Monday, December 19, 2005

On the Road Again


I write this from the living room of a friend in Scranton, Pennsylvania. What a weird city this is. It is an old steel town, very blue-collar, but making a very interesting economic transition in recent years, with a combination of white collar jobs (especially insurance) moving into the region, and increasing residential development as inexpensive central Pennsylvania becomes attractive to lower-middle-class folks who work in New York City.

The family I am staying with is gigantic--the mother was one of twelve children, and she had nine herself, the youngest of whom is my friend. Scranton is still an insular little city for the most part, and therefore everyone, and I mean everyone, is related to one another, or went to school with one another, or spent a night in jail with one another, and so on.

Mary and I traveling around the eastern seaboard courtesy of Zipcar, a cute little service that lets its members rent cars by the hour, or the day, very inexpensively. Not only that, but our car for this trip is a Mini Cooper convertible, brightly painted gold with Zipcar logos all over it. We make quite a scene on the road.

Tomorrow to Philadelphia!

Monday, December 12, 2005

Here We Come a-Wassailing

Saturday night was one of our department's lovely traditions: a caroling party. There were christmas lights, a tree, heavily-fortified mulled wine, and a solid three hours of singing. All of which goes a long way towards making life seem, briefly, a little more like Christmas. Not a small task in Los Angeles, and in grad school.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Houston, We Have a Problem

Somehow we seem to be missing five midterms. As in, the students took them, hand them in, and now we can't find them. Not good. Not good at all.

What do we do? Make them re-take? That's not a good solution. Do we not count that as part of their grade? That makes the final weigh a lot more than is really fair. So do we give them a little extra credit bonus? Argh!

In moments like these, I'm glad to not be the overall authority figure in a classroom yet.

Update: Found them!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Calm Before the Storm

Things have seemed rather busy this quarter. But as I start to pencil in things for next quarter, I am now realizing that it is going to be a doozy.

Late January: Special Fields exam, and defense.
February 16: Fly to Nashville, present paper.
March 3: Present paper here in Los Angeles.
March 15: Fly to Chicago, present paper.
Throughout: Research and write a disseration proposal!

Probably should have gotten more work done this quarter while I had the chance.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Heavy Harpsichords

As if to provide a immediate rejoinder to my previous post, I went to a harpsichord recital last night, given by a friend in the department. It was lovely. The standard warhorses of the harpsichord were brought out--Scarlatti, Couperin, Bach--plus a Haydn sonata. I usually think of the Haydn keyboard sonatas as being for the piano, but it actually worked quite well. Especially when he used the lute stop for the minuet, a nifty little trick you definitely can't do on the piano! The concluding Scarlatti sonatas were especially amazing. Luckily I was sitting with a good view of the keyboard, because some of the leaps he was making were astounding. I'm so impressed that my friend has been able to keep up his playing, despite the time constraints of being a graduate student, and despite the fact that his teacher moved to Canada just as he entered our program. He takes lessons here and there with other faculty, but for the past few years he's mostly been working on his own.

Before and after, however, I helped move the two harpsichords--one a double manual French, the other a pretty little Italian--from the music building over to the central rotunda of the main library, where the concert was being given. Man, those are some heavy suckers.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Viola Dreaming

Inspired by a variety of factors--my recent return to the stage, a general desire for something meaningful in life--I played my viola yesterday for the first time in two years. The last time I took it out of its case was at the end of my first quarter here in Los Angeles, when for a seminar we put together a small amateur performance of a few scenes from an eighteenth-century opera-comique.

The poor old guy is in good shape, luckily enough. I couldn't find any rosin, and the A string I have on there is a cheap brand that I must have put on as a last-minute replacement, but everything else was just as I had left it. The same stickers and cartoons were taped up on the inside ("Stop the Violins!"), my trusty folding chinrest, the same mechanical grey pencil I used to make notes for much of my time at Wesleyan. There was even a program in the pocket of the case from the last "real" concert I played in, a premiere of a string quartet by Justin Yang, then a grad student at Wesleyan. It was an extraordinarily difficult concert, physically. One of the movements was almost forty-five minutes of holding one note in a long sustain. It was also an emotionally difficult work. The piece was about violence, specifically school shootings. Overlaid on top of our live playing was taped excerpts of interviews with survivors of the shootings. Some of them were very hard to listen to. Justin was quite religious, I recall, and I believe the last movement with the enormous prolonged sustain was supposed to enact catharsis of a sort. To be honest, it kind of worked. Rehearsals were difficult, but during that one performance I was entranced enough with the sound of the chord that I didn't mind the passing of time.

So anyways, back to my viola. I played for a little bit, although I made the rather stupid choice to launch into a difficult piece and was rewarded with instant muscle cramps, pains that were immediately familiar even if I hadn't felt them for a long time. My fingers still knew what to do, however. Some of the pieces I used to play, especially the older ones, are permanently burned into my muscles, and I don't think I'll ever be able to shake them. Other pieces, like the more difficult ones I worked on during the year I took lessons at Wesleyan, were a bit harder to pick right up again.

I don't know how I feel about being a musician and a musicologist. One of the things we musicologists always gripe about when we are together is the standard question asked whenever we tell people what our occupation is: "oh, so what instrument do you play?" In those situations, I often refuse to admit to playing anything, since describing myself as a non-musician is closer to the truth than calling myself a musician. Certainly I wouldn't now be a musicologist if I hadn't once been a musician. But part of being a musicologist is being intensely critical of music-making, especially your own. When my closest friend has two degrees from Juilliard, it is hard to say that I do anything similar! I'm more extreme than most about this, and certainly my own department tries to encourage us to continue performing, but the reality of the field is that few of us still consider ourselves musicians. We know too much to say that without irony.

It's a schizophrenic position. We owe our careers to our own history of performing, and our careers (for many of us) keep us from performing with any seriousness ever again. Our--I should say "my," I suppose--playing music becomes intensely private, as if ashamed of itself. An English professor draws upon a lifetime of enjoying reading to be able! But musicologists draw upon a lifetime of performing music

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Farewell to a Wesbian

Horrors! Kim Stolz, the Thespian Lesbian from Wesleyan, was knocked out of the competition to be America's Next Top Model tonight. This after a rough episode, where she tried to be a peacemaker between anorexics feuding over their energy drinks. Kim came out of the fracas looking good, but her photo shoot just wasn't that great. It's kind of unfair though--this week's challenge involved the models posing in scenes taken from famous paintings. Poor Kim, with all her odd angles and nervous butch energy, somehow got chosen to recreate Botticelli's Venus. A good match it was not. I think the producer's had it in for her.

Incidentally, I just discovered the beauty of Wesleyan's alumni directory. Suffice to say, if I wanted to give Kim a call at her parent's house to cheer her up, I have her number.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Thanksgiving Rundown

The scores from Thanksgiving break:

Attempts to install fourth satellite dish for grandparents: 2
Successful installations of said satellite dish: 0
Hours driving, total: 16
Meat consumed: much
Diet Cokes: 6
After dinner nightcaps: 1
Family members: 4
Dogs: 2
Dead rats: 1
Headlights fixed: 1
Midterms graded: 2
Dungeness crab bisque at nice restaurant: priceless

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


Ah, craziness. My usual practice on this blog when I have not updated for way too long is to simply give a quick list of the interesting things I have been up to in the meanwhile. So without further adieu:

Recently, I have:

1. Flown to the UK for a surprise visit to my significant other. The tickets were cheap, it was a long weekend, and the timing was right. It was a masterpiece of planning, if I do say so myself, requiring the assistance of both of Mary's roommates and several friends out here, who provided rides to and from airports, distractions, alibis, and general support. Mary was suitably surprised, and we had a lovely weekend.

