Sunday, August 06, 2006

In the Penny Press! Rats and rapture and HSM!

Hysterical tweens, crackpot rants, and pearls of wisdom from ... Nick Lachey? Why, it must be another wacky fun-filled installment of In the Penny Press!

We begin today's journey with a trip down memory lane, prompted by the latest issue of The Weekly Standard. In it, Peter Savodnik writes about the famous concert Vladimir Horowitz gave in Moscow in 1986, 61 years after he left his homeland. Savodnik astutely comments that Horowitz's concert was overshadowed by nuclear disaster at Chernobyl that happened a week later, but he's also right about the seismic shockwaves this concert sent through the Soviet Union (even though most people in Russia itself had to hear the concert over foreign airwaves, since it wasn't broadcast in Russia).

I'm sure by this point it will not surprise you to learn that yours truly was at that concert. I was in Moscow visiting my old friend Tatiana, and I confess, I was lingering, since we were both wondering if the concert would actually come off. Something like 90 percent of the tickets went to government officials, and to put it mildly, Tatiana was a government official under Gorbachev - so much so that she was able to get me a ticket too. She knew that I was an enormous Horowitz fan - in my opinion, he was the greatest pianist of the 20th century, and I'd seen him perform many times in New York (I took Tatiana to one such concert, and we were sitting there with two imbecile friends of mine - whose loft we were borrowing - when the house manager stepped outside the curtain and announced that there'd been a change in the night's plans. Our hearts sunk, thinking Horowitz had pulled one of his legendary disappearing acts. So imagine our joy when it was announced that after intermission, instead of the rather insipid Mozart piece on the program, Horowitz would be playing the mighty, the magnificent Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto! The crowd applauded heartily, and the performance itself! Oh! It was rapturous. The Tchaikovsky ends with a violently fast ripple on the keys, a thing that's virtually inhuman to pull off and that lasts only a few seconds ... and Horowitz not only did it, he did it with such flair and ease that it was chilling as well as beautiful.

Anyway! Tatiana got me a ticket, and we sat together in a house that was so packed it was comical ... not only were people sitting along every inch of the aisles, but complete strangers were sitting in each other's LAPS in the aisles. And the concert was delightful, and the explosions of applause after every piece were deafening. And I left Russia by train the next day, so I missed out on all the radiation.

A very different subject (or maybe not ... ulp ...) was raised in the latest issue of the New Republic, where Michael Crowley writes about BOREDOM. Naturally this caught my eye, since boredom is the great enemy of my life, stalking me, always at my elbow. I can honestly say I've constructed virtually all of my life around the single-minded goal to avoid boredom, I hate it so much. I never leave the house without a book. I virtually never leave without a book, a magazine, and some blank paper. I never stand blankly in line, and I've received more than a few unkind glares for writing during concerts (alas, not everybody can be Horowitz) or plays. But I've found that the huge majority of life's experiences are like an average episode of 'Lost' - lots of padding and only a few bits to which you actually need to pay attention. Of course, the vapidity of culture isn't anything new, and I'm not saying those few bits aren't WORTH the attention .... but life's unadulterated PURE experiences aren't thick on the ground.

Take Sebastian's play, this coming weekend. It's been his consuming passion for three weeks now, and it'll owe whatever juice it has to his sweat and effort. But it's community theater. THREE HOURS of community theater. So with all due respect to Sebastian and his young cast, I'll certainly be writing during the performance. This probably horrifies you, but try to see it from my perspective! I'll certainly be paying enough attention to spot when I should pay more, but if I sit there and give this thing three hours of my undivided attention, the simple truth is I'm going to come out HATING it and considering the entire evening a waste of time.

It's the same with my evenings here in this room. After 9, I have a) a VHS tape in the player, b) a DVD in the player, c) music playing from my computer, d) the night's writing spread out on my lap, and e) my cellphone fully charged and plugged into my ear. This isn't from fecklessness - I have pretty healthy powers of concentration - it's a) to maximize what I get done from 9 to midnight (I SO wish I could play a tape and a DVD simultaneously, on a split screen, say), and b) to make absolutely, 100 percent sure no BOREDOM creeps in. Boredom drives me crazy, and it makes me do bad, bad things.

