on July 16, 2006, by Bernard Lewis, and he showed it to me. Josh knows that I have met Bernard Lewis, and Josh thought that the published text of the speech had several penetrating points, and he knew that I would enjoy reading it. Both of us read the text of the speech several times.

Professor Lewis soon will be 91 years old. He is Professor Emeritus Of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, where he taught for many years. He is a Londoner who received his Ph.D. in the History Of Islam from the University Of London's School Of Oriental And African Studies. He is fluent in Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Hebrew, and he is one of the few great contemporary scholars on the subject of the Middle East. His celebrated 1990 essay, "The Roots Of Muslim Rage", foretold the likely course of events over the ensuing decade, and the accuracy of its prophecies is chilling.

The primary points of his speech were:

1. The modern history of the Middle East began in 1798, with Napoleon's conquest of Egypt and his introduction of the principles of "liberty" and "equality".

2. The Middle East always instinctly endorsed Napoleon's principle of "equality" (except that slaves, unbelievers and women were excluded), but the Middle East only understood Napoleon's concept of "liberty" in the sense that it stood for "justice".

3. During the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century, as the Middle East "modernized", traditional centers of authority and influence--merchants, scribes, guilds, the landed gentry, the religious establishment--were supplanted by a centralized state. This course of "modernization" had disastrous consequences--it destroyed all forms of local leadership, and it lead to a corrupt autocracy.

4. During and after World War II, the corrupt autocracies became unassailable. The Germans installed pro-Nazi, Fascist states in the region during the war, with their own Fascist political parties. A few years after World War II, the Soviets established a powerful presence in the region, and the Fascist political parties, with minor modifications, became Soviet-style Communist parties. The origins of the current Baath Party and the current governments in the Middle East are direct successors of their Fascist/Communist predecessors from the 1940's onward.

5. The Islamic revival, or reawakening, is a revolt against the status quo, with its corrupt autocracies, a status quo that has existed since the 1940's. However, the Islamic revival is in the throes of Wahhabism, which believes that the root cause of Arab-Islamic troubles lies with infidels. Wahhabism is the prevalent version of Islam among young people in the Middle East and Europe, and has failed to find an hospitable home only in Turkey.

6. The Iranian Revolution Of 1979 is an event of profound historical and political significance, on a par with The French Revolution Of 1789 and The Russian Revolution Of 1917. The French Revolution resulted in two monarchies, two empires, two dictatorships and five republics. The Russian Revolution resulted in 75 years of tyranny over two continents, and its effects linger on. The Iranian Revolution must be expected to cause similar turmoils long-term, and it is now entering its deadly "Stalinist" phase.

7. The foreign policies of the West with regard to the Middle East have long vacillated between two inconsistent views: (A) The Middle East is destined to be governed by tyrants, and steps must be taken to assure that the governing tyrants are friendly to the West; and (B) The Middle East must be encouraged to develop democratic institutions consistent with its own cultural principles. The first view is the prevailing European view and is, amazingly, known as the "Pro-Arab" view; the second view is the prevailing American view and is, equally amazingly, known as the "Imperialist" view.

8. The likelihood of the Middle East developing free institutions is possible, but not necessarily probable. However, the effort must be made, resolutely, even if the outcome is uncertain, because the alternative is unthinkable.

Pretty sobering stuff.

A Thousand Times

Last night, instead of taking Joshua and me to the movies, our landlady took us to the theater. We attended a performance of "A Thousand Clowns" at the Minneapolis Theater Garage, performed by the Torch Theater, one of the many small theater companies in the Twin Cities.

Joshua and I had not seen "A Thousand Clowns" before. Our landlady, however, said that she had seen "A Thousand Clowns" a thousand times, but she wanted to see it again because she had heard that the Torch Theater production, which recently opened, was very fine.

We enjoyed the performance. The play is formulaic and dated, a clear relic of the 1960's, and the writing bears more than a passing resemblance to Neil Simon and to television situation-comedy writing, too. Nonetheless, none of us was bored, and none of us objected to the thoroughly-predictable resolution of the plot.

I am surprised that this play has proven to be so durable. It has received literally thousands of performances since it was published and, in my estimation, it does not warrant that degree of exposure. I do not think that I would ever want to see it again.

There are several plays from the 1960's that somehow have survived, receiving a constant stream of performances, that strike me as unworthy of revival. For instance, I have never understood the appeal of "The Odd Couple", which I think is a truly dreadful play, with absolutely nothing to recommend it. "The Subject Was Roses" is another 1960's artifact that is better left alone, I believe. I find "The Lion In Winter" to be laughable--history turned into soap-opera, and with incongruous modern references--and "The Price" to be maudlin and inept. "The Night Of The Iguana" strikes me as warmed-over "Streetcar", and "A Delicate Balance", in my view, is a play that fundamentally does not work, despite the fact that it has several fine moments. There is only one American play from the 1960's that will be performed 100 years from now, I suspect, and that will be "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?".

Before the performance, we ate dinner at a Chinese restaurant not far from the theater, and we all three enjoyed our outing downtown very much. We shall have to do it again soon.

Yesterday morning, Josh and I took the dog out for a long, long walk and run. We took him out again late yesterday afternoon for another walk and run, so I do not think that he minded staying home by himself last night.

