Thursday, February 21, 2019

documentary film review: Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin

I drove (rental car, natch) down to Santa Cruz for a special presentation sponsored by the local film festival, the first (I think) local screening of the long-hatching documentary by Arwen Curry, Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. A small but appreciative audience gathered in a hotel ballroom (on the tourist side of town, where I rarely go).

The roughly hour-long film is an impressive mix of Curry's own footage of Le Guin (who was still alive during the film's long gestation), old photos and film clips (including film from Aussiecon showing UKL with [an uncredited] Susan Wood, whom I was especially pleased to see), a staggeringly impressive list of recent interviewees, headlined by Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood, and including brief appearances by all three of UKL's children and her husband, and some animations enlivening discussions of her books, notably some impressive rotoscoped oil painting animation for Earthsea.

The flow of the documentary's topics is most impressive, running seamlessly between segments discussing selected works of hers with ones on her personal life and background. She reads a few brief excerpts of her fiction. It begins rather offbeat with a depiction of how science fiction was a literary ghetto in the pulp age, then moves through UKL's early attempts to find a market until she settled in to writing humanistic adventure sf for Don Wollheim; then it jumps to Earthsea before returning to the major early SF. The latest works covered are Tehanu and Always Coming Home, except for her National Book Award speech, though others briefly appear as book covers. The subtlety of the transitions comes in how the segment on Tombs of Atuan follows a personal one on UKL's fondness for the Oregon high desert, whose landscape inspired the Kargish islands; and how another personal segment on the family home in the Napa Valley leads into, of course, Always Coming Home. There's a Berkeley High classroom discussion of "Omelas", with students taking each of the points of view possible in response to that story. The film is too short, but better that than too long. It's a real portrait that shows both what Le Guin did and what makes it both important and great reading.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

I had one once, but the wheel fell off

Good news: I got to Stanford to hear the Omer Quartet give an hour's noon concert. One of the groups at Banff three years ago, they've gotten even better in the interim. A Baroquely woody Haydn Op. 20 No. 2, a vivid and skittish Bartok 3, and a properly argumentative Grosse Fuge (Beethoven), none of them pieces I'd heard them do before.

Bad news: On the way home, my car hit a curb with such force that the entire wheel came loose, including the suspension. So that's probably the end of the line for my small blue thing, aged ten and just beginning to feel it.

What's worse than losing one's car is the impossible struggle to get anybody, body-shop consultant or insurance person on the phone or anybody, to explain what the course of events will be before you commit to following it. Afterwards they'll happily tell you many things, but you can't eke an outline out of them beforehand. Consequently you have to make decisions in a state of ignorance or even of misleading partial information.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

concert review: Dover Quartet

The San Jose Chamber Music Society administrators were really eager to get me back to review their most prestigious ensemble of the year, the Dover Quartet. Fortunately my editor was of the same mind.

A number of things I might say about the performance would merely feel redundant after the review, so I'll just add here that the remarkable thing about attending a concert in San Jose in the company of one of the local Master Gardeners (a public education job, basically) is how many Master Gardeners attend chamber music concerts in San Jose. I think she knew more people there than I did.

And it was appropriate they be there, for the Dovers grew a luxurious garden of music.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

concert review: New Century Chamber Orchestra

This is the other review I wrote last weekend, and as with the other I'm satisfied that I got down in writing what I wanted to say.

That what Max Richter was doing with Vivaldi was conceptually identical to what Luciano Berio used to do with Schubert, Monteverdi, et al, despite the very different compositional styles, is something that occurred to me while listening to it. The next thought, of course, was that I like Richter's way of doing it much better. The line about Berio just getting grubby fingerprints all over his betters' music comes from a comment I once made to a post on Berio by the late Alan Rich. He replied that he admired the quality of Berio's mind. I don't; but I do admire the quality of Richter's.

