Tuesday, October 31, 2023


I've been spending much of my time lately in copy- and format-editing for the batch of papers in this year's Tolkien Studies. Besides the substantive editing - making sure the prose makes sense and is grammatical, that the sources are quoted correctly and cited accurately, etc. - there are some matters of format editing that I go through with every paper, some of them by global (or sequential individual) find-and-replace. Here's some of those and how they work in Word.

1. Ellipses. An ellipsis is three dots, but in Word it's a single character with three dots in it, which will be generated if you type three dots in a row, but it doesn't happen if you type dot-space-dot-space-dot. Fix those. Also, we don't follow MLA's briefly-held policy from years ago of putting brackets around supplied ellipses. Most ellipses are supplied, and if there are any in what you're quoting, a note "ellipses in original" next to the in-line citation is sufficient.

2. Hyphens and dashes. A dash in text is an em-dash without spaces around it. That can be fixed manually. Date and page ranges are an en-dash, but people usually use a hyphen. I find the easiest way to deal with this is a global search-and-replace for hyphens, going through the whole paper and hitting the "replace" or "next" buttons as needed. And yes, a journal whose issue is "Fall-Winter 2021", that's a date range.

3. Tabs. Even authors who use the Word paragraphing function of first-line indent, which is what we want, absently indent occasional paragraphs with the tab key. A simple Find search for the tab character (^t in the search box) will locate all of those.

4. Extra spaces. Not just double-spacing between sentences, which isn't actually that common, but weird extra spaces at the end or start of paragraphs. The paragraph break is ^p in search boxes, so [space]^p finds extra spaces at the end of paragraphs and ^p[space] finds them at the start. Hit "replace all" with a simple ^p and they're done. Do it twice in case there were two spaces. For double spacing, "replace all" of [space][space] with [space] does the same trick.

There are other things to watch for, like manual-typewriter style straight quotes, but that gives the idea.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

four concerts

Last Sunday, Israeli Chamber Project. I wasn't the only person who had to dash from the St. Lawrence Quartet concert at Stanford (which I was reviewing for SFCV: I linked to that one last week) to Kohl Mansion for another chamber music concert. So was the cellist of the St. Lawrence Quartet, who was giving the pre-concert talk for the latter. We both made it. Who didn't make it were three of the five intended musicians, who stayed in Israel with their families. Who did make it were the two already based in the U.S., the pianist and violinist, and they added an American clarinetist who was the teacher of their Israeli clarinetist. We had music for clarinet and piano (all arrangements), for violin and piano, and for all three from the offbeat pair of Khachaturian and Bartok. I reviewed this for the Daily Journal, assuming you can see the whole review and not just the first two paragraphs.

Thursday, JACK Quartet. One hour of string quartet music by John Luther Adams, a renowned contemporary composer not to be confused with the other composing John Adams. Most of this was in the thin, ghostly sound of harmonics, except that one movement proved you can also play harmonics loudly. I hadn't known that; nobody in my presence had ever tried before. The music was made of hushed figures forming chordal clouds. The same phrase would be played overlapping over itself, in a tumbling effect forming different irregular patterns. This was much the same formula used by Timo Andres last week, except Andres' music sounds precisely and coldly mechanically constructed, while Adams's feels human and breathing. The kind of music that emotionally satisfies me but would scandalize a rigid modernist. The only other music I can compare it to is that one movement composed of falling figures (it depicts walking down a mountainside) reminded me of Carl Orff's Entrata after William Byrd.

Friday, San Francisco Symphony. Elim Chan, a young (36) female conductor who was a late substitute, proved her mettle with this program. Les Illuminations, a song cycle by Benjamin Britten in French, was not something I anticipated with enthusiasm, but while I could not make out a word being sung even with the lyrics open in front of me, underneath it was a really interesting string orchestra work. Followed by Gustav Holst's epic The Planets with the ideal dynamism and sweep, and with every exotic instrumental color exactly where it should be. Special credit in the Saturn movement, where the alternating implacable/frantic passages were extremely implacable and exceedingly frantic.

This Sunday, Sonoma County Philharmonic. I drove two hours to hear this volunteer orchestra perform Alexander Glazunov's Fifth Symphony, a favorite work I'd never heard live before. It was worth it. Where Russian recordings are heavy and lumbering, this was a lively cavorting animal. I got to speak to conductor Norman Gamboa afterwards and thank him for it. Also on the program, Franz Liszt's Les Preludes, a familiar piece also somewhat reinvented for the occasion, and Robert Schumann's Cello Concerto with soloist Starla Breshears, a 15-year-old SF Conservatory student who had not only superb tone quality but also displayed a wide range of expression. Excellent work, and not just for her age.

Friday, October 27, 2023

folk music concert: The Gothard Sisters

I first heard of the Gothard Sisters on the concert calendar from the Freight and Salvage. It described their music as having folk, Celtic, classical, and new age influence, and, though the latter two influences turned out to be homeopathic in quantity, the list intrigued me enough that I looked the group up on YouTube. And the first two tracks I tried happened to be these:

And that was it: I said, I have to hear this group.