Josh and I attended church service this morning, but otherwise we will be staying in until it is time to go to the airport and pick up my parents. We have been catching up on our reading this weekend, with almost a year's worth of various quarterlies to go through, including some back issues of history journals and foreign policy journals that my father subscribes to. We are having a wonderful time.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Lost Souls

My parents will be coming back to Minneapolis on Sunday. They truly have no choice, as my father has a board meeting next week. They will be arriving at MSP early Sunday evening, and Joshua and I will go to the airport and pick them up and take them home.

My uncle is doing just a little better, probably because his course of radiation treatments is over, at least for now. He is starting to eat just a little, and he loves my mother's tomato-cream soup, which she makes from scratch. My mother also made her homemade chicken noodle soup for him, which is one of her masterpieces, but my uncle did not like that because, he said, the taste of chicken is acrid to him after all he has been through. As a result, my mother made for him two of her vegetable soups, with noodles but without meat, one from a tomato base and one from a base of beef bouillon. My uncle liked both of those very much.

I suspect that my parents are not having much fun, but I know that they are performing their duties valiantly. I am sure I will hear more about what is happening when my parents return on Sunday. Thus far, I have learned that my uncle's wife is an artist, and very high-strung, and very self-centered. Three times this week, she left the house to spend the day on her own, twice going shopping and once visiting an artists' colony. She must not be strong enough to shoulder the burden of caring for someone else full-time, in which case it was fortunate that she and her husband did not have children. My parents have told me other things about her, and it would be uncharitable to mention them. I doubt that I would like her.

Josh and I must appear to be down in the dumps this week, because our landlady has been watching out for us all week, which is very kind of her. I have known her my entire life, as she attends our church and as she taught at the boys' school I attended.

She is very interested in theater, and she attends virtually every theater performance-- professional, semi-professional and amateur--in the entire metropolitan area. She also is an avid movie-goer. I think that she sees virtually every movie on its initial release, and generally on the first weekend. She is also a dedicated museum-goer. However, she has very little interest in music, and she never attends concerts or recitals, nor does she go to the opera or to the ballet.

She was married twice, and she was awarded her current home when her second marriage, to a professor at the University Of Minnesota, ended. She has two grown daughters, both of whom live in the Twin Cities. She is a delightful person. I have always liked her very, very much.

Despite the fact that I have always known her very well, she has always left Joshua and me alone ever since we moved into the apartment above her garage. She told us, before we moved in, that she would never interfere with us, and she has lived up to that representation. Our apartment is not directly connected to her house, even though the garage itself is directly connected to the house. The only entrance to our apartment is a separate one, at the back of the house.

This week, for the first time, she said that we HAD to come over for dinner, and she made dinner for us on Tuesday night and again on Wednesday night. In return, Josh and I invited her over for dinner last night. All three evenings were enchanting, because she is such excellent company and such an excellent conversationalist.

She told us that we HAD to come with her to the movies tonight, but Josh and I explained to her that we really could not, because of the dog. Rex is not accustomed to spending a lot of time alone, and it is not good to leave dogs alone any more than necessary, since they are pack animals. Whenever my parents have an evening obligation outside the home and have to leave Rex by himself for the evening, they never leave him home alone during that day, too, in order that he not be alone twice in the same day. If my mother has to leave the house on a day when she and my father have an evening obligation, she will always take Rex with her, even if she is going to be gone only a short time.

Since Rex is home alone today, Josh and I really cannot leave him alone this evening, too, and we explained this to our landlady. Her response was to say that we should all go to the movies tomorrow night instead, since Rex will have spent the entire day with us tomorrow. Consequently, it looks like Josh and I will be seeing a movie tomorrow night, and probably having dinner out, too.

Josh and I must look like lost souls, worrying about what is going on in Oregon. Otherwise, our landlady would not be making such an effort to keep us diverted this week. She is very, very kind and thoughtful.

Rex, on the other hand, seems to be doing pretty well. He gets to go out into the yard at 4:00 p.m. each day, when our landlady gets home from work, and romp around for a while. When Josh and I get home from work, we take him out again, and we keep him out for a good 45 minutes or so, because it is still light out at that time. We run with him, and romp with him, and play with him before we take him back inside. We are giving him the best care we can.

And our landlady seems to be giving us the best care she can.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


My parents are going to remain in Oregon for a few more days, so Joshua and I are still caring for my parents' dog.

Joshua does not go to work until 11:15 a.m., so he is with the dog until that time. The dog is alone in our apartment from 11:15 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. or so, when our landlady gets home from work. She lets Rex out and allows him to run around the yard for a while before Josh and I get home, which is very kind of her. Rex seems to be perfectly content spending a few hours each day in our apartment alone. I think he naps most of that time.

My parents are doing OK. My uncle suffered horrible burns during his radiation treatment--a very aggressive course of therapy was required--and, according to my parents, he looks very bad indeed. My father said that it was all he could do to keep from crying when he first saw him.

My father was the only one of my uncle's siblings that my uncle's wife called and asked to come to Oregon. My parents did not know, until they arrived in Oregon, whether my uncle's wife had called other siblings as well. My uncle's wife must have been terrified at the results of the radiation treatment, which have included burns and severe blistering, and apparently she did not know anyone else to call.

