Monday, February 28, 2005

The next big snowstorm has hit Boston as of 8 tonight and after midnight it is predicted to begin pumping eight to ten inches of heavy, wet snow at us. I could so easily just blow work off tomorrow and hole up here with pots of hot tea, good books, and an occasional visit on line to catch up on other guys' blogs. But I've got two classes to teach tomorrow and I really like the three students in my advanced design class, so I'll be a responsible teacher and dig my way out of here and head up to Cambridge come what may.

The Oscars are big news here like everywhere else. I was bored stiff (literally, actually, which led to some interesting things) by the whole affair, Chris Rock in particular. And the dreadful songs! I guess I'm too invested in live performance. I never really got to the point where I just HAD to see the latest movies and probably see ten a year, tops. More and more I go to small films, indies and foreign films--things that aren't half done by computer.

For the record, I was delighted to see Morgan Freeman getting the award last night--what a great performer he is. Does anybody remember "The Electric Company" on PBS? It was supposed to be the next step for kids after "Sesame Street" but the scripts were salted with all kinds of in-jokes and things that only adults would get and appreciate. The cast of six was fantastic, including Freeman, Rita Moreno and Skip Hinant who had been the first Charlie Brown in the musical YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN. Hands down, it was the best variety show on TV.

Mitt Romney may have wowed them in South Carolina but the sense I'm getting around here is that he did himself no good by dumping on Massachusetts as a way of pandering to the radical religious right. Speculation is that he won't get re-elected governor which would be fine with me. A little dose of humiliation is just what he needs, and several of us at the monthly gay lunch at MIT were commenting with openly joyful malice on how he seems to be losing his looks. He's widely loathed in "The People's Republic of Cambridge."

Saturday, February 26, 2005

The husband and I are doing a split weekend geographically. He came down to Boston Friday afternoon. We had dinner at our favorite, Legal Seafood, attended by a meltingly cute young waiter named Caleb. We flirted shamelessly and he flirted right back. It was all right out on the table, so to speak, and we were all enjoying it enormously. We then went over to Cambridge's invaluable Kendall Square Cinema for "The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Joseph Feinnes.

This is a very dark Merchant, one from which you would never guess that not so many years ago the play was considered by critics a romantic comedy with some serious scenes around an unpleasant incident. At the beginning, before a word is spoken, the Christian merchant Antonio encounters Shylock in the streets and spits at him. Shylock will later mention this incident but it is rarely set up on stage the way the movie does. When Antonio and Basanio eventually go to Shylock to to beg a loan, the scene was far more ominous than usual. This Shylock might credibly have delivered the great "Hath not a Jew eyes" speach from the very beginning of the story, obviously having experienced a great deal of abuse and discrimination in his life.

The movie presents sixteenth century Venice in all its dog-eared and decadent splendor. Prostitutes prowl the streets with breasts bared in public or entice customers from balconies and windows similsrly exposed, the kind of sexually and materially obsessed society that an observant Jew like Shylock would most credibly fine offensive. But it's interesting that when the action of one scene is set in a brothel, the women are naked or partially undressed while the men seem to be having sex fully clothed from the neck down. Fear of bad ratings? There are shots of Jeremy Irons stripped to the waist when about to be knifed by Shylock in the Venetian court scene, and Joe Feinnes gets to show some handsome pecs on one occasion. Seems strange.

Pacino gives a powerful performance. Lynn Collins is an enchanting Portia, the other men perform very well indeed, and there is no doubt whatever in this retelling that what all these charming, gorgeously dressed and witty people are doing is a judicially supported lynching of Shylock based on virulent racial prejudice.

This morning we had brunch with my younger daughter up from New York on business for the weekend. She had been expecting me and got Fritz as a surprise. I'm babysitting a couple of events at MIT today including a theater workshop for gay youth, seeing Benjamin Britten's "The Rape of Lucretia" in town tonight and then driving due north for the night and tomorrow with Fritz in New Hampshire.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

News sources in the United Kingdom report that civil unions for same sex couples should be up and running before the end of the year. But the Royal Navy isn't waiting. It's actively recruiting gays for the naval service. This is an historically significant event, one that looks back to the legendary status of gay men, particularly gay couples, in the ancient Greek and Roman armies where they were honored as the bravest and most heroic of warriors. The belief was that no man would behave in a cowardly manner or perform at any less than his absolute best in the company of his lover.

