Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 in Review

If 2007 was a year of preparation, 2008 was the year events came into fruition.

Of course, the news event that most people will associate with 2008 is the election of Barack Obama. I intended to vote Democratic, as I have in nearly every election since I came of age. But I struggled with who to support in the primary. (For the record, I don’t have a good record for picking the winner in the primaries. Some of my previous selections: 1988 - Jesse Jackson; 1992 - Jerry Brown; 2004 - Howard Dean). After much internal struggle, I decided to support Obama in the primary due to his consistent opposition to the Iraq war. If Hillary Clinton had come forward earlier, and said “I was wrong” about her 2002 vote, I may well have supported her. But she didn’t, so I selected Obama, despite his weaker position on gay issues. In the end, he won. Time will tell if he merits reelection.

Danny and I did not take a joint vacation in 2008. For me, there was only a brief trip to Florida for my niece’s high school graduation.

Careerwise, after years of attempts, I’ve finally been relieved of my phone job, at least temporarily. I’ve enjoyed my new position, testing our new policy servicing system. It’s scheduled to roll out in April, at which time I may have to return to the phones. But I’m hoping to spin it off into a permanent position in my new department, and my new manager seems eager to help.

In August, after months of scouting the market and saving money for a down payment, Danny and I made an offer on a house. After some negotiations, the deal was finalized, and our loan was approved mere days before the economy suffered a ground quake. For someone who’s used to stumbling while reaching for the goal, it was a rare moment of serendipity in my life. Between the deflated housing market and low interest rates, we secured a very good deal. Buying a house is a major hassle, and I don’t plan on doing it with any regularity. Unless we have a massive increase in income, or leave Northeast Ohio, Danny and I plan to remain here until we retire. The house was built in 1942, and many of my plans for 2009 revolve around sprucing up the exterior, and, of course, buying furniture!

But for me, the greatest event of 2008 was adopting Mason. Indeed, one of the primary reasons for getting a house was so I could get a dog. Ever since my childhood, I’ve related to dogs on a level where I often encounter failure with humans. I’ve wanted a Labrador for over 20 years. Mason is not purebred, but I’ve learned the benefits of mixed breed, or All-American dogs, and I couldn’t be happier with him. He sits by my side as I type this. All too many people treat pets as toys. But I’m always cognizant that Mason is a living creature. It’s a major responsibility, but I welcome it. In less than two months, Mason has taught me so much. Dogs don’t spend time worrying about the future or fretting over past events. They live for the moment, and Mason is helping me to do that. Theologians debate whether animals have “souls.” Although I’m not particularly spiritual, when I look into Mason’s eyes, I know he has a soul.

Mason on November 3rd.

Mason on Christmas day

On to 2009!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Alfred Brendel: The Accountant’s Pianist

Alfred Brendel, allegedly a pianist, has retired. Music lovers with functioning hearing and discernment the world over are heaving sighs of relief.

There was a time when I actually admired Brendel. What can I say? I was young and easily impressed. Brendel’s 1970s Beethoven Sonata cycle was the first complete set I owned, and his was the first Schubert D. 960 Sonata I ever heard. The first recording one hears of a given work tends to become an “imprint” of how it should be played. But when I heard Wilhelm Kempff’s Beethoven and, especially, Schubert, I heard what real artistry is. Donal Henahan wrote of Brendel’s Beethoven that it “was as if Mr. Brendel were projecting an X-ray picture of each sonata onto screen for our admiration rather than luring us into the heart and soul of the composer.” No one could have said that about Kempff’s Beethoven, which carried the listener across an emotional arc. Kempff’s Schubert taught me the meaning of the quote that Schubert’s Sonatas are like Beethoven in heaven. Brendel’s Schubert Sonatas are not performed, or even played, as much as picked over, like an unappetizing meal.