Friday, February 15, 2019


1. Oops, after the hassle replacing my driving license last summer I still have to renew the thing this year as well, don't I? Online appointment list not quite as long as last year; still, I decide to visit the office that opens at 7 AM. Lines not quite as long there as last year either. There's been much news recently about how they'd been asking for only one address-confirming document (utility bill, etc.) where the feds require two. One's what I'd given last year, so I bring along all my documentation again, because the web site implied I should, but nobody ever asks for it. At the last station when they tell me I'm done, I ask. Oh, there's another window for that. Give them my second document, they photocopy it, done.

2. Tybalt's most endearing flaw turns out to be that he loves to lick me. B. too, but especially me. Skin, hair. Raspy tongue, incessant, not a couple dabs. He'll only nestle quietly in my arms if I'm long-sleeved and no skin is within his reach, including my hands. When I get into bed, he gets off where he'd been sitting quietly atop B. and comes over to lick me, and he will not be dissuaded. Not only will this rub me raw, but I can't sleep with that going on. So I have to get up, pick him up, throw him out, and shut the door, every time.

2a. When he is resting in my arms, I notice another characteristic new to me: He purrs silently. You can feel it, but you can't hear it.

3. Diogenes' search for a non-spicy Indian restaurant continues. Place with the extremely tasty but perfectly mild lunch buffet turns out to be not nearly so restrained for dinner. Even if the menu doesn't mark it as spicy, even if you ask for mild. I try it too and it impresses even me: no surface burn, but an impressive dig underneath. Stop at ice cream parlor on the way home for something to cool the mouth. Who makes cookie-dough ice cream with no lumps in it? This place.

4. At work at the synagogue library, we've been wrestling with the problem of what to do with high-quality but superfluous (for our collection) donated books. Latest idea: Install a "take a book" box down by the classroom wing. Custodial staff put it up. Looks like a birdhouse on a pole. Our committee artist has painted it with the tree of life. Yesterday is the dedication. I need to stop by work anyway, so I show up. It's raining, but it looks like the books we've put inside this miniature shuk will stay dry. Rabbi thinks a bit. Despite the claims of Fiddler on the Roof, there isn't a special blessing for everything. Decides to have us sing the Shehecheyanu, the most all-purpose Jewish prayer, praising God for letting us experience whatever it is that's going on. Then we eat strawberries dipped in chocolate.

5. Andrew D. thinks the trailer for the Tolkien bio-pic is going to make a few people's heads explode. No, it only makes my head hurt. It looks agonizingly precious.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

concert review: Alexander Quartet and Joyce Yang

B. and I have long since learned that going out for dinner on Valentine's Day is a sucky thing to do, so we go on an adjacent night (trying out a new Indian place nearby tomorrow) and I was free to go up to the City for a concert tonight, eating at a Mission District taqueria, which I was sure wouldn't have any Valentine's doo-dads on its menu, though there were plenty of tables set up out on the street by entrepreneurs hoping to catch people who'd forgotten to buy flowers, or chocolate, on the way home.

So the concert featured a new piece called Quintet with Pillars by Sam Adams (son of John). This consisted of half an hour of the string quartet in a sequence of held chords while the piano had bright plunky exclamations or sequences above it. The music wasn't empty, but it was pretty much eventless. In fact, it sounded more like a very fast, very loud version of Morton Feldman - in other words, very slow and very quiet by anybody else's standards - more than anything else. I can't say I loved it, but I could have been itching with boredom but wasn't.

Also on the program, both of Mozart's piano quartets. These were driven by Joyce Yang's crisp and lively pianism, with the string players kind of tugging along in her wake. Putting the Adams between them made me wonder, as I sometimes do, what if somebody today decided to write with the vocabulary of Mozart? That would be really daring, and I'm sure all the critics who think Lutoslawski is a great composer would hate it.

Weather OK going in, but it was very very wet outside afterwards as I waited hopefully for a bus, which mercifully arrived after not too long and took me to a BART station.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

exhibiting hunting behavior

Some scientists wanted to find out if cats see the same optical illusions that humans do. So they printed out some patterns that give the illusion that they're moving, and put them in front of some cats.

