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October 28, 2007

What a Pain in the Ear!

Of Bees and Men: A Tragic Collision


If a person bicycles enough, they accumulate stories.

Most of the time I bike through the desert canyons and citrus fields of Ventura County without incident. It is just me and the occasional car passing by on a rural highway. My legs work, my lungs burn, and my heart pumps: I reflect on my life and finish refreshed, most of the time, and that is the point. I enjoy the solitude, and I enjoy an unremarkable trip on the back roads and farmer’s fields of western Ventura County.

But there are exceptions. For example, while biking Southern California streets over the past ten years four or five times cars have driven by and the occupants have thrown objects at me. They almost always miscalculate the lead they need to give in order to hit me and the object – almost always a can of soda – whizzes by in front of my head, missing me by just a bit. As they throw the object at me, they speed away and sometimes look back at me. Almost always I can see it is a young male and his friend, and sometimes I can hear them laugh. Once I was hit flat in the back by a one liter, half-full plastic bottle of Pepsi Cola, and I was so stunned by the impact that it took a few seconds for me to realize what had happened. The most recent time someone threw something at me from their car, they were stopped ahead at a stoplight. As I sprinted to try and catch up with him the driver he pulled a panicky quick right turn at the stoplight and peeled out rather than wait for me to catch up with him. In the passenger seat his girlfriend ducked down either in embarrassment -- or in an effort to evade my seeing her face. Just another random act of aggression on a total stranger!

Sometimes the foibles are more natural, less manmade. For example, once a bumblebee flew right into my mouth. Out of the periphery of my vision I saw the speck flying right into my path and then into my mouth as it and I collided by chance. I immediately spit it out, but not before it stung me on the inside of my lip. My lip grew swollen and I stopped to examine what had happened. “I reckon if a person bikes long enough, things like this happen,” I consoled myself at the time.

This afternoon it happened again. I was speeding along during a beautiful Sunday afternoon and from the left a bee flew into my path and then into my left ear where it buzzed in panic and confusion. I quickly used my finger to scoop it out and continued on my ride, but the increasing pain in my ear informed that indeed I had been stung. Some twenty minutes later I arrived home and my wife could still see the stinger hanging from the inside of my ear; she used tweezers to remove and show it to me.


If a person bikes enough miles, things like this happen…..

The offending stinger, after my wife removed it from my ear with tweezers.

October 27, 2007

From Children and Family to Work and Careers?

Mother with child on vacation in Pacific Grove, California.


The social changes stemming from women entering the workforce in large numbers towards the end of the 20th century and the rise in the cost of living find more American families nowadays juggling the world of family and the needs of family. American women, in particular, find themselves struggling to juggle the demands of career and the those of family. Not surprisingly, contemporary couples have fewer children than in the past. Families don't need more kids to help on the farm as in the past, and Americans barely replace themselves -- a bare 2.1 children per couple.

It is in this context that I read the following in the newspaper today:

Children have become investments who need to be read to, Einsteined and schlepped to tuba lessons and Mandarin classes. They need their own rooms, the latest toys and college funds. And it all has to be done while both parents pursue increasingly challenging careers.
"We changed from a child-oriented society to a work-oriented society - people are on call 24 hours a day." Professor Steven Mintz said. "And that changes your attitude towards who you may love and care for, but they can't take up too much of your time because that will conflict with your work obligations."

Is it true we Americans have replaced as the main priority in our lives "children" and "family" with "work" and "career"? Could such a sweeping generalization really hold water? In what ways might it be true? In what ways might it be false?

If so, when did this become true? Did we vote on it? Did it just happen?

Was society really so "child-oriented" in 1907? Is it really all about work in 2007?

To what final effect?

Mother at work with children other than her own.

October 21, 2007

The Risk of Living in California

"It was as if the light falling to earth was put through an orange-colored filter, and the sun was a raging red orb."


Upon awakening this morning we felt and heard the vicious winds whipped up against the side of our house, as well as the trees bending and straining against the winds -- news reports clocked the winds at around 50 mph throughout Southern California.

This was of interest to, but we were not alarmed. I went to a restaurant, ate breakfast, read the newspaper, and sat down to write. The usual early Sunday afternoon routine.

