Thursday, November 24, 2022


I didn't want to write about Thanksgiving until after it was over. We came home, fed the cats, skipped dinner. Then I took the nap I'd managed to avoid during the festivities. Then I placed the weekly online grocery order and extensively cuddled a cat at his insistence: he's probably anxious because I'd been away all day. And now, if he doesn't come back again and occupy both my hands to hold him up, I can write this post.

We were a little nervous about going to niece T.'s house for a gathering of relatives and T.'s friends, some of whom had flown in to be there and weren't too enthusiastic about getting covid tested, and one of whom was anti-vax. (I tried as inconspicuously as possible to stay far away from her.) B. and I were the only people there wearing masks, and of course at a meal we couldn't wear them all the time.

Well, it was a good occasion. T. set out a fine spread, her husband brined the turkey before smoking it and that came out well, though the prime rib was vastly underdone. This time I brought a large casserole dish full of simply plain steamed broccoli, about the only vegetable that wasn't salad, and most of it was taken.

Among the more welcome seldom-seen visitors were T.'s youngest brother and his wife, who've just moved back here from Texas, which they'd decided they'd had quite enough of, and are now living in a house tucked up in a small fog-bound valley on the coast, which is exactly where B. and I would want to live if we were buying a house. We'd need one that didn't require stairs to get in, though.

My own out-of-town brother and his lady were there also, and I'd seen them earlier in the week when we'd taken an outing to the narrow-gauge railroad through the redwoods up in the mountains.

Hiding in the background at the party was the background music, which was Christmas songs. They're coming! But this was a greater variety than usual which made for a refreshing selection: I recognized a song from A Charlie Brown Christmas and a cover version of "You're a Mean One, Mr Grinch."

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

book review: The Eunuch

The Eunuch: A Novel by Charles H. Fischer (Gabbro Head)

The publisher, whom I know and who published an essay of mine in a scholarly anthology a few years ago, sent me an advance copy of this novel and asked me to write something about it when it was formally published, which it now has been. It is very long, about 470 pages, and I confess I have not finished reading it. I took it with me on our drive to Washington state, and read from it assiduously, but I was still less than half done when we got home and other more pressing tasks have swept me away since then, though I was not uninterested in what I was reading.

The book was recommended to me, specifically, because I am a fan of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast and the publisher thought The Eunuch shared a like air of grotesquery. I see the similarity, but I don't think they're really much alike. Peake's grotesquery is Dickensian, while Fischer's is vulgar and lewd (words of description, not condemnation) which Peake's is not. This book is filled with bodily functions, especially both the sexual - for reasons that will be apparent when I describe the setting - and the alimentary. There's much description of strange and repulsive foods, and of toiletry matters - the story is especially loaded with flatulence.

The story is a first-person narrative by a eunuch named Nergal, who is court harem-master to the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II. He wrote it all down in wedges on clay tablets, and this is the translation, though a (fictional) introduction suggests that the translator was rather free with the material. Which I have to wonder about: 470 pages of clay tablets? Fischer, or the fictional translator, is pretty good about using the words wedge or wedging instead of write or writing, and the result can be pretty funny, though occasionally he slips.

It's actually the complexity and intricate weaving of the governmental operations which are more like Gormenghast than the grotesquery, though in the manner of presentation rather than the specific content. The main plot concerns the king's responsibility to mate regularly with the inhabitants of his harem and sire lots of bastards. This will foster the health of his kingdom and make the rains come. Unfortunately this king is getting on in years and is rather impotent, and Nergal, who has to keep track of all this, is spending more time than he wants covering up the problem. Then, one day while he is trying to guide the king's member into doing its duty - yes, he's responsible for that too - the concubine absently caresses Nergal, which causes him to fall in love with her. He's a eunuch, but as has been made clear earlier, he's not entirely devoid of romantic or sexual feelings.

Oh boy. It was soon after that little plot crunch that I had to stop, but things do not look good for anyone concerned, and remember that, though some years after Nebuchadnezzar's death, Babylon fell.

The prose is fairly clear, and the storyline flows, though there's nothing slim or taut about it. It's a rather comic story in its particularly grotesque way. I think there are readers who will really enjoy this novel.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022


There was an article in the Washington Post - probably you can't see this without a subscription, sorry - about the disappearance of encores. This was among pop music groups, most of which appear to be hard rock or punk groups, who say that they dislike the ritual or performative aspects of pretending they're done and then coming back, or that the process wastes time in which they could be playing another song or just leaving and letting everyone get home sooner.