Who batted at them, thus showing pretty effectively that the illusion is visible to cats.

What interested me is that, in the report, the scientists didn't say the cats were playing, which is what a cat owner would say. No, they're scientists, so they said that the cats were "exhibiting hunting behavior."

True enough, but what a way to put it. Ever since I read that, when one of our cats meows at me in that particular way, instead of saying, in that singy tone of voice owners use with cats, "Do you want to play?", I'll ask in the same tone, "Do you want to exhibit hunting behavior?"

Anyway, Tybalt, our new cat, loves to exhibit hunting behavior. He's already wrecked two consecutive toys-dangling-from-a-stick, by running off with the toy in his mouth and inadvertently destroying the stick as it dangles behind him. He clomps frantically around with his claws spread out as I scratch the end of a decapitated peacock feather around the floor. And I've introduced the laser pointer, which generates galloping runs across the room followed by the most puzzled looks of "where did it go?"

Tybalt's need to play - I mean, to exhibit hunting behavior - seems nearly constant, at least when I'm around, and my passing will cause him to wake up and emerge asking for more. Maia wants some too, but it's hard for her to get any attention when Tybalt is always butting in. Occasionally he's distracted by something else for a bit, or I've got Maia by herself in a room whose door can be closed.

And so my time is wrought.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

concert review: Redwood Symphony

In later years, when reminiscing about his student days in Russia, Igor Stravinsky would recall the piece he wrote for the memorial concert after his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, died in 1908. But he had to search his memory for details, because the written music hadn't survived. The score had been lost in some later chaos, and as for the orchestral parts from the first performance, he said they were probably still at the conservatory in St. Petersburg where Rimsky had taught ... buried ... somewhere.

Four years ago - over 40 years after Stravinsky's death - the conservatory finally cleaned out all its archives, closets, and stashes of old music manuscripts - and found a box with the parts for Stravinsky's Rimsky elegy.

Unknown Stravinsky! It made a flurry of interest, was performed the next year, started making its way elsewhere, and on Saturday arrived in my neighborhood, so I got to review it.

As I noted in the review, you can't learn much about the eruption of Stravinsky's genius in 1910-13 from his earlier, student works. I spent some time before the concert listening to all the eo-Stravinsky I could get - most of it I'd heard before, but I could use the reminder - to confirm this and get my ears settled. He's obviously a talented young composer, and the music all sounds like The Firebird - which in turn sounds rather like Rimsky's more exotic later scores - but it's kind of stiff and pedestrian (especially that full academic symphony, a sorry sight): it doesn't have that touch of genius that makes The Firebird and The Rite of Spring great. So where did that suddenly come from? Most great composers you can hear getting better and better as they learn their craft. Not Stravinsky; he was born like Athena.

Still, it was interesting hearing the elegy. It has promise, and it has some interesting things that sometimes point in directions Stravinsky wasn't to follow - that weird sequence of shimmering chords near the end doesn't sound like typical Stravinsky; as Alex Ross suggests, it's more like some spooky moment from Wagner. Very interesting.

Monday, February 11, 2019

ecce homines, pars V

Continuing my three-volumes-at-a-time survey of the American Presidents series, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. This installment covers the presidencies of 1850-1861.

Unlike their immediate predecessors, these presidents were not so much obscure as they were bad presidents. The challenge in covering them, then, is to explain why they were bad, and also how they got to be president, especially as the first two had already been fairly obscure in their own lifetimes. Again unlike their immediate predecessors, who were all Southern slaveholders, these three were all of a political species known at the time as doughfaces, a term the authors apply to each of them. This term indicated the malleability of "Northern men with Southern principles," that is, men from free states who were sympathetic with the demands of the slaveholders, anxious to propitiate them, and hostile to Northern anti-slavery forces, particularly the (deliberately obnoxious) abolitionists but also the rising Republican Party (opposed to the growth of slave territory but not immediately abolitionist).