2. Done my best imitation of a rock star, performing two gigs with a friend. He plays banjo and sings, I play guitar. The repertoire included some bluegrass numbers, an obscure but rockin' Elvis ballad ("Trying to Get to You"), and a George Michael cover ("Father Figure"). The occasion was Transgiving, a regular event in West Hollywood that is a showcase for the transgendered community. I was just backup, for the most part, but my friend Steph wowed the crowd with his swiveling hips. We plan to keep on playing together--I'm going to pick some additional songs that are more my style (I'm thinking a combination of Patti Smith, a few showtunes, maybe some Motown numbers), we've got a bassist in the department who wants to join in, and so all we really need to do real shows is a drummer. Well, and I need to break down and buy an actual guitar amp one of these days. I've got my eye on the Fender FM 212R. It feels really good to be performing again. I like to think that my teaching experience has given me slightly better stage presence, which is nice.

3. Worked. A lot. It is already the eighth week of the quarter, which means stacks of midterms to grade, and the looming specter of seminar papers to write. While giving a makeup midterm today I spent some quality research time on this quarter's project, which is an essay on Stravinsky's 1952 neoclassical classic The Rake's Progress. Lots of stuff out there, although the better scholarly work is in French. I can read it, but not very quickly. Somehow this absurdly ambitious project is also requiring me to become familiar with the entire field of aesthetics, from Kant to Bourdieu. Yikes. Very useful, very interesting, but yikes.

Wednesday I drive north for some much-needed relaxation in Napa Valley. Thank goodness.

Friday, November 04, 2005

The Best Political Ad of All Time

Today I have received nine pre-recorded phone calls urging me to vote one way or the other next Tuesday. They ranged from Barbara Boxer telling me no on Props. 73 and 77 (unclear why those two only), the mayor of West Hollywood telling me to vote no on everything, to a really sketchy call that had a man sobbing while telling the story of how his daughter died because Planned Parenthood prescribed her RU 486. Yikes.

This all makes me wish I lived in New York City, which has the greatest political ad of all time, no matter what your politics.

Via Alex Ross.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Kill Me Now

I'm having trouble dealing with the supernatural cuteness of Butterstick, the baby panda bear at the National Zoo.

This is the little guy shortly after getting his first shots. Vets can be so nasty sometimes, can't they, Butterstick.

In other pop culture news, America's Next Top Lesbian, Kim, rocked this week's episode. Unfortunately, her most recent conquest, Kyle, was kicked off before they could consumate their newfound love. To celebrate, I googled this old Wesleyan Argus article that quotes her thoughts about transgender politics.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Wrong About the Right

This week's issue of The Nation has an important article by Jean Hardisty and Deepak Bhargava analyzing the success of conservatism in the United States over the past few decades. It's unfortunately not available online to non-subscribers, so if you see the Nov. 7 issue of The Nation on a newsstand, it's definitely worth your three bucks. Hardisty and Bhargava astutely point out the principles which allowed right-wing conservatism to grow so successfully in this country. For example, allowing ideological diversity rather than a monolithic movement. An emphasis on serious ideas, not "framing." Grassroots active listening rather than hierarchical control. Electoral politics as a means, not an end. And most importantly, the fearlessness to take what might be considered extreme positions at the time.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Dr. Atomic: The Opera

To summarize: Good opera. Not sure if I entirely liked it.

Dr. Atomic is definitely a successful opera. It is coherent, it worked well, the audience was into it, and I see no reason it shouldn't enter the standard repertoire. But I'm not sure if I actually...enjoyed it. I really like John Adams, and prepared for this trip by listening to recordings of Nixon in China and Death of Klinghoffer, both of which I really like. But Dr. Atomic didn't totally do it for me.

I think the main problem was the vocal writing. A lot of it seemed rather arbitrary--large amounts of text was just kind of spit out, pitched in vaguely atonal melodic lines that seemed designed to just spit large amounts of text and nothing else. The few moments that I found really beautiful, like the John Donne aria at the end of Act 1, were the moments where the music seemed to be driving the text, not vice versa. What's the point of being postmodern if you can't have pretty tunes?

That said, the orchestral writing was great. Adams has no problem with that, beyond a slight tendency to have little minimalist quotations that made me yearn for some actual hardcore minimalism.

Let's see, what else...the libretto had occasional tendencies towards annoyingness. We all agreed that the love scene between Oppenheimer and his wife was pretty stupid, although to be honest during that moment in the opera I was expending most of my energy supressing a sudden coughing fit, and so was not really appreciating anything. Unlike several of my friends, and some restless audience members, I found the last twenty minutes to be really compelling. The twenty minutes are actually a prolongation of the five minute countdown to the first detonation of the bomb. Throughout, the entire chorus is spread out on the stage lying down, assuming the prone position the scientists were supposed to take just in case the bomb was more powerful than expected, but also summoning up images of dead bodies littered everywhere.

That was I think the best part of the opera--these brief, powerful moments that carried with them enormous resonance. Like when Mrs. Oppenheimer (I think--we were in the cheap seats, so it might have been her housekeeper) was singing to her baby in its crib, unaware of the gigantic bomb hanging Damocoles-like over her head. Or the John Donne aria, where the bomb was covered in white silk sheets lit from within so that Oppenheimer was silhouetted in front. And the rather sad, frail, moment, where the General talks about his struggle to lose weight as a small boy.

The thing is, looking back at my favorite moments, none of them have anything to do with music. The only musical moments I really remember well, a week later, is that the Donne aria was pretty, and that the last twenty minutes were appropriately loud and ominous. Everything else is mostly visual.

Hopefully they will release a recording soon, or with any luck maybe even a score. I'd really like to think about this opera some more.

P.S. Alex Ross, he of New Yorker glory, has an interesting roundup of Dr. Atomic critical opinion.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Dr. Atomic: The Trip

I returned last night from a hectic but fun trip up north to see the closing night of Dr. Atomic, the new John Adams-Peter Sellars wizbang which had its premiere at SF Opera this fall. I'm going to review the opera in a separate post, but here I just wanted to recount the trip for posterity's sake.

We left Friday afternoon after everyone was done teaching sections. Thanks to various logistical issues, there were five of us crammed into my little car. Fine with me, as I was driving, but I suspect a little uncomfortable for the three in the back. It went easily enough however, with only one little pause in Dublin, where we slowed down enough for Pete to roll out of the car and catch the freeway-side BART train into the city. We spent the night in the Oakland Hills, where Elizabeth's mother made us a later dinner and we forced Kelsey to watch Amadeus--an embarrassing movie for a musicologist never to have seen.

Saturday we had a late and lazy brunch, again courtesy of Elizabeth's mother, at Rick and Anne's in Berkeley. It's a classic Berkeley restaurant, one which Elizabeth informed me I should be ashamed of never having been to. Then we headed into the city to meet up with the other half of our gang. It was a beautiful sunny fall day in the city. Sitting in Dolores Park, watching packs of dogs tussle with one another in front of palm trees and the San Francisco skyline, signing left-wing petitions and seeing a man try to sell musical instruments to sunbathers (accordion? ukelele?), it all makes it difficult to believe that one can't actually live here at the moment.

Some book-shopping in the Mission, dinner at a cheap Indian restaurant, a quick change of clothes in a friend's apartment, and we were off to the opera.Afterwardss the night was spent at an apartment in the Haight, which had the most beautiful hardwood floors I have ever seen--a deep luscious red wood that I was afraid to step on

Sunday was The Race. Elizabeth has been training for a marathon for the past few months. It's the Nike Women's Marathon, benefiting leukemia research. Sunday was the big day, so we dragged ourselves over to Golden Gate Park to cheer as she ran by. We were a little slow in getting out of the house, so we ended up missing her at mile 16, but managed to find her at mile 21, threw her a power bar, and cheered as she went past.