The concert turned out as good as I expected, especially the older material, because though they've been around for some time (though never at the Freight before), their performing quality has increased markedly in the last few years.

The repertoire was about half instrumentals (at least mostly original compositions) in an Irish dance tune vein, some of them accompanied by actual Irish step dancing at which all three sisters are accomplished; a quarter original songs, including the above "Meet Me at Dawn"; and a quarter cover songs, from the standard English/Celtic folk catalog ("Scarborough Fair," "The Wild Rover," "Wild Mountain Thyme") and for dessert a couple more contemporary numbers (John Denver's "Country Roads," Disney's "Touch the Sky").

The sisters, all late 20s/early 30s, hail from the Seattle suburbs (Edmonds, to be precise). In the instrumental pieces they all played on a wide battery, but in the songs they mostly stuck to a lineup of Willow on violin, Greta on guitar, and Solana principal vocalist and percussion.

Best anecdote of the evening: a story of the TSA agent who held up the line by trying to identify all their instruments through the x-ray machine. The only one that stumped him was the mandolin, which he eventually identified as a "hobbit guitar." And ever since then, that's what it is in the Gothard household.

This music isn't as heavyweight as that of my favorite folk sister groups of the past, like the Roches or the McGarrigles, but the purpose of music is to be enjoyed, whatever its density. I enjoyed this enough that I now count myself as a Gothard Sisters fan, and I came home with a CD and a t-shirt.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

four candles

At least. That's what B. was gathering in mid-afternoon on Tuesday in case our power, which had been out all day, didn't come back on. (Not misheard, thank you Ronnies.) In the event we didn't need them, as power returned by 4 PM, but the news from the utility had been only to give times for the next estimate (which they did keep to), plus the interesting if not particularly useful information that it was a small local outage caused by an equipment failure.

It did cause me a dilemma, as I had a mostly finished concert review on my computer that I needed to turn in that morning. I wound up phoning the repair shop where I usually take my computers and asking if I could bring in my CPU, plug it into their accessories, and strip this one file off onto a portable USB drive. They said fine and set me up. It took longer to boot up the computer than anything else.

I then took the portable drive into the public library's computer banks, edited it there, and sent it off by web mail, and here it is, a report on how the St. Lawrence String Quartet is doing a year after its first violinist, the fabulous Geoff Nuttall, died. A little sedately, but they're managing.

At least for now, they've turned themselves into a chamber collective, inviting guest performers in to play works for various instrumental combos. This time they brought in their own former other violinist and his wife, a violist, and played a 2-viola quintet. They've done stuff like this before, even when Geoff was alive, and they've also done a lot of piano quintets and the like. So there's a pathway here, on top of their not being the only ex-quartet to have kept itself going in this manner.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Tolkien Studies: an announcement

After 22 years as co-Editor of Tolkien Studies, Verlyn Flieger will be retiring to take up the position of Editor Emerita. One of the co-founders of the journal, Verlyn has co-edited 20 volumes of the journal. Highlights include editing previously unknown material by Tolkien, some of his scholarly works that had become very difficult to access, and many of the most insightful and original articles published on Tolkien in the past two decades. It is impossible to list even a fraction of the contributions Verlyn has made to every single aspect of the journal's operations, so we are reduced to saying the obvious: without Verlyn, there would be no Tolkien Studies. We will miss her terribly (though we expect to be drawing upon her wisdom on a regular basis). Volume 20, to be published later this year, will be the last issue she will have co-edited.

Tolkien Studies is delighted to announce that, beginning with Volume 21, Yvette Kisor, Professor of Literature at Ramapo College of New Jersey, will be taking up the position of co-Editor. The co-editor of Tolkien and Alterity, Yvette is well known to the international community of Tolkien scholars both for her publications on Tolkien, including "'The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun': Sexuality, Imagery, and Desire in Tolkien's Works," in Tolkien Studies 18 (2021), and her work organizing the influential "Tolkien at Kalamazoo" sessions at the International Congresses on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University. A medievalist by training, Prof. Kisor has also published extensively on Old and Middle English literature. We are extremely pleased that she will be joining the journal's editorial team.

— The Editors

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Uncle Eddie

Many years ago, when I was working at the Stanford library, I came across in the stacks a book which must have been a British memoir from the early to mid 20th C. I didn't read the whole book, but I browsed through its photo section, and found afterwards that one particular photo had stuck in my memory.

It showed a distinguished-looking elderly gentleman at the beach surrounded by a gaggle of children, and it looked like this:

What struck me as memorable about the photo was that the elderly gentleman was named in the caption as "Uncle Eddie," and that he was further identified as Lord Dunsany. The fantasy author. Whose given name was Edward, yes.

The idea of the author of weird and ethereal stories being found at the beach with children and called Uncle Eddie tickled my fancy. But it was a retrospective tickle. I hadn't copied the photo or taken note of the book's title when I saw it, and when I went back to the part of the stacks where I'd seen it, I couldn't find it again. Figuring that Dunsany's avuncular status was probably genealogical rather than honorary, I made a cursory flip through his family tree for likely younger relatives, but I must not have looked very hard or I would surely have tripped across his wife's niece by marriage, Elizabeth Longford, the historical biographer.