Anyway, this Crowley character makes the same mistake so many people do: he conflates being bored with being IDLE:

Of course, you don't need to be in jail to discover the joys of boredom. Lately, I've come to look forward to long rides on the train from Washington to New York - where there's no WiFi and not a television in sight. Turning off the BlackBerry and just looking out the window feels like an act of spiritual emancipation.

Obviously (or maybe not so, since he doesn't seem to see it himself, the boob), Crowley is not bored during those train rides, he's comfortably idle. I obviously have nothing against idling ... how could I, when I learned it from a species that so excels at it (although even I am forced to give first prize in this to cats ... grumblegrumble...)? I guess it's just the writer's sloppy thinking that bugs me ...

Then we hop over to The Spectator just briefly, where James Fleming reviews four new books on animals and gives highest praise to Rat by Jonathan Burt (by curious coincidence, I got a copy of this in the mail on Friday and consumed it this weekend, so I can attest that Fleming's praise is not misplaced). Here's a fascinating bit:

It is arresting to read Burt on the pathology of the Black Death. The disease spread at a rate of five miles a day. But rats (which alone carry the plague flea), are not wanderers: 250 meters and they've had enough. So was it an airborne infection? Was it in fact anthrax, which also produces buboes on its victims?

I'd never before considered that speed-of-infestation argument against the Black Death being bubonic plague, but I wonder if it really holds up to scrutiny. True, the plague spread faster than ONE rat typically likes to move, but what's to stop the FLEAS from travelling that fast via MANY rats? But in any case, Burt is wrong about his choice of alternative: I've seen what anthrax looks like on its victims, and I've seen what bubonic plague looks like, and the two don't look the same. We have many very detailed descriptions of the Black Death - it certainly wasn't anthrax as anthrax currently presents itself. I suppose it's possible that it was an ancestor of the current disease....

And speaking of 'the current disease' - we move over to the latest issue of Rolling Stone, which, against all odds, had quite a bit of fascinating stuff! The cover article of course asks the question of whether or not George W. Bush is, in fact, the worst president the country's ever had. The article is written by Sean Wilentz, the author of the much-lauded The Rise of American Democracy, and he does a fair and balanced job of sorting through past Presidential failures. He seems to have a special axe to grind against Andrew Johnson (for dropping the ball on Reconstruction), Warren Harding (for a spectacularly corrupt administration), and Herbert Hoover (for dropping the ball on the Great Depression).

His case comes down pretty squarely against President Bush, although he doesn't come right out and call him the worst president in history. Wilentz goes through the usual list - the exploding federal deficit, the radical splitting of the country, the quagmire in Iraq, the war on science and the environment, etc.

So what does Steve think, you breathlessly ask?

Well, my first reaction to pieces like this is always to hold my breath hoping none of my favorites gets spanked. In addition to Taft, there's John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and, lately, Gerald Ford (and of course my all-time favorite president, Josiah Bartlett from 'The West Wing'! His favorite movie is 'The Lion in Winter'! But Aaaargh! Remind me to tell you how that fact is BUNGLED when it's mentioned on the show!) ... and none of them gets even so much as a mention.

My second reaction was to test Wilentz' choices for the OTHER worst presidents. With Johnson I agree completely - he was a racist and a scoundrel. But honestly, what could Hoover have done about the Depression? He oversaw interest-free government loans to businesses, he started public works projects that were unprecedented in American history, and his much-maligned catch phrase, 'prosperity is just around the corner,' was intended to give HOPE to the country (also, Wilentz seems to forget the Great Depression was a world-wide phenomenon, created and sustained by a bewilderingly complicated interplay of factors). ANYBODY in the Oval Office at the time would have been stymied.

