Meeting the Met

February 26th, 2009 by Gid

There are few places in the US that boast the numerous cultural amenities that New York has to offer; where I’m from, there was a local art museum, a community theater, and a couple cinemas. If you were willing to drive a ways, you might see an indie film. If you did, of course, it was questionable whether anyone else had ever seen it. Many might wonder if you were talking about the latest release of a Harrison Ford movie, or if the film were from or took place in Indiana. For most other forms of culture, one generally relied on PBS. Thanks to them, I did have some small idea of what Broadway was, and I’d even seen an opera or two.

Of course seeing an opera was often a rather dicey proposition for me. While I might enjoy the music and the set design, I was often left guessing about what was actually going on. While there were hundreds of foreign language films ready furnished with subtitles, it evidently seemed to some a sort of heresy to mar the purity of the art form with such an addition. I had enough trouble understanding lyrics in English (for years, I tried to figure out the meaning of “Goodbye Ruby Toothpaste”), much less in Italian, French, or German. As this was before the age of the internet, if I wanted to understand what was going on, I had to find out what was being shown, then go to the library and do research on the basic plot to see what happened when. I did appreciate music, even classical, but I was not quite devoted enough to go to that much trouble. Thus, my experience with opera remained rather limited for a number of years.

Part of this apathy could also have been due to cultural programming. There had been few times when I heard the word unpreceded by “soap.” Soap operas were never my cup of tea – except for a brief period of general hysteria better left unmentioned – since most of them were too slow in terms of plot development (tune in next time to see what happens after Mary says “Good morning, Bob.”), and I’ve always preferred ham on a plate rather than on stage or screen. There were also other cultural stigmas attached. Mind you, I do not condone stereotyping, but where I was raised, most opera goers were characterized as either elderly upper-crust matrons or younger well-to-do, rather effeminate gentlemen, I did not particularly identify with either of these groups.

Times change, however, and I recently had the opportunity to visit the Metropolitan Opera House to see a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. While I was well prepared for a cultural experience – I’d even briefed myself on the plot, composition, and various songs in each act – I did get more than I expected. The first was the opulence of the house itself; as there are pictures for anyone to see posted here and there, I’ll leave it to those with an interest to seek them out. There certainly aren’t too many places where one can see Swarovski crystal chandeliers, and walls paneled in plush red velvet.

There were also some fairly opulent guests promenading up the sweeping staircase, some of whom really did remind me of Mr. & Mrs. Thurston Howell III; then there were people at the opposite end of the spectrum, who accompanied me to the uppermost balcony to sit with the rest of the riff-raff. This is actually where I feel most comfortable; I dislike ties (probably invented by someone with antiandrogenic hostilities, who wanted a more genteel alternative to a noose), I do not own a suit, I own one pair of shoes, and I have heard more than once the words, “Attention K-Mart shoppers.” No one will ever confuse me with a fashionista. But I digress.

As it turned out, I need not have spent quite so much time in preparing. I was very pleasantly surprised to find a digital closed-caption box on the railing in front of my seat, which would show me the lyrics in French, German or Russian – I assume that Italian would have been among the choices if La Traviata were being shown. Then the chandeliers danced their way up to the ceiling, the lights came up and the show began.

I found the sets were elegantly simple and effective; the props were very few so as not to upstage the music. The choreography was also nicely done, and from this peasant’s point of view, the direction was well done. The music, of course, was wonderful – I believe that’s a contract requirement. All together, they made for an excellent presentation. The only thing that detracted from my enjoyment of the piece was the plot. But take away the arias and choruses and what’s left? Soap operas received their sobriquet for a reason.

The piece opened with a celebration of life and the excellent harvest, and let to one of the leading ladies singing the joys of being alive and being in love. My first thought was, “Wait… doesn’t she realize she’s Russian?” As the drama unfolded, I watched as the other young lady fell in love and was deliriously happy. I needn’t have worried about the seeming lack of misery after all; before the end of the first act, her intended left for parts unknown and she was fittingly bereft. By the end of the second act, everyone was pained, pathetic, pitiable, and likely to remain so until the end of his or her days – except for one man. He’d been mercifully dispatched in a duel.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a cynic. Perhaps I’m simply too jaded to enjoy a good dose of melodrama. On the other hand, I very much enjoyed Tommy, which, though it was a variant of the art in using rock music, was still an opera with plenty of melodrama. Tchaikovsky would have had nothing to do with it, of course, since it had a happy ending to pander to American audiences. Well, his death might also have something to do with it, but still…

I suppose that ultimately, the rule for opera is the same as any other consumer good, caveat emptor. There are still plenty of operas I haven’t seen, and the plots are pretty much all out there for a look-see, and if they look too maudlin, I can just skip it. But if anyone ever sets Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman to music, I’m going anyway.