My parents had never met my uncle's wife before they arrived in Oregon on Saturday. She is his second wife, and she has been married to my uncle since 1989, but she did not accompany my uncle to Iowa to attend my grandparents' funerals in 1990 and 1993, as she had never met my grandparents. Consequently, this was my parents' first opportunity to meet her.

She is in great distress now, which is to be expected. My uncle is weak and fatigued from his many treatments, and it is almost all he can do to get up and sit in a chair for a few hours each day. A short walk around the yard is a major challenge for him.

There is little my parents can do except offer assistance around the house, and offer support and encouragement to my uncle and his wife. My mother is taking care of the house and meals, and my father stays at my uncle's side most of the day, sometimes talking and sometimes not.

I asked my father why my uncle called him, and no one else in the family. My father really does not know the answer to that question. His only response to me was "He knows I'm dependable".

My father told me that my uncle remarked to him "Now, I regret that I never had children. At times like this, a man needs children. You are lucky. You have three fine boys to look out for you."

My father did not know what to make of that remark, and neither do I. Did my uncle not have children because he was too focused on his work, or were there other reasons why he and his spouses elected not to have children? None of us knows the answer to that question.

My father says that my uncle has been asking many questions about me and my brothers, which my father finds odd, as my uncle never exhibited much interest in us before now. My uncle asked to see photographs of us, so my mother called my brother in New York (he is the camera maven among us three boys) and my brother sent some photos to my parents via email.

My parents said that my uncle cried when he looked at the photos.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


Joshua and I have been home, keeping my parents' dog this weekend.

On Friday night, my parents received a call from the wife of my father's older brother. My father's older brother (he is nine years older than my Dad) has been ill for quite some time, and he recently took a turn for the worse. Consequently, my parents decided to make a sudden visit to Oregon, where my uncle and his wife retired, this weekend.

My parents left for Oregon first thing Saturday morning. Josh and I rose very early, and we went over to my parents' house and we picked them up and took them to the airport. On our way back home, we picked up the dog and brought him back to our apartment.

My parents told Josh and me that we should just stay at their house until they returned from Oregon, but Josh and I decided that we would prefer to stay at our apartment. The dog is happy in our apartment, and we are happy in our apartment, and we did not think that there was any reason to camp at my parents' house.

I never knew my uncle very well. In fact, I think I only met him four or five times, and I have not seen him since I was twelve years old.

Until he retired, he was a physician, and he always lived and worked in California. My family never visited him in California, and he never visited my family in Minneapolis. So far as I know, my uncle has never once set foot in my parents' house, a house which my parents have occupied for more than thirty years. The only occasions on which I ever met him were in Iowa, at my father's parents' house, when my uncle was home for brief visits. On those occasions, my father would drive our entire family down to Iowa for a day visit; we would always return home the same day. Since it was almost a six-hour drive one-way, my family would leave Minneapolis at 6:00 a.m. or so, arrive at my grandparents' house at noon, depart for home at 6:00 p.m., and climb into bed at midnight. That really was not enough time to get to know my uncle.

My uncle and his wives--there were two--never had children. He was a workaholic, and a real estate investor, but otherwise I know very little about his life. I don't believe that my parents know much about his life, either, because they have not seen him in fourteen years. Their only contact had been an exchange of annual Christmas cards until my uncle got sick, at which point he and my Dad started keeping in touch by phone every couple of weeks or so, as the effects of my uncle's illness took their course.

While they are in Oregon, my parents are not staying at my uncle's house; they are staying at an hotel. When they departed, my parents had no idea whether any other of my father's siblings would be flying to Oregon, too. I have not heard from my parents since they arrived in Oregon, so I have no idea what is going on. I wish they would call, and I suspect they will telephone tonight.

All of my father's siblings are widely dispersed. All of them left Iowa--for the East Coast, for Texas, or for the West Coast--after college. Only my father remained in the Midwest, but he settled far away from his parents.

My father's family never appeared, to me, to be an especially close one. While I met my uncle (the one now in Oregon) only four or five times, I met the rest of my father's siblings only twice: when I was nine years old (at the funeral of my paternal grandmother) and when I was twelve years old (at the funeral of my paternal grandfather). So far as I know, the latter occasion was the last time my father has seen any of his siblings--at least until yesterday.

I never knew my paternal grandparents well, either. Never once did I, or my brothers, stay overnight in their home. Never once were I, or my brothers, left in their care. Never once did my grandparents visit us in Minneapolis. My brothers and I would only see them once or twice each year, generally in the summer, when my parents would take us down for a day visit. My grandparents were kind to us, of course, but I never got the impression that they wished for me and my brothers to become integral parts of their lives. They never bought us Christmas or birthday gifts; instead, they would send each of us boys a $10.00 bill for Christmas and for our birthdays. My grandparents never seemed to call or write to my parents, but perhaps I was unaware of such letters and phone calls. My brothers and I never talked about our grandparents at home, either among ourselves or with our Mom and Dad.

My father very seldom talks about his family, in any case, but I imagine that there has to be some bad blood there. All of his siblings left Iowa, never to return, and it seemed that they all moved as far away as possible from the family home. All of his siblings obtained an advanced education and all of his siblings became very successful in their chosen fields, proving that they were all ambitious, if not overly driven, individuals. However, none of them seemed to have close bonds with their parents or with each other.