Paul Finkelman on Millard Fillmore is a legal historian who can spend several pages at a time explaining some legal or political issue of the day without mentioning Fillmore at all. (He's usually clear, but not on the Texas-New Mexico boundary dispute, which I thought I understood until now.) The problem is that Finkelman doesn't consider Fillmore very interesting. He judges Fillmore completely devoid of practical political savvy, despite his years in Congress and in the fulcrum of New York State politics. This experience is deemed of no importance, so the entire pre-presidential first half of the book feels rather pointless. Once president, Fillmore is mostly distinguished for his vehement prosecution of violations of the draconian Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which Finkelman contrasts with Fillmore's lack of concern over the many freebooters caught trying to invade Cuba because they thought it would make a nifty additional slave state. Occasionally Fillmore does something of which Finkelman approves, like sending Perry to Japan, but though this series has previously shown you don't have to write a nugatory book about a nugatory president, this one is.

Michael F. Holt on Franklin Pierce judges Pierce's weakness to be his concern to hold the Democratic Party together, which did more to destroy it. Mostly Pierce did this by anxiously over-propitiating Southern views. As a state party boss, he would work to expel even nominated candidates who spoke a word against the Fugitive Slave Act, not that this loyalty prevented the South from being suspicious of him. As president, he ordered the American equivalent of a three-line whip in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, on the grounds that western expansion would appeal to Democrats and unite them against Whigs who were opposed. But that didn't work because the issue of whether the new territories would be slave or free broke support along regional lines. Weirdly, as president Pierce had also tried to foster party unity by the opposite tack of spreading patronage among all factions, which only got everyone mad at him when they saw plum jobs going to their rivals. Holt is historian of the Whig Party, and even criticizes Pierce for not being a Whig. It's a pretty coherent book, though.

Jean H. Baker on James Buchanan is the best book of the three. Buchanan's reputation is as a weak, vacillating president, but Baker, also an academic historian, says no. He did go tharn in his last disastrous months as president, but Baker depicts Buchanan as an experienced and well-seasoned leader with a far more expansive view of presidential power than would become common until WW2. He had no hesitation, for instance, in sending troops to confront the insubordinate Mormon territorial government in Utah, and negotiating a settlement without military action. (There's also a brief reference to the Pig War, albeit not using that name, which was also settled without bloodshed, except to the pig.) But when the South began to rebel, Buchanan suddenly claimed he had no power to intervene, despite plenty of precedent from his adored Jackson among others. Baker intimates the reason is simply that Buchanan was too sympathetic to their cause. He seems to have considered himself a Southern gentleman who just happened to have born a few miles on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon Line. But if Buchanan wasn't weak, he came close to being a traitor, and that judgment was a little hard for a healing post-Civil War nation to take. So weak is how he went down in history.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Adventures of Tybalt Underfoot

Tybalt and Maia

So yes, I've been spending the bulk of my time in the last week and more in my role as one of the humans adjudicating what has become once again a two-cat household, and not an entirely placid one. That's a typical scene, with Maia in the darker fur - not long ago our cute little overgrown kitten, now suddenly our hulking older cat - glaring at the invasion of the younger, cuter Tybalt.

It's strangely hard to take a photo of Tybalt, and not just because of the lighting. It's because he's always in motion, and a photo isn't, so it doesn't look like him. His coloring is identical to that of the long-departed Pandora, but he doesn't otherwise look like her, even bodily or facially. Yet photos of him look more like Pandora than they do him.

When I last wrote on Tuesday, we had just let Tybalt out of the recommended isolation for a brief run and he encountered Maia, and I was hoping for the best. We didn't get it for a while, especially after we let him out for good on Wednesday. Tybalt is so active and so friendly, and Maia was having none of it. Hiss, growl, and snarl were her responses when he came near. But over the last couple days she seems to have become a little less hostile.