It wasn't until decades later, just a couple months ago, that my search was answered when I came across this post by Doug Anderson describing Elizabeth Longford's memoir The Pebbled Shore, with its account of how she knew Lord Dunsany as Uncle Eddie. I knew this must be the right book, fetched it from the San Francisco public library when I was next there (this is the book I inadvertently left by my seat after watching the opera about Steve Jobs), and that's where the above photo was scanned from.

This time I read the book. Longford had an interesting life. As a student at Oxford in the 1920s she was the Zuleika Dobson of her day, a comparison made at the time, fascinating male undergraduates and young dons alike, many of whom impulsively proposed marriage to her. These were men who'd become notable in later life, and if you, fellow American reader, haven't heard of Hugh Gaitskell or Maurice Bowra, I have. But she turned them all down, until, a few years later, for reasons not clearly explained, she decided to accept one of them, the tall and gawky Frank Pakenham.

Frank was a scion of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, and his mother's sister was Lady Dunsany, so that's how Uncle Eddie came in to the picture. Of the children in the photo, three are Elizabeth and Frank's offspring; the other two are family friends.

Married to Frank, Elizabeth became involved in his passion of left-wing politics, and they both ran (unsuccessfully) as Labour candidates for Parliament. Eventually Frank inherited the title of Lord Longford, under which he became known for his crusades against pornography and for paroling long-term prisoners. Meanwhile, Elizabeth started writing professionally via journalism, and moving into books when she started researching one about Joe Chamberlain, the arch-imperialist of Victorian Britain. Who was her great-uncle. Incidentally, she claims that Joe's son Neville (the future prime minister, yes) was another one who impulsively proposed marriage to her, though I kind of doubt that, as he married someone else when Elizabeth was four years old. So maybe we should take some of this with a pillar of salt.*

*Am I misremembering this? Was it Elizabeth's mother he proposed to instead? That's more chronologically possible.

Friday, October 20, 2023

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas, music director laureate, returned to lead the SFS in the Big One, Beethoven's Ninth. What he did for SFS while stationed here was incalculable, and the love and affection that poured forth from audience and performers alike on his arrival onstage - and even more when the piece was over - was tremendous. The more so with his increasing health problems since his retirement, including a cancer operation two years ago that had him off work for months. If we never see him again, we want him to know that the last was the best.

Now MTT is almost as frail as his predecessor Herbert Blomstedt, even though he's close to twenty years Blomstedt's junior in age. He sat for part of the piece, needed a little help getting on and off stage, and there was one horrible spot between movements when he suffered a Mitch McConnell buffering reset moment. But MTT's life is in his conducting, even as Mitch's is in obfuscating, and at their special talents they are both still the unsurpassed masters.

This was as fine and assured a Ninth as we've heard, particularly cherishable in a smooth and layered slow movement. But what impressed me most was the chorus. This was the first concert with the new chorus director, Jenny Wong. Speaking before the concert, she emphasized the words of Schiller's Ode to Joy and how joyous they actually are. "Alle Menschen werden Brüder," which she translated as "All people are brothers and sisters," which is indeed what it means in today's language; and "Diesen Küss der ganzen Welt!" The whole world! Wong wanted the chorus to convey the all-encompassing joy of this, and despite the fact that Beethoven's rather strident composition style here is not the best music to judge a chorus by, they succeeded at this subtle and subjective task, despite that fugal section which seems to go against the trend of the rest of the music.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

afterlife of Buffy

In my Mythcon Guest of Honor speech last year, I had occasion to discuss Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not sure what the moral or social status of that series was any more, I included the following defensive footnote:
Buffy has become a problematic text ever since series creator and occasional showrunner Joss Whedon's vaunted feminism turned out to be a sham, a cover for a typically entitled male egoistic masher. But the work is still there, and if we can read Tolkien and Lewis in disregard of the author, we can read Buffy.
So now here's an article updating the curious on the place of BtVS in popular culture today: it's being reclaimed, or appropriated, by fans and by a number of the secondary actors from the show with the silent consent of the absent Whedon.

The problem is, the article says, that the new material lacks the bite or frisson of the original. It's the result, as I've put it Shakespearantly in another context, of the fans loving the work not wisely but too well. I've noticed that in other cases. I've tried without success to explain to the purveyors of Tolkien adaptations and fan fiction that extend his created world that I'm interested in the created world because of the way that Tolkien wrote about it: I want to know what he had to say about it. Other writers are not Tolkien, and they carry neither his authority nor his interest. (Nor, as the recent Nature of Middle-earth reveals, was Tolkien himself always up to his own standards.)

The article does connect Whedon's hard-headed treatment of his characters with his abusive treatment of his cast, but I don't see that as necessarily required. You don't have to want to punish your actor to kill off her character, and if doing so for that reason is a weakness in the story, it'll show up in the result.

BtVS of course, as a recorded drama was never solely the creation of Joss Whedon, but was a collaboration of many writers, actors, and production personnel, and their work is worth preserving. But the testimony of the writers is that Whedon's hand was in everything they did, even if his name wasn't in the writing credits, and I think that some sort of critical overseeing of this kind is necessary for consistency of result in a many-authored creation.

