Sunday, September 11, 2016

34, 11/22, 9/11

One day when my father was 34 years old, he left work early to surprise my mother on their seventh wedding anniversary.  On his way home, he stopped at a florist and purchased a dozen roses.  After leaving the florist, he switched on the radio of his 1963 Ford Galaxie and shortly thereafter heard a news flash from Dallas announcing that President Kennedy had been shot and seriously wounded.  He hit the gas pedal and raced home.  My mother greeted my father with a tearful embrace as Walter Cronkite announced that the President had died.  My parents and my sisters sat in front of the television for much of that weekend – never leaving the house.  The flowers my father bought had been left in the passenger seat – where they withered and died over the course of the weekend.  The date was November 22, 1963 - a day my parents would never forget.     


One morning when I was 34 years old, I left my home to head for work.  I switched on the radio of my 1997 Saturn SL2 and heard an ongoing news report that a plane had crashed into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York.  As my car merged into traffic on I-480, I heard that another plane had struck the other tower.  As I arrived from work, I raced past my coworkers, shouting the news to them as I headed to my office and switched on the TV.  My colleagues gathered in front of the TV as updates came in: multiple hijackings; a third plane had crashed into the Pentagon; the FAA suspended all takeoffs; the South Tower collapsed; a fourth plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania; then the North Tower fell.  Driving past Hopkins airport that night, the usual line of planes approaching to land was gone, replaced with eerie stillness.  The date was September 11, 2001 - a day my friends and I would never forget.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

My Mother's Final Gift

23 years ago today, my mother died.  Truly the pain of losing a loved one never really goes away.  But one adjusts to it – it’s either that or a life spent in sadness.  There have been many times, particularly in the last decade, when I’ve wished I could tell my mother how happy I finally am - with my career, my place in society, and especially my husband.  But if all wishes were granted we’d have nothing to strive for, and as C. S. Lewis wrote, “The pain now is part of the happiness then; that’s the deal”.

I was at a difficult point of my life in August of 1993: broke, unemployed, unsure of where I wanted to live, a relationship recently fizzled out – one of many up to that point.  After eight years living and struggling in Haverhill, Massachusetts, I opted to move to Florida with my sister Sarah and her family – with hopes of a brighter future.

But my troubles were nothing compared to my mother’s, someone to whom life was cruel.   After 23 years with a husband she didn’t understand, and who was unable to understand her, my mother found herself abandoned for a younger, more compatible woman.  She tried to pick herself up, tried to hold down a job – but a combination of mild Cerebral Palsy and increasing  mental illness impaired her ability to do so.  During her final years, she was intermittently hospitalized, homeless, and hopeless.  Her decline over those years was chronicled in a series of letters she wrote to me – each less coherent than the last.  In her last letter to me, she complained of abdominal pains and intestinal bleeding.  I advised her that she needed to see a doctor immediately.  When she did, she claimed she was being poisoned, and was placed the mental ward.  Her pains were written off as psychosomatic, and in a health care system which put profit above providing care, there was no examination of her physical symptoms – not even a stool sample.  It wasn’t until my mother fell and broke her hip that she was taken to the emergency room and physically examined.  By that point, her belly had distended and the doctor decided to perform exploratory surgery.  The results were heartbreaking: her small intestine and part of her stomach were gangrenous and beyond repair – a result of vascular disease caused by a lifetime of smoking.

On the evening of August 15th, my sister Sarah and I received a phone call from our sister, Pixie, telling us of the results of surgery and advising we needed to get ourselves to Cleveland immediately.  We flew to Cleveland the next morning – the first time I’d been in Cleveland in over five years.  My mother was in the intensive care unit – but she really wasn’t there.  She was on morphine with a Demerol drip due to the pain in her intestines.  Despite her belly’s distension, she weighed only 88 pounds.  I held her hand and whispered into her ear – but her hand was unresponsive and her eyes, despite being partially opened, showed no signs of life. 

Shortly afterward, my grandmother arrived with my uncle, who she had been visiting in Atlanta.  While my uncle spent time with my mother – his older sister – he and the rest of us advised  my grandmother not to go into the ICU.  At 84, we felt it best for my grandmother to be spared the shock of seeing her daughter’s condition.   As evening approached, it was mutually decided that my sisters would stay with my mother to the end, and I would accompany my uncle and grandmother to her house.  I don’t recall the rest of that evening, except that my emotions were torn between grieving my mother’s imminent death and a sense of relief that her pain would soon be at an end. 