I still recall vividly the funerals of both of my paternal grandparents. I remember how all of my father's siblings seemed to be undisturbed and unmoved by the deaths of their parents. I remember how they seemed to be formal, and remote, and uninvolved. I remember how they affected a studied indifference about what was going on around them. Even my cousins, whom I met only at those two funerals (and never before and never since), seemed to be utterly uninterested in everyone and everything.

I have often wondered whether my father's great love for my mother and his great love for my brothers and me was a reaction against what he experienced growing up in his own family home. He has showered each of us with nothing but love, unlimited and unconditional, our entire lives, and he has allowed each of us to shower him with love in return. He is the world's greatest father, but he was not, apparently, able to call upon his personal experiences with his own father in order to devise a suitable model of fatherhood--and, consequently, he created his own model. Something tells me that my father never experienced love until he met my mother, but he certainly gets more than his share of love now, from my mother and from each of his sons.

I do not know when my father and mother will return home. When they left on Saturday morning, it was unspoken among us, but assumed by everyone, that they would remain in Oregon until my uncle died and funeral services observed.

I am worried about them, but I know that they will probably call tonight. They have not called my brothers, either, because my brothers and I have kept in close contact with each other all weekend, but I suspect that each of us will hear from my parents tonight.

Josh and I have hung around home most of the weekend, trying to stay near the telephone. We did go out yesterday morning, dog in tow, for food shopping, and we did go play racquetball afterward, but we did this before my parents' plane landed in Oregon. We stayed home the remainder of the day. We ran the dog early this morning, and we attended Sunday service, but otherwise we have remained home today, too. Our minister knew about my parents' trip to Oregon, because he inquired about them after service. Apparently a neighbor who also goes to our church told him about my parents' last-minute trip to the West Coast, and the purpose thereof.

Josh and I are having fun, keeping the dog entertained. We are playing with him, and giving him lots of attention, and feeding him well. Yesterday afternoon he got a boiled ham bone, with lots of meat on it, and last night he got some cut-up fresh beef. Tonight he will get a baked and deboned chicken, which he is accustomed to having on Sunday nights, and we will probably give him some mashed potatoes, too, to go along with it (the dog loves mashed potatoes). He is perfectly content to be here with us.

As for Josh and me, we are talking about and sharing family experiences, which we often do.

And I am thinking about my uncle, and my parents, and trying not to worry, and hoping that they all get through this difficult time as painlessly and with as much grace as possible.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

He Deserved Better

My parents have had their dog since the summer of 2001.

I was home that summer--between my Sophomore and Junior years at college--and I was the one in the family who wanted to get a dog. I have no idea why I suggested to my parents that we needed a dog--it was a sudden whim, and not something that I had been giving any thought to--but something came over me one Saturday afternoon that summer while my parents and I were out in the back yard. A thunderbolt hit me, and I had a powerful urge to get a dog, and to get a dog right there and then.

I told my mother and father that we should get a dog, and they agreed in a noncommittal way, not thinking that I was particularly serious about the matter. However, when I kept asking them "Well, let's go to the shelter and pick out one", they started to realize that I was serious.

Finally, just to humor me, they agreed to go to the shelter, but I do not think that their purpose, in going, was to bring a dog back home; their purpose, I am sure, was to allow me to get my dog thoughts out of my system.

When we were at the shelter, first walking into the kennels, there was one dog who started howling his heart out as soon as he saw us. He was howling and wailing and moaning, creating the most soul-piercing sounds, as if he were in great pain. That dog was Rex.

Rex's howling made the other dogs howl, too, but Rex's howling was the sound that echoed around the kennels, rendering the other dogs' howling into mere yipping in comparison to his.

"What's wrong with that dog?" I asked the kennel people, and they told us that he had bitten three people and that he would have to be destroyed. I walked over to his cage, and he started wagging his tail and whimpering and looking at me, putting his nose up against the cage.

"Let's get this one" I said to my Mom and Dad, who looked at me as if I had gone insane.

The kennel staff intervened before my parents could. "Are you out of your mind?" the girl in charge of the kennel said to me. "That dog is ruined. He even bit one of us. There's nothing we can do with him."

I pleaded with the kennel girl, asking her to open the cage. She refused, and she showed me how mean the dog was by approaching his cage, at which point he lunged at her.

I continued pleading with her, showing her that the dog did not lunge at me when I approached his cage. Finally she agreed to allow me to open the cage, but only after all other persons, including my parents, were cleared away from the area--far, far away from the area, and from the dog.

I kneeled down, and I unlatched the cage door, and the dog came bounding through, wagging his tail and jumping on me and licking me frantically. He put his paws on my shoulders and licked me for five minutes nonstop while I petted him and rubbed him and nuzzled him and kissed him. He was incredibly affectionate and loving.

After a bit, I asked my Dad to come over from where he was standing and see if Rex would allow my Dad to pet him, and my Dad approached Rex and me very cautiously. Such caution was not necessary, however, as Rex allowed my Dad to pet him and caress him and nuzzle him freely. After a bit, we had my Mom come over and see if Rex would allow her to pet him, and my Mom gingerly walked over to us and kneeled down and began petting and kissing Rex like only a mother can do.