I'm not even sure I want more of the show. I was rather dismayed at the time at the fall-off of quality in the last two seasons, and I would have favored merging the highlights from seasons 6 and 7 (the musical episode, the psychiatrist vampire) into season 5 and going out with a real bang.

So I'm afraid I have little interest in a soft-hearted podcast sequel show, even with the original cast and with Amber Benson as co-creator. As for the other podcast, the commentary show Buffering the Vampire Slayer, I read the transcripts of a couple of its episode commentaries and found that it said nothing that was worth my time to read, let alone worth the slog of listening through. Which is what I feel about most podcasts that aren't tightly scripted.

So, nice to know the show has been reclaimed, less interested in what's being done with it.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

books devoured

The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth, introduction and notes by Leonard S. Marcus (Knopf, 2011)

People have published useless annotated editions before, but The Phantom Tollbooth? What could you annotate? Explain silly puns like the Whether Man?

Well, it doesn't explain the Whether Man. But it does explain a lot of other jokes, usually in the guise of giving historical notes on who first wrote "short shrift" (Shakespeare, natch) and the like. This is better than the flat vocabulary lessons; in reference to "the land of Null" it tells you what null means. Oh boy.

Lots of annotations of what Juster had in mind in the text. Lots of annotations of, not what Feiffer had in mind in the illustrations, but what the annotator is reminded of by looking at them, usually irrelevantly. Oh boy.

I found out about this book by seeing it in a remainder catalog. I decided not to buy it, but to get it from a library instead. At least the introduction, on how the book came to be, is interesting.

Avid Reader: A Life, by Robert Gottlieb (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2016)

The famous book editor (Simon & Schuster, Knopf) and sometime New Yorker magazine editor tells his story. Once you get past the opening chapters describing his vacuum cleaner-like childhood reading, which is actually the most interesting part, it settles down into anecdotes about the books he's edited, framed by descriptions of how he fell into, rather than acquired, his various jobs, salted with bits about his personal and social life, the latter conducted with people he usually describes as his "great friend." Appendix chapters deal with other bits of his life, such as his part-time career programming the New York City Ballet (say what?).

The accounts of editing books come in detachable nuggets, so it was easy to skim the ones about books I haven't read and concentrate on the ones about books I have, which turned out to be a bloody lot of them. I did not learn from this book that Catch-22 was originally Catch-18; I already knew that. But I did learn:

1) While Gottlieb did not edit William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, he says he did persuade S&S to dump Shirer's unfortunate title, Hitler's Nightmare Empire. (Shirer's memoirs say nothing about his ever intending to call the book anything except what it was published as.)

2) Having established that Michael Crichton had neither interest in nor ability to write characters, Gottlieb convinced him to turn The Andromeda Strain from a novel into what's described here as "a fictionalized documentary."

3) Gottlieb was a big fan of Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles, took her on, and suggested the House of Niccolo series, but his first book of hers was King Hereafter, the only Dunnett I've read and the reason I've never read any more.

4) Gottlieb persuaded Bill Clinton to call his memoir My Life instead of The President's Life by having both dust jackets printed up, slipping them on dummy volumes, and showing them to Clinton while saying, "Which of these books would you want to read?"

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

concerts three

For the fourth time in the last couple of years, SFCV has sent me up to review a new piano concerto at the San Francisco Symphony. This one is by another old pal of EPS, Anders Hillborg. I didn't like it as much as the headline my editors put on the article implies (or than Joshua Kosman of the Chronicle did), but it was OK. I did like some of the comments Hillborg made at the pre-concert talk. In describing how this work is more accessible than his previous piano concerto of over 20 years ago, he said,

"When I was a young composer, 'accessibility' was a naughty word. You weren't supposed to have an audience, that's bad."

And there it is again testified to by another who had to live through it, the modernist hegemony that revisionists are so insistent did not exist.

That was Thursday. Sunday was a two-concert day. First I couldn't resist going to the Saratoga High School auditorium in the afternoon for a performance by the Saratoga Symphony, a local putt-putt orchestra, of the rare and enormous Busoni Piano Concerto. As conductor Jason Klein explained (in his disconcertingly Nixonian manner) before the concert, they'd already planned for this to be the local premiere of the work before SFS put it on their schedule for last spring. But ... they went ahead anyway. "And SFS doesn't let you in for free, do they?" The title on the program book was "Twice In A Lifetime."

And it was pretty good. The orchestra at least emitted coherent and Busonisque sounds, if lacking in an overall thread. Pianist Tamami Honma had complete command of her difficult part and was audible throughout, which also made her sound more coherent than SFS's Igor Levit. And the whole thing was over in 70 minutes, which is a pretty fast clip for this piece.

That gave me enough time for a reasonable dinner halfway between Saratoga and Willow Glen, where the San José Chamber Orchestra was playing in a church at 7 pm. This one I was also reviewing, though it was a little outside of my preferred repertoire. The Mozart Sinfonia Concertante is a work I could live without, but at least soloists and orchestra all played it very well. The two Mexican works for string orchestra it was paired with were new to me. When I listened to them beforehand, I found Manuel Ponce's Estampas nocturnas a little dull, but the live performance turned out to be attractive and even a bit moving. It was Javier Álvarez's Metro Chabacano, a bustling little piece in a Karl Jenkins minimalist style, that charmed me on recording but turned out to be sluggish live - because they played it without a conductor. Don't do that.