By noon there was a very distinct smell of fire in the air. This is not unusual for this type of weather with the Santa Ana winds and hot, dry conditions. There is a fire somewhere. Okay.

By one in the afternoon the sky had turned orange and I had become alarmed. It was as if the light falling to earth was put through an orange-colored filter, and the sun was a raging red orb. This was all a result of fires raging throughout Southern California. There was a major fire threatening Malibu to the south, and fires closer to home: to the east in the wide Castaic/Piru region, and one to the south between Moorpark and Camarillo in the Santa Rosa Valley area. Smoke from those fires grew denser by the hour.

PHOTOS: fire1, fire2, and fire3.

By two in the afternoon the smoke was much thicker still. The smoke had resulted in skies so darkened that everyone had turned their lights on as if it were evening. When walking outside and facing the fierce wind, my eyes stung and watered. I would turn my head away from the wind to protect them from the smoke.

PHOTOS: fire1, fire2, fire3, fire4, fire5, fire6, fire7, fire8, fire9, and fire10.

The forecast was that the wind would not die down for another two days. The winds blew this smoke straight towards us, and this was going to continue for awhile. Did I want my baby daughter breathing this air?

No. I was to be up in the Bay Area Tuesday evening, and I decided to get there a bit earlier than planned. We packed up the car and left.

"The smoke had resulted in skies so darkened that everyone had turned their lights on as if it were evening."

October 20, 2007

Rise of the Demagogues

"Russia needs a strong state power and must have it. But I am not calling for totalitarianism.”

What exactly is he calling for then?


The past few years have seen the rise of a handful of authoritarian leaders around the world who have taken great strides to eliminate any checks to their power inside their nations. They have outlawed alternative political parties and muffled the press towards portraying almost exclusively government-sponsored messages. These leaders have sought to make themselves almost synonymous with governmental power, and they have largely succeeded. There are no significant opposition political parties in Russia or Venezuela. Newspapers and TV networks critical of the government have been banned or brought to heel – no longer is there any independent media to speak of.

Democracy has much suffered in these countries, and perhaps one could sum it up thusly: we have seen a resurgence of demagogues.

Hugo Chavez, Vladimir Putin -- they have this in common: they hate the United States, they whip up their support from the lower ranks and the uneducated, and they speak to the fears and insecurities of their peoples.

They also have this in common: their reigns are almost entirely funded by rising oil prices. They are regimes perilously dependent on oil and unstable oil prices for any prosperity they might experience. And the past few years, which have seen sky-high oil prices, have been very good to them. They have funded their regimes on lavish oil profits, to the tune of billions of dollars.

But nothing lasts forever, and oil prices will come down. What then?

The worst part of corrupting a political culture with the worship of one supreme leader is what to do once he is gone. A temporary illusion of unity brought about by coercive governmental power can weaken institutions and civil society to the point that one suffers the succession crises that plagued the Roman Empire that eventually turned it into a brittle dictatorship – and Rome into a scene of unending civil chaos. When power devolves so heavily onto one person, the institutions that anchor a society in good times and bad diminish. Civil society under authoritarian regimes does not rest on the many pillars of many differing and independent interests – it relies on this one support of the Man in Power and his cohorts, and when this comes to an end – what next? Who says? Is there any way to change the regime of a once powerful strongmen whose star has faded among his people. When the bloom is off the rose -- when it is time to go and to go now -- what then? As Jan Masaryk claimed, "Dictators are rulers who always look good until the last ten minutes." Are there mechanisms for the transfer of power? Or does it come down to violence and who has more power? Does an independent judiciary hold any sway? Does the law mean anything anymore? Or is the law what the Maximum Leader says it is? Is there any real government independent of the Man at the Helm at any one time? Or does that Leader become the government? To whom is the army loyal, for example? The secret police?

It is not necessarily that Putin or Chavez themselves are horrible despots who will fill the jails with dissidents or kill off their adversaries. It is that in enlarging themselves so much they will subvert the democratic process in a way that will take decades to rebuild, in my opinion. Their corruption of the democratic process will be profound and long-lasting. Policemen and soldiers and other civil servants will come to serve more the Man in Power than the institutions they serve. Political loyalty to one Supreme Leader will become more important than doing one’s duty according to how it should be done. The law, and the government, will become whatever the Man in Power says it is.

