Monday, February 23, 2009

Thursday night, I drove Zsolt to his concert in Ashtabula. Therein lies a tale. Time was becoming problematic for me, as Danny was scheduled to work and Mason would be left alone for over five hours, a record for him. Wednesday night, Danny was called in to substitute for another worker, and Danny agreed with the proviso that he could get Thursday off. With Mason no longer an issue, Zsolt and I had some more leeway in our schedule.


The weather was not great, but we were able to get to the KSU campus with plenty of time to spare. We were going to need every moment we could get.


One aspect about Zsolt I never fully appreciated until Thursday is his rock-solid professionalism. Zsolt is a real trooper. The piano, a Steinway M, is designed for a living room and was plainly too small for the auditorium. It was also dreadfully out of tune, badly voiced, and the regulation was shot. A more temperamental artist would have noisily stomped off the stage and cancelled. Not Zsolt. He patiently ran through some of his pieces to gauge the hall’s acoustics and get a feel for the piano.


At 6:30, there was a Q & A with a representative of KSU’s music program. Zsolt’s answers to the questions were well considered, and betrayed no hint of nervousness about speaking or performing before a crowd. The KSU guy continually mispronounced Zsolt’s name, but Zsolt did not offer a hint of irritation. Nor did Zsolt make an attempt to correct him. 


The Q & A concluded at 7:00, which gave Zsolt another ½ hour to prepare on the small practice piano backstage. More people filed in, eventually filling the hall about half way. A large number of attendees were of student age. It’s heartening when a classical concert is not solely populated by the blue hair crowd.  


Some of the repertoire was new to Zsolt, but a few pieces I’ve been hearing him in since 2004, including Schubert’s Klavierstucke D. 946, No. 2, and Liszt’s Dante Sonata. Even with the limitations of the instrument, I was struck by how Zsolt’s interpretations have ripened over the last five years. He brought new elements of these well worn pieces to light. I recently heard Maurizio Pollini playing the Schubert, and his performance sounded flat and lifeless compared to Zsolt. After hearing Zsolt play the Dante Sonata several times, I can confidently write that Zsolt “owns” the piece. All too many pianists turn the Liszt’s work into a cheap display of pianistic effects, and just as many wallow in sluggish tempos in a false attempt at profundity.  Zsolt has all the technique needed for the piece, and definitely turns up the heat, but never goes in for cheap exhibitionism. I crave to hear him in Liszt’s B Minor Sonata.


The audience was unusually attentive, even during Zsolt’s encore, Arvo Part’s Fur Alina. Afterward, one young person asked me for the name of the piece so he could get a recording.  


Zsolt treated me to Waffle House on the way home. It’s a relief to me that Zsolt takes as much pleasure in comfort food as I do.


On Sunday, I treated Danny to Abuelo's in appreciation for his help Thursday.


For those in the area, Zsolt will be giving a recital on Thursday, February 26 at 7pm. at the

Rancho Mirage Public Library.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Signs of Recession

I have not been personally affected by the current economic downturn - - yet. One of my friends was laid-off from GE, but that had been known about for years. He was able to find another job, with a commute of 90 miles each way.

Even without watching the news, I’ve seen the signs that things are not good, some subtle, some obvious.

On the subtle side, I called my dentist’s office on Monday to make an appointment for my check up and cleaning. They were able to book me for…today. I also called the optometrist and scheduled my eye checkup for Monday the 23rd In 20 years of making these kinds of appointments, I’ve never been able to book closer than a month in advance. But, in a recession, people begin putting off expenses they deem not immediately pressing, and in the absence of illness or other symptoms, that includes medical, dental, and eye care. If these items were not covered by my Progressive health plan, I’d probably be putting them off too.

On the obvious side, more and more stores are closing - - go to any mall and you’ll see for yourself. Restaurants are closing by the dozen, especially non-chain restaurants. As bad as the news from the auto and banking industries is, the frightening story you’re not hearing about in the media is the shutdown of small companies that make pieces/parts that supply the larger companies. Not just laying off, but shutting down. Once the economy recovers, larger companies will need the items these small companies produced, but it will be more difficult to restart them, which means more imports from God knows where.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

In Defense of Deficit Spending

I’ve always been leery of debt, whether it be personal debt or deficit spending by the government. But looking at history, most of what this country has achieved has been with some form of deferred payment, i.e., deficit spending.

The government has run a deficit of varying sizes under every president since Herbert Hoover, save three: Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton.

Most recently, following spiraling deficits incurred under Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton got the budget under control, and the deficit became a surplus in 1998. But that was mainly because the economy was so strong that the Federal government received tax revenues far beyond expectations. Surpluses and balanced budgets are for times of prosperity, not for rainy days, and we are enduring a profoundly rainy day.

The fact of the matter is that public debt has been a necessary evil for generations, and much good has come from the projects that brought on the debt. At a time when 90% of rural residents had no electricity, the Tennessee Valley Authority brought affordable power to millions of residents. How many of them would have preferred to live in the dark until we could pay for the TVA with cash up front? Would commuters of the last three generations been willing to do without the Interstate Highway System? Or the Golden Gate Bridge? These were not “make work” projects but improvements that needed to be done. Lest one think deficit financing is a new principle, Abraham Lincoln himself greatly increased the debt pushing for the Trans-Continental Railroad, the track-mileage of which was doubled between 1860 and 1870, and Lincoln was an enthusiastic opponent of “internal improvements.”