Monday, October 16, 2023

trapped in an ad I never made

After years of YouTube letting me get away with using an ad blocker on their videos, they're not allowing it any more and putting a block up if they detect an ad blocker. I turned mine off at their request and I'm still getting the blocking.

So now I have to watch videos on my other browser, on which I've never installed ad blockers - unless I've already bought a movie for sale, or if the video is embedded in another web page. Links aren't exempt, but embeddeds are. For now.

As for the ads, they're running about half the time in front of the videos, are usually in pairs of 15 and 6 seconds each, and are never for anything I'd have the slightest interest in buying. The idea that companies are spending millions on these things seems to me a fundamental fallacy, but if anyone ever notices that, the entire economy will probably collapse.

Saturday, October 14, 2023

trading an eclipse for a blueberry

There's been a tremendous, and perplexing, amount of fuss about the annular eclipse in the local papers. Perplexing, because it's not a very annular event around here. The eclipse in 2012 I traveled 250 miles to see in its full annular glory; this one I'd have had to travel over 400 miles, so it wouldn't be perceptible this far away except through a telescope or for the shadows.

Except there were no shadows, because it was overcast. I didn't go to any of the municipal gatherings anyway; I had another errand, which was a postmortem on yesterday's grocery pickup. The receipt we normally get was not, and wasn't available on our online account either, so it was impossible to tell whether the items we didn't get were unavailable or if they were just missing from the bags but we were charged for them anyway, which happened last week.

The fellow at the store couldn't answer all the questions, but he could produce the receipt, plus replacement copies of the items that were missing, last week's and this's. But his store didn't have any blueberries. B. likes blueberries to put on her granola. (I don't eat blueberries. They're blue. This creeps me out.) But for some reason blueberries have been virtually unavailable recently.

I went to a store of a different chain. I stared unhappily at the empty shelf when what should appear to my left but a produce worker pushing a cart full of -- packages of blueberries! I grabbed the large size and was happily on my way.

Friday, October 13, 2023

my arm is sore

That's because it's had two vaccination shots, one for Covid and one for flu. Kaiser announced the availability of new vaccines for both, free to members without prior appointments, in an e-mail a few days ago that was so comprehensive and lucid that it answered all the questions about the prospect for vaccines that I was going to put to my doctor in a previously scheduled phone appointment to discuss several issues.

So pausing only on this topic to confirm with him that my previous Covid booster schedule was compatible with getting the new vaccine now, B. and I headed down together to the further Kaiser center, the one which does its vaccinations in a big tent in their far parking lot. There's more room and airflow there than at our local Kaiser, which uses a third-floor conference room.

Now we wait for the RSV vaccine to show up (Kaiser says it will appear later), and we'll have our shots for the fall.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

concert review: Calder Quartet

I'd heard this group before, though not for many years. (3 of them are still the same people.) They once played a marvelous all-Schubert program at Herbst, where I heard them this time. Again there was some Schubert, a light and soft-spoken rendition of the "Rosamunde" Quartet.

The other major work was a piano quintet written by the pianist, Timo Andres. It was called The Great Span because he likened its shape to a suspension bridge, as it was in ABA format with an extended B (and a very brief A', but he didn't mention that). The A section had the strings playing little mechanical figures for a few seconds, then switching to different mechanical figures, intriguing but bloodless. In the B section the strings laid down long quiet notes while the piano would drop little tinkling figures above them. Figure, pause, another figure, as if it were breathing, making the whole thing sound like a children's edition of Morton Feldman (for one thing it moved much faster than Feldman as well as being more consonant).

Andres also played a solo piano piece by Ann Southam, confessing that didn't know why she titled it Remembering Schubert, though he suggested it sounded a little like the piano accompaniment to some of his songs. He described it as minimalist, but its procedure of sequential arpeggiated chords sounded to me more New Age.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Carthago diruta est

The workmen who've been replacing patio fences all around the complex are finally gone. So is the staging area and work zone that's been occupying where I park for the last five weeks, forcing me to have to trudge in from way out on the street.

And now we have nice new patio fences, painted, with crisp new gates. With luck they won't rot and fall apart like the old ones did. We have our metal house numbers preserved, and securely (I hope) attached to the new fence.

They've also left a vast sheet of dirt all over the driveway road, which won't disappear until the first heavy rains, which could be as much as three months from now. And they never replaced the heavy stepping stone that they moved out of the way on the path to our side patio when they were working out there.

I'm going to photograph it all, the good and the bad, and send a report to our landlord.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

opera review

Yes, I've been to two operas in one week. That's unprecedented for me. In fact, going to two operas in one year is probably unprecedented for me. This one was worth driving out to Livermore for, and B. came with me.

Of Mice and Men, music and libretto by Carlisle Floyd, Livermore Valley Opera

Carlisle Floyd, like Douglas Moore and Robert Ward, whose works I've also seen, was one of the masters of mid-20C American vernacular opera. His best-known work is Susannah (1955), which sets the biblical story of Susannah and the elders in the Tennessee mountains, but he considered his masterwork to be Of Mice and Men (1970), a straightforward adaptation of the Steinbeck novella.