Even before I’d heard Kempff, I heard Brendel’s pathetic attempt to record Chopin’s Polonaises. That’s when I began to discern cracks in the façade of Brendel’s playing and his so-called “musicianship” – for a true musician would never have consented to record pieces for which he was so unsuited. His Chopin, shot-through with red light-green light/stop-go phrasing, had no sense of “line”. How ironic that someone who grunts so audibly during his playing should be so lacking any understanding of the vocal inspiration behind much of Chopin. Nor was Brendel able to balance the harmonies with the melodies. Then there was the rhythm: His A-flat Polonaise was so awkward I laughed the first time I heard it, and the Polonaise-Fantasie, which depends on the artful integration of the polonaise rhythm, was dead on arrival. I remembered Harold Schonberg’s comment that “no musician has an all-embracing culture”. Later, I read Brendel’s statement that the only “great” music was written within the Austro-German-Hungarian borders. Brendel’s comment reminded me of Schnabel’s self-imposed rule that he only performed music that was “better than it can be played.” But Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie, written by a Pole who was living in France, also fits into that category. It was then that I realized that Brendel not only had a very limited musical culture, but also a narrow mind. Brendel’s pretense is surpassed only by his arrogance. Or is it insecurity? The two often go hand in hand. Once at a private residence in Vienna, Brendel spotted a large poster of Mitsuko Uchida, turned it around to face the wall and declared "we don't need things like that here." In light of his comments regarding the geography of the great composers, and his treatment of a poster bearing Uchida’s (who is Asian) image, one has to ask: Is Brendel racist?

Brendel’s playing highlights the misconception of what constitutes piano technique. If one quantifies technique as being the ability to put the right finger in the right place at the right time, Brendel would pass nearly any test. One has to have steady fingers to be able to play Busoni’s nearly impossible Toccata – and Brendel does this very well. Mozart, however, would have deemed those abilities as mere mechanics. Tone production and the ability to project a varied and interesting sound world is also a kind of technique, and here Brendel falls short; his shallow sonority is not anyone’s idea of pleasant. The Philips label, for which Brendel recorded from the 1970s onward, was known for the realism of their recordings – and their recordings accurately convened the sad reality of Brendel’s sound world – if he even has one. The Philips recordings uncannily matched the two occasions I heard him “live”, if that term could be used for any of his playing. At least the recordings spare us the visual impact of Brendel’s stage manner – which is akin to observing someone in the throes of a painful bowel movement.

Brendel has tried to deflect criticism of his tone, stating that “There is a certain idea of ‘good’, ‘beautiful’, ‘appropriate’ piano playing which reduces everything to pianistic terms. I try to do exactly the opposite, to remove music from these limitations and to make people forget the piano.” Brendel’s comments amount to what psychologists call rationalization: “I can’t/won’t do it, so it isn’t necessary/desirable.” His remarks are also dead wrong, as often his tone is a distraction, distracting the listener away from the music itself, leaving one wondering if there’s something wrong with Brendel’s instrument (he often voices the piano himself).

Some have praised Brendel’s early recordings, on the Vox label. While they tend to be a bit more extroverted than in later years and even show hints of spontaneity, they don’t match even his mid-level contemporaries like Gary Graffman or Andre Tchaikovsky – both of whose recorded legacies have been shamefully neglected by Sony. In the end, what I hear is a pianist delivering competent performances in exchange for a paycheck.

Brendel’s recordings are ideal for those who want to prove their own attachment to “culture” to their friends. Here’s the intellectual man on the CD cover (you can see he’s intellectual because he wears glasses) playing snob repertoire. It matters not whether the recordings are actually good, from a performance standpoint. These are the kinds of recordings one plays in the background while doing household chores or balancing the checkbook, rather than the recordings that pin one’s ears to the wall and rivet the soul.

One would think, based on what has been called Brendel’s pedantry, that he’s an exponent of the school of textual fidelity. But that’s not supported by the facts. From his stylistically anachronous embellishments to Mozart concertos, to alterations to Mussorgsky’s Pictures and an Exhibition, to his steadfast refusal to include the repeat in the first movement of Schubert’s D. 960 Sonata, Brendel is willing to alter or ignore the composer’s instructions whenever it suits him. There goes that rationalization again. Not that I have a problem with a bit of tampering when appropriate – especially in a work like the Mussorgsky which was written by someone who simply did not know the piano. Works like that cry out for a skillful intervening hand – just as would do with an attempt to write a play in Shakespeare’s style by someone who didn’t speak English. The irony, of course, is that when works are performed which have a tradition of freedom with the score, such as Liszt’s Rhapsodies, Brendel reverts to Mr. By-The-Book. He even once took Vladimir Horowitz to task for the subtle alterations he made to Liszt’s Valée d’Obermann, a laughable scolding as Horowitz’s recording of the work, from 1966, is considered masterful by all except the textual fetishists, and Brendel’s recording is all but forgotten – consigned to the dust bin of the complete reissue.

Those with actual taste, as opposed to the pretense of taste, have seen through Brendel’s ruse for years. If Godowsky was the pianist’s pianist, Horowitz the virtuoso’s virtuoso, and Rubinstein the Cavalier, then Brendel was the Accountant’s pianist.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Being Screwed Without Getting a Kiss...