At MIT, we are currently hosting a gay English playwright in a one week residency. He began his career as an actor but gave it up to begin writing and developing new work for gay youth. He confirmed just how quickly Ireland, where he is currently making his career, is moving toward gay marriage in the wake of what he calls the collapse of the Catholic Church. It's his first time in the U.S. and he felt it really appropriate to begin his association with America in Boston with its strong Irish heritage. At lunch with many of my colleagues yesterday, we discussed the fact that the Irish pedophile priest scandals preceeded, and were far more traumatic than, the American ones culturally. And he pointed out that Boston was the center of Irish immigration to the U.S. and that the abuse tradition simply moved here with immigrant priests. A mid-westerner in our midst commented that in the heartland where most of the Catholic priests were of German descent, there has been virtually no priestly abuse.

There's a report circulating, including on some gay news outlets, that the Bush White House has declined to receive Prince Charles and the soon-to-be Duchess Camilla on the trip to the U.S. they have planned for after their marriage. The reason given is that both are divorced and that the President's initiative to save heterosexual marriage includes not only banning gay marriage but also refusing to honor divorce.

There may be a ghastly kind of logic here: many pro-gay commentators have pointed out that heterosexuals have damaged straight marriage far mor than gays ever could and that the fundamentalists should focus on straight abuse of marriage rather than gay embrace of it. But I am not sure that this may not be a bit of a hoax. Many members of the Bush inner circle and a huge number of people in the Republican financial support network are on second, third, or even fourth marriages. Also, while Bush is on a trip specifically to rebuild the European friendships he so stupidly destroyed over the war in Iraq, snubbing the British heir to the throne seems a highly counterproductive act.

The proposed amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution that would ban gay marriage was supposed to come up for the necessary second vote this spring. However the Senate President appears to be moving toward delaying it. He apparently feels that to hold a Constitutional Convention this spring would cause masses of essential legislation to be dropped and not taken up for months. Our legislature is notorious for working very few days a year and for being so contentious that little work is actually done even when they ARE in session. A delay until the fall looks likely now.

Another snow storm tomorrow into Friday. New England weather!

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

We got "snowed in" up at Fritz's over the holiday weekend. It was absolutely gorgeous. Pick any cliche you like, but for the most part it looked like an ideal setting for the NUTCRACKER ballet. The snow was as light and sparkling as it gets and everything was blanketed.

I took up a lot of work to do and got most of it done, including a huge bite out of this year's income taxes, and groundplans for the production of Tennessee Williams's THE DEMOLITION DOWNTOWN. The previous weekend, Fritz had pulled out a bag of some needlepoint pillow covers he had made years ago, absolutely beautiful work, mostly in bargello geometric patterns, and I began the process of turning them into pillows for the newly covered sofa. We repaired a rotor shaft on the snowblower, had the boys in on Sunday night for the Sweat Lodge, but opted for a long soak in the hot tub under the moon and emerging stars and the usual fun dinner afterwards. And all throughout the weekend we got some quality time in the sack together.

Fritz had to do a lot of snow clearing on Monday. He's got a riding snow blower and loves it. A couple of storms ago there was a class for teachers in for the weekend. Two of the women noticed how much fun he was having and ran out to take pictures of him in the little rig that looks for all the world like a little Amish buggy. It's not as good as the ancient pick-up truck he used to have with the plow on the front. He loved to rev it up at one end of the parking lot, then throw it into gear and gun it, roaring down toward the line of huge maples pushing a wall of show ahead of him. It was wild to ride with him. I asked him yesterday if he had ever yelled Yiii-HA! as he raced it down to the trees and he said that he probably had. Men and their toys! (of which I'm proud to be one). Fritz and our good friend B. the Chef are heading down to New York City tonight to see the big installation The Gates by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in Central Park tomorrow.

Montana just defeated a move to extend its hate crimes bill to include crimes against gays in the future. OK, OK, are we surprised? Their reason: it would prevent ministers from preaching against homosexuals in the pulpit. And by now probably everybody knows about the George Bush tapes and his comment that he wouldn't "kick the gays" like his rabid Christian following wants him to do. He said he's a sinner and couldn't differentiate between sins. Now I take exception to classifying gays as "sinners" simply for being born gay but we won't go there now. What Bush's statement really means is that we're all equal morally, and it is significant that her feels this way (for those who don't know, the tapes were made without Bush's knowledge in private chat with a friend before he became President). This would explain his use of gay marriage as a campaign weapon but his abandonment of the anti-gay Constitutional amendment after the last year's election.