It's a more chromatic score than I was anticipating, but it's largely lyrical, saving dissonance for crisis scenes, and the presence of a diegetic ballad singing character and a lot of repetition in the lyrics give the music an illusory strophic feel.

Strong singing, easily heard above the (reduced) orchestra, especially from Véronique Filloux as Curley's unnamed wife, Matthew Worth as Slim, and San Jose regular Kirk Eichelberger as Candy. Candy's dog was played by an actual dog, a well-trained golden retriever. Not well-cast for the part, as it didn't act old and sick, but there's only so much you can expect from a dog. Still, an actual dog.

The most remarkable moment musically was a duet between Curley's wife and Lennie (Matthew Pearce), just before she invites him to stroke her hair. It's one of the few extended duets in the opera. Floyd has added Curley's wife deciding to leave him and pursue her dreams of fame in Hollywood, so she sings of that while Lennie sings of his own dreams of having rabbits to pet. It weirdly resonates with all the duets in operatic history between oblivious couples with different dreams, and that these two aren't a couple only makes it weirder. Plus of course that both their dreams are illusory.

There are several other places where the libretto tinkers with the plot. The character of Crooks is gone, partly folded in to Slim and Candy. The farm that George (Robert Mellon) hopes to buy is one he found in a newspaper ad, not that he just knows about somehow. Much of what George says to Lennie is cut. There's no "I got you and you got me" between them. And while, after fighting Curley, Lennie wails to George "You told me to do it," in the opera he never did. Very odd.

Still, a good composition, excellently sung and presented, a pleasant and comfortable theater even with too-narrow seats and a noisy weekend festival going on in the front yard.

Monday, October 9, 2023

visit to Port Chicago

I was looking at a list of National Park Service sites in the Bay Area, and realized that the only one I'd never been to was the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial. So I decided to go.

This is not easy to arrange. It's located on an active-duty military base, and is only open when the army isn't doing secure operations in the vicinity. That turned out to be only the first two weeks in October out of a two-month period. Further, you can only get on the base with an NPS escort, so you need to make a reservation. For tours offered once a day, three days a week, even when it's open. I phoned them up, got the availability, and made mine.

You meet up in the parking lot of the visitor center at another NPS property in the area. A few people will fit in the NPS van, and the rest form a caravan on the long drive to the gate, and the somewhat shorter drive to the memorial. There we stand while the ranger asks the two dozen or so of us for our backgrounds, and then tells the story of the memorial.

Most of the people present were there only because they were on quests to visit, not just all the NPS sites in the Bay Area, but the several hundred in all the US. That wouldn't have occurred to me. This one, inevitably, was near the end of their lists.

On the other hand, I had long known the story of Port Chicago, which had been surprising news to most of the others. Port Chicago was - still is - a deepwater dock in the lower Sacramento River. Here all the munitions destined for the Pacific in WW2 were brought by rail and loaded on to ships. The stevedores who did the loading were not adequately trained. There were no safety precautions. They were driven by rewards and punishments to work as fast as possible - "There's a war on!" They were all enlisted Navy men and they were, of course, all Black.

And then one Monday night in 1944 at about 10 PM - because loading went on 24/7 - something went wrong. Nobody knows what because no evidence nor witnesses survived. A spark went off and a nearly-full ship exploded. Debris went over two miles into the air. The seismograph measured 3.4. Most people thought the Japanese had attacked.

No trace of the ship was ever found. Nor of the pier it was docked at. The ship docked on the other side of the pier - another violation of safety regulations - a large piece of it was found out in the bay, upside down. And 320 men were killed and another 390 injured.

There's a sequel. The surviving whites were given time off to recover. The surviving Blacks weren't. They were transferred to another naval yard nearby - because there weren't any facilities at Port Chicago for a while - and a few weeks later were ordered to start loading munitions in more ships. No new training, no new safety regulations. They refused to go. If they'd been civilian stevedores, this would have been a wildcat strike. As it was military, the ones who couldn't be cozened into changing their minds were charged with mutiny,* convicted, imprisoned for a while. Full exoneration didn't come until after they were all dead, about which time the memorial was established.

Nothing's left at the explosion site except the pilings from the base of the pier, a few scraps of metal from the second ship, and the bunkers where the train cars were unloaded - those were cushioned in case of explosion. And now there is a granite monument with the names of all the dead. That's about it. The ranger did not disguise or mince about the racist segregation policies that led Black men to enlist thinking they'd fight the enemy, but set them off in segregated units as dock workers, mess mates, and so on.

Port Chicago is also gone. It was a town. But some years after the war the military decided it was too close to the base, confiscated the land, paid the owners something (some of them had their houses moved), added the land to the base, and tore down the entire town.

I've been to Alcatraz - another grim NPS site nearby - and now here. And that's what I saw.

*Here's something even the rangers didn't know. The prosecutor in the mutiny trial went on, over 20 years later, to become the D.A. who prosecuted the students who famously occupied the U.C. Berkeley administration building in protest against the Vietnam War.