Today, much of the infrastructure, from roads and bridges, to water mains and sewers, to schools and public buildings, are crumbling from neglect while the nation turned its attention elsewhere. They need to be repaired or replaced.

Later generations reaped the rewards of projects and progress begun by their ancestors, and future generations will benefit from the improvements we make today. Why shouldn’t they help pay for it?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Verna: 1909-2002

My grandmother, Verna Hazel Hewer, was born in Windsor, Ontario, on February 11, 1909, into a world we would scarcely recognize today.
The automobile was an expensive novelty, and most people still got around by horse and carriage. Flight was experimental, photography was in black and white, cinema was silent, and the average life span was 54 years.
As a child, Verna developed a love of dancing and choreography which never left her. When she was 3 years old, Verna performed before the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and Edward Windsor, the Prince of Whales who eventually became the King of England – only to abdicate the throne for the woman he loved.
Verna, her sister Lorna, and parents, Clara and Vernon, immigrated to the United States on Thanksgiving Day, 1920, ending up in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  She became a naturalized US citizen on May 28, 1940.
While growing up in Grand Rapids, Verna became a student (along with the young Betty Bloomer) at the renowned Calla Travis Dance Studio, eventually becoming their lead teacher.

By the early 1930s, she had married and was living in Jackson Heights, New York. Verna was more than a mere witness to our times, she was an avid participant, utilizing her talent in the art of dancing and choreography. During World War II, she volunteered at USO clubs, teaching soldiers and sailors dancing and the social graces.

My grandmother with my mother at Atlantic City, New Jersey, summer of 1940. By this time, she had already accepted that my grandfather was an alcoholic who couldn't hold down a job, and that she would have to support the family. In 1947, she met Fred Astaire, who asked for her assistance while researching Latin dance steps. At a time when women were relegated to the kitchen, Verna was asked by Astaire to help create a network of dance studios which carried his name – a chain still in existence today. Verna opened the first Fred Astaire Dance Studio outside of New York City, in Columbus, Ohio in 1947. Studios in Akron, Youngtown, and Cleveland (where she moved in 1948) followed. In the 1960s, when Fred Astaire Dance Studios became less about dancing and more about crunching numbers, she sold her share in the studios and returned to her first love, choreographing several musicals and becoming a founding member of the South Euclid/Lyndhurst Recreational (SELREC) singers. In addition, she once again organized adult classes which she continued until 1997. She reluctantly retired from teaching at 88 years old.

By 1983, I was living with my grandmother in the aftermath of my parents' divorce - from which my mother never recovered. I had my own issues, but "GrandVern" guided me through a rough adolescence with great skill: deftly balancing the values of responsibility, tolerance, and sociability - she was determined that her shy grandson engage in a social life. In the 10th grade, I joined the Brush High School drama club. GrandVern never minded when I stayed out late, as long as she knew where I was. I blurrily recall returning home after 1AM one night in the summer of 1984. As I was in the bathroom, brushing my teeth to cover the smell of cheap beer, GrandVern popped her head in the door. "Did you have a good time?", she asked. I nodded in the affirmative. "Good. Now be sure to take an aspirin before you go to bed so you don't have a hangover in the morning." I never could pull anything over on her. My grandmother harbored great bitterness toward my father and forbade him from attending my high school graduation in 1985. Her feelings were more than justified, but I was quite upset. Within a few months, I'd moved to Massachusetts.

It is often said that one is remembered for one’s labor and for one’s love. Verna will certainly be remembered for her accomplishments, and by the many people who loved her. But Verna will also be remembered for her charm, her grace, and her determination. She made things in life seem so effortless that her iron will was sometimes forgotten. Verna also had a temper which could sparkle like a Roman candle, and I don’t think it inappropriate to recount that when this diminutive lady felt she was being treated unfairly, her brilliant blue eyes would take on a fiery quality that would cause mere mortals to cower. But Verna seldom held a grudge (with a few exceptions), and real or imagined offenses were quickly forgiven. In that respect, her capacity for forgiveness, Verna was the truest of Christians. Those of us who were closest to her will always remember, with admiration, her unconquerable spirit which carried her through family difficulties, serious medical problems, and the most terrible event a mother can bear: the death of her daughter.

In 1994, I visited Ohio for my grandmother's Spring Party, an annual tradition of many years' standing. By then, my mother had died and my grandmother, then 85, was starting to slow down. I decided to return to Ohio and care for her in her last years. She died in 2002, aged 93, and had survived her daughter by nine years.

The last picture of my grandmother, her dog Trinka is on her lap.
I find it amusing that, in the wake of the Senate passage of the stimulus bill, the National Republican Trust PAC is threatening to go after Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania by funding Republican primary opponents the next time they’re up for reelection. This is typical folly on their part, and a waste of their dwindling resources.

All three senators hail from Democratic leaning states. The only way they could remain in office is by bucking the party from time to time. In the event they are challenged in their party’s primaries, when the challenger rails against the stimulus bill it will work in favor of the incumbent (unless the primary turnout is skewed to right –wing nutjobs who cry “socialism” every time the government spends money). In the unlikely event the incumbents lose the primary, they can either drop out or run as Independents. In either scenario, the most likely outcome will throw the seat to a Democrat.

Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face. If this is the kind menu the Republicans are going to offer under new chairman Michael Steele, the Democrats will be the majority part for the next generation.