Well our Governor Romney is now obviously placing himself to run for the White House in 2008 and would have absolutely no hesitation to "kick the gays." He's a Mormon, highly ambitious, and a liar as he revealed yesterday on his rather blatant campaign trip to South Carolina. He said he will oppose both gay marriage and civil unions for same-sex couples. The local media were quick to pick up on this remark because in Massachusetts, Romney's stated position is anti-gay marriage but fully supportive of civil unions. He stated this position on a couple of high-visibility situations during the gay marriage debates last winter. Be aware, and prepare to oppose him whatever it takes.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Signs of spring in Massachusetts. I saw several groups of daffodils along a south-facing wall at MIT that had sprouted to about seven inches last week. These were naturalized bulbs, not seasonal plantings. Fritz is talking about getting the big maple trees on his property tapped and we might get the syrup boiler out of the barn and set up today before tomorrow's expected heavy snow. Some time in the next couple of weeks the "Infinite Corridor" at MIT, a quarter mile long hallway that runs through the heart of the main complex of buildings, will be lined with people for the moment when the setting sun shines through the great window wall at the west end and fills the entire corridor with golden light. And, oh yes--we've started the whole income tax process and will be learning even more about the confusing new tax situation for married gays in Massachusetts.

I'm heading up to Fritz's in a few minutes to spend today and the holiday tomorrow. We have the boys in tonight for the monthly Sweat Lodge and dinner. Tomorrow night is a Board of Directors Meeting on budget and financial matters for the Center. I'm swamped with work and am taking a lot up with me, but at least I get to do it with him around.

Take care and have a good holiday weekend--I'll be back some time on Tuesday.

Friday, February 18, 2005

The state legislature in New Mexico has defeated a proposed anti-gay amendment to the state's constitution.
My compliments to the legislators--it's very conservative out there and their move is a bold one. I took my daughters to the Southwest many years ago for three weeks exploring the wonders of topography and Native American culture. We had an incredible time. I didn't talk politics anywhere. I learned very fast what the lay of the land was on our little connecting flight from Phoenix to Grand Canyon Airport. I was seated next to a local Judge who, when she saw my adopted Korean daughters and heard we were from Massachusetts, delivered a lengthy talk on why Liberalism is so very evil and why she was proud there wasn't any sort of
social welfare program in the area. I said 'Oh yes?" and "uh-huh" a lot and left it at that.

What interests me is the reason New Mexico rejected the amendment. Please understand, I'll take my gay civil rights where I find them, but the reason was based firmly in the materialistic American value system. In the face of all the moral outrage and fundamentalist BS about the destruction of morals and civilization as handed down to us by god--the usual cant we've heard so much of--one female legislator urged her colleagues not to write discrimination into the Constitution lest big firms looking to relocate bypass the state in fear of a bigoted, discriminatory atmosphere. New Mexico would lose tax money, community development money, local spending, money, money, money.

Now I'm not so naive as to think that a lot of our recent progress hasn't been based on society's willingness to make a buck off the gay market. Slam dunk. You're in the mainstream when the price placed on your demographic gets high enough that the advertising boys feel you're worth exploiting. I get it. And I know also that studies have shown gay-friendly companies, like the ones the New Mexico legislator doesn't want to scare away, may be more successful because gay professionals are proven to bring lots of energy and elevated amounts of creativity to their work (ability to think outside the box, anyone?). So I'm a realist about how things happen in the US of A.

But once, just once, I'd like to see something done in American politics not because it will benefit someone financially, not because tagging it onto another, wholly unrelated bill will sneak it through, not because a deal can be made on a weapons system or drilling for oil somewhere environmentally sensitive, but just because it's the right thing to do.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

From the sublime to the . . . prosaic, I guess. Having written about our lovely Valentine's Day (an entry that drew my very first comment ever from The Man himself), here is a post about the Internal Revenue Service and (versus?) the gay/lesbian married couple in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Last night GLAD hosted a tax seminar on the brave new world of tax law inequity for same-sex marriages.

A prominent downtown Boston legal firm hosted the event, scheduled for an hour but that had already passed the ninety-five minute mark when I quietly took my leave. There were maybe a hundred of us and quite a few had signed up but didn't attend. Lesbians outnumbered gay men by eight or nine to one.

When it comes to tax law, I need all the help I can get. Legal language--subtract 37 percent of whichever amount is larger of the two possible totals on line 37 except when one spouse has non-qualifying interest income from the purchase of a farm--is not what I do in life. I learned a lot last night, but most of all I learned that circumstance has dropped all of us who are married in this state into a highly complicated, ever-evolving brand of tax hell.

First off the bat, we were advised to make sure to indicate on the Federal tax return that we are married even though the Federal government won't recognize the fact. This is so that in future, should our tax returns be required for a mortgage or other financial transaction, there will be a record of the marriage. But we must avoid the logical form to make this declaration on for fear of triggering a routine audit. From there, the meeting got bogged down, from my point of view, in a forty-five minute long explanation of all the different tax complications that can come from having a child or children--WITH cross-adoption by the other spouse, withOUT cross adoption, via artificial insemination, etc. Then we got stuck in the mortgage morass.
Fortunately they had nice platters of sliced fresh fruit and extremely decadent brownies or I might not have had the strength to make it through.