Then, it was back to the Mission for brunch with the some former Stanford classmates of Nikki's, at an extremely greasy little diner. Then back to the car, and six hours later, home! I am almost always really glad to be back in Los Angeles. Coming back to LA from New York, London, Washington, DC., Boston, Philadelphia, or really almost anywhere, I consider myself very fortunate to live in a wonderful city. Coming back from San Francisco, however, was a little....disappointing.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Please Please Me

I have a difficult relationship with the Beatles. Growing up, I was always a Beach Boys partisan, mostly because my parents like them better and had most of their albums on vinyl. (The only Beatles LP I remember seeing was the White Album, which kind of mystified me.) Plus, "Kokomo" came out when I was in elementary school, and although my friends and I weren't old enough to see the movie it was written for (remember Cocktail?), we loved the song and memorized all the words. Seeing the reunited Beach Boys perform live at a local amusement park put a bit of a damper on my Beach Boy love (60+ year old beach boys + bikini clad go-go dancers=horrifying), but I still remained--and remain--partisan.

But anyways, this quarter I am forced to listen to the Beatles twice a week, in the presence of 140 undergraduates who want both an easy A and the affirmation that the Beatles are The Greatest Band Ever. This should be a recipe for me to hate the Beatles even more, but I am growing oddly ambivalent.

Their downsides:
1. Way too cute for their own good.
2. Single-handedly destroyed the careers of dozens of black r&b artists by giving white America a clean-cut simulacrum of rock n' roll to listen to.
3. Early and unfortunate homophobia and gay-bashing by certain members. (I'm looking at you, John)
4. Some very unfortunate covers early on in their careers.

The upsides:
1. Please Please Me is actually a pretty great album.
2. Their entire image and career was carefully stage-managed by an effete gay Jewish upper-class British manager. Hence the trendy haircuts, Pierre Cardin suits, and the snazzy record contract with EMI.
3. John Lennon and the aforementioned effete gay Jewish upper-class British manager once went on a trip together. Alone. For two weeks. To Spain.
4. It's not really their fault that those early covers were really bad. If I become a famous academic someday, and somebody digs up my high school papers, I would be pretty embarrassed.
5. Point number 2 above is actually much more complicated than it is often represented. But that would be a whole 'nother post.

So we shall see! Downside # 1 still remains however.

Friday, October 07, 2005


Apologies for not posting more frequently, gentle reader. I fear the advent of the school year will be putting a damper on such things.

But, I have some exciting news. Some of you know that my building has a swimming pool. That sounds fun, but it is this bizarre little pool in the middle of the courtyard formed by the two halves of the apartment building. Not only is it usually rather debris-laden, but to go swimming in it requires swimming right in front of all these big windows where you can see neighbors peering down at you. And since the residents in my building are either Russian mobsters or snobby gay male model-actors, it's just not very appealing. Very occasionally the manager's 14 year-old daughter and her friends splash around, and occasionally at 2 a.m., when the bars close, you will hear a drunken splash or two. But no right-minded person actually uses the thing in any seriousness.

Yesterday, however, Elizabeth and I went for a run. Or rather, she, being someone currently training for a marathon ran six miles, picked me up, and we ran another six miles together. We got back to my apartment at about 8pm, were hot and sweaty, and decided that it was finally time to baptize the pool. So we did! It was dusty, it was freezing cold, I saw lots of strange eyes peering down, but we did it!

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Elderly Politicians

I just read this Guardian article, which talks about how there is mounting pressure for Silvio Berlusconi to step down before the next election. The main reason? He is too old, even if he did have a facelift.

The strange thing is that Berlusconi is only 69! It's interesting that here in the U.S. there is really no age limit on politicians. When Reagan ran, there was some fuss about his age, but it obviously didn't stop him from two terms in office. And people like Senator Thurmond are allowed to totter around the Senate well past the point of senility. I wonder why the difference between here and Europe. I have no problem with older politicians, per se, but it seems like in the United States some people value it as a positive quality in and of itself.

Let's Get This Party Started

Gad. Posts like this are why I can barely stand to read the liberal blogosphere. I appreciate that the Daily Kos has often been an effective progressive tool, particularly in holding Democrats accountable to their progressive constituents.

However, I can't stand this whole discourse promoted by Kos, that those pesky single-issue groups like NARAL need to be quiet for the sake of electing more Democrats. (And this isn't Kos's first posting on the subject.) The simplest criticism to make is that it is really easy for Kos and bloggers like him--a group of people composed almost entirely of white men--to call for groups to subsume their beliefs for the larger cause. If abortion is illegal, it's not going to be Kos who gets pregnant and needs one. It's really easy for somebody who lives a really privileged life to call for everyone to hold back on their own "personal" issues so that our beloved party can gain a few seats. People such as myself, who believe strongly in "single issues" don't do so just to be difficult. It's because these issues that seem so inconsequential to Kos actually affect people's real lives, and that's much more important than the Democratic Party gaining another senate seat. I don't care about politics because I want the Democrats to "win," I care because I hope there will be meaningful change someday. I'm not afraid to say that Dianne Feinstein has caused a lot of harm to a lot of people, and just because she is a Democrat doesn't make it any better.

The other problem I have, with that post and many other similar strategies, is that there is an undercurrent of anxiety beneath them which says, "the Republicans are winning, therefore we need to adopt the strategy that makes them win." I firmly believe that in politics, the message is the medium. I've always had a problem with PETA not so much because I disagree with their politics (often that too!) but because they take their tactics and iconography from the anti-abortion movement. The disgusting posters with pictures of foxes skinned alive are not at all different than disgusting posters of fetuses. Actions by PETA and the anti-abortion people never actually challenge the dominant order in a meaningful way, they just try to horrify you into blind submission.

I don't want our entire movement coalesced around media friendly leaders. I don't actually think that a disciplined party leadership is a good thing. We don't need a tight, focused message. I don't want a pseudo-fascist college organization along the lines of the College Republicans. I don't want old-boy networks of any kind, or pandering of any sort. The Democratic Party's greatest strength is its fractiousness. Where there is conflict and diversity of opinion, that means real human beings are around.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Dr. Atomic!

i am going to see Dr. Atomic at the San Francisco Opera! Wahoo!

If anybody wants to come, there seem to still be inexpensive tickets left for this performance, Oct. 22.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

America's Next Top Wesleyan Grad

I apparently went to college with this girl.

(And supposedly she is family, too!)

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


Don't you wish that the leader of our country could carry on a long and literate conversation about the merits of different productions of Parsifal?

Speaking of Parsifal, I'd really like to go see this.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Four Saints

I'm probably the last musicologist in the world to realize this, but the Virgil Thomson/Gertrude Steing opera Four Saints in Three Acts is really fun. I've been reading about it all summer, in a variety of different contexts--Nadine Hubbs does a long analysis of it in The Queer Composition of America's Sound, as does Daniel Albright in Untwisting the Serpent. So, I figured that it would probably make a good addition to my fifty item list as one of the ten musical works, and bought both a recording and the vocal score.

Finally got around to listening to it tonight (just the first act so far), and it is fabulous! Very witty and campy--my favorite is when the chorus keeps getting the word "anoint" confused with "annoy". I don't know Thomson's music well, and had been curious to see how he would set Stein's libretto. He does it very straight, in a lot of chorales and hymn-like settings that give you both a sense of dry midwestern-ness but also a touch of poignancy. Occasionally there are little hiccups that remind me of the similar hiccups in the fast sections of Glass's Mad Rush, and make me realize that additive processes owe a lot to Stein.

On to the second act!

Monday, September 19, 2005

Notable Aspects of Returning to Los Angeles After Three Months Away

1. In my absence, three new restaurants have opened up within blocks of my apartment, and one rather major building has been demolished.

2. In my immediate neighborhood, when I encounter a group of tough-looking muscle-bound drunken young men, I don't need to worry.

3. My local Subway has changed from Pepsi to Coke. Rock on!

4. My own-hipness-relative-to-surrounding-hipness ratio has gone down by about 300% in just 24 hours.

5. Three months of the Chronicle of Higher Education is about two feet worth of paper.

6. Smog! The glorious smog! I have missed you.

7. One of the aforementioned new restaurants is actually a new coffee house. Very, very, exciting.

Now, to unpack.