And then there's Wilentz' other object lesson, James Buchanan, whom he condemns for allowing the American Civil War to explode into being. But again, I don't see this - Buchanan insisted that the federal government didn't have the power to STOP states from succeeding from the Union. And he was right. He was right, no matter how much I hate the states who tried it, no matter how much I detest the rank disloyalty of it. The Union was VOLUNTARY. We entered into it together, eyes wide open, in rebellion AGAINST a greater commonwealth that forbade our leaving. No matter how unpopular it is to say it today (and no matter how much I personally appreciate the outcome), Lincoln had no constitutional right to go to war with the Confederacy. Buchanan wasn't wrong for saying it, altough maybe the right and wrong of it don't enter in as much as I think they should.

Ultimately, I think the worst offense President Bush has committed is also the one whose very existence might end up making questions like this moot. Worse than the deficit, worse than open-ended foreign wars, he's made HUGE headway into transforming the office of the president into ... well, into something it wasn't meant to be. Into the very thing it was meant NOT to be. Criticizing the president is now a crime punishable by summary arrest and indefinite imprisonment without lawyer or trial. Whenever I point that out to people, they scoff and say 'come on! be realistic! that's not gonna happen' ... but my point is, there's nothing PREVENTING it from happening but that very attitude. By that amorphous, hazy attitude that goes something like 'that wouldn't ever happen' or 'WE know who those laws are meant for' ... responses like that.

I always want to GRAB these people (but I won't ... lawsuits, lawsuits...) and say, "Hey! You've let a wolf inside your house! What kind of impact is it going to have on him if you go around saying 'oh, he's not going to eat the baby! That's not going to happen HERE!'? How long do you think that's going to restrain him once he gets hungry?' The Patriot Acts are law - how can ANYBODY be comfortable RELYING on Dick Cheney's kindness?

I guess what I'm trying to say, in response to this article, is that I think it's entirely likely that George W. Bush is the first of a new KIND of president, and so not comparable to those who've gone before. I certainly hope I'm wrong, but if there's one thing I've learned from human history, it's this: power, once created, STAYS until it's DESTROYED. It never, never just meekly goes back to NOT being power. A presidency accountable to the people and answerable to their elected representatives in Congress ... you tell me: doesn't that ALREADY sound a little quaint, like something from a bygone era we probably won't see again?

Well, at least we'll always have Nick and Jessica! (I know, I know ... from the sublime to the ridiculous ... but really, what other response CAN there be, to contemplating the possibility that we as Americans are no longer free?) The same issue of Rolling Stone had a long interview with Nick Lachey about life after the most famous divorce in American history - the new life, the new album, etc. That album features thinly-veiled songs ABOUT his breakup with Jessica, and like everybody else, I just reflexively thought he was using the media limelight to move his product.

So imagine my surprise when the interviewer actually raised that question and got this reply:

I read somewhere somebody was saying, 'oh, he's capitalizing on his failed marriage to sell records.' That really pisses me off. Like I wouldn't rather be singing about how great love is? About my newborn son? Give me a fucking break. I don't get to choose where my life goes.

Which stopped me right in my tracks, especially that bit about his newborn son. That has the real ring of a guy whose dreams were crushed, and it made me feel a squirt of sympathy for him. For what that's worth.

But so as not to end things on a sad note, let's move on to the last item of interest in that same issue of Rolling Stone. And that item concerns ...


Yes, I know ... you're still stubbornly refusing to watch this greatest of all human inventions (including antibiotics and the plays of Shakespeare), but nevertheless, the REST of the world is singing along to the same soundtrack. But don't take my word for it, just listen to Rolling Stone:

As Bryan Adams once warned, the kids wanna rock. That's why 'High School Musical' has become the year's biggest pop sensation, without meaning jack to anybody born before Tupac died [not true, says Steve! Not true, SINGS Steve!]. When the Disney Channel movie debuted in January, it became a kiddie smash, aimed at the six-to-thirteen age group who love 'Hollaback Girl' but aren't allowed to use that kind of language at home. Yet nobody expected the soundtrack to blow up into 2006's biggest hit, selling twice as much as James Blunt in half the time. They're already buzzing about a film sequel, a stage tour, a TV series, and, no doubt, High School Musical on Ice!


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