It was stressed that the popular tax prep software is not on board with gay marriage yet, and that even mainstream tax prep services are as confused as everyone else. What we know for sure is this: couples MUST file as married in Massachusetts (but CAN opt for "married, filing separately" because of the many instances where combining incomes would just slaughter them financially). However, in order to file as married in Massachusetts, the Federal tax must be computed as married on a second, dummy return that will never be filed but that has to be made up in order to compute the state tax. This second return will cost BIG bucks to most couples if they use a tax preparer.

But I held on until I could ask my particular question which dealt with the fact that Fritz and I live in differnet states--I in liberal, decadent, gay-loving Massachusetts; he in a blue state that nevertheless passed a law specifically forbidding the recognition of any other state's gay marriages or civil unions. Fritz has to file and pay some state tax to Massachusetts as he derives some income from here. So, I asked specifically if his out-of-state resident status affected all this in any way. It doesn't--we still have to go through the sham Federal return although they confirmed that "married, filing separately" was the way for us to go. GLAD which has shown tremendous leadership throughout this entire gay marriage saga, gave us a hotline number to their own lawyer group so that our tax preparers can have a shot at free legal advice whenever anything difficult comes up in preparing the returns.

So that's what I did with my night. At least I wasn't missing any professional ice hockey on the TV.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

It was a lovely Valentine's Day. I had given him flowers at the beginning of the weekend and bought some more fabric for the reupholstery of his big living room pieces that I'm doing. He had made his special swordfish with crisp green beans and those little red potatoes we both love. We opened a bottle of champagne. He surprised me with a piece of our wedding cake he had carefully saved in the deep freeze since last summer. We looked at each other across the table a lot and were in each other's arms frequently. We rented "Frida," which we had both missed in the theaters, and enjoyed it immensely. And then to bed.

The great thing in my life is not that Fritz and I can have a magical night like this on special occasions but that it's actually a frequent occurance. We're three months short of our eighth anniversary and the first anniversary of our legal marriage in Massachusetts. By some miracle, we've never gotten past the euphoria phase of first love, taken each other for granted, or said an unkind or angry word to each other. I've been knocked around a bit in life and never could have seen this coming, dreamed of being so happy, or of the simple but powerful healing touch when those strong arms pull me in, hold me and make all the tensions and disappointments of life irrelevant. I am so blessed.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

At Symphony Hall yesterday it was "all Don Quixote, all the time." On the first part of the program was Manuel de Falla's delightful thirty minute "Master Peter's Puppet Show," a thirty-five minute mini-opera based on two chapeters from Cervantes's great epic of Don Quixote. The knight errant encounters a puppet play in a town square and, as he so often does, completely confuses reality and illusion. He winds up destroying the puppet stage in an effort to stop the Moorish prince who has abducted the Christian princess.

Above and beyond the excellent perfomances by a chamber orchestra drawn from the entier Boston Symphony and a superb group of singers, the was an imaginative and delightful production that conductor Raphael Fruhbeck de Burgos had commissioned from the Bob Brown Puppet Company. The Brown Puppets are a family affair--Bob and his wife Judy, their son and daughter, and two other New York City puppeteers. The operators, in the Japanese Bunraku tradition, are dressed and hooded in black. They work partially inside and partially outside the larger puppets, allowing you to see both the "performance" of the puppet character and the art that makes it happen simultaneously.

Normally, Don Q. , sidekick Sancho Panza, Master Peter who runs the company, and the boy who narrates the action are shown as live characters and the puppets inhabit the little stage. In this version, there are two layers of "puppethood": the Don, Sancho Peter and the boy are life-sized or larger puppets; the characters in the play they are putting on or observing are portrayed by smaller puppets operated by the larger ones. It was a great tour de force for the company of six and the audience loved every moment of it.

After intermission came a much more familiar work, Richard Strauss's "Don Quixote" for massive orchestra including a wind machine. The Boston Symphony played the sox of the piece and there was a terrific solo chellist, a young Brit with a massive head of cascading, curly hair who gave the most balletic performance by a classical musician I have seen since Leonard Bernstein nearly fell off the podium conducting the New York Philharmonic. This boy swayed from side to side as he played, at one point going so far over to his left I thought he was going to topple off his little platform and land splat on the stage. He also threw his head around and bobbed up and down incessantly--it was all about hair. Hair flying around and into his eyes, hair being flipped back over his head, hair bouncing in rhythm to the music. The wonder was that he was able to play with a gorgeous, steady and perfectly controlled tone throughout.