The Eagle Has Landed

I am safely back in Los Angeles, by way of Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Cincinnati. The last leg of the trip was spent luxuriating in first class, which was quite lovely, although it was an older plane and therefore it was not quite as fancy as it could have been. I did get to watch Herbie Fully Loaded. Hard to believe it was directed by the same woman who did D.E.B.S. Kudos to Violet Vixen for picking me up at LAX.

Now, back to the grind.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

In Transit

I write from Atlanta, where I have an unexpected five hour layover on the way back to Los Angeles--my first flight, from Philadelphia was slow in leaving, and it was enough to make me miss a tight connection. Now I get to trickle home across the country, from Atlanta, to Cincinnati, to Los Angeles. Sigh.

I had a lovely night last night in Philadelphia with my sister. She took me to see The Teachings of Chairman Rick, a short cabaret which sets speeches by Rick Santorum to music. It's a cute idea, and even if it wasn't quite as clever as it could have been, it had a nice community vibe going on--three actors and one musician playing the songs in the ballroom of the local gay and lesbian community center, with "Santorum for Dogcatcher" t-shirts for sale in the lobby. The best moment was probably the "Teri Schiavo" number, which juxtaposed Santorum's speech from the Schiavo case with an earlier speech on the Iraq war. For that number, Santorum was played by a young gay black kid who solemnly recited the increasingly paradoxical statements while the other two cast members sang a "Teri Schiavo" ostinato in tritones.

Santorum is up for reelection in 2006. To help defeat him, go to

Or, you can just buy one of those Dogcatcher t-shirts.

Friday, September 16, 2005


Being back in east coast cities like Washington D.C. and Philadelphia always makes me reevaluate how I think about race. If I have one serious complaint about Los Angeles, it is that in LA, if you are white person in comfortable circumstances such as myself, it is really easy to avoid seeing black people. To be blunt.

Los Angeles has an extraordinary amount of diversity, and I always have appreciated the way that the racial makeup of LA really problematizes simple binaries of black and white. But still, the fact of the matter is that the diversity I encounter on a daily basis, in the classroom and in my neighborhood, is not the kind of diversity that challenges me or makes me feel uncomfortable. In West Hollywood there is a sizable immigrant Russian population, and at UCLA the largest racial group is Asian American, but neither really exist outside of my own personal comfort zone.

It's partly the fact that I am at a somewhat elite university, and live in fairly wealthy and definitely white neighborhood, but it is more than that too. In Washington, I have lived for many summers in a very wealthy neighborhood, Dupont Circle, that, like West Hollywood, is home to a lot of well-to-do gay white men. And yet, in D.C., and also in Philadelphia where my sister lives, one encounters different people constantly, in every aspect of your life. In fact, you have to work really hard not to.

It's not the case that all my friends in Los Angeles are white. They aren't, and there is frankly a ton of diversity among them, especially along lines of class, geography, and sexuality. But one of the things I value most about living in a city is the random, and often forced, encounters with difference. I always find it helpful to resort to theory to think about it: Samuel Delaney makes a distinction between what he calls "networking" and "contact". Networking is simply meeting other people through your job, or your school, or through other friends--the end result being that certain people are channeled in your direction, and others are channeled away. Contact, on the other hand, is the urban phenomenon of just plain running into people that you never would have met otherwise. Delaney believes so strongly in contact as a social force that back when he lived in New York City and taught in Massachusetts, he used to commute to work on a Greyhound bus rather than drive by himself--just so he could run into more random people.

I love Los Angeles. I think the possibility exists for more contact there. And I also know that I should probably blame my own self rather than geography--I could choose to live in a different neighborhood, for instance. But even if it is selfish, I wish Los Angeles would make it harder to isolate myself.

Maybe I just need to ride the bus more.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Geek Rant Pt. 2

There seems to be some sort of robot that automatically posts a spam comment every time I do a blog post--see the comment on my previous post. And not only that, but it is in the guise of hurricane relief. The nerve! Probably the only way to stop it is to disallow anonymous comments. I'm just deleting them for now, but I leave you the previous comment for your perusal.

Geek Rant

I really, really hate tech support. Mary's mother just bought a laptop--her first home computer in a long time--and we were very excited, both because it was a shiny new 12" Powerbook, and also because she got DSL and a wireless router to go with it.

However, I have spent all week struggling to get the wireless network to work. There are two problems. The first is that although it cheerfully says that the router should work fine with Macs, there is absolutely zero instruction on how a Mac owner is supposed to set up the network. The instructions tell you to use some Windows setup assistant thing to get it going, and because it is a third-party router, not an Airport, there's nothing I could do about it.

Secondly, the tech support people have absolutely no training. It was perfectly clear that the woman on the phone was simply listening to my problems, and looking up the answers in the same manual I already had handy. And it was even worse when Mary's mother called by herself--the Verizon tech support people swore it was a problem with her computer, so she drove all the way out to an Apple Store because Verizon told her it was Apple's fault. It wasn't, of course. I eventually figured out how to manually configure the router myself, and it's all working fine now, but grr!

Friday, September 09, 2005

Hot Hot Hot

Washington, D.C. is hot. Hot hot hot. I'm not surprised, of course, but it is a rude shock to go from the 30 degree nights in the Adirondacks to the 90% humidity of our nation's capital swamp.

Today Mary, Anne and I visited the Hirshorn to see the Visual Music exhibit that I had missed when it came to MOCA in Los Angeles last year. I was a little apprehensive, having seen mixed reviews, but it turned out to be pretty darned fabulous. It was basically in three parts: early abstract art like Kandinsky that "aspired to the condition of music", mid-century experimental filmmakers like Fischinger and the Whitney brothers, and then more recent computer-based sound installations. The first part seemed a bit forced (although I do like my Richter), and the third was predictable, but it was really amazing to see all of these very rare experimental films. The Whitney brothers were particularly interesting. Like a lot of their crowd, they were inspired by Schoenberg to find, basically, visual serialism. So they decided that a point of light was more or less the equivalent of a tone, and then did a bunch of crazy abstract maneuvering of points of light, in the manner of tone rows. All of this before computers, so they built these gigantic mechanical contraptions involving pendlums, stencils, and other assorted detritus. I hope I can buy some of their films on DVD or something, it seems like not only an important modernist artificact to know about, but also a really good teaching tool for discussing, say, Milton Babbit.

Only one more week in DC, and then I am back home!

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Alive? Yes.

It is has been weeks since I last posted. Luckily I am with my parents in the Adirondacks, so approximately 2/3 of this blog's readership are able to hear my commentary and witticisms in real life.

There are many things I would like to post about, but the internet here drips down the phone line at 26400 bps, and I therefore rarely have the motivation to do so. There is much to report about though: a surreal wedding in New Haven, a short but pleasant visit to the old stomping grounds in Middletown, a very nice week and half in the Adirondacks, enlivened by a visit from Ms. ENM, several sailboat races, one mountain climbed, and a few more 50-item books read.

Pehaps another time.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Wedding Bells

As one might not be surprised to find out, I have very complex and ambivalent feelings about the subject of marriage, especially in its current incarnation--heteronormativity imbued with the power of state regulation. Long-term relationships, often good. Mine specifically, very good. The desire to have said relationships sanctified by our government, so as to deny other people financial and social benefits? Not so good. And I don't think allowing same-sex marriages solves the problem. I don't think we should discriminate against single people any more than we should anyone else.

If you can't tell, I went to a wedding this weekend.


So much craziness. I can't possibly recap the last few days, or describe the next few, in one post. So I must resort to telegraphic description:

1. The ladies are all moved into their new home. It's a lovely home, much nicer than the old one. The moving was incredibly stressfully, as all moves are, despite having hired movers. Packing on Tuesday, moving on Wednesday, Setting up on Thursday, leaving the country on Friday.

