Friday, March 29, 2013

Skim Milk Marriage

This week, the Supreme Court heard two cases regarding same-sex marriage.  One was on the issue of California’s Proposition 8.  More importantly, the court heard a case challenging the Defense of Marriage Act.

As Proposition 8 deals only with California and I am a citizen of Ohio, I will refrain from discussing it except to write that I hope the Court will decide that the plaintiffs in the case do not have standing – which will result in the law being nullified.

Now, let’s talk about the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  It was a terrible law, and the rationalizations former President Clinton has tried to make in signing it (namely, that doing so prevented a Constitutional Amendment from being passed) simply do not convince.  They remind me of the rationalizations people have tried to make defending Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 (which sent Japanese-Americans to Internment Camps during World War II) to the effect that they were safer in camps than on the streets.  But FDR’s action was a tremendous black mark on his record, no matter what the revisionists try to say.  The same is true of Bill Clinton.

I am not a Constitutional lawyer, but it seems to me that Section 2 of DOMA is a violation of the “full faith and credit” clause of the U. S. Constitution.  But the bulk of Wednesday’s discussion dealt with Section 3 of DOMA  - which deals with the Federal Recognition of Marriage.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made a comment, which quickly became an Internet meme – that goes to the heart of why DOMA must be struck down:

“…the problem is if we are totally for the states' decision that there is a marriage between two people, for the federal government then to come in to say no joint return, no marital deduction, no Social Security benefits; your spouse is very sick but you can't get leave; people -- if that set of attributes, one might well ask, what kind of marriage is this?... I mean, they touch every aspect of life. Your partner is sick. Social Security. I mean, it's pervasive. It's not as though, well, there's this little Federal sphere and it's only a tax question. It's…1,100 statutes, and it affects every area of life…You're saying, no, state said two kinds of marriage; the full marriage, and then this sort of skim milk marriage."

There are some 1,138 benefits the Federal Government grants in heterosexual marriages that are totally left out of same-sex marriages, which have no Federal recognition under DOMA.  Justice Ginsburg’s comments go to the historical ruling that “separate but equal is unequal.”

The difference between the experience of opposite-sex marriages and same-sex marriages is best encapsulated by the worst case scenario: the unexpected death of a spouse.

Let’s examine two experiences of two pairs of spouses:

Jane Doe is awakened one night by a phone call from the police department.  There has been a traffic accident involving her husband, John – his vehicle was stuck by a drunk driver.  She’s asked to go to the hospital, and finds her husband in the ICU – he is clinically dead, but his organs are kept going so Jane can make the decision on organ donation.  She graciously opts to allow John’s organs to be donated. 

The next several days are a blur, as she buries her husband and begins her life transition.  She and John, being young, had not really prepared for the death of a spouse.  But due to federal marriage laws Jane has automatic inheritance rights for all of John’s property – and as a spouse she will pay no federal inheritance tax.  When it comes time to retire, Jane will receive a Social Security survivor’s benefit.  Jane receives back pay from John’s employer.  A month later, Jane receives a check from the drunk driver’s auto insurance company – but she has already decided to sue the drunk driver, who survived the crash – because she has that right under Federal marriage statutes.

Jack is awakened by a phone call from the police department one night.  There has been a traffic accident involving his husband, Jim – his vehicle was stuck by a drunk driver.  Jack goes to the hospital, remembering to bring some of the many documents that Jim, a lawyer, made sure they had in order just in case of an emergency.  Jim is in the ICU – clinically dead.  His organs have been kept going in case they can be donated.  Jack shows the doctor Jim’s Power of Attorney, giving Jack full authority over all medical matters.  But the doctor isn’t sure the document is valid, so the hospital’s lawyer has to be consulted.  The lawyer decides the POA gives Jack has the right to switch off life support, but announces that the hospital will not accept Jim’s organs since he was a gay man and “there could be risk of AIDS transmission” even though Jack and Jim had repeatedly tested negative for HIV.

Jack buries his husband, bringing the many documents that Jim had prepared to smooth the way.  Jack and Jim had prepared Wills: but that doesn’t present Jim’s Fundamentalist relatives from crawling out of the woodwork to challenge Jim’s Will on the basis that the same-sex marriage they got out of state is not recognized in their home state.  The probate judge rules that the purpose of a Will is to determine the wishes of the deceased, not whether a marriage is officially recognized.  Thus, Jack is able to inherit the property Jim specifically bequeathed to him – that includes the house they jointly owned.  Jack is shocked by the taxes he must pay on Jim’s half of the house – so much he may have to sell the house at a loss in the bad real estate market and move into a smaller place.  As if that weren’t enough, the drunk driver’s insurance company denied the claim for liability in Jim’s death – and paid out only the book value for Jim’s totaled vehicle.  To make matters worse, Jack has no standing to sue the drunk driver in civil court, as his marriage isn’t “real” as far as the law is concerned.    