This is the classical soloist as rock star, a new way of appearing on the concert platform that the English and Germans in particular have developed in the last decade or two. English violinist Nigel Kennedy (who performs lately just as Kennedy) is a buzz-cut, moussed little hunk with attitude. His female counterpart, Nadja Solerno-Sonenberg often appears groomed in the style of Stevie Nicks or Annie Lennox. The idea that classical musicians are somehow "pure," dedicated to an elevated, etherial image of their art, and and don't have a sexual identity is just about gone. In the U.S. soprano Dawn Upshaw sings one song cycle that was written for her in costume, lying on her back UNDER the accompanying piano because she feels this is the best way to dramatize the material. It's getting very different and VERY interesting.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Handsome, daring young San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom got a hero’s welcome from Harvard students the other day during his visit and speech on campus. Liberal and gay student groups did a brisk business signing up new members in places surrounding the visit. Newsom was militant in defending what he did in issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples and dismisses criticism that he cost the Democrats the election. In fact, he was openly critical of trends among Democrats to moderate their views and make themselves look more attractive to the radical right and fundamentalists. The same theme repeats on his official website—he’s willing to accept the possibility that his stance might cost him further advancement in public office, but stands staunchly by the belief that gay rights are civil rights.

With recent talk among Democrats revolving around recycling John Kerry and Howard Dean even as Hilary Clinton tops the latest polls on viable Democratic candidates, I had wondered where Newsom might fit in. Unless he falls into the drift to center that he criticizes in others, he’s probably much too controversial for national office in 2008--but you never know. Bush is in political difficulties on a number of fronts and support for gay rights seems to be slowly gaining ground in some surprising places. Whether in 2008 or.later, I think Newsom is someone whose time WILL come and he’s young enough that he’ll still have a lot to offer when it does. In the meanwhile, Teddy Kennedy who has nothing to lose anymore, is hammering away at Bush in a way that makes me so proud to live in this radically LIBERAL state.

Did I ever tell you guys how I absolutely HATE window envelopes? Some smart utilities and businesses make sure that when you put the payment stub back into the envelope with the check there’s at least a good chance that the business address will show up in the window, but others are others [badly] designed so that your own address can show in the window. I specialize in that. Often. I put in the check, put in the stub, seal the thing and if I don’t catch my mistake, I wind up getting my own check back in the mail in two days. It happened again this morning, and while I did catch it, the envelope was already sealed. What I don’t understand is why they don’t just send you a plain envelope with their name and address printed on it. I think it would be cheaper for them than the fancy die-cut window with the clear plastic glued on and it would save klutzes like me a lot of grief and annoyance.

I can remember EVERYTHING about my beloved except his zip code. I have his large and widely scattered family securely in my memory (and affections), I know his tastes in tea, wine and food like the back of my hand, I even know the names of his exes, but I cannot get into my head a harmless little sequence of five numbers. There’s a Freudian analyst out there somewhere who'd probably have an interesting take on this situation that came up again yesterday while doing that sweetest of February activities, addressing Valentines.

I'm taking the afternoon off for a Friday matinee concert at Symphony Hall (famed for audiences split between blue-haired suburban matrons and all the young music students attending with cheap student rush tickets) with one of my MIT theater colleagues. After that, I'm heading up north to take care of my personal Valentine who has a heavy head cold and needs lots of hands-on care.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Work with me here, please—I need some help understanding a news item I heard on the way home. PETA, the radical animal rights group, is giving fur coats to poor women. Two separate stations reported this story; neither mentioned exactly where the fur coats had come from, just that PETA decided it had a choice either to burn the coats or to give them to poor women.

Now PETA’s normal behavior when a woman wears a fur coat on the street is to insult her, ruin the coat with spray enamel, and intimidate the woman’s child or children if she has them with her by giving them comic books showing women slaughtering fur-bearing animals, etc. The obvious message is that wearing fur is not socially tolerable or morally defensible. Their tactics are controversial to say the least. I’m quite sympathetic, by the way, particularly as a theatrical designer who’s familiar with how sensationally good looking faux fur has become, and also because I love and respect all animals, not only the cute ones. But I always wonder in the back of my mind just how many PETA members wear real leather shoes and belts. However, PETA’s give-away seems to indicate that maybe it IS socially tolerable and morally defensible for SOME women to wear fur coats just so long as it’s PETA that gets to decide who those women are.

In situations like this my mind always races to consider ALL the possibilities. Such as: a poor woman gets a coat from PETA, puts it on and walks down the street where she’s insulted, has her coat ruined by spray enamel, and her children are intimidated by other PETA members who call their mommy a murderer. This is not an unlikely scenario—with that coat on, any woman’s going to look like a million bucks and PETA members on the street could hardly tell whether she’s rich or poor. In fact, the news item on WBZ radio here in Boston ended with one woman, obviously dazzled by having a mink hanging off her shoulders, saying, “with THIS on I feel SO like a woman!” Another woman, more politically aware, said “I don’t know if I should be wearing this.” I honestly think PETA should be asking itself the same question.