2. We were not flying British Airways, thank god. But because of the strikes, our Virgin flight was overbooked, and we almost got a chance to arrive a few hours later in return for a free international ticket each. But alas, they ended up not needing us.

3. Virgin has the best in-flight entertainment in the world. They have a selection of like thirty movies, and you can pause, rewind, and fast-forward at will.

4. We successfully made it to West Philly by ten o'clock in the evening, after some unfortunate detours in unsavoury parts of north philadelphia. We just spent the night with my sister and her five housemates in this gigantic victorian house on Spruce street. My sister and her friends are all living together in this house and working at various community non-profits. Katy is doing well, having been working at an after-school arts program/job training thing for about six weeks now. It's a tough job, though.

5. Today we drive my sister's car up to New Haven for my friend's wedding. Then on Sunday we drive to the Adirondacks. Then on Monday Mary starts work again, and I drive to Burlington to pick up my mother.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Moving Part 2

As our internet is about to be disconnected, this shall be last communication until Sunday. Anyone needs to reach me, try the phone instead--after Friday, I shall switch from mobile to cell, and my LA number will work again.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


How hard could it be, you ask, to move five blocks across town?

The moving process has begun. Wish me luck.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Peter Jennings

Is anybody else strangely saddened by the death of Peter Jennings? I mean, I had no real attachment to the man, and I haven't watched the evening news in ages. At the same time, however, the big evening news shows, on CBS, NBC, and ABC have always fascinated me. I can't think of any other cultural institutions which try so hard to represent America to itself. Obviously, anybody who has interest in making money tries to appeal to as many people as possible. But the mainstream evening news broadcasts had the strange combination of mass market appeal, but also a small, vestigial, attachment to an mythology of responsibility and balance.

Clearly, both sides of that equation are hugely problematic. The idea of appealing to a mass market is always troubling. Not because there is something wrong with being popular, but because so often that appeal is actually only a rhetorical tool, and in reality is carefully constructed to include certain demographics, and exclude other demographics--usually on lines of race and class, but along other lines as well. And the myth of "responsibility" is ridiculous, not because it is a myth, but because the pleasant-sounding word "responsibility" conceals within an ideology that privileges comfort and the status quo. It wouldn't be "responsible" to discuss certain things that might cause trouble, after all. To achieve "balance" doesn't mean you are including every side of a story, it means you are including only two.

But at the same time, that makes the evening news a forum where we get to watch an image of a mythical America painted for us every night. The evening news is what the powers-that-be want us to look like, and how they want us to think. That's actually very valuable information.

Anyways, Jennings. The reason I liked him so much was that his idea of America could be rather lovely. Tom Brokaw was rural conservatism, using his Midwestern twang to promote a vision that valorized war heroes and the common volk. Dan Rather was Hollywood, trying hard to sound Texan, and therefore authentically American (obviously he has never been to Texas!), rushing around the world to provide a light-and-picture show that is either pleasantly or annoyingly distracting.

But if Brokaw and Rather were kultur, Jennings was civilisation. In his broadcasts, it was okay for an American to be urban and cosmopolitan. You didn't need to put on a rural schtick to condescend to urban sophisticates. You could be good-looking, marry well and often, live in the city, and enjoy life. Heck, you didn't even have to be American. Jennings didn't become an American citizen until 2003, and despite the obituaries that portray his citizenship ceremony as a lifetime in coming, it was clearly something that Jennings had put off as long as he could.

With Jennings gone, the story is that the tradition of authoritative evening news broadcasts is gone. I think that is a good thing. But I miss Peter Jennings.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

LA in London

Today we went down into central London, for probably the last time--on Wednesday we are moving into a new flat, and then on Friday Mary and I fly back to the States. The main purpose of our expedition into the city was to go see a George Stubbs exhibit at the National Gallery. It was nice enough, for an exhibit that contains approximately 300 identical paintings of horses.

The real excitement, though, is that afterwards we stumbled across a movie premiere in Leicester Square--the London premiere of the new Michael Bay movie The Island. These things happen all the time in Los Angeles, of course, especially in all of the nice old movie theaters in Westwood. Usually, though, you wait around for a long time, get bored, and never see anybody cool. This time, however, just as we were peering over the crowd to see what was up, a limo pulled up and deposited Michael Bay himself. Then a few minutes later Ewan MacGregor arrived, followed in short order by Scarlett Johannsson. Pretty darn cool, I have to say. I got closeup pictures of them all, but I am too lazy to deal with uploading them right now.

Michael Bay anecdote: Mr. Bay is a graduate of Wesleyan's illustrious film studies program, which gave him the critical acumen necessary for such thoughtful mots du cinema as Pearl Harbor and Armageddon. Bay came back to campus to give a talk while I was there, and was practically scorned out of the lecture hall. One black-clad film studies student asked him point blank, "How does it feel to sell out?" I wish I could say that Bay had a snappy comeback to that, but he didn't.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005


Just finished Max Paddison's Adorno, Modernism and Mass Culture. Brilliant and a bit obtuse, in the way that European academics who read way more than you are. I highly recommend the first chapter if you want a concise and fairly readable summary of critical theory in the twentieth-century. He makes me think, however, that I should really read Peter B├╝rger's Theory of the Avant-Garde. Have any of you smart people out there read it?

In other academic news/thinking aloud, I have decided the Cage paper I wrote last fall, and which I am revising as an article this summer, is complete rubbish. Luckily, I think I have come up with a new organizational scheme that should make its re-writing go more smoothly than it has been. Plus, I have decided to fold into this essay another paper I wrote on Cage a year ago. That will beef up the second half of the paper a good deal, and make the whole thing a bit more literate. That's the plan at least.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005


I attempted to go down and have lunch with a friend today who is doing research at the British Library. We ended up never meeting up, but I enjoyed a pleasant stroll around Bloomsbury. It is such a lovely neighborhood, really just perfect in so many ways. Tons of bookstores, universities galore, rows of townhouses surrounding adorable Georgian grassy squares, and walking distance from both Camden to the north and the busy West End neighborhoods to the south. Way too posh for normal human beings to ever actually live there, I imagine, but one can dream.

I spent a happy hour walking around the British Museum. I'd been there once before, but I just wanted to poke my head in and see the Elgin Marbles to remind myself that the United States didn't invent imperialism. Also wandered around the Roman Britain collection, which is quite nice, and the Asian and American collection, both of which were predictably poor.

And as it always seems to do in London these days, world politics found a way to intrude. On my way back up to Mornington Crescent to catch the tube home, I found myself on a street that seemed both strangely familar, but also strangely eerie--it was hard to put a finger on it, but people just seemed to have strange expressions on their faces. I looked for a street sign, and realized that I was in Tavistock Square, right where the bus blew up on July 7. No trace of the blast or anything on the street or the adjacent building, but there was a definite air of unease circulating around.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Oh, Doris

How am I supposed to get any work done when Channel Four decides to broadcast not one, but two early Doris Day musicals in a row this afternoon? Right now it is By the Light of the Silvery Moon, the 1953 sequel to On Moonlight Bay. It's not very good, but I really like the male lead, Gordon MacRae. He was Curly in the film version of Oklahoma!, and is much fun. Much preferable to that dour Howard Keel in Calamity Jane.


The second one was Caprice, from 1967, starring Doris and Richard Harrison as dueling spies for major cosmetic companies, in a race to find a special hair spray that keeps one's hair dry even underwater. I didn't watch the whole thing, but I tuned in briefly to an exciting gun battle between Doris and a mysterious man in black while both were skiing down a mountain in Switzerland. Luckily, Rex rescued Doris in a helicopter before she plunged off a cliff.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Baseball? Really?

It's almost one o'clock in the morning, and there is a television show on right now that appears to be a baseball talk show. With actual Britons discussing actual baseball. Very weird.