With Apologies to Clark

February 19th, 2009 by Gid

June invited some friends to dinner one night. She is a quintessential Manhattanite in a posh neighborhood of the midtown area, a psychoanalyst, whose husband is also a published author in a related field. Not only is she a dear friend, she also knows her way around a kitchen, so we were doubly happy to accept the invitation. June is an almost stereotypical Jewish mother, spending much of her time trying to feed and/or fix everyone else around her, will he, nil he, needed or not. She, on the other hand, eats very little; I’m not sure that this might not be a ploy to make herself look even thinner by comparison. OK, so she’s not exactly June Cleaver (she’d prefer “June Cleavage,” a great drag name if ever I’ve heard one), but her heart is in the right place.

I was the first to arrive that evening. After the usual greetings to her, I had to stop immediately, grab two handfuls of very vocal miniature poodle, and threaten beheading or defenestration – which would have been quite effective from the 15th floor – to quiet them down. I wouldn’t really; such antics tend to be construed by the host as less than gracious, and I really do love dogs. I’ve just always been prejudiced in favor of larger breeds. My usual preference for little yapping things is to stick a broom handle in the back end and use them as dust mops. Once they permitted me to put them down, I was allowed to greet the cat, her husband and son, in that order. Pleasantries having been observed, we went to the kitchen (usually my favorite room in any house), got started on the wine, and proceeded to happily blab the time away.

After a while, in walks a tall, gangly, young man I’ve never seen before. “Gid, this is Cass; he’s staying here for a while, much to the dismay of my husband and son.” To make a long story short, Cass’ mother isn’t very maternal, and his father, a long-time colleague, has been in the hospital for a while. Donna, being the Jewish mother type, took him in as a stray. She’s got a big heart for the most part.

She asked what was new with me, and I told her about the recent trip to Paris and Berlin. She spoke with disgust of her last trip to Italy, where she saw numerous swastikas painted on building walls, and this led to a discussion about places we’ve never been. At one point, she told me that I had 40 more years to get things done; I told her that this was highly unlikely considering my medical history. This was a mistake.

Have you ever played the “telephone” game? A group of people sit in a circle, and one person is selected to whisper something into the ear of the person sitting next to them, who in turn whispers it to the next person until the message goes all the way around the circle. Then the first person says, “I said that this Friday’s game is going to be postponed.” Then everyone laughs when the last person says, “He just told me John’s lame because he said we should play telephone,” and everyone laughs. Well, even though my comment only had to go from my lips and her ears, it was processed as meaning that I’ve got one foot in the grave.

Her husband eventually came into the kitchen, reminded us that we were being rude to the other guests who’d arrived, and insisted it was time to move into the den for hors d’oeuvres and a change of topic. Had said topic been there to overhear the discussion, she would not have been overly flattered. Let’s just say that our hostess did not have a good opinion of her son’s girlfriend. This eventually led to a discussion of her daughter’s choice in partners and her concerns about genetic dangers. More than one of the guests pointed out that the young woman was a responsible adult, capable of consulting a doctor and coming to a responsible decision. Still, a mother retains the right to wail and bemoan the incipient mistakes of her children.

The conversation over dinner was equally lively. She said that she was looking forward to her upcoming trip to Jamaica. This was rather unpopular with some of the guests (myself included), as there’s a terrible economic discrepancy among the residents, as well as between the residents and tourists. As if this weren’t bad enough, we’d recently seen a documentary showing that gays are frequently beaten and sometimes killed for such unforgivable offenses as breathing. This was apparently outweighed by other arguments; specifically, that she’d met plenty of gay people in Jamaican on previous visits, and they were treated very well (of course, they were tourists as she was in a very nice hotel). Additionally, the views on the nude beach are not to be believed. “Oh my God, they’re huge!”

One of the jokes of the dinner hour turned out to be my misconstrued comment from our earlier discussion in the kitchen. Whatever activities were suggested, from going out for lunch one day or visiting them at their house upstate, were for everyone at the table except me. “Gid can’t go; he’s dead,” she’d say. Well, I’ve got a rather irreverent and occasionally morbid sense of humor, so I found this quite amusing, and happily played along. “More couscous? I couldn’t possibly. I’m dead, remember?” My partner was less than pleased with that particular conversational thread.