THE INTERNATIONALIST went very well its first week. Author Anne Washburn came last Saturday and seems to have liked what she saw. She had never seen her material played by college students (college productions are a major source of royalties for playwrights). She and our director had some interesting conversation on what’s lost by not having actors with a lot of life experience in the roles versus what’s gained by their not having too many preconceptions. Apparently she was extremely complimentary about the design (I’ve received more positive comment on my twelve foot tall concave techno windows with the faux steel pipe outriggers than almost anything I’ve put on stage in the last five years).

I would love to have met her but I needed to be out of town last weekend at Fritz’s. I hadn’t seen him for most of the previous two weeks and I needed to sleep pressed against him and wake up in his embrace very badly indeed. We had planned for him to come down tomorrow for dinner and to see the play but he’s gotten hit by a bad head cold, and very heavy weather is predicted from midnight tonight through all of Thursday and into Friday morning.

I’m beginning to get the impression that a year and a half to two years is the general life span of a blog. Two more have shut down this week. Bill and Kent just disappeared--the site’s gone with no announcement, at least none that I saw--and the wonderfully out there, irrepressible Billy from Wet Dreaming has a farewell message posted today.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

I love Cialis and Levitra ads. OK, anything that promotes erections can't be all bad, right? The first time Fritz and I saw a Levitra ad together they came to the line "In the rare event of an erection that lasts more than four hours . . . " I think we both yelled out some version of "grab the lube and call all the guys you know!"

Three weeks ago I succumbed (succame?--OK, I promise I won't take this ANY further) to a nagging concern that virtually nobody was actually reading DesignerBlog beyond one or two loyal occasional commenters, and I installed a site meter. What a surprise! Over 1600 hits in three weeks. Now I know this is nothing compared to some of the big popular blogs like Mark's Zeitzeuge which shows up on such a huge number of other bloggers' links lists, mine included. Mark can post something no more compelling than the contents of his breakfast and get a couple of dozen comments by lunchtime. One interesting fact emerged from reading the counter's stats--a quarter or more of my visitors come over from Joe.My.God. I'm delighted by that--Joe's a really great writer, a New York City boy like myself and I like to think, or at least hope, that his readers might find something of interest here.

Actually, I've learned that the most surprising and unexpected people read you without your even knowing it. On my opera list, I mostly post reviews of performances I've seen or responses to other members' questions on historical styles of scenery and stage direction. A couple of years ago the great Broadway and cabaret star Barbara Cook did a superb show at Symphony Hall, singing gorgeously and looking great at age 72 or 3. I had been a huge fan for years and posted a detailed review that was as much color commentary as an analysis of her performance. Within twenty four hours I had a very sweet note from Ms Cook herself thanking me and including a delightful story about how she has a big crush on the sexy Argentinian tenor Jose Cura and had made a deal with a clerk at Tower Records in New York to have a life-sized promotional photograph of him for her living room as soon as Tower's ad campaign was over.

Speaking of Tower and such huge chains, I had an interesting little kvetch session with a clerk at Boston's Virgin Megastore last Friday night while I was on my way to the performance of AKHNATEN. I had a card that stated in big letters that for every ten CDs you buy, you get one free. I had bought three single CDs to start the card off, but on Friday I bought three albums, one of which had three discs and the others two discs each for a total of seven. The checkout clerk punched three new holes in the card. I pointed out the total of seven CDs she had rung up. She countered that the number of CDs in the jewelcase made no difference. Each CD title, no matter how many discs were in the set, counted as one CD. Then she showed me the 3 point type in medium gray against a dark red background that spelled this all out. "So," I said, "I could buy a 14 CD set of Wagner's RING OF THE NIBELUNG (of which she had actually heard, by the way--I was totally impressed) and you will only punch one hole." Yes, that was the situation she replied. "But then," I pressed on, "if I choose for my eleventh CD a 10 disc set of Beethoven's piano sonatas, I'll get that for free, right?" Oh no. Back to the illegible type on the card we went--the free selection can cost no more than $18.99.

I have an innate sense of when I'm being taken and when I'm being treated fairly. I realized that for the customers who buy rock, pop, jazz, etc., their average purchase is likely to be one CD per title, so ten CDs to get one free probably works out literally. But in classical--and especially in opera--multi-disc sets are far more common if not actually predominant. Therefore, we have to pay a great deal more money to get OUR free item than the rock/pop/jazz fans. It seems like a BIG double standard to me.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

First Massachusetts and now New York: N.Y. Supreme Court Justice Doris Ling-Cohan has ruled that for New York State clerks to deny marriage licenses solely on the basis that the couple is of the same sex violates the state's Constitution. There will now be appeals but chances are the ruling will survive them. New York has already shown itself supportive of gay marriage, and it is surrounded by states (New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont) and most of Canada that either have, or are moving toward, gay marriage and/or civil unions. As a native New Yorker and Massachusetts resident, I feel blessed to live here in the Northeast--blue, liberal, gay-friendly and sane.