After a few more minutes of gentle nuzzling and petting and kissing and licking, my Dad said, with mock indifference, "Well, I guess we'll have to take him home." "Yes, I think we should" my Mom said. That meant that both my Mom and my Dad had already fallen in love with the dog.

The people at the shelter told us that we were out of our minds, and that the dog would turn on us in an instant.

"No, he won't" my mother interjected. "Someone has been mean to this poor little fellow, and made him unhappy, and he can tell that we will not be mean to him."

Of course, the "poor little fellow" weighed seventy pounds and, standing on his hind legs, was almost as tall as I was, but in my mother's eyes he was in need of care and attention and affection and lots of love, and she knew that he would get all of that, and more, at home.

The shelter people still thought that my mother and father and I had gone berserk, and they would not go anywhere near the dog (nor would he allow them to go anywhere near him), but they allowed us to take Rex with us. My Mom and I stayed with the dog while my Dad signed papers and received necessary information and such, and after that was completed we had no trouble with Rex in exiting the shelter and getting him into the car for the drive home.

On our way home, my Dad told us that the shelter had informed him that it had planned to destroy Rex that very afternoon, as soon as the shelter closed to the public for the day. He said that the shelter had told him that Rex was approximately one year old, and that the family that had raised Rex since he was three months old had apparently beat him, owing to problems with house-training.

My mother said, that day, that Rex knew that he was going to be put under, which was why he had raised such a commotion as soon as he saw us enter the kennels. Rex knew, my Mom said, that we were his last chance at life, which was why his wails were so piercing. "You know, I think you're probably right" was my Dad's response. I, too, believe that Rex did in fact know that his life was going to be put to an end that day and that we were his only salvation. Rex, like most German Shepherds, is extremely intelligent, and I have always believed that he understands a good deal of what people say to him.

We got the dog home without incident, and he seemed to love our large back yard, and he seemed to love entering the house and bounding up the steps and exploring everything, and he seemed to be at home instantly. We had to give him a bath because he smelled so bad, and he allowed my Dad and me to give him a bath without any problems.

Since we had no dog food in the house, my mother cooked and deboned a chicken for him, as a welcome-home dinner, and he ate that up and settled in comfortably. He has been with my parents, happily, ever since.

We did have some trouble house-training him, but we got that issue resolved before I had to return to school. He has never been any other trouble in the least.

One good thing about Rex is that he gives my mother company during the day, while my father is at work, and Rex is very, very good company. He is cheerful and affectionate and playful and lively, and always at my mother's side, whether she is cooking or reading or at the computer or out in the yard. On weekday afternoons in which the weather is good, my mother generally takes him to a nearby park, where he runs and plays for half an hour. She also takes him with her on errands, such as visits to food stores and dry cleaners and the post office and such. He loves to ride in the car, and he watches out for my mother in public.

Rex is also good security, because no one can ever enter my parents' house without his approval--and his approval only comes after my mother's approval. He now weighs over eighty pounds, and he does not look like a dog that strangers would ever want to cross except at their own peril. When he hears a vehicle enter the driveway, he starts to bark ferociously to alert my mother. When the front doorbell rings, he starts to bark ferociously to alert my mother. When he hears an unusual noise outside, he starts to bark ferociously to alert my mother. Need I add that UPS and FedEx personnel are terrified of him?

He gets lots of love and affection and attention from my Dad, too. When my Dad is in the kitchen, reading or watching television, he always sits with the dog at his feet, and he constantly pets and rubs and talks to the dog. On weekends, my Dad generally takes Rex to the park and plays with him, and on weekends my Dad spends time out in the back yard with Rex.

When my parents are home alone, Rex sleeps on an antique Dutch chest at the foot of my parents' bed. It is a family heirloom, over 300 years old, from my father's side of the family, and my mother covers it with several thick rugs so that Rex can sleep comfortably.

When I sleep over at my parents' house, Rex sleeps in my room. He begins the night sleeping on a day bed in my bedroom, but during the night he moves over to my bed, where I always find him when I wake up.

He has a very, very sweet disposition, and he loves the attention that my father and mother, and Josh and I, for that matter, lavish upon him. He is always happy as long as he is involved in whatever household activities are under way.

He gets to eat like a prince--my mother is constantly preparing for him things that he likes--and he still gets his own special chicken, cooked and deboned especially for him, every Wednesday and Sunday, just like he did on his very first night in the household.

I hope that Rex has long forgotten everything that happened to him in his first year of life. He deserved better.

Monday, April 09, 2007

"To See The Best In Each Other"

We had a very nice Easter weekend, and I am sorry that it was so short.

My brothers and my older brother's family arrived early Thursday evening, but we had only two full days together (Friday and Saturday) and two partial days together (Thursday evening and Sunday morning) before we had to take them back to the airport early Sunday afternoon. Consequently, that did not allow much time for any special activities.

We had a nice dinner together at home on Thursday night, and on Friday we stayed home all day except for Good Friday Service. On Saturday, Joshua and my brothers and I managed to find time to play basketball in the afternoon, but otherwise we remained home on Saturday, too, and it was on Saturday night that we had our traditional Easter dinner. On Sunday morning, we attended Easter Service and returned home for a special Easter brunch, after which we all headed for the airport. It seemed like the weekend was over before it had even started.