I am not a believer in the supernatural, but as I lay fitfully sleeping on the sofa bed in my grandmother’s family room, I had a vivid dream of her seeming to ascend heavenward, while waving goodbye, broadly smiling.  She looked very much as she did in the photo below, which I took in 1977.  As she disappeared from sight, I was jolted awake by the telephone ringing, with the news my mother had died at 2:30am.  My grandmother and I sat on the sofa in the living room, quietly talking through the night – waiting for my sisters to come home.  She held herself together like the trooper she was, and it was only after my sisters arrived that she broke down in sobs – the likes of which I’d never heard from her. 

Over the next few days, funeral plans were made, the service took place (led by a pastor who didn't know my mother from Eve), and my mother was buried under the shade of a tree at Lake View Cemetery.  

But it was what happened 24 hours earlier that reminded me of my mother’s ceaseless, undying love, which endures to this day.  As related to me, while my mother lay in intensive care, her vital signs crashed, her heartbeat flatlined – my mother died.  My eldest sister Pixie, who had been with my mother in her final days and sat vigil over my mother while Sarah and I prepared to fly to Cleveland, began weeping, telling my mother that we were on our way to see her – and begged her to hold on for a while longer.

And my mother’s heart began faintly beating again, her vitals stabilized.   It would have been easier for my mother to die at that point, but whatever conscious thought that remained with my mother in those moments ordered her heart to start again, willed herself to go on.  It was my mother’s last gift – which allowed me to be able to hold her hand, tell her how much she meant to me, and that it was alright for her to let go.    

Just over a year later, in September, 1994, I returned to Cleveland, to take care of my grandmother in her advancing years.  At one time, our whole family was here.  Now, it was just my grandmother and me.  I’ve often written that I’ve never regretted my decision to return to Cleveland after nine years of living elsewhere – and I’ve extolled all our area has to offer.  But, with my grandmother now gone, I’m the last of our family still here.  So, in addition to the many reasons I stay, there is another, hitherto unmentioned reason: my mother’s remains are here.  She is the only family member buried in Cleveland.  And, when my time comes, half of my ashes will be placed on top of her grave (the other half will be buried with my husband, when our time has come), and I will be able to, symbolically at least, keep her company.  I owe it to my mother, who gave me life.



Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A few days in Toronto

I can’t help wondering how many Americans have visited Toronto.  For those in Northeast Ohio, it’s a mere five hours drive – give or take traffic. But it’s like a different world.

Toronto is a lovely city, well planned and executed, with a nice, balanced energy.  In a way, it’s a larger version of the city that Cleveland could be - if city, county, and state leaders would work together and execute long term plans to properly develop the lakefront, downtown, and revive the neighborhoods.  Wouldn’t it be great if Cleveland had a lakeside landmark like Toronto’s CN Tower?  To do that, Cleveland would have to close Burke Lakefront Airport– Hopkins could easily accommodate Burke’s traffic.  Closing Burke would free up a massive slice of lakefront property that could be developed into Condos/Apartments, Retail, and other beachfront amenities.  But, enough about Cleveland for now.  



Toronto skyline, with the CN Tower

Toronto is very clean, well maintained, and boasts excellent public transport.  We did not avail ourselves of any of the public transport options, but used the PATH – an ingenious network of underground and elevated walkways – for getting around during hotter periods.  But we did get outside enough to see the variety of architecture – from preserved old homes and other buildings, to new skyscrapers – a good many still under construction.

A Toronto Streetcar - built in Cleveland

The Royal Ontario Museum is sort of a mix of the Cleveland Art Museum and Natural History Museum.  The collection of dinosaur skeletons there is the most impressive I’ve ever seen.  There’s also an excellent section on the First People of Canada.  The only issue I had with the ROM is that there wasn’t a clear flow from room to room.  Further, the ROM consists of two interconnecting buildings which makes navigation confusing – even with a map.  We also visited the Bata Shoe Museum – a specialist place that appealed to Daniel more than I.

Outside of London, Toronto is the most ethnically diverse city I’ve ever seen, with particularly large numbers of Asians.  The diversity extends to religions, and we in the United States could learn a few things from our northern neighbors.  In a previous post I pointed out that Muslims can be found in every corner of the world.  Toronto is a case in point.  I saw Muslim men and women in every area of the city I visited, from Eaton Centre mall to Church & Wellesley.  Muslims are an integral part of the social fabric of Toronto, yet I saw no sign of social tension as one would see in the United States.