I'm not a big sports fan but I so admire Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots. He turned down the "traditional" photo op yesterday that has each coach of the opposing Super Bowl teams pose with the trophy. Belichick, who doesn't talk trash, whose team doesn't talk trash, who doesn't go in for hyperbole and who has a realistic view of what sportsmanship really means, said that the photo with the trophy should be taken with the team that wins the trophy, and for the benefit of the sports press he even spelled out T-E-A-M. No wonder they have such a winning record.

So last night I had a ticket to Philip Glass's AKHNATEN that was being produced by the Boston Conservatory of Music. We have two Music Conservatories here: the august and widely known New England Conservatory that specializes in classical music, instumental and vocal (with some sidebars like a terrific Klezmer Band they began during the presidency of composer Gunther Schuller), and The Boston Conservatory that features a wider variety of performing arts including dance, musical theater, opera and orchestral.

Glass's opera had been done here in Boston relatively recently--exactly five years ago in early February of 2000. He was in a period of his career where he was exploring highly creative independent thinkers who caused revolutions in their societies. There was an opera on Ghandi and one on Einstein but AKHNATEN seems to "have legs" as the saying goes. The score is gorgeous, filled with orchestral color, and if you can take the insistent rhythmic nature of the music, it is quite compelling. Last night's production was directed very differently from the previous excellent one by the Boston Lyric Opera. The director, noted out gay baritone
Sanford Sylvan, went for the monumental formality and stasis of Egyptian culture the better to show off Akhnaten's simple belief in one god and informal love for his family in the face of the crushing customary ritual. The penultimate scene in which the family is slaughtered by a vengeful priesthood acting in lockstep like the religious automatons they have become was shocking in its relentless hatred and cruelty.

Sylvan played the final scene very movingly. There is a jump in millenia from the scene of the murder to the last scene where contemporary tourists visit what little was allowed to remain of Akhnaten's great city. Normally, as the scene is played out, the shades of the family enter from the side and wander through the tourists, finally reunited in the afterlife but still alienated from the world and people around them. Sylvan had the tourists seated with their backs toward the audience listening to the guide's talk and gradually, one by one, the family emerged from among the superficial crowd, a challenge to new creative thought to emerge from the faceless mob.

Friday, February 04, 2005

I had hoped to be out of MIT and home early yesterday but a bit of research on the web for contemporary styles of domestic interior design in the Near and Mid-East for the next production was going so well that I stayed later than planned. Around 4:45, there was a small commotion downstairs and I went down to find hard-hatted Cambridge Public Works guys asking if we had any water pressure (turned out we didn't) and advising us to think of closing down. That's when we found out about the big water main break no more than two blocks from our little building.

By the time I got to my car, water from a big break in a thirty inch main was surging through the streets of the Kendall Square area and beginning to flood basements of big buildings, like the Marriott Hotel half a block from us, that had been ordered evacuated. All traffic between downtown Boston and Cambridge over the Longfellow Bridge was closed off and moving anywhere in Cambridge during rush hour was difficult at best. What should have been a five minute trip to the Boston University Bridge took almost half an hour. When I got home, Fritz was calling to see if I was OK through all of this as he had seen the TV news pictures and knew just how close the break was.

Whether the water ever reached our building I won't know until I get in today. Supposedly the break (which killed water supply to that entire end of Cambridge, including the whole of the MIT campus) was repaired enoughto get water back to most of the city by late evening except for the areas nearest the break itself--which would include us. Estimates are that we'll have water back by noon today.

Sometimes there are things that are just meant to be, that come about by means so impossible to explain you think they're magic or fate. I came across one yesterday while excavating my workbench in the office--a set of three authentic Chinese calligraphy scrolls and one reproduction made to match the others. The story behind
them took place six years ago at just this time of year--the big January/February production which at that time was Brecht's THE GOOD PERSON OF SETZUAN. It takes place in China in the 1930s and for decades had been done in the "approved" Berliner Ensemble style with everything gray and a heavily didactic performing style. Our director and I decided on something a bit more relaxed and colorful and I began work. The theme of the play is the difficulty for a truly moral, compassionate person to live in the modern world with its corruption and conflicting legal/political demands. I remembered being in Guangzhu (Canton) on the big trip I took my daughters on in 1985 when we saw tall stone slabs set up in a public park with the Law of Confucius carved on them. I decided to frame the acting space with some version of that, probably on giant hanging scrolls where the text is mounted on a strip of elegant silk. But I had to find the Law in really good calligraphy and I had to find it in the proper format. I had a week at most to do this and get the painting done before the paint floor had to be cleared to take all the big set pieces.