The only pop music I attend is folk concerts at the Freight, and there the encore is always expected and entirely performative. You announce that what's next is your last song, there's a big final applause after it and you walk offstage during this, leaving your instruments, and then you come right back out and play another one. Then you're done. It's ritual, it's really rather silly, but the going off and coming back doesn't waste much time. I don't see that changing.

In classical, the encore occupies a different position. In non-pops concerts the final work is usually a big and heavy one, so the encore occupies the position of a light dessert, quite different from a pop concert where it's usually another song like all the others. (Though sometimes pop bands do something different: Steeleye Span used to do encores of acappella pop-song numbers after their concerts of electric folk.) Nor are encores entirely obligatory in classical but seem to be affected by the reception: I've rarely experienced an encore when the applause wasn't highly enthusiastic, and a performer doing a series of concerts on successive evenings may play an encore one night but not the next.

There are also unwritten rules in classical as to who performs an encore. Soloists in concertos with orchestra: sometimes. Whether the evening's schedule can afford the added time seems to be a factor here. Visiting soloists giving recitals: often. Visiting ensembles, from chamber groups to orchestras: usually. Ensembles playing in their home auditoriums: almost never.

Encores are traditionally rousing and lively, but in recent decades I've noticed a tendency towards slow and quiet encores, if only to calm the audience down and make them stop applauding so the orchestra can leave. Classical custom is that conductors, and soloists if any, go on and off stage ("curtain calls" it's still called though there is no curtain). The orchestra, which had stood up at the conductor's motion to share in the applause, sits down again when the conductor walks off, and by established custom can't leave until the applause ends. I've seen conductors short-circuit this by grabbing the concertmaster by the hand and dragging him or her off with them; then the rest of the orchestra can follow.

Sometimes the conductor or soloist announces the encore. Sometimes you can't hear what they're saying. Once I was reviewing and misheard what they were saying; that was embarrassing. Sometimes when reviewing I have to contact the concert management afterwards and ask. Sometimes they don't know but think they do: that, too, can be embarrassing. Rarely when a piece sounds distinctive or familiar but I don't know what it is, I hum it into a voice mail to myself and then look it up when I get home, usually in Barlow & Morgenstern's theme index.

Monday, November 21, 2022

assaulted by battery

The nearly four-week saga of our nonfunctioning garage door opener is over.

It was back in the last week of October that this automated device, which we'd had installed three years ago to replace a rattling old one, started to beep, persistently and annoyingly.

Step 1. Find message on the wall-mounted control that says the battery needs to be replaced.

Step 2. Fail to find a manual.

Step 3. Online queries reveal where the battery is to be found in the device.

Step 4. Remove the battery. This is no pocket-sized 9-volt or D-cell. No, it's a huge honking four-inch cube of a lead battery which must weigh at least 30 pounds. Two metal tabs stick out of the top, around which slip plastic cuffs at the ends of wires that come out of the battery compartment, and therein lies the rub. At least removing it causes the beeping to stop.

Step 5. Phone various door installers in hopes they will sell me a battery. They don't keep them in stock.

Step 6. Fail to find batteries listed in the manufacturer's online parts catalog.

Step 7. Phone the manufacturer. Uninformed fellow there can't tell me which kind of battery I have, as the model number on the battery isn't the parts number in their catalog, but he does tell me where on the website to find the right box to fill in the word "battery."

Step 8. Order what looks like a likely battery. It arrives in 2 days. Alas, wrong kind of connector, wires with plastic cuffs on this part instead of the other part.

Step 9. Phone up the manufacturer again. Better-informed fellow tells me how to ship the wrong battery back (I haven't yet learned if I'm getting a refund), a little saga of its own because FedEx, even though they shipped the thing to me, is afraid of batteries; manufacturer fellow also confirms that some other battery in their catalog is the right one, which I couldn't tell because the photo on the web site doesn't show the tabs. But he also tells me the same battery may be had for less expense at Home Depot.

Taking this advice is a mistake that costs me nearly three weeks.

Step 10. Visit Home Depot, only to find they don't have the batteries in stock. They have to be shipped to the store. Actually they don't have the same battery but one listed as "compatible" with it. I should have stopped there, but I order it. This is a Monday. It's supposed to arrive on Wednesday of the following week.