Despite the effects both the mainstreaming of LGBT people and the Internet/App culture have had on gay neighborhoods, Toronto has a vibrant LGBT scene, with the Church-Wellesley area being the most notable gayborhood.  There is a generous selection of gay clubs and bars there, catering to every taste.  We were particularly fond of Woody’s (famous from Queer as Folk), and the Statler.  Daniel & I were moved to see a memorial to those slain in Orlando earlier this month, as well as the names and ages of every victim stenciled on the ground.   We have never felt safer as a gay couple than our days in Toronto, not even in Provincetown or in the Soho neighborhood of London.  We were able to walk through most of the city holding hands, with no one batting an eye – and we were far from the only same sex couple doing so.  Even at Eaton Centre, Toronto’s largest mall, there were teenaged same sex couples, holding hands, embracing, and looking at each other the way only people in love do – what a difference from when I was their age!  Canada is therefore far ahead of the United States in social tolerance and public safety.  Of course, when you’re in a country where guns are sensibly regulated, safety is a reality, not just a feeling. 

Church & Wellesley

As we were only there for a few days, Daniel & I did not have time to take a “deep dive” into the culinary scene.  Highlights were the ChurchMouse, and Smiths (both on Church street), and Elephant & Castle, on Yonge Street.  Smiths had the most perfectly balanced salads imaginable.  While ChurchMouse and Elephant & Castle were traditional British pubs - with the latter also being sports oriented.  We were there enjoying a late dinner during game 7 of the NBA Finals – and happy to learn most of the crowd was pro-Cleveland, judging by the reactions.

On the flip side, there were a large number of homeless people, on practically every block we walked on - more than I’ve seen in any American city or in London.  This was a surprise, given Canada’s strong reputation for social welfare.

Daniel and I stayed at the Chelsea Eaton, which proved to be both convenient and well appointed.  We can recommend it for anyone looking for a comfortable place to set their heads down at night – with the added bonus of an excellent fitness centre, several restaurants, and central location.



Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Orlando


During the early hours of Sunday morning, when most are either sleeping, partying, or recovering, I was at work.  In the I. T. world, changes and elevates most often occur during the wee hours, in order to minimize disruption.  At around 3:00am, my phone started beeping with alerts, as the news began to trickle, then flood with reports of a shooting at an Orlando nightclub.  At first there were reports of injuries, then deaths, then more deaths.  Then the perpetrator was identified as Omar Mateen – a New York native (born in Queens, as was my mother) – the child of Afghan immigrants.

 

Like most Americans, like most right-thinking people across the world, I felt a sense of horror and outrage at the news of the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. 

I cannot truthfully say, however, that I was shocked.  Over the last 20 years, with events like Columbine, Newtown, and San Bernardino, I have lost my capacity for shock.  It has been replaced with weariness, disgust, a simmering despair.

 

In the aftermath of the attack, the talking heads were quick to offer their own two cents.  And Donald Trump was quick to offer self-congratulations and even imply that President Obama was somehow responsible for the carnage in Orlando.  What a loathsome creature Donald Trump is.  He is a reflection of the worst of America, a walking mass of rage, stupidity, and insatiable Id.

 

I’ve seen three explanations for this attack.  Some are calling the attack Islamic terrorism.  Some are claiming it was the work of a lone wolf with easy access to an automatic weapon.  Some are claiming the killer was a self-loathing homosexual.

 

It’s likely that all three claims are correct, to an extent.  By any measure, Omar Mateen was a seriously warped individual.  Mateen’s first wife described him as someone who beat her regularly.  People who knew Mateen as a teenager remembered that he cheered when the towers fell on 9/11.  Co-workers knew him to express both Islamic extremist and virulently homophobic viewpoints – at one point causing him to be reported to the FBI.  Doubtless he learned some of these viewpoints from his father, who posted videos in which he voiced his support of the Taliban and hatred of LGBT people.  The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.  When Omar Mateen remarried, it was to a woman who was so submissive she wouldn’t even report his activities to the authorities - even as she was trying to dissuade him from the atrocity.  Obviously, Noor Mateen has blood on her hands and should be charged as an accessory.

 

Omar Mateen apparently carried a deep hatred of homosexuals.  As is common for those who are referred to as “homophobic”, his hatred was rooted in religion – in this case, a fundamentalist brand of Islam he learned from his father.  It is also becoming increasingly apparent that Mateen’s homophobia was not merely on religious grounds, but was internalized – again, this is all too common.  He was a semi-regular at Pulse, according to patrons and staff.  Indeed, on at least one occasion, he was tossed out of the nightclub after he became belligerently drunk – alcohol is strictly forbidden in Islam.  He was also using gay dating apps.  