Not two hours after I had made the decision and sketched out what it should look like, a message popped up on my screen from our in-house Reuse List, a recycling list where people can post items they have but don't need and place them within the Institute rather than having them hauled away and dumped. A worker at the MIT Museum building said there were three Chinese scrolls placed outside the door of a storage room for anyone who wanted them. The museum building is a good ten minute walk from where I am and desirable items offered on this list (many of which I have grabbed over the years) tend to go very fast. But I gave it a try and found them, just slightly mildewed but otherwise in fine condition. I had no idea what the text was but thought at least I would have a stylistic model for what I had designed.

As it happened, a young Chinese-American woman was working on the production and when I got back I asked her if she could read them. She took a glance and said, "oh yes--these are three of the four scrolls that make up the Confucian Law. One's missing." I was stunned. I asked where we might be able to replicate the text of the missing panel and she said that her mother taught at Columbia in New York City, did calligraphy and could probably do it very quickly. And so it was. Professor Sun's style matched the original scrolls very nicely and I was able to get the now completed set reproduced on huge paper strips, mounted on theatrical flats and the silk brocade border reproduced in paint in time to beat my deadline.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

I'll be in final dress rehearsal for THE INTERNATIONALIST tonight from 8:00pm to about 9:40 pm and there will be notes and a short production meeting after that, so I won't be watching the State of the Union, at least not live. I went back and forth about setting a tape and finally decided I would. At the best of times--which these certainly are NOT--I don't really enjoy these annual rituals, more a blatant national pep rally than anything else, with all the staged sycophantic ovations and made-for-TV buzz phrases. But I try to keep up on current affairs, so I'll tape the thing and watch what I expect to be a revolting display of Republican party glee over "the Mandate" and Iraq and Social Security, and . . .

I don't honestly think the subject of the anti-Gay Marriage amendment or other gay civil rights will come up unless for some reason Bush is worried about recent severe criticism from the lunatic religious Right that he hasn't done enough for them in reward for their having "elected" him. But you never know. My sense is that he's been made to realize that driving wedges between areas of the country and blocks of the population based on fear and bigotry has to stop. So, I'll watch the smug smirk, listen to the droning delivery and remind myself that he's in his second term and that January 20, 2009 will eventually come and we'll be rid of the little red neck SOB once and for all.

Tonight also, the long string of fifteen to sixteen hour days ends for a while. I'll spend the afternoon clearing off my drafting table and model-making workbench, purging files and setting up for THE DEMOLITION DOWNTOWN, a little-known play by Tennessee Williams. DEMOLITION is one of a clutch of short plays he wrote in the 1970s that are nothing like the works that made him famous. There are no fading (or would-be) Southern belles, no moonlight and magnolias, no romantic nostalgia. The play lasts thirtyfive minutes in a single act and has the hard-hitting, angular language of plays by Sam Shepherd. The title page of the sacript has the little legend under the play's title that reads "Count to ten in Arabic and try to run." Fascinating--this was written in 1971.

Two suburban U.S. couples react to the country's invasion and occupation by a foreign army. We don't know who the invaders are except for that little hint on the title page. Behind the action is the sound of buildings being demolished by the occupying army. The men eventually decide to flee "to the mountains"--in either one couple's BMW or the other couple's Mercedes--to become guerrilla fighters. The wives strip, put on long trench coats and head for enemy headquarters, presumably to prostitute themselves to the high command. Whether it's to gain access to these powerful figures to kill them, or simply to survive in the kind of life style they have always known we never know. An almost direct hit by some sort of mortar or rocket brings the ceiling of the house down to end the play.

During a completely unbuttoned think session with the director, we came up with the idea of doing the play twice, the first time set in the U.S. as written in English, and the second time in the ruined house with some change of surviving wall art and furniture, in Arabic with the U.S. now as the invader. Towards the end of lunch the director asked, "do you think we can get away with this?" and I replied, "if not in an educational-intellectual institution, where?"

There were hurdles to clear, but they've been cleared. The Tennessee Williams Estate had to approve and we were delighted to hear back that they were intrigued by the idea and gave their approval. They regretted that while the play has been translated into about a dozen foreign languages, Arabic isn't one of them. We contacted our Dean of Humanities, a Lebanese-American and an Arabic speaker. He thought it was a great idea and will help locate a translator and get us in contact with the arabic-speaking community here, including actors. It's a go.

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