In other news, I spent the last few days reading and processing Lydia Goehr's The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works. My random thoughts:

1. Goehr was apparently chair of the Philosophy department at Wesleyan. Who knew?

2. The book is not really musicology, it is full-fledged philosophy. I realized this when I started to get a headache midway through, and realized it was actually a painful flashback of my undergraduate introductory philosophy class. Academic philosophers are a bizarre set of people, with a writing style that boggles the mind. Every possible aspect of an argument must be explained in excruciating detail, and with frequent recourse to strange metaphors. My favorite: in trying to explain the idea of compliance (in other words, how correct does a performance of a musical work need to be in order for it to qualify as that work. Does it need to be 100% Is it Beethoven's Fifth if you only get 50% of the notes? ) Goehr compares the situation to a balding man: how many hairs does he need to lose to be considered bald?

In summary? It's a really tough read, and it probably isn't necessary to read every chapter, but it is worth every musicologist's while to sit down and read as much as one can thoroughly. It's smart, valuable, and provocative.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Mary Poppins

We went to go see the new musical version of Mary Poppins in the West End, with our two friends who were visiting from the States. It's the latest in the series of Disney movies reworked as musicals, in the vein of The Lion King and Beauty in the Beast. I haven't seen either of those two, but I gather that Mary Poppins is more in line with Beauty in the Beast, in that is a fairly straightforward, non-Taymor-ized adaptation.

My review? In short, it was dreadful. Perfectly dreadful. A treacly mishmash of Disney dreck, unconvincing Andrew Loyd Webber-style techno gizmos, and some of the worst singing I have ever heard by supposed professionals. Granted, an understudy was singing Bert's role, which can throw things off, but in a mainstream West End musical that has been open for a few months, that should not be an excuse. And not only was the performance amateurish, the script was dreadful, a complete disaster. The pseudo-Anglican-mysticism of the books and the movie were replaced with miserably sentimental muck. My favorite number from the movie, "Feed the Birds", was ruined. In the end, when Mary Poppins opened her umbrella and floated out over the audience, I wanted to retch. And let it be known that I have no problem with popular culture, or even with trash. My love for Britney Spears is completely genuine, I watch Friends re-runs nightly, and I read Defamer religiously. Mary Poppins was just bad. Bad, bad, bad.

My quandary, however, is not that the show was bad. My problem is that everyone loved it. Not in the applause-inflation sort of way that characterizes a lot of shows nowadays, with the automatic standing ovation every five minutes, but real, genuine love for the show. Occasionally at the end of a number, you could see everyone just lurching half out of their seats with appreciation, shouting bravo with glee. This included literally everyone in the theater, including my two friends from college. (Mary is on my side, thank god.) My two friends are very intelligent people, very sophisticated. They are, respectively, a linguist and an astrophysicist, for god's sake. I have known them for a long time, and have had many sophisticated aesthetic discussions with them. My former roommate, whom I love dearly, proclaimed it the best musical she has ever seen.

So I am left with the conclusion that there is something very wrong with me. Have I been so thoroughly disciplined by graduate school that I am no longer capable of being swept away in what seems to be a magical experience for everyone else? Has a summer's worth of reading Adorno, Marx, and Goehr completely corrupted me? Am I now so irredeemably academic that I will never know happiness again?

No, I just think everyone else is crazy.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Driving Less Wrongly

I know that everyone is fascinated by my continued attempts to drive, so here is another update:

The big news is that last night I drove from Barnet all the way into central London, to the Euston train station just south of Camden. This was presaged by a less successful attempt to drive a friend to Heathrow Thursday morning. I got there fine--it was ridiculously early in the morning, so there was no traffic on the M25 and I could just cruise in fifth all the way there. I managed to pull up to the terminal fine and drop my friend off, but once there I got stuck. There were crowds of people surrounding me, and with the pressure I began to stall spectacularly. After trying for several long minutes, I finally gave up and Mary drove us home.

Last night, however, for various complicated reasons we had to return a rental car to Euston. It was fairly late at night so there wasn't tons of traffic, and I stalled two or three times, but more or less I made the drive successfully! It's about a thirty minute drive, with a variety of roundabouts, stop lights, tight busy streets, and one very steep hill through Highgate, so I am quite proud of myself.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Cotswolds Photos

I have uploaded a few photos of our weekend expedition to the Cotswolds.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005


My girlfriend is an American who has lived in London the past three years studying for a graduate degree. Several times in her short stay here she has witnessed explosions of what the British press have come to call “yob” culture, the vicious and brutal attacks by young Britons against random strangers on the street. The worst incident she saw occurred on a bus. A young man boarded the bus with some friends, and tried to sneak by without paying. The driver, however, noticed him, and yelled at him to come back to the front of the bus. When he pretended not to hear, a young woman informed him that the bus driver wanted a word with him. The young man proceeded to tear into the woman, screaming at her to mind her own business.

The woman, however, was not the victim of violence. The victim was, instead, a man in his mid-twenties who was sitting nearby with his mother. When the young hoodlum had been screaming at the woman for a good while, the victim finally told him to lay off her. That was enough of a spark to light off the yob mentality. He and his friends grabbed the man, dragged him off the bus, and pummeled him bloody on the sidewalk. My girlfriend, and the rest of the bus passengers, watched through the windows in silence as the man’s mother screamed for help.

This month has witnessed several much worse violent explosions on London buses. Strangers, as innocent as if less valiant than the man on bus, have died for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The perpetrators of these acts were very different, of course. The men who attacked my girlfriend’s bus were white. Those who attacked trains and buses on July 7 and July 21 were, it is believed, not white. The similarities, however, are more important. The men who bombed London’s transportation, and the men who terrorize its streets after closing time at the pubs, are all young British men, who, adrift in this nation, have found personal realization through vicious, indiscriminate, violence.

The Labour government believes that the best way to stop violence such as this is to prohibit it. Yob culture is being attacked with the infamous Anti-Social Behavior Ordinances, which allow local governments to impose severe penalties on specific people for any sort of activity that might be deemed “anti-social”, broadly defined. Terrorism is likewise to be combated with increased police powers, and the occasional public execution on a crowded tube car. Those on the left, of course, insist that what we really need to do is attack the motivations. In the case of the yobs, this means more “opportunity” and better youth programs to keep them occupied in the meantime. In the case of terrorism, this means fighting racism at home and ending Britain’s involvement in the war on Iraq.

As much as I would love to blame terrorism such as London’s on the Iraq war, I just do not think it is justified. The Iraq war provides impetus, to be sure, just as the man on the bus provided his attackers with an impetus, however mild. And surely, the young men from Leeds were organized, trained, and equipped by larger forces. But in reading the biographies of the original bombers, young Muslim men from Leeds, I can’t help have the feeling that even if geopolitics hadn’t intervened, violence and trouble might always have been down the road for them. One of the bombers, after all, had been sent to Pakistan in the first place because his mother hoped a traditional education might keep her son out of trouble. And although I am mostly sympathetic to the argument that poverty and a lack of social opportunity encourages violent youth cultures, I just also know too many privileged rich kids who are as violent as the next. And despite Michael Moore’s simplifications, I don’t think it is a matter of national culture. Nations and political movements give formal shape and coherence to violence, but they don’t actually create it.

I just wish I knew where it did come from. It seems to be everywhere, lying ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. Living amongst the bombings this summer makes you realize, first of all, how dreadful it must be to live in areas where much more horrific violence flourishes daily. But it also makes you realize that maybe you might have some of that violence in you too. I have never been a law-and-order person in my life, and six months after the terrorist attacks in New York City I marched in Washington, D.C. against the war in Afghanistan. I never have believed that punitive actions help to stop violence, and I have been against the death penalty as long as I have been alive. And yet, in the midst of these bombings, I occasionally feel these little surges of violence within myself. They aren’t particularly directed at anything coherent. If I were a British police officer, or an American president, it is the kind of surge that would cause great damage. Instead, they just kind of muddle around within me. Am I angry at the terrorists, or the American government, or British hooligans? But most of all, where does it come from?