Saturday, October 7, 2023

a little Beethoven

Our friend Jules was going to be in town (high school reunion), so she suggested a meeting. I noted that the Beethoven Center at San Jose State would be having one of their brief noontime concerts, so remembering Jules' agreeability for concerts, I suggested that.

So the three of us - her, me, and B. - met up at the event, fortunately arriving early because the tiny room was packed, and heard a faculty pianist named Frank Lévy play "Für Elise" and the two sonatas in E Major (Op. 14 No. 1 and Op. 109) in a rather heavy, galumphing style. Also, a rare treat, a movement from Beethoven's arrangement of Op. 14 No. 1 for string quartet. This is a full quartet by Beethoven that's almost never played or even heard of. (If you want to hear the whole thing, it's here.) We sat up front so B. could look at the strings. She knew the violist from her brief stint at the Winchester Orchestra, where he's concertmaster. (B. plays both violin and viola herself, not an unusual combination of skills.)

Then we adjourned to Poor House, the best Louisiana-style restaurant in NorCal, where we all had baskets of cornmeal-fried catfish slivers for lunch. A good little outing of the kind that doesn't happen much any more.

Friday, October 6, 2023

opera review

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, San Francisco Opera

The movie about Steve Jobs - the one with Michael Fassbender - seemed to me to be for people who worship Apple products, who need to have the cult of Jobs taken down a peg. This opera seemed to be for people who want to indulge in the cult of Jobs a little more.

I am not such a person; in fact I detest Apple for their product design and user interface, exactly the things their admirers love. I'm interested in Jobs, though, mostly because I'm from the same town. But I went to see this opera primarily because I like the music of the composer, Mason Bates.

Bates said he wrote this opera with each character having a distinct sonic style and/or instruments associated with them. Some have criticized this, especially for the stereotypical "Magic Buddhist" character. I found the musical cues subtle and shading into each other, certainly in contrast with the classic example of this kind of technique in opera, the leitmotifs of Richard Wagner, who drags them up and hits you over the head with them.

The Jobs music was clangy and crackly, like very early Bates, my least favorite part of his output, but as the other characters emerged, the music varied and became quite attractive. There's two passages of strong dissonance at crisis moments: the one where Steve tells Chrisann to get an abortion, the other when the Apple board (played by the chorus) fires him.

The libretto is by Mark Campbell. After a short prologue in which the ten-year-old Jobs (played briefly by a nonsinging boy) is given his first workbench by his father, the opera begins in 2007 with Jobs (John Moore) giving the product launch of the iPhone (the term is never used, which is good because it's a stupid name, an example of Apple's inept product design), describing it as the "one device" that everyone will do everything on. And it proceeds through an irregularly paced series of flashbacks, in all of which Jobs is Jobs2007 with the grizzled look and the turtleneck, even for scenes taking place as far back as 1973.

It ends with his funeral, during which his wife Laurene (Sasha Cooke, the only performer whose work I knew and the only singer who could be consistently heard above the orchestra) turns to the audience and sings that as soon as this is over, everyone in the auditorium will take out their "one device" and turn it on.

Maybe the others, but not me. I don't own one. My indispensable device is my desktop computer at home, which has a full-sized keyboard and a big screen on which I can view two full documents at once, features denied the iPhone. And the reason I don't carry around such a device was adequately illustrated by the fact that, when gathering up my stuff to leave, I completely forgot the book I'd just checked out of the SF Public Library down the street. (I remembered it before I left the building, and got it back.) If I had such a device, I'd always be absently putting it down and forgetting I'd done so, or it'd fall out of my pocket, or something. Not for me.

Back to the opera. The plot depicts Jobs losing his way as Apple grows, becoming a cruel and soulless mogul, and then - with lapses and imperfections - getting it back again. The fall is depicted through Jobs's over-emphasis on work and ignoring people (thus his rejection of Chrisann and their daughter Lisa, following which he instantly turns around and gives Lisa's name to a computer, which is approximately how it actually transpired in real life), but his redemption is depicted entirely through his meeting and falling in love with Laurene; there's hardly any reference to this carrying itself out in his work. Founding another company? Returning to Apple? Not shown in this story.

The "Magic Buddhist," a spiritual mentor who's already dead most of the times he shows up, is a Jiminy Cricket character who serves as Jobs's conscience, but he's not the only one: Laurene and Woz (a much more minor character) also play that role, so there's three of them.

I can't blame this opera for fomenting the Legend of Jobs; it was already in existence. But at least it made for decent listening and a fairly effective show.

Thursday, October 5, 2023

first concert reviews of the season

Tybalt is lying on my desk, reaching his claw out to snag my hand whenever I touch the trackball. I've had to move the trackball inside the desk drawer. He thinks it's time to be fed. It isn't, yet.

Meantime, I'm going to tell you about the three concerts I've attended in the last week, you lucky people. All of them featured music by Prokofiev, which makes me a lucky person for getting to hear it.

Redwood Symphony began its season first, so it got to be the subject of my first review of the season for the Daily Journal. Nice solid performances of Romeo and Juliet and the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto.