Mark my words: not next year, nor in five years – but in ten years Venezuela and Russia will reap the rewards in sporting political cultures where one man was able to eliminate meaningful political opposition and destroy pluralism -- the daily practice of a multilateral political culture where power is shared through many fonts. It is a return to histrionic Peronism and caudillos in Latin America, to tight-lipped Czardom and Red Square authoritarianism in Russia.

Rule by commissar didn’t work out well the first time, and I see no reason why it will be any better now. Think of civil unrest and huge street fights between the government and outlawed opposition groups -- ten years from now: mark my words. John Adams hoped to create a stable government under a written constitution in a “government of laws, and not of men.” Putin and Chavez are helping to create nations graven in their image, and the law suffers in their long shadow. Their societies will suffer in the long-term. What about when the first real crisis hits their country? How will disagreements be brokered?

“Big leaders make for a small people.” The Russians and Venezuelans are playing with fire in allowing one person to define their political culture so much.

Ten years: mark my words.

"Big leaders make for a small people."

October 06, 2007

Angela Hewitt Plays Bach

"Hewitt is one of these world-class musicians whose live performances of even the most technically difficult music do not contain any mistakes of note, yet still I was a bit dislocated at hearing such a different interpretation of this music."

So I saw Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt at the Orange County Performing Arts Center last night play all 24 of the preludes and fugures from Book I of J.S. Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier.”

She played them all, one after the other, as in a trance. No sheet music, either. She had them memorized.

I am not kidding.

I was lucky enough to have fourth row seats just behind her, so I could watch perfectly her hands move up and down the keyboard.

She played a little over two hours straight from memory very difficult keyboard music; I was much fatigued by the end at having to concentrate so closely. At times there were four and five “voices” in the contrapuntal music, but Hewitt has only two hands -- and only one brain. For her, it seemed more like an endurance contest. She had three full glasses of water next to her $165, 000 Fazioli piano, and she would pause every twenty five minutes of so and drink one down. And if this were not enough, Hewitt was going to play the Well Tempered Clavier, Book II straight through that next Sunday evening. I am sure she would do that from memory, also.

Knowing I was in the presence of greatness and an artistry of absolutely the highest level, I as much watched Hewitt play as concentrated on the music. It reminded me of once or twice when I have seen master actors playing Shakespeare: the person seems totally “in the zone,” absolutely absorbed. One had the sense that their brains were operating at a level most will never know. A person knew they were in the presence of great art.

Angela Hewitt’s interpretation of Book I I found to be… interesting. There were moments she was clearly in synch with the music, and then there were moments when she slowed waaaaaay down and threw me. She is a very sensual yet exact player, and I am more used to a more muscular (masculine?) way of burning through these preludes and fugues. For nearly twenty years I have András Schiff and Keith Jarrett playing much more according to Wanda Landowska’s famous dictum: "You play Bach your way, and I'll play it Bach's way." I frankly like how Glenn Gould “goes off the reservation” and plays an idiosyncratic Bach that is as singular as its performer. The music almost seems as much Gould as Bach, but I like that. Hewitt, another Canadian, has been compared to Gould. But Hewitt did not capture me like Gould does.

Perhaps it is the fault of the technology – how we listen to music nowadays. Back in Bach’s day, one listened to all music live, with mistakes and a different interpretation each time. I have listened to two or three recorded versions over and over again on CD, and any mistakes or flaws were ironed out in the recording studio in those versions, never to be heard. It is a polished and “finished” version. Consequently, the expectations for a live performance are sky-high. I listened to a brief lecture by a music professor before the main concert, and I instantly heard and cringed at every little mistake he made in playing these fabulously difficult preludes and fugues; I am used to hearing studio recorded versions. I am used to hearing it polished to a high gloss and without obvious flaws. Hewitt is one of these world-class musicians whose live performances of even the most technically difficult music do not contain any mistakes of note, yet still I was a bit dislocated at hearing such a different interpretation of this music.

I am not passing judgment on Hewitt’s artistry. I am nothing but a rank music amateur. I am just trying to process the evening.

I will have to think more on it.

"She played them all, one after the other, as in a trance. No sheet music, either. She had them memorized."