Step 11. On the Thursday, having had no word, I phone the store. A voice-activated message tree takes me to the wrong department, but the guy there is willing to look up my order. It's arrived but has to be "prepared," he says. How long will that take? For that, he has to transfer me to the right department, whose person declares that no, the battery has not arrived, no further explanation available.

Step 12. Phone Home Depot corporate customer service. They find a notification that it had arrived the previous week! But they can't reach anyone at the store to explain this, so they offer to re-order the battery at no extra cost. I roll my eyes at this but agree. (After this call I get an automated satisfaction survey. I was pretty satisfied with this person, but fortunately there's a question about whether you would shop at Home Depot again and I gave the strongest NO available.)

Step 13. Wait another week for the re-order. This time the battery arrives and I drive to Home Depot to pick it up. And when opened it ... has little plastic cuffs sticking out of the top. Doesn't fit onto the cuffs on my machine's wires. Not "compatible."

Step 14. Back to the manufacturer's web site. Order what the second guy had told me was the right battery. It arrives in 3 days. It has tabs. They fit in the plastic cuffs. Stuff the heavy battery back in the compartment, wait a day for it to charge (as advised by the web site instructions). Door now opens. Success.

So next time the battery fails - which may be in only another three years, because this model has lots of online reviews complaining about its short lifespan - I can hop from step 4 directly to step 14 and skip all the others.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

three concerts

1. It seemed to me that, of the Music at Kohl Mansion concerts this season, the one most worthy of reviewing should be the 40th anniversary celebration, so I covered that. In addition to commissioning a new work for the occasion, they revived selected movements from two previous commissions.

I once got some reader feedback for describing the Kohl audience as "mostly elderly Hillsborough gentry," Hillsborough being an exceedingly wealthy nearby suburb, but my impression of them as very conservative in their musical tastes was confirmed by the program book's story of how the first commission, in 1987, was made to Ernst Bacon because he was a fairly conservative composer who wouldn't disturb an audience that "was comfortable with Beethoven and Brahms, and only ventured hesitantly into Bartok."

Nevertheless, as basically tonal as the Bacon work was, and far more so than the querulously academic David Carlson commission that followed, it was as nothing to the placidly agreeable, though well constructed and crafted, piece by Shinji Eshima premiered tonight. The audience loved it.

It was written, without any clogging or congestion in the ensemble, for a quintet of assorted instruments including a marimba. The one previous occasion Kohl had featured a marimba was by the same composer. This time they didn't try to lift the marimba intact onto the performing platform (when they did that before, all the mallets and sheet music piled on top fell off), but assembled and disassembled it on stage.

2. Last fall, MTT canceled half of the second week of his two-week return visit to SFS, due to being weak from still recovering from brain surgery. This year he is in much better health - he looked healthier - and did the whole two weeks. I attended the second one, an all-Brahms program featuring the Serenade No. 1, a rarely-heard huge expanse of gentle tranquility. And then they played the Piano Concerto No. 1, which is supposed to be stormy, in the same gently tranquil, extended way. It was supposed to be 40 minutes but lasted closer to an hour.

Emanuel Ax was soloist, and for an encore MTT, announcing a theme of "Old Jews play the old masters," sat down at the piano next to Ax and they played a four-hand rondo by Schubert. I'm sure Brahms would not have objected.

3. I also ventured up to the Freight for a band called Altan, because I felt it was time for a little more Irish folk music in my life. Four-to-five piece group - fiddle(s) and accordion, guitar and bouzouki - gave a typical mix of fast dances and slow songs, with a reedy vocalist. Enjoyable, which is what I was there for.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Garth speaks

John Garth gave a talk at Marquette University today in connection with the Tolkien manuscript exhibit. I listened in via Zoom.

At one point he quoted from The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf musing how he'd like to be able to wrest a palantír to his control, "to look across the wide seas of water and of time to Tirion the Fair, and perceive the unimaginable hand and mind of Fëanor at their work." (Doing what? Creating the palantíri, among other things.)

And John said how much he'd like to be able to perceive the unimaginable hand and mind of Tolkien at their work - creating The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, among other things.

Yes. Sigh.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

on beyond zebra

Back in late July, I visited my doctor for a check-up, and while I was there, a couple nurses' aides came in and jabbed me with a pair of vaccines I needed, one in each shoulder. (This had nothing to do with either covid or the flu, both of which were handled separately at other times.)