Then, the first concert of Symphony San Jose, a review on assignment from SFCV, my first since the Menlo Festival. Again, technically highly solid, but notably unexciting, performances of Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod, which I don't often hear, and another late-period Prokofiev ballet, Cinderella, which I don't think I'd ever heard in concert. Plus a piece by Lera Auerbach, a contemporary composer whose works are of highly variable appeal. This was an early piece, in a style I rather enjoy, or at least find comprehensible. I was annoyed at how many people sitting around and behind me were talking during the music, and this was the highest-priced section of the hall! I thought about admonishing them during the break, but didn't, and then they all kept quiet during the Wagner which followed, so I realized that their discourtesy was not of thoughtless entitlement but because they'd been bored. That's a bad sign for things to come, because SSJ is making a commitment to contemporary music.

The new 7:30 starting time took me by surprise, because I didn't have my tickets in advance and they didn't make a big thing of this on the online schedule. So I missed the pre-concert talk which was at 6:30 instead of the previous 7 PM. I'd made a point of not arriving before 7 because they'd never opened the doors much earlier than that. But I like this change. It had the show over by 9:30, particularly advantageous for venturing back to the car through the hothouse night-club atmosphere of South First Street on a Saturday night, which gets more intense as the evening goes on.

Turning off those video screens which were the previous administration's last and proudest achievement was even more desirable. Now they just show house ads for upcoming programs before the concert and during breaks. They could have been used to keep listeners abreast of the titles of the movements of Cinderella, which would have been nice as it was impractical to read the darkly-printed program listing while the lights were down.

My third concert was purely on my own initiative. I ventured out for my first-ever visit to the Vallejo Symphony, which is a two-hour drive from here. I went that far because they were playing Prokofiev's Seventh Symphony, which I likewise had never heard in concert. Music director Marc Taddei's conducting was a little stiff, but the orchestra's tone colors were vivid. The quiet falling-away ending of the work was so hushed that I had to begin the applause, as nobody else was sure the piece was over. Prokofiev had written the symphony for the same Soviet radio children's department for which he'd written Peter and the Wolf, and the concert's (unsigned) program notes suggested that the ending "is intended to be a kind of lullaby, sending the listening children off to dreamland."

Infamously, authorities suggested to Prokofiev that he'd be more likely to win an official prize if the work had a happy, upbeat Soviet ending, so he tacked on ten seconds of one, asking privately that it disappear after his death. (The work still didn't win a prize, so he sold his soul for nothing.) It's still played - sometimes - when the symphony appears - which is rarely - but though Taddei left it off, he did play it afterwards as a sort of appendix/encore.

Also on the concert, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue plus infamous "bad boy of music" George Antheil's A Jazz Symphony, which was written for the same venue as the Rhapsody and, while it doesn't sound much like it, is to the same order: a medium-length single movement with a lot of piano obbligato and solo (Jeffrey LaDeur in this performance), in a jazz-inflected style, plus, in Antheil's case, a lot of admixture of French modernism of the Les Six school.

The orchestra plays in a converted movie theater - as does SSJ, but this one provides no space between your knees and the back of the seat in front, which means that everyone has to get up and move out to the aisle, where there isn't much room either, whenever anyone arrives who needs to get into a middle seat. The woman seated next to me proudly told me she'd been attending Vallejo Symphony for over 15 years, so I asked her about the strange occasion eight years ago when the board mysteriously fired the long-time music director. She knew nothing, nothing.

Around the corner is what reviews proudly proclaimed was Solano County's best Chinese restaurant. All I can say is that, in that case, don't eat Chinese in Solano County.

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

my comment on the latest political news

He acquired the position through monumental effort, he did nothing effective with it, he got thrown out in record time, he’s not even interested in returning.

But from now on, for the rest of history, every list of Speakers of the House of Representatives will have Kevin McCarthy’s name on it.

Is that all he really wanted?

California pioneers

1992: California becomes the first state to elect two women Senators. Here they are:

Left, Dianne Feinstein; right, Barbara Boxer

2023: California has one Black woman, one Hispanic man:

Left, Alex Padilla; right, Laphonza Butler

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

just stop it

Washington Post on the new Senator from California:
She will become the second Black woman after Harris to represent California in the Senate
Does that make you think what it makes me think? So who was the first after Harris?

Can we just stop using this kind of phrasing, which occurs all the time, or at least put a couple of commas around "after Harris" so it doesn't look dependent on "second Black woman"?

Monday, October 2, 2023


Avast, all ye Tolkien readers! Here is a preview of the opening chunk of the expanded edition of J.R.R. Tolkien's Letters, with contents up into 1944.

Not only are there newly-published letters interweaved into the existing ones (numbered, e.g. 8a, so as not to disturb the existing numbers), but there's newly added material to existing letters. And, though the notes are not included in the except, it is clear from the numbering that there are some new notes to existing material.

Lots of interesting stuff in here. Thrill to Tolkien telling his publisher in September 1939 that The Lord of the Rings is about 3/4 written! Considering that at this time he was finally, after repeated traversals, ironing out Book I, the journey as far as Rivendell, one shudders at what he thought at this time the remaining quarter of the story would be like.