My nephew had a wonderful time. He knows my parents' house very well, and he feels completely at home there. He mostly divided his time between playing with his toys and my parents' dog on the kitchen floor, with my father and my brothers and Josh and I generally joining him, and being held and rocked by one of us, with his grandparents always having first right of refusal.

It is very amusing to watch my nephew play with my parents' dog. The dog, of course, is many times larger than my nephew, dwarfing him whether my nephew is sitting or standing--and yet my nephew has never been afraid of the dog in the least. He has always treated the dog like his playmate, trying to talk to the dog and trying to get the dog to play with his toys. And the dog will sit for hours at a time next to my nephew, watching him and chewing on his toys (which is disgusting, and which means that we have to keep a sharp watch on my nephew to prevent him from putting the toys in his mouth).

One thing the dog cannot resist is a cookie. Whenever my mother would give my nephew a butter cookie, my nephew would take one bite from the cookie and then the dog would grab the rest of the cookie from my nephew's hand and gobble it down. This went on, over and over, and my nephew never seemed to mind the dog's cookie-snatching, probably because he knew that there was an endless supply of cookies, if necessary.

This Easter weekend marked the anniversary of Josh's first visit to my family home, and this year's Easter weekend was a lot different than last year's.

Before he came home with me for Easter last year, Josh had already met all of my family members except for my middle brother. Josh first met my older brother and my sister-in-law in February of last year in New York. He next met my father, in Washington, in March. Then he met my mother, in New York, in March.

(My father has long known Josh's father, and Josh's father's first wife--and my father had even met Josh's two oldest half-siblings many years ago. However, my father never met Josh until March 2006.)

Josh was not comfortable in my parents' home last Easter, despite already knowing everyone in the family except for my middle brother. This was understandable, if not to be expected, as one weekend was not enough time for Josh to become accustomed to the way things operate in my parents' home. Things were exacerbated last year at Easter by the fact that Josh had a tiff, first with my older brother and then with my father. After that, the remainder of the weekend last year was a rather frosty one, and there were hurt feelings all the way around, hurt feelings that did not get healed until almost six weeks later, when everyone gathered in Washington for our respective graduations, held one week apart.

And it is very hard to become accustomed to a new family home. I know exactly how Josh felt last year, because I have not yet spent enough time in Josh's family home to become comfortable there--I still feel like an intruder, despite his parents' best efforts to make me feel welcome.

A lot has happened in the last year, and we all have spent a lot of time together, and we all get along splendidly now. I would not necessarily have predicted this, however, one year ago.

A year ago, on Easter Sunday, when we were all on our way to the airport, I fear that everyone was relieved that the weekend had at last come to an end. This year, on Easter Sunday, when we were all on our way to the airport, I believe that everyone was sad to see the weekend come to an end.

Much has happened in the last year. Among other things, as my father says, we have now learned "to see the best in each other".

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Getting Ready For Easter

Joshua and I are in mourning, grief-stricken over Florida's repeat championship on Monday night. We are trying to carry on as best we can, given the circumstances.

Last night, Josh and I attended a Minnesota Opera performance of Leo Delibes' "Lakme". It is a charming and tuneful opera, I think, and we enjoyed the performance very much. The musical performance was at a high standard, and the physical production, attractive and somewhat lavish, was quite good, too. The physical production was imported from Australia, to be shared this season in North America between Minneapolis and Montreal.

Tonight Josh and I are over at my parents' house, helping my mother get things ready for Easter. We are doing some housecleaning for her while she is preparing some of her special Easter foods. My father is going back and forth between my mother and Josh and me, offering assistance wherever possible.

The dog is providing no assistance of any sort. In fact, he is a hindrance, running back and forth between the kitchen, where he is keeping an eye on my mother to make sure that he is not going to miss a single morsel of food she throws his way, and upstairs, where he wants to make sure that he is not going to miss out on anything interesting or fun as Josh and I clean bedrooms and bathrooms. He is sticking his nose in cleaning products and everything else, making a real nuisance of himself. He would be far happier if all four of us were to remain in a tight, unified group, in a single location, so that he could keep an eye on all four of us at the same time without having to run back and forth.

I love that dog.

My brothers and my sister-in-law and my nephew will arrive tomorrow night for Easter, and they will be with us until Sunday afternoon.

My father and Josh and I will take off work on Good Friday so that we can spend time with everyone, and I am sure that we will all have a wonderful Easter weekend. We all are looking forward to their visit very much.

I cannot wait to see everyone again.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Twentieth-Century English Musical Renaissance

For the last week or two, Joshua and I have kept six discs of English music in the disc player, listening to them on the odd night when we have been home for the evening (the NCAA tournament seems to have monopolized most of our free time the past two weeks).

I have always had an affection for English music, and the renaissance in English music in the 20th Century has been a remarkable one. Great Britain has produced five great or near-great composers over the last century or more--Elgar, Walton, Vaughan Williams, Britten and Tippett--and several additional worthy ones, and much of this music I cherish.