Here are two articles about the controversy surrounding President-Elect Obama's selection of Rick Warren to lead the invocation at his inauguration. The first goes a little over the top, but I can't argue with the basic premise. The second is more measured, but also condemnatory.

I've already commented on this issue, but it's worth asking those who are defending the selection: would they feel the same way if Obama chose a minister who favored the deportation of illegal aliens, or one who said non-Christians wouldn't get into heaven, or one along the lines of Jeremiah Wright?

In the aftermath of Warren's selection, Obama defended the choice and called himself a "fierce" advocate of gay rights. There is no evidence to support that statement. During the campaign, he didn't even make a "I have a vision and you're a part of it" speech ala Bill Clinton in 1992.
President-Elect Obama may surprise GLBT America yet, and champion our issues. But I'm not holding my breath.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Danny & I quietly enjoyed our first Christmas in our new home, with our new addition, Mason.  Our friend Zsolt was ill and had to beg off. 

After we finished opening our presents, I took Mason for a walk.  Then we crashed on the sofa for a nap.

Since 1978, it's been my Christmas tradition to go to a movie.  Danny and I went to see Marley & Me.  I don't care what the critics say, this was a wonderful film.  Word of caution, if you go to see it, bring some Kleenex.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Keeping Obama to his word

I think Obama is taking this "big tent" keep everybody happy thing a bit too far. He needs to remember who got him elected, and it wasn't Rick Warren or his ilk.

In his campaign, Obama promised the following:

* Expand Hate Crimes Statutes: In 2004, crimes against LGBT Americans constituted the third-highest category of hate crime reported and made up more than 15 percent of such crimes. Barack Obama cosponsored legislation that would expand federal jurisdiction to include violent hate crimes perpetrated because of race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or physical disability. As a state senator, Obama passed tough legislation that made hate crimes and conspiracy to commit them against the law.

* Fight Workplace Discrimination: Barack Obama supports the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and believes that our anti-discrimination employment laws should be expanded to include sexual orientation and gender identity. While an increasing number of employers have extended benefits to their employees' domestic partners, discrimination based on sexual orientation in the workplace occurs with no federal legal remedy. Obama also sponsored legislation in the Illinois State Senate that would ban employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

* Support Full Civil Unions and Federal Rights for LGBT Couples: Barack Obama supports full civil unions that give same-sex couples legal rights and privileges equal to those of married couples. Obama also believes we need to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and enact legislation that would ensure that the 1,100+ federal legal rights and benefits currently provided on the basis of marital status are extended to same-sex couples in civil unions and other legally-recognized unions. These rights and benefits include the right to assist a loved one in times of emergency, the right to equal health insurance and other employment benefits, and property rights.

* Oppose a Constitutional Ban on Same-Sex Marriage: Barack Obama voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2006 which would have defined marriage as between a man and a woman and prevented judicial extension of marriage-like rights to same-sex or other unmarried couples.

* Expand Adoption Rights: Barack Obama believes that we must ensure adoption rights for all couples and individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation. He thinks that a child will benefit from a healthy and loving home, whether the parents are gay or not.

* Promote AIDS Prevention: In the first year of his presidency, Barack Obama will develop and begin to implement a comprehensive national HIV/AIDS strategy that includes all federal agencies. The strategy will be designed to reduce HIV infections, increase access to care and reduce HIV-related health disparities. Obama will support common sense approaches including age-appropriate sex education that includes information about contraception, combating infection within our prison population through education and contraception, and distributing contraceptives through our public health system. Obama also supports lifting the federal ban on needle exchange, which could dramatically reduce rates of infection among drug users. Obama has also been willing to confront the stigma -- too often tied to homophobia -- that continues to surround HIV/AIDS. He will continue to speak out on this issue as president.

* Empower Women to Prevent HIV/AIDS: In the United States, the percentage of women diagnosed with AIDS has quadrupled over the last 20 years. Today, women account for more than one quarter of all new HIV/AIDS diagnoses. Barack Obama introduced the Microbicide Development Act, which will accelerate the development of products that empower women in the battle against AIDS. Microbicides are a class of products currently under development that women apply topically to prevent transmission of HIV and other infections.

We need to hold President Obama's feet to the fire on those issues, and make sure they are enacted. Bill Clinton made big promises to the gay community in 1992, and all we got from him was DADT and DOMA. Let's not allow history to repeat itself.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

On Saturday, I had a free gingival graft done.  It was not pleasant, to say the least.  While I breezed through the removal of my wisdom teeth last year, the recovery from this is becoming a trial.  The left side of my face is swollen, and my mouth bled intermittently yesterday.  Thank heavens for Vicodin.