Monday, July 25, 2005


The three of us went on an impromptu little trip to the Cotswolds this weekend. Mary's boss at the most recent internship kept on going on how lovely they were, and how easy it was to get there and see the sights, so we finally gave in. We just drove up Saturday at noon, motored around seeing the cute little villages, spent the night in an inn, motored around a bit more in the morning, and then came back home.

Most of the towns in the area developed in the 12th and 13th century as markets to support the region's wool industry. Of the towns, Chipping Campden was by far the cutest and most well-preserved. Every single building in sight is made out of local limestone, which is a kind of brownish-yellow. Lots of buildings still have thatched roofs, and there is very little recent development. It's all very cute and adorable to the point of sickness.

We did have a very nice evening in Tetbury though. We stopped off there to have dinner (lamb, of course) at a pub called the Royal Oak, and while there began to look vaguely for a place to spend the night, although since London was only two hours away we could always have returned for the night if need be. That seemed to be the case, as everything was predictably all booked for the height of the summer tourist season. The pub owner, however, heard our plight, and made a phone call to some friend who managed a pub just a block up the street. It turned out that she had a spare room that she wasn't ordinarily letting, as it needed some repairs--perfect for us, especially at only thirty pounds for the night. We spent the rest of the evening enjoying the pub, which was a rather shabby, and very local, place in an sixteenth-century stone building. Once it was closing time, and we were full of beer and lamb, the three of us squeezed into a little room upstairs, and had a lovely night's sleep.

These next few days we're lucky to have two friends from college visiting--Ruth, who had been visiting her parents in the South of France this summer, and my former Cambridge roommate Sun, who is stopping off here for a day en route to Germany. A random convergence of people, but fun.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

A Northern Breeze

Barnet usually smells fine. Today, however, the wind was blowing from the north, and all of a sudden, the whole area smells distinctively of...cow. Yes, definitely cow.

Monday, July 18, 2005

The Roof, the Roof, the Roof is on Fire

Remember the idyllic scene I posted earlier in the summer, where I lounged in our garden underneath drying laundry? Well, this picture is what that looks like now.

It's been hot and dry here all week, so much so that I watered the lawn this morning. As I was inside doing dishes, I suddenly smelled smoke, and noticed out the window that ash was falling down. I go outside, and lo and behold, there is a gigantic conflagration in our backyard. It seems (according to the fire brigade), that a neighbor's garden shed spontaneously combusted, which then lit off our shed, and two others in adjoining yards. While another neighbor and I wrestled with a water hose, the fire brigade took their sweet time getting to us--the flames were meanwhile as high as our house. They later told us that there was, believe it or not, a similar fire elsewhere in Barnet at the same time, so the crew that responded to us had to come from Finchley.

In the end, no real damage except to the garden sheds, the fence, and our next-door neighbor's prized birch trees. Guess I don't have to worry about maintaining the garden anymore!

Another photo here.


Yesterday I managed to drive home from the RVC campus in Hawkshead. I was by no means ready to do so, having barely mastered getting into first in the RVC parking lot, but Mary convinced me I had to try. There was a bad moment trying to pull out onto a fast-moving street, and some close calls with the left-side-of-the-road issue, but I made it home safely.

The picture is of Zoe, a four year old Rottweiler we babysat this weekend. Her owners, classmates of Mary's, were in Cornwall for the weekend, so we got to enjoy some furry companionship.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Dilemma Solved

Bought the book at midnight. Just finished it. Liked it. Now going to bed.

Dilemma: Harry Potter

Do I buy the new Harry Potter book at midnight, and then stay up all night reading it? Or, do I buy it in the morning, and spend my Saturday reading it?


Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Organization Man

Warning: Boring Academic Navelgazing

The next phase of my graduate school career is passing another exam in January. Unlike the comprehensive knowledge exam I took in Mary, this next exam is a test of me knowledge of a particular field. The idea, according to our department, is to develop a specialty framed in the terms of a job announcement. For instance, nineteenth-century opera, or American popular music, or eighteenth-century instrumental music. Basically, we are told, the sub-field of musicology towards which our dissertation will eventually contribute.

At a progressive department such as ours, it is actually a bit difficult to figure out what your field should be. For instance, one of our students is writing a dissertation on piano fragments from Schumann to the present. There is no one widely-recognized sub-specialty that such a dissertation would belong to. It is conceptually organized, rather than by genre or period. I have a bit of this problem myself. I'd really like to see my dissertation be a whole range of different musics, bound by a particular conceptual thread and a tight chronological focus. Ideally, it would contribute both to popular music studies, and to twentieth-century modernism. In the end, I've chosen to focus my special field on just one of these areas--modernism, specifically American modernism from about 1920 to about 1965. I know the literature better, and I feel (slightly) more comfortable in those circles.

Having chosen a field, I then have to put together a list of fifty books and musical works which, after having studied, will give me mastery of the field. Although my list isn't officially approved, I have a rough draft of it that is providing me with reading material for the summer. Today I've started on an interesting section of the list: social theory from the 1950s. I tentatively have put five books on the list, under the category of primary texts. John Kenneth Galbraith, C. Wright Mills, David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd, William Whyte's The Organization Man, and some yet-to-be-determined Adorno. I probably won't have all of them on my final list (one of my committee members didn't really like including them, another loved it. Sigh) But as I constantly refer to these intellectuals in a lot of my work on post-war American culture, it seems like I should read them all anyhow. I'm reading The Organization Man now, William Whyte's best-selling polemic against the decline of individualism. It's a little boring, to be honest, but worth the time.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005


It has been a long time since I have posted. Not for lack of time, or for events to post about, but just for laziness. Since my last post I have...

1. Watched the BBC for two days straight after the bombings. Ken Livingston is my hero.
2. Had a crazy night at a pub.
3. Went to a farewell barbecue in Cambridgeshire for an Irish horse manager who is moving to New Zealand.
4. Poked around the Camden markets and explored Primrose Hill
5. Made fitful progress on my summer reading: five books down, thirty to go!
5. Strolled around the public footpaths that criss-cross Barnet's golf courses and commons.
6. Watched waaaay too much Big Brother, which, unlike the pale imitation they show in the United States, is fascinating, and is a national obsession.

I will probably back-post about most of these things individually.

Weird Britishism of the day: Some of the commercials they show here are just American commercials, except with British accents badly dubbed over.

Thursday, July 07, 2005


A series of explosions went off this morning in central London, in tube stations and on at least one bus. We are all fine here, although the tube stations affected are ones that we often use on a regular basis. I had vague plans this morning to try and go visit Windsor Castle by train; I'm glad I didn't.

Strangely, this is not the first terrorist bombing I have been present in London for. When my family was here for Christmas in 1983, my father took my then-newborn sister in a stroller to visit the Harrod's department store in Knightsbridge. Streams of people suddenly started pouring towards him, away from the store. It turned out that the IRA had just bombed Harrod's, killing five.

I initially thought that only a few people had died in the bombings this morning, but it now appears that many more have been killed. Scary stuff.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Changing of the Bands

We went to Buckingham Palace on Sunday to see the changing of the guard with my grandparents. I saw this once before, when I was about three years old and visiting my other grandparents, who lived in London at the time.

It's probably due to the time of year (July vs. December) but there were a LOT more people there--probably about 5,000 crammed in. Barricades were set up, police horses were patrolling the edges, the whole deal. We were supposed to meet my grandparents at the foot of the Victoria Memorial, but that was clearly not going to happen

The changing was a bizarre experience, however. It was announced by a military band coming tromping down the street playing a march. They went through the gates into the Palace courtyard, shuffled around a bit, and then stopped playing as the men in furry hats strutted around doing their thing. Then the band trotted over to the side, picked up some music stands and set them up in a semi-circle, and then proceeded to play a little concert. It was hilarious--they more or less played the same music that my high school wind ensemble used to (at more or less the same skill level, to be honest), highlighted by a spirited rendition of Billy Joel's "Piano Man."