It is interesting how national schools of composition ebb and flow. Britain's finest modern-era composers were born within a half century of each other, between 1857 (Edward Elgar) and 1913 (Benjamin Britten), and these composers more or less died within a half century of each other, beginning with Elgar (1934) and ending with Michael Tippett (1998). The following two or three generations of British composers have not been as fine as their predecessors and, consequently, the vitality and significance of the British school of composition has declined--but important new schools of composition have emerged elsewhere to take its place, first in Poland and then in Finland. Finland is today the home of Europe's most important group of composers, but I have no clue where the next important school of European composers will occur.

The six discs Josh and I have been listening to are:

Henry Purcell's "Dido And Aeneas", performed by Janet Baker, Raimund Herincx, Patricia Clark, Monica Sinclair and the English Chamber Orchestra and the Saint Anthony Singers under Anthony Lewis, on the Decca label

Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto and "Sea Pictures", performed by Jacqueline Du Pre, Janet Baker and the London Symphony Orchestra under John Barbirolli, on the EMI label

Ralph Vaughan Williams' song cycles for voice and instruments, performed by John Mark Ainsley and The Nash Ensemble, on the Hyperion label

Works for orchestra and string orchestra by Benjamin Britten, performed by the English String Orchestra and the English Symphony Orchestra under William Boughton, on the Nimbus label

Malcolm Arnold's English Dances, performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Bryden Thomson, on the Chandos label

A disc of music by Oliver Knussen, performed by Barry Tuckwell, Lucy Shelton and the London Sinfonietta under the composer, on the Deutsche Grammophon label

I have always liked "Dido And Aeneas", and I have always liked this particular recording of "Dido And Aeneas", probably because Janet Baker's portrayal of Dido is so moving. She gives a very subtle and restrained but intense and heartbreaking performance, yet never once does she violate the formal conventions of Purcell's small masterpiece of the late English Baroque. The other singers are fine, too--and I have never found Monica Sinclair's sorceress to be objectionable, although many other persons have found Sinclair's performance to be unnecessarily theatrical. An orchestra of modern instruments is used, but the performance is in no way a romantic one. It is entirely convincing, and finer than any original-instrument performance of the opera I have encountered.

The Elgar Cello Concerto is my favorite cello concerto--I happen to find the Dvorak to be incredibly boring--and yet I have never heard a satisfactory performance or recording of this work. I did not like Du Pre's EMI recording the first time I heard it in high school, and I have still never warmed to this recording (and I do not care for her Sony recording, either, for that matter). Du Pre's performance seems to be too minute-by-minute, finding climaxes left and right, and it loses sight of the work's whole. The recording is also beginning to show its age--the recording lacks richness, the orchestral sound picture lacks opulence and clarity and presence, and the tape edits are far too apparent, something I have always found to be irritating.

The "Sea Pictures" performance, however, is another matter entirely. I have always loved this particular song cycle, and I have always loved this recording. It is my very favorite Janet Baker recording, and it captures her voice and her artistry at its peak, and in music she loved. This song cycle is seldom performed outside of Britain, and it should be performed everywhere, as it is the equal of much more celebrated song cycles by Wagner, Berlioz, Mahler, Ravel and Richard Strauss. Elgar's selection of poetry for this song cycle has been criticized, but the poems, with their Victorian sentiment and subject matter, are entirely apt for the music and for the period.

The organization of the five songs is masterful: an opening lullaby of some complexity, a central song of great drama and power and emotion, and a mysterious final song somehow both tragic and triumphant, separated by two strophic songs of comparative simplicity but nonetheless of great beauty and charm. The orchestration, from one of the greatest of all orchestrators, is radiant and suitably evocative in each individual number. Janet Baker's singing is glorious in each of the five songs, and Josh and I have listened to this disc over and over and over. Happily, much more of the orchestral material comes across in the "Sea Songs" than in the disc's coupling, and Barbirolli's work is exceptionally fine, which is no surprise, as I have always believed that he, and not Adrian Boult, was the greatest of all Elgar conductors.

The four song cycles Vaughan Williams wrote for voice and instruments are "On Wenlock Edge", "Ten Blake Songs", "Along The Fields" and "Merciless Beauty". The disc is supplemented by "Two English Folk Songs", also written for voice and instruments.

I am not sure what to make of this disc. First, I am not certain that these songs are particularly good, and I am not confident that Vaughan Williams was much of a song-writer. Second, I have never been much of a fan of the so-called "English Tenor", and I believe that it is fair to classify Ainsley as an "English Tenor", with all of the positive and all of the negative connotations that this term implies. Ainsley is a capable singer, I suppose, but his voice is not rich, it lacks a distinctive timbre, it has little color, and he does not compensate for these shortcomings by supplying individuality or an occasional touch of genius.

"The English Tenor" is an acquired taste that I have never acquired, and I have never been particularly enthused about the work of Peter Pears or Robert Tear or Ian Partridge or Ian Bostridge, either. In fact, it is my belief that Ian Bostridge, a current darling of recital halls and record companies, would not even have a career if he were an American singer. Ainsley is a much better singer than Bostridge, of course, but Ainsley does not bring these Vaughan Williams songs fully to life, which means either that the songs are not inherently very strong or that a better musician than Ainsley is required to reveal the beauties of the songs.