Still, I was determined to head out and see Milk.  I'm not well enough to go into detail now, but let me say it was simply the best movie I've seen this year. 

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Danny and I have been incredibly busy. The house is now more or less in order. Repairs needed to get us through the winter are complete, I bought a snow blower, and the Xmas decorations are up. The only item remaining on the agenda is to buy a medicine cabinet for the bathroom and replace the rather tacky option by the previous owner (he simply hung a mirror over the hole in the bathroom wall).


Instead of Xmas presents for each other, Danny and I each got something for the house. I bought the Washer/Dryer which was installed the day before we moved in. Danny got a 47” LCD TV last weekend. I think I’m going to indulge in some couch potato-hood this winter. 


The rest of the past month has been taken up with work and Mason. He’s growing by leaps and bounds, both in physical size and behavior. Mason weighed in at 14 pounds at the veterinarian’s office on Monday. He’s very smart and is mostly housetrained, although he has had a few accidents (such as last weekend when our friend Zsolt visited and Mason wet himself with excitement). He’s also freakishly neat. I’ve noticed that he places his toys back in his cage after finishing with them – often in the same spot in the cage where they were before. Although friendly, Mason is now basically a toddler, and is in the “terrible twos” stage of behavior. For the last week, he has been rebellious and testing the limits of what he can get away with. Danny and I try to be patient and give him an activity to appease his restlessness, or put him in a restricted area for a time out.


On the work front, things are proceeding apace with our project to replace Progressive’s policy management system. Our team had a very heavy work load, so we were given a two week extension to complete our testing – which ends today. Despite the extension, not all our tests were completed, mostly due to system outages and tests which had to be listed as invalid. Management has asked us to divide into two shifts: one starting at 6am, the other at Noon. So, beginning next week, I’ll be setting the alarm for 4:30am. It actually works out well for me since Mason won’t be alone at home too long. Amusingly, I discovered a few weeks ago that I went to high school with one of the members of my team. Same school, same year. But she and I didn’t share any classes, apparently.


Danny and I have been appalled by the economic news, but I have not been especially surprised. America has been living a debt heavy lifestyle for too long, and the chickens have come home to roost. I really think that GM in particular has dug its own grave. Carrying eight brands of automobiles with that duplication of models (like the Pontiac G5, which is a rebadged Chevy Cobalt) was recipe for disaster. Troubling is GM’s apparent plan to ditch Saturn, one of their only brands to show any innovation over the past few years. I’m aware most Americans are opposed to any bailout of the Big Three. And as a Honda driver, I don’t see myself driving a Ford, GM, or Chrysler anytime soon. But we can’t afford to lose this industry, as clumsy and idiotically run as it is. I think the government should place them in receivership, and a reformer should be appointed who would have broad authority to nullify union and dealership contracts and reorganize the companies. GM should drop the Buick, GMC, and Hummer labels, and sell DaewooSaab and Saturn should be spun off into their own, independent, companies. Ford should eliminate the Mercury brand, sell Volvo and sell their stakes in Mazda and Aston Martin. Then Ford needs to learn marketing, build fewer models (one compact, one midsize, one luxury car model) and not change the model names every three years, which is confusing to consumers and annoying to dealers. (Honda and Toyota know how to market autos. Civics and Camrys have been around for decades and have a defined image). I don’t know enough about Chrysler’s situation to comment, but the PT Cruiser I had as a rental a few months ago was a total piece of crap.   

I've been following President-elect Obama's handling of the transition, and I've been very impressed.  He's picking strong leaders for the Cabinet, although I don't agree with every one of them on every issue.  Hillary Clinton at State is undoubtedly his most controversial pick so far.  But most Americans don't appreciate how incredibly popular both Clintons are world wide.  Hillary can help America restore its image as a leader rather than a bully.  I must also admit, to my surprise, that President Bush has been handling his end of the transition with a graciousness sadly lacking during the bulk of his reign.  By the way, this whole "smooth transition of power" thing is rather new.  The first president to pledge one was Harry Truman, who knew something about assuming power under difficult circumstances. 


Neither Danny nor I face an immediate threat to our jobs. Progressive is in pretty good shape (in fact, we seem to have profited from AIG’s troubles and have 337,000 more policies than a year ago), and people will always need health care – so Danny’s job is safe. Still, I have decided to reign in my furniture purchases for now, so the house will continue to have one empty bedroom and a partially furnished living room.


Time to enjoy the weekend…