It was a truly bizarre sight: thirty British soldiers dressed in their red coats and furry hats, standing stiffly at attention, participating in an ancient ceremony at the seat of the British monarchy, surrounded by all of the imperial monuments of the Victoria Memorial, playing..."Piano Man."

Weird country.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

A Midsummer's Night Roadtrip

Drove up with the girls to Stratford-upon-Avon yesterday to see a Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer's Night Dream. It was a pretty drive (especially with Mary doing the driving) up the M40 past Oxford and Blenheim Palace. It would be nice to do it again with time to linger at some of those places. Stratford-upon-Avon is a tourist trap, but a pretty one with lots of nice Tudor buildings. We unfortunately didn't have much time to tour around before the show. The RSC theater, I have to say, is perfectly dreadful. It was built in the 1920s, and was just awful: hot and sweaty, cramped, awkwardly laid out. From the outside it looks like a failed Robert Moses housing project. The audience has to wind its way through narrow hallways to reach their seats, which, if you are in the upper balcony as we were, were mere feet from the rafters. Apparently, the backstage is even worse, with the actors having to run outside round the back of the building to switch sides of the stage. Plans have been in the work for a new theater for ages, but with no result yet.

The production was great though. It was a mixture of rather modernist starkness (particulary in the Athenian context) and then busier, more fanciful sets for the fairy bits. The Athenians were dressed in contemporary clothes, and the fairies were all punked out in grunge garb. There was some slightly eerie puppet work--Titania's fairy attendents were a flock of plastic baby dolls held aloft by actors, and her boy page was a knee-high puppet being guided from behind. In general, it is a pleasure to watch some very well-trained Shakespearean actors do what they do best.

Beforehand we had a pleasant dinner with one of Mary's classmates and her mother, who live in Sheffield. One of the facts of my time here is that I never actually have much interaction with real live British people. Mary's close friends are Americans, and there aren't really many other opportunities to meet people. My main contact with them is dodging the endless stroller-wielding yuppies that plague the Barnet High Street. So it was actually really great to talk with two intelligent, non-stroller-wielding Brits.

Saturday, July 02, 2005


In a random but nice treat, my grandparents came up to Barnet to have dinner with us. In an ambitious but probably misguided attempt to cook British, we made roast beef, yorkshire pudding, potatoes, and roasted fennel. An oven mishap nixed the Yorkshire pudding, and a tube mishap meant that Laura and her mother were only able to come for the apple pie at the end, but it was very pleasant. The roasted fennel was odd, but good to try.

My grandparents (my father's parents, who live in North Carolina) are in the middle of a ten-day trip around England, which centered around going to the bicentennial celebration of the Battle of Trafalgar, at Portsmouth. We're going to meet them on Sunday to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham palace, and then to Westminster Abbey.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Barnet Photos

I've started to put photos of Barnet up online. Check 'em out:

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Driving Very Wrongly

Attempted to learn how to drive a stick today, in Mary's cute little Citroen. We went out to the RVC campus, where there are empty parking lots, and motored around for half an hour. Despite patient ministrations from the girlfriend, it was slow-going. Never really got past the "getting into first" phase of things, let alone getting out of the parking lot and trying my hand at the left side of the road. Laura (Mary's roommate) has an automatic, so I always have that crutch if I want to try driving here without dealing with a stick, but I would really like to learn!

Also bought some new glasses today, or I should say "spectacles". My old glasses were about five years old, and not only has my prescription changed, but the frame was rather worse for the wear. So for 19 pounds I had a British eye exam (not appreciably different than an American eye exam), and next Tuesday I will pick up my snazzy new pair. (One hour lenses does not seem to be a concept over here.) They are plastic and thicker, and a bit more trendy then my current ones, as the salesman helpfully told me.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Monday, June 27, 2005

War of the Roses

Spent the morning tramping around in Hadley, the area adjoining Barnet. Hadley Green, which was and is the town commons, was the site of a major battle in the War of the Roses--in 1471, Edward IV defeated Warwick the Kingmaker here. Today, it's just kind of a grassy area divided by the Great Northern Road (the traditional route from London to York) and punctuated by a few muddy ponds. Nothing too spectacular, but rather bucolic, especially considering how developed some of the surrounding areas are.

Also managed to stumble across a lovely little church: St. Mary the Virgin of Monken Hadley. It dates back to the 15th century, and is just a simple little country church with a rather nice stone tower, and a tiny little cemetery in front. The oldest gravestone I could make out was 18th century, but there were other older ones that were completely illegible. The area around it has quite a few nice old Georgian homes, dating from the period when greater Barnet was a low-key country retreat for Londoners. Also some dreadful McMansions cropping up. It's amazing how undeveloped the area is though. Many of the old town commons remain intact, and there are plenty of horse pastures and playing fields around. I gather the whole area is protected by some sort of conservation scheme that has kept things in check. I think I shall return again this week with a camera so I can post some pictures.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Me Against the Nettles

One of my jobs here in England, in my position as houseboy for a bunch of working women, is to keep up with the gardening--it's actually a part of the girls' lease to "maintain the garden." Growing up in California, I'm used to a very different vegetable order. In California, if you don't take care of a plant, it dies. If you don't maintain your garden, you no longer have a garden.

Things are very different here. In England, especially this time of year when the heavy rain is often interrupted by sunshine, one has the opposite problem. If you don't maintain your garden, it flourishes and becomes a menace that threatens the very fabric of society. The garden here has not been touched all year, and what was once a sedate little patch of grass has become a swirling storm of bramble. And you can imagine what sort of plants thrive in this competitive environment: blackberry bushes, various thorny-frond things, and acres of stinging nettle. The last was not something I was very familiar with, until I grabbed a stalk with my bare hands and, once the tremendous pain subsided, was rewarded with all these little welts that have swelled up my fingers.

Tomorrow, I buy gardening gloves and a more sturdy pair of gardening shears. I shall tame this garden if it kills me.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Somebody's Sins

Saw Patti Smith tonight, performing on a bill with John Cale at the Royal Festival Hall on the south bank of the Thames. This was a concert Mary and I had been planning to go to for quite awhile--I woke up early to buy the ticket a month ago, and just barely got one as they sold out in hours. The big draw was that Patti was going to perform her original 1975 debut album Horses in its entirety.

Horses was not necessarily my favorite Patti album of all time--I quite like Easter best, I think--but as a symbol it's always been really important to a lot of people. The poetry that begins "Gloria" at the start of the album is just a lovely moment: "Jesus died, for somebody's sins, but not mine." It's not, of course, original to Horses, it was also on Patti's original single, "Piss Factory". And before that, it was supposedly the line she started many a poetry reading in the Village in the early seventies. Such a great line, and you never get tired of hearing it.

The concert began rather disapointingly. John Cale played a long drawn-out set all by himself for the first half; somehow, I had thought that Cale, who produced Horses, would just be playing along with Patti. Kind of a slow start.

The second half, however, swung into gear. Patti came out, the crowd went wild, Lenny Kaye (late of EMP fame) began playing the opening of "Gloria", and then... "Jesus, died, for somebody's sins but not mine." Ahh....

Good stuff.

Batter my heart, three person'd beer

I have arrived safely in London, or Hertfordshire at least. The weather is lousy, but after L.A. I am rather enjoying the rain. I also enjoy that nowadays Mary picks me up from the airport in her car, rather than slogging on the tube for an hour. And to top off the enjoyment, we went to a lovely pub in Highgate that evening, which had outdoor seating sheltered from the rain and cheap beers for all.

The flight was long and cramped, and had bad movie selections. But I read two books--a trashy detective novel, and Judith Halberstam's new book, just to keep up with my roommate (I thought it was brilliant. Definitely want to try and take a seminar with her this year.) And I started David Halberstam's The Fifties, in which I learned this fascinating tidbit of