 

It’s easy for reactionaries to shout “Islamo-fascism.”  Contrary to claims by some, including Trump, it appears that Mateen was not in direct contact with ISIL or with other Islamic terror organizations.  He could best be described as a fellow traveler.  But let us not forget that religious extremism comes in all stripes and colors, as evidenced here and here.

 

Religious extremists can be found in every nation of the world.  Homophobia, both internalized and non, can be found in every nation of the world.  But why is the United States unique, among the first world nations, in terms of the scale of the carnage from these kinds of events?  Contrast the United States with the United Kingdom, for example.  The worst terror attack in recent British memory was the 7/7 attack, which required the coordinated efforts of no less than four suicide bombers.  52 people were killed – so this event had about the same fatalities as Orlando.  But while mass shootings are nearly a weekly occurrence in the United States, they are exceedingly rare in the UK.  The most recent attack in London was not a shooting but the December 2015 knife attack, in which there were no fatalities. 

 

The difference between London and Orlando, or course, lies in the easy access to firearms in the United States.  Not merely handguns, which are deadly enough, but automatic weapons such as the AR-15, which caused the bulk of deaths in Orlando – and which can be tied to numerous other incidents.  Imagine what would have happened at the Leytonstone tube station if Muhaydin Mire had had a gun.  It’s also worth mentioning that London has a far greater percentage of Muslims than any city in the United States, except possibly for Dearborn, Michigan.  So, to explain away Orlando as Islamic terrorism and nothing else seems glib, at best.

 

I’ll never forget the time my father told me, in all earnest, “You know who’s gonna save this country when the Russians invade?  20 million NRA members.”  Nor will I ever fathom how a man whose own brother died in a gun accident could become so obsessed with guns in later life.  Gun nuts are fixated with a twisted interpretation of the Second Amendment – which they claim grants them unfettered access to any weapon, any time.  But I doubt that America’s Founding Fathers, when they drafted the Amendment, intended it as a gateway for psychopaths to gain access to automatic weapons  - provided they could have even conceived of such weapons.

 

It’s time for common sense regulations on the purchase of these kinds of weapons.  True, gun restrictions won’t eliminate violence, enabled by guns or other weapons, in our society.  But they will increase the likelihood that someone seeking such weapons will be caught before an attack such as that in Orlando could take place.

Friday, June 3, 2016

André Watts - "Complete" Columbia Recordings

Sony Classical has reissued their "complete" recordings of pianist André Watts.  Well, almost.  Click here to read my review.


Monday, May 30, 2016

Confessions of a Frustrated Republican

My father was a lifelong Republican.  Unlike some who are born into rich Republican families and vote to preserve their inheritance and privilege, and unlike those who are born in limited circumstances, raised as Democrats, but switch to Republican once they’ve attained wealth, my father held to his conservative beliefs and suspicion toward government from a childhood spent in poverty, through an adulthood where he rose through the middle class, and into the relative wealth of his last years.  As with his parents, his Republicanism was rooted in a hatred of Franklin Roosevelt’s policies and the man personally that bordered on the pathological.  Given my admiration for FDR, you can imagine some of the “discussions” we had around that subject.  (My dad had a grudging respect for Harry Truman, and it annoyed him when I pointed out that on many domestic issues Truman was a good deal more liberal than FDR.)

There were times, however, when my father veered from Republican orthodoxy.  He derided the religious right as “Jesus freaks” who had gained too much prominence in the Republican Party, just as Barry Goldwater had complained.  Nor did he care for the party’s recent penchant for immigrant bashing.  As far back as the 1960s, he had great respect for Cesar Chavez, sympathy for migrant farm laborers, and felt if Americans had become unwilling to pick fruit and perform other “menial” tasks for low wages, we should welcome people into the country who would.  As someone who grew up on a farm, my father knew what it was like to have to rise before dawn, pitch hay, pick eggs, and milk cows - only to be kicked by a cow that wasn’t in the mood.  He saw U.S. born Depression-era farm hands treated like dirt and knew it was worse for migrants, even in the best of times.  Between the migrant farm issue and the Vietnam War – which my father came to regard as a mistake – my father decided to support Robert Kennedy in 1968.  He had been very impressed with how RFK’s reaction to Martin Luther King’s assassination helped prevent violence in Indianapolis.  Then RFK was assassinated.  My father told me he decided to sit out the 1968 election because he didn’t like Humphrey and he thought Nixon was “sick” mentally.

The above paragraph, however, should not detract from the fact that the bulk of my father’s political beliefs were conservative.  During the 90s he railed against Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadilloes and delighted in reading the Ken Starr report aloud.  My father was an NRA member and favored their view of the 2nd Amendment, despite the fact that his own brother accidentally shot himself.  He hated Welfare. 