One of those was for shingles, and I was told that this would require a second shot in 3-4 months. The aide sat at the exam room computer to make an appointment for my second shot, stopped, made a phone call, then told me it was not possible to make an appointment that far in the future. That's 3-4 months. I thought I'd had appointments longer out than that in the past, but that's what they said. So I made a note in my calendar to contact them in October about this.

Before I could contact them, they called me. This is mid-October now. Ah, yes, you need your second shingles shot. Let's see, our earliest available appointment is ... in March.

March? That's in five months! Back in July, you couldn't make an appointment as far off as 3 months. And quite unsuitable for the shingles shot, being 8 months after my previous one when it should be 3-4.

So they offered to look up others of their locations and found a medical office building some ten miles away where I could get one in a few weeks. Much less of a backup.

So thither I drove yesterday and had no trouble, beyond discovering that afternoon commuter traffic was already heavy at 3 pm - I don't often go that way in the afternoon - so I ducked off the freeway and took obscure back roads that I knew about offhand because I've been absorbed by street maps of the area since I was four years old.

The vocational nurse who gave me this one told me that I'd definitely suffer some cold- or flu-like side effects from this jab by the evening, but so far I haven't, just the usual sore arm.

Bizarre as the scheduling process here has been, it's much less complex than the saga of replacing our garage door opener's battery, which is approaching three weeks and still ongoing.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

concert review: Meta4

A rather painfully elaborate name for a string quartet. My editors sent me to review them because it seemed like one of the more intriguing things that Stanford would be putting on this term.

The concert was in the Studio, a small cube in Bing's basement. Ostensibly the reason to put concerts here is for more intimate, smaller-scale performances, and I repeated the party line in the review, but regardless of the unusual repertoire this was just a string quartet concert, the kind which Bing's acoustically excellent main space can handle just fine. I suspect the real reason for putting concerts in the cube, as has been when I've been there before, has been their narrow audience appeal. It would be too dismaying to face a sea of empty seats in the main space. Even the cube was far from full.

But it was an enriching artistic experience, not least because I finally heard a piece by Kaija Saariaho that I really like, and one by Amy Beach that isn't all wet. For once I knew beforehand for sure that I'd have two tickets, so I invited an athenais along and she was also enriched. The only problem was chairs not made for concentrated sitting. Now I'll associate Sibelius's string quartet with having a sore butt.

Friday, November 11, 2022

one thrilling play

I've been to the Tabard Theatre in downtown San Jose before, most recently for The Odd Couple, which was well done, but a small audience meant for rather anemic laughter. I thought maybe a serious thriller might work better if it were a good enough play, and this one looked promising: Wait Until Dark by Frederick Knott and Jeffrey Hatcher.

It's set in a basement apartment in New York some time probably in the 1950s or maybe 60s. It's got a complicated plot but it ends up with the woman who lives there being menaced by a psychopathic criminal who is sure she has the valuable missing MacGuffin. The gimmick is ... she's blind, so she turns the lights out on him.

Only a small part of the play actually takes place in total darkness, and there's another small part where it's just light enough to see shapes; the rest there is a light on somewhere, even if it's only coming from an open fridge. (But why, if she's pulled all the fuses, is there power to the fridge at all?)

The principals, Jaime Wolf (who is not blind) as the blind woman and Brandon Silberstein as the psychopath, are Tabard veterans and were excellent, but so was the rest of the cast who are mostly new to the company. Despite the rather confusing, dumped-in-at-the-deep-end opening, the plot proceeds apace, and our heroine's preparations for the confrontation which she knows is coming contribute to the suspense.

It turned out to be a good show and well worth the effort everyone put into it. It started out as a Halloween show, but it's still playing through this Sunday, so I'd recommend it to locals.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

the Butler did it

It has been brought to my attention, by someone who actually follows Twitter, that "Sir David Butler, the father of psephology, or election science, died [on Tuesday] at the age of 98."

The person posting this was Michael Crick, who published a biography of Sir David a few years ago. I read that book and wrote here about it and the acknowledgment therein of my small contribution to it.

Crick writes in his tweets that Butler "promoted the word 'psephology' to describe the new study of election science." He writes carefully. Butler promoted the word, he didn't invent it. My contribution was to assist Crick's researchers in discovering who did invent it.

It was C.S. Lewis and the Inklings.