At one point over dessert, the conversation turned to comic books, and some of the collectible issues that sell for impressive amounts of money. June was of the opinion that far too much importance is placed upon such things that are so incredibly trivial, when there’s far too much going on in the world as a whole and in our own individual lives that deserve much more attention. I agree completely. Clark Kent was a nice boy, sure, but we’ve got other fish to fry. While he’s out taking pictures, or secretly saving citizens in severe circumstances, the rest of us have real lives to deal with. But I doubt that I could put it as succinctly as June did: “Who gives a fucking God-damn who Superman is?”

Besides, who needs Clark while we’ve got people like June around?

Over-Ruled

February 12th, 2009 by Gid

There was one late night in Paris.  We’d been out for the evening, and were on our way back to the apartment, and James had a craving for what many Americans consider the quintessential French treat.  Besides the fact that it was well past the time that all the crèperies closed up shop, what he was really after was a “French” fry.  Still, as popular as French fries are, it’s not terribly hard to find them anywhere you go, and there were still a number of Lebanese bistros open for take-out from a limited menu of a few sandwiches and fries.

So we stood in a line, waited our turn, and asked for the fries.  When the man asked what kind of sandwich we wanted, we told him that we did not want one.  This concept seemed to be alien to him.  In his world, you see, one ordered a sandwich and got fries on the side; gyro with fries, chicken kebab with fries, etc.  But fries alone?  That simply was not done.  This was not our only attempt, but to make a long story short, we went home fryless.  Somewhere along the line, someone decided that they’d rather do without the extra two bucks than to bother with any sale under five.  Then the word spread, and this became the rule for the entire neighborhood.

I used to work in an office with a number of odd quirks built in.  For example, every time a customer called, someone would write down in a book the date, the name of the person, the reason for the call, and the name of the person to whom the call was passed.  Years passed, and computers came into being; a program was purchased to keep track of customers, when they called, why they called, how they were helped, who helped them, and just about everything except their hat size.  So one day I suggested that we might better use the time of the receptionist and save the expense of the paper if we did away with that practice, when all the information was kept in the computer.  I was stared at as if I’d just suggested heresy of the worst order.  I know everyone has heard the reason for this: “But it’s always been done this way.”  That being the case, the practice became its own raison d’être.

While visiting a museum once, I saw a fixed-route exhibit about the earth’s ecologic balance and global warming.  It was very interesting, very dense in information, and I’d just stepped across the threshold of the exit door, when a question about the last part of the exhibit occurred to me.  I turned around to go back and take a quick look at it.  There was a guard there, however, who dutifully informed me that this was an exit only, and the entrance was at the other end of the building.  I showed him my ticket and explained that I only wished to backtrack about twenty feet to reread something, but he had learned the rules quite well, and was intent upon upholding their sanctity.   There’s no telling what consequences he envisioned, but they were clearly quite dire, and he was not to be swayed.  I wound up taking ten minutes to circle back through the entire building.

Once at the airport, there was a rope maze leading up to the check-in counter.  I was very early, and there were only 4 other people in line ahead of me.  Rather than walking half a block through the maze, I stepped around the perimeter, and started to duck under the rope to stand behind the last person waiting.  I was stopped by a guard.  She was about to question me about what I was doing, and I gave her my best, “Please tell me you’re joking” look.  She waved me off, and I was truly thankful.  I was amazed, but thankful.  There are rules everywhere for everything in every situation, and we all spend our lives learning them.  As we’re learning them, more and more rules are being developed and set in place.  Not everyone learns that there are times when rules should be questioned to see if they’re rationally applicable to a given situation.

This is especially crucial for those who make it their business to enforce those rules.  Rules are double-edged swords that can cut those wielding them just as easily as those for whom they’re intended.  Pastor Ted learned this lesson the hard way; rather than preaching love and acceptance, he preached intolerance of one particular brand of “sin.”   Naturally, when he screwed up, he found himself excommunicated by his own followers.  Ted was lucky, though.  Rather than suffering a fatal beating like some others, he only lost his fortune and became an insurance salesman.  Resorting to the use of religion in a discussion about irrationality may seem lazy of me, but even easy fodder will serve well enough to make a point:  is it possible to make a rule that is so descriptive and all-encompassing that it obviates the need for thought on our part?