The Britten disc is not good, and this is primarily because the ensemble work is not good. Four works are on the disc: the Simple Symphony, Variations On A Theme By Frank Bridge, Four Sea Interludes From "Peter Grimes", and Variations On A Theme By Henry Purcell ("The Young Person's Guide To The Orchestra").

Only the Variations On A Theme By Frank Bridge, Britten's first masterpiece (and, according to Herbert Von Karajan, Britten's only masterpiece), is performed at a high level, and I suspect that it was the only work on the disc in which the musicians had earlier prepared a public performance. While the Bridge Variations receive a confident, polished, committed performance, the other works receive what appear to be studio run-throughs.

Britten made a mistake in not removing the Simple Symphony from his list of published works. I have always found this composition to be a bit "twee", and this work is not worthy of attention or performance, either by musicians or listeners. It is near-unbelievable that Britten's Simple Symphony was written AFTER his Sinfonietta, a much more interesting and advanced and individual and rewarding work, in which Britten's study of the scores of Alban Berg may be discerned. The Simple Symphony strikes me as the exercise of a talented eleven-year-old, and this work should never have escaped the composer's drawer.

The performances of the two works for full orchestra are very poor. This is the worst performance of the Four Sea Interludes I have ever heard, and I am surprised that it passed the producer's muster. The performance of the Purcell Variations is not much better.

Britten should have re-written much of "Peter Grimes", as so much of that score is noticeably weak. Was it not Virgil Thomson who wrote that only one-third of the score to "Peter Grimes" was good music? This is especially true of the "Storm" music, which is extremely feeble. It does not provide a great moment in the theater and it does not provide a suitable finale for what otherwise is an entirely satisfactory orchestral composition. The four note/five note motif is mundane--it displays no musical imagination whatsoever--and its thematic development is nothing more than would be expected of a first-year composition student at university. What a disappointing disc!

The disc of Arnold dances includes both sets of English Dances, the Scottish Dances, the Cornish Dances, the Irish Dances and two dances from the ballet "Solitaire". This is a fun disc, and the recording is magnificent--it is brilliant, clear, rich and natural. Arnold's orchestration comes across fully, and the playing is very fine. These dances are captivating, and yet they are seldom programmed. A set of these dances would seem to be an ideal way to open or to close an orchestral concert devoted to English music.

I have always liked the music of Oliver Knussen, and I believe that his Symphony No. 3, written when Knussen was my age, is a minor masterpiece. The Knussen disc Josh and I have been listening to contains several works, most of them miniatures: The Way To Castle Yonder, Music For A Puppet Court, Flourish With Fireworks, Whitman Settings (a short song cycle), Two Organa, and " . . .Upon One Note", a fantasia after Henry Purcell. Some of these miniatures are inspired by childhood, a favorite theme of Knussen, and I do not necessarily respond to these pieces. Further, not one of the short compositions on the disc seems to capture and hold my attention. A miniature, to succeed, must have its own exquisite sound world, immediately apparent from the first bar, and a miniature must be immediately captivating and bewitching. Not one of the miniatures on this disc is captivating and bewitching. These pieces seem to be nothing more than composition exercises, designed to satisfy a commission.

However, the longest work on the disc makes this disc worthwhile. The worthwhile work is a masterful horn concerto, in a single movement lasting twelve minutes, written in modified sonata form, that fully exploits the sonorities and capabilities of the horn within a gorgeous orchestral setting. The piece is mysterious and evocative and nocturnal and virtuosic and eventful by turns, and it is an original and highly-imaginative and riveting work. It is surely a masterpiece, and it should be played, annually, by major orchestras everywhere until it is solidly established in the core repertory.

Knussen should not, in my opinion, have devoted so much attention in the 1980's and 1990's to composing shorter orchestral works and works for the theater. Knussen has a natural grasp and command of large forms, which few of his contemporaries share, and he should concentrate on writing large-scale works, where his instinctive mastery of form and structure has something unique to offer.

Knussen does not write quickly, and his compositional efforts have been affected by the high demand for his services as a conductor (a field in which he excels) and by the illness and death of his wife. However, in the last few years, Knussen has written a major violin concerto and a cello concerto (the latter soon to be premiered), so it appears that he may have returned to writing the kind of work to which his talents are best suited.

Anyone who can write a horn concerto like this surely has a great deal more to offer in the realm of symphonies and concertos. It makes me want to hear Knussen's violin concerto and his cello concerto as soon as possible.

During our listening, Josh and I have not been listening to these discs all the way through, except for the Purcell, of course, which we listen to in its entirety. We play one of the Elgar works, followed by one of the Vaughan Williams works, followed by one of the Britten works, followed by one or two of the Arnold works, followed by one or two of the Knussen works. This makes for more varied listening, and this listening program has maintained our attention now for almost two weeks.

Josh loves the Elgar "Sea Pictures"--I think that Janet Baker has become Josh's favorite singer--and he loves the Arnold dances and he loves the Knussen Horn Concerto. Josh also likes the Purcell opera and he likes the Elgar Cello Concerto and he likes some of the other Knussen pieces. However, Josh absolutely detests the Britten pieces and he despises the Vaughan Williams pieces.

I told Josh not to worry about disliking the Britten and Vaughan Williams pieces, because he has lots of distinguished company, from Igor Stravinsky to Pierre Boulez.