Two weeks before he died, my father called me to wish me a happy birthday.  During our conversation (which tended to ramble in later years as my father’s hearing deteriorated), he told me he was favoring Kasich in the primaries and that under no circumstances would he vote for Donald Trump if “that asshole with his whore wife” is nominated.  “I’ll just stay at home like I did in ’68.”  I listened to his statement and said little – knowing his decision would hardly make a difference as he lived in California which is certain to vote Democratic.

As it turns out, my father will not vote in the upcoming election – but not for the reasons he outlined.  But I suspect my father’s not the only Republican to view the ascendancy of Donald Trump with disdain and alarm.  And I suspect there are many Republicans who will sit home on November 8th. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Pianos of Vladimir Horowitz

It’s interesting how, in this information age, so much misinformation can proliferate unchecked and uncorrected.  This is as true in Classical Music as it is in politics, and nowhere more than at Google’s Classical Music Recordings Group.  This is, for example, the group with several members who unwittingly perpetuated the Joyce Hatto fraud.  Most of the group’s members are dilettantes who fancy themselves as experts in music, and several of them are unschooled in the basics of social conduct.  A few are actual musicians - some of whom remain as professional musicians and others who've gone on to other professions.  I made a few posts to the group about a decade back, realized what the group was dominated by trolls, and quickly disassociated myself with them.  But I occasionally view posts (“lurking is the Internet term) as there are a few members who occasionally post about upcoming recordings.  A recent post concerned the piano used by Vladimir Horowitz as his 1986 Moscow recital, the recording of which was recently reissued.  One poster complained about the piano’s “tinny” sound, and speculation arose as to whether Horowitz was using a piano supplied by the Moscow Conservatory, as pianos were notoriously poorly maintained in the USSR. 

There is no equivalent to Politifact in Classical Music.  So, in this instance, I will provide the facts - just the facts, and not my own personal opinion on the quality of Horowitz's pianos.  Accurate information about Horowitz’s pianos has been publicly available for decades now.  The pianist's tuner, Franz Mohr, gave a rundown about the pianos used by Horowitz in his book, My Life with the Great Pianists, which was published in the early 1990s.  I expanded on Mohr’s information when I put together the Horowitz FAQ section of the pianist’s informational website, from which the information below is adapted.

The Pianos Used by Vladimir Horowitz

Early in 1934, as a wedding present, Steinway presented Vladimir and Wanda Horowitz with a Steinway Model D, Serial #CD279503 (the "C" denotes for pianos deemed worthy by Steinway for Concert use. The "D" indicates the size of piano, in this case, nine feet long).  This piano was kept in Horowitz’s homes (he moved several times before purchasing a townhouse on Manhattan’s East 94th Street in 1939) and not used for concerts or recordings.

In the early 1940s, this piano was replaced with CD314503. This is the piano Horowitz kept in his New York townhouse, and used in recitals and recordings from 1974-1981 and 1985-1987.  This is also the piano which has “toured” Steinway dealerships in North America and been used in a few recordings over he past 25 years – although it has been reworked so extensively it bears little resemblance to the piano that Horowitz knew. 

CD186 (Steinway often dropped the first three digits with "CD" pianos) was selected by Horowitz for his return recital in 1965. (He described the tone as "more mellow [than CD314503], more like the human voice.") CD186 was used for subsequent concerts and recording sessions until it suffered catastrophic failure in late 1972 and was retired from professional use.

CD223 was kept at Horowitz’s summer home in New Milford, Connecticut. It replaced CD186 for Horowitz's last Columbia sessions in late 1972/early 1973.

CD75, built in 1911, was found by Franz Mohr, Horowitz's tuner, in Steinway's basement and restored by him. Horowitz used the piano from 1981-1983.

CD443, Horowitz's last piano, was selected by the pianist for home use, to avoid the inconvenience of hauling CD314503 from Horowitz's second floor living room when he went on tour. At first Horowitz had reservations about the piano's action (which was rather heavy) but came to love the instrument so much that, when he briefly considered concertizing in 1989, he planned to take CD443 with him. This piano was used for recording sessions made at Horowitz's home in 1988 and 1989.

Incidentally, for his first four Columbia Masterworks recordings, made between 1962-1964, Horowitz used a piano supplied by Columbia’s 30th Street Studio. However, when he returned to studio recording in 1969 (all of his 1965-1968 recordings were compiled from live appearances), he found that the piano he’d used for the earlier sessions had been tampered with by Glenn Gould, and was no longer palatable.