As careful as the enforcers need to be, those who have to be most careful are those who make the rules.   Walt Kelly said it best: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Pedestrian Perils

February 5th, 2009 by Gid

I grew up with the usual pets, a dog, several cats, a fish tank, and the occasional hamster and gerbil. Pets can be a wonderful tool for parents in teaching responsibility while caring for something cute and fuzzy… well, except for the fish, but what they lack in cuddlability, they can make up for in fascination. Of course, they invariably provide other lessons that a parent might not originally intend to teach at the outset. There are unexpected questions like, “Why is Rags eating cat poop?” The child gets a rather odd lesson in nutrition. “Why is my gerbil lopsided?” Now the child gets to learn about tumors. “What are those two cats doing?” leads to a discussion about the birds and bees – unless you’re terrified, consumed by guilt, religiously opposed to sharing potentially beneficial information, and/or mentally deficient, in which case you teach shame and evasion… but that’s a topic for another day.

Manhattan is an interesting place. There are hundreds of things to do 24/7, and nearly two million people running around trying to do them. Born and raised in suburbia, this environment came with its own set of challenges for me. When I first visited a neighborhood sometimes referred to as the Upper Worst Side, I encountered many of those two million people striding purposefully up and down Broadway intent upon reaching their destination before anyone else could. They would scrupulously avoid making eye contact with anyone else; to do so enabled them to play a game of pedestrian “chicken,” and force others to either move out of their way, or risk getting crashed into. Not being able to watch out for more than two or three people at once, I soon found myself being bumped around like a pinball, as one person after another made good on their threat. The rules of the game are complex, but it seems that if one mutters a cursory “’Scuse me” after trying to run you down, that makes up for any perceived lack of civility.

Eventually I stopped behind a bus stop enclosure out of self defense. This also turned out to be a mistake, as someone walked right up to me, and waited for me to step aside out of their way. We stood there for about a full minute before he gave up and moved on after pronouncing a less than complementary judgment on my character. For a while, I tried walking in the streets like many people in midtown at rush hour. This worked well enough, until I realized that many drivers had the same mindset as the pedestrians. Another option is to walk an inch away from the buildings; most people would allow me through, but doors did cause problems. Adages exist for a reason, so I threw caution (and courtesy) to the wind, made like a Roman and adopted the regional customs. I strolled own the right-hand side of the sidewalk, carefully kept my eyes on the storefronts, the sky, the sidewalk, anywhere but directly ahead. There was no more pinball. There was, however, an even more insidious threat on the streets.

Anyone who has flown recently will tell you that airlines will usually call certain passengers for preboarding, including those with small children. When Chesley Sullenberger landed his plane in the Hudson River, women and children were ushered out before anyone else. “Women and children first” is the rule of thumb on sinking ships, and many inhabitants of the UWS have taken this to heart when walking down the street. People, forewarned is forearmed: Beware of strollers! I’ve been around the proverbial block a few thousand times, so there’s very little that shocks me anymore. Nevertheless, the first time I saw a woman barging her way down the street using her stroller (occupied) as a battering ram to clear her path, I was stunned speechless.

One day, I saw one of those strollers approaching me at a rather fast pace. The woman behind it was running over feet and shoving her way through the crowd in such a way that her child will surely grow up fearless of any amusement park ride devised by the most cunning and sadistic engineer. Or worse, the child will grow up to be as neurotic as its mother. I moved over to get as close to the building as I could, and she swerved as well – right toward me, while watching me the entire time to see what I’d do. I stopped. Before she could hit me, I put up my hand, arm straight out in the international symbol for STOP! She did, and forced out an aggrieved sigh and a haughty “Excuse me!” as if she hadn’t just been aiming for me. I looked at her and said, “You’re kidding, right?” She let out a contemptuous “Oh!” and stormed off.

After thinking this over for a time, I reminded myself that whatever else we may be, no matter how highly developed or highly ranked in the food chain, human beings are still animals, possessed of the same instincts as many other animals are. If too many of them are packed into a small space, aggression – whether overt or passive – is bound to result. Throughout history, after all, most wars have been fought over space. I wonder what might happen if this woman eventually brings a pet home for her child. Eventually, when the child asks, “What happened to the other two hamster babies?” or “What happened to the other half of that fish?” I like to imagine that a very enlightening discussion about territoriality or perceived threat could follow.

Nah.