I think the best way to describe things is to reproduce some of the e-mails I sent B. when she was at work on Wednesday and Thursday. (There were lots more on Monday and Tuesday, before we started letting Tybalt out, and Maia was just hunkering and glaring at the bathroom door.)


When I opened the bathroom door, T. immediately dashed out. I’m not sure I could have stopped him if I’d tried. But then he immediately dashed in again when he realized I was going to feed him. He ate a quarter, asked for a little petting, ate another quarter, and then the lure of the outside world became too much. I put the rest of the food away, and figured I’ll feed him again at noon. He wanted a little playing, but not much.

Otherwise things are going like they did last night. T. runs around, almost constantly trilling and meowing. Every time he gets near Maia, she hisses, and I heard one giant angry meow. Since he’s not craving attention when he’s out, I’m reluctant to try to lock him up, lest he get too wary too fast. I’d probably have to either chase him down – a very difficult task! – or else lure him in with food (when he wants it, because I don’t think the cat toy will do it now). He and Maia had just better get used to each other. I can’t do much with Maia when she’s glaring, just hold my finger out and hope she sniffs it.

I do hope this straightens out, because right now I feel stressed and helpless about it, and so do the cats.


The Adventures of Tybalt Underfoot

1. Trailing belt of bathrobe makes excellent cat toy.

2. Human sorting through clothes looking for things to wash leads to cat frequently buried under dirty laundry being tossed back.

3. The liquid pouring into the toilet bowl is REALLY INTERESTING. (In the future I shall deprive cat of that pleasure.)



I'm not sure if things are going better or worse.

When I'm out (i.e. not shut up in my room, on the computer, and when I'm there I have to be shut up, because otherwise T. climbs around over everything, even getting in the wastebasket), T. follows me around. Not so much underfoot as before, but if I'm upstairs he's upstairs, if I'm downstairs he's downstairs. If I go upstairs, he runs into the bathroom, because that's where the cat toy is. I've noticed he's more likely than before to play while lying down and waggling his legs in the air, Maia-style, which suggests that maybe he's just beginning to tire out. You say he likes to be chased, but that's pretty much out of my repertoire these days: disadvantage of an old owner and a young cat.

Meanwhile, while he's playing, Maia is sitting out in the hallway, glaring in at him. When he notices this, he looks nervous. She follows him around, I think to see what he's getting up to, which means lots of encounters between them, consisting of hiss, growl, or snarl from M. When I was in the kitchen, I heard various thunderings from the living room as the two larked about. I do hope this is the beginnings of getting along, or that T., who is trilling not quite so much as before, will take it as nominal.

So far I haven't been able to give any affection to Maia. She seems not to want to be approached while in growling mode. I'm hoping that later she'll go sit on the couch as she did yesterday and accept ministrations there.


Sigh. Maia wanted petting on the bed, but she was not purring at all, which is most unusual. I heard a sound behind me, and there was Tybalt, sitting in front of the closet, watching. Maia hopped on to the hamper and growled at him. I watched the standoff for a while and then said, "Well, cats, you can do this all day if you want, but I have to use the bathroom."

Much later on, while Tybalt was away unknown, probably sleeping since it was getting close to noon, an affectionate Maia came in and led me to the bedroom for what was a satisfactory petting session for about five seconds. Then Tybalt came out of your closet and sat down on the floor in the same spot. Resume previous scene. I shooed him out of the room, but Maia chose to follow.


It got better, it did. Maia has come for petting, and I'd close the door to keep Tybalt from wandering in. Meanwhile, his absolute demand for playing, the kind that extends to his clambering over whatever else you're doing instead, whether it be reading or cooking dinner, has calmed down to five or six times a day. We're still very much in new cat mode, but it's evolving, and while any cat experts reading this may be fainting, we may be able to socialize our cats without having kept him locked up for two weeks, which would have been impossible.