The situation above is neither far-fetched nor unusual – it is the kind of conundrum faced by same-sex couples in over 40 states.  Even in those states that recognize marriage equality, same-sex couples are grievously disadvantaged.    

The plain truth is that not all marriages are equal – but that has nothing to do with the court cases at hand.  What quantifies a marriage is not the gender of the spouses, but the love and commitment through riches and poverty, sickness and health, until parted by death.  Based on that, my marriage to another man is not merely equal, but superior to a good many heterosexual marriages I’ve seen – including those of some family members who remain hypocritically opposed to same sex marriage.

But like it or not, same-sex marriage is coming.  It may not be this year, or next – but by the end of this decade, I am confident that marriage equality will be the law of the land.  

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Rach 3 myth

No, I’m not referring to the myth, popularized by the movie Shine, that the Third Concerto of Rachmaninoff is the most difficult of Piano Concertos. How would anyone even codify such a thing? Technically? Different pianists have different kinds of technique. Musically? Again, musical difficulty is in the mind of the beholder. There are concertos in the piano repertoire that present greater technical and musical challenges for performers than Rachmaninoff’s Third: The Brahms Second is less flashy but more unwieldy; The Busoni Concerto is mammoth in its length and is an endurance contest few dare to undertake.

The myth to which I refer is the one that Rachmaninoff “gave up” playing his Third Concerto after first hearing Horowitz play it in 1928. It’s a myth that has no basis in historical fact and is a disservice to both Rachmaninoff the pianist, and to Horowitz himself – whose best performances of this work can withstand challenges from anyone. But the myth became legend over the course of Horowitz’s lifetime until many accepted it as fact. The myth was given credence of sorts when Murray Perahia stated it as fact in his liner notes to Horowitz’s Last Recording. Given Perahia’s reputation as an analytical musician, it’s ironic that he would accept this myth as fact and repeat it without verification. Would Perahia treat a questionable edition of a composer’s music so lightly? Doubtful.

Rachmaninoff (l) and Horowitz (r), with Walt Disney - Hollywood.

No doubt, Rachmaninoff was awed by Horowitz’s performance of his work. Rachmaninoff had heard about Horowitz’s performances of his Third Concerto throughout the 1920s via correspondence from friends who wrote of a young Russian who played “fabulously” – so doubtless his expectations were high. Upon hearing Horowitz play the Concerto in 1928, while Rachmaninoff himself played the orchestral part on the second piano, the composer was impressed enough to note that Horowitz “swallowed it whole – he had the courage, the intensity, the daring.” In today’s parlance, Rachmaninoff was “blown away” by Horowitz’s playing. Following a performance by Horowitz at the Hollywood Bowl in 1942, Rachmaninoff joined the pianist on stage and amplified his praise: “This is the way I always dreamed my concerto should be played, but I never expected to hear it that way on Earth.”

This goes to the question: Can a musician perform a piece even better than its composer? Can he reveal aspects of it the composer hadn’t even imagined? The unequivocal answers are yes, and yes.

But did Rachmaninoff give up the Third Concerto after hearing it played by Horowitz in 1928? The unequivocal and provable answer is NO.

First, Rachmaninoff recorded the concerto with The Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy at two sessions on December 4, 1939 and February 24, 1940.

But this website documents no less than 24 performances by Rachmaninoff of the Third Concerto between 1928 and his death in 1943 - the last took place in San Francisco on February 15, 1941. That compares with 14 performances of the First Concerto, 45 of the Second, 13 of the Fourth, and 40 of the Paganini Rhapsody – which was premiered in 1934 and received a slew of performances as it was introduced in various cities.

So, it’s time to put this myth to rest. Rachmaninoff continued to play his Third Concerto after hearing Horowitz. There is no last word in the performance of any music – just that which has yet to be uttered.

*The blogger expresses his appreciation to Greg Lile, Scott Davie, and the Rachmaninoff Society for their invaluable assistance.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Lessons from the Fifth Church

A study in urban neglect - Fifth Church of Christ Scientist.

A few years ago, I had lunch at The Diner on Clifton with pianist Stephen Hough. (I’ve had a soft spot for this restaurant since I lived on the West Side, and as Hough is a diner enthusiast, it was a logical choice.) We had a few minutes afterward to walk off our lunch, and he marveled at the Fifth Church of Christ Scientist on the corner of Lake Avenue and West 117th. I gave him a rundown on the history of the building, which had been vacant since the 1980s, and excitedly told him of plans for renovation and use as a bookstore. Stephen spoke with some eloquence of a misguided period in England’s history, when historic structures were deemed outmoded, demolished, and replaced with modern cookie-cutter structures – which have since become outmoded themselves.

Sadly, the plans for renovating and converting Fifth Church have long fallen through. The triple body blow that the prevalence of online shopping, move toward portable reading devices, and Great Recession dealt to the bookstore industry has been pervasive: chain stores Barnes & Noble and Joseph-Beth are struggling, and Borders is out of business. Further, no independent store would have the means to renovate and use this structure.

The bookstore idea was but one of many plans for using this structure that have never come to fruition – others included a performing arts space and conversion into condominiums. The building has been abandoned for decades.  As you can see from these photos, the interior and structure of the building have deteriorated to the extent that it is now very unlikely it could ever be made useful. Who would have the resources to undertake the extensive renovations necessary? More to the point, who would be willing to do so? At this point, no one – at least no one with the necessary funds – although as always there are holdouts. It seems that, before long, all that will remain of this once magnificent structure will be few architectural elements which the developer of a nearby shopping area has expressed an interest in using. To see how this once magnificent building was allowed to deteriorate over a period of decades breaks one’s heart.

The Telling Mansion in South Euclid - will it suffer the same fate?

There are lessons to be learned from the Fifth Church fiasco, which can and should be applied toward the Telling Mansion. Despite the numerous letters written to the Plain Dealer and Sun Messenger, the hundreds (myself among them) who signed the petition opposing the move, the protests in front of the Library, the comments at board meetings heavily opposing the move, and the numerous comments at various online sites, the Library’s move to the Green Road site is going to happen. Even a desperate attempt to get Cuyahoga County Executive Ed Fitzgerald involved has been met with public silence.

It’s now time for those who opposed the library’s move – and I am among those who continue to believe the CCPL board handled this in a manner that showed a shocking lack of respect for the taxpayers who fund them – to accept the reality of the situation and move on to a more important goal that the Library’s location: saving the Telling Mansion.

The Telling Mansion, while an older building, does not present the challenges that Fifth Church does.  The building is more than just structurally sound, it's currently being used and has been mostly well maintained by the CCPL.  However, leaving the Telling Mansion in limbo for a prolonged period could lead to a deterioration of the site - as happened to Fifth Church. 

The Telling Site is usable now - with three challenges:

*Parking is limited - one of the reasons CCPL wants to move.
*Some work needs to be done to improve the grounds, particularly the stone wall that runs from the upper level parking lot to the lower lot.
*While the basement and first floor can be reached via wheelchairl, the building is not fully ADA compliant.  As an historic structure, the Telling Mansion is exempt from ADA regulations.

Several interesting possible uses for the Mansion have been proposed:
*Art Gallery
*Bed & Breakfast
*Performance space
*Mixed use including Weddings & Commitment ceremonies, and Bar Mitzvahs & Bat Mitzvahs.

Obviously, most feel the best use would be one that allows continued and unfettered access by the public. 

Those of us who care about the fate of the Telling Mansion now need to take a two pronged approach:

1. Help find an acceptable buyer.

I have no doubt that the CCPL would prefer to sell the Mansion to someone who will respect the building’s history and integrity. I also have no doubt that, when push comes to shove, they will sell to whomever submits an acceptable bid – using the excuse that a more suitable buyer “could not be found.”  It is not our duty to help CCPL sell the Telling Mansion. As taxpayers, we owe them nothing. As citizens and guardians of both history and posterity, we owe only our vigilance to protect the last noteworthy historic structure in South Euclid. Therefore, it is our duty to try and find someone who will make appropriate use of the building.

2. Discourage undesirable buyers/uses.

It is also our duty to discourage potential buyers who would not make appropriate use of the Telling Site – either by closing it to the public or worse, demolishing it. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the citizens of South Euclid to convince City Council to pass an ordinance restricting use of the building and forbidding its’ demolition. Passing such an ordinance would cost the city nothing, and there is existing case law affirming the rights of municipalities to protect historic buildings and areas over and beyond what the National Register of Historic Places does. While the CCPL board may be opposed to such and ordinance, it’s necessary to remember that City Council does not answer to the Library board any more than the board answers to local municipalities.

It’s time to get moving. Let’s not allow the Telling Mansion to suffer the same fate as the Fifth Church.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

In His Own Words

Recently, I visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC.  Rather than give my impressions of the place, here are some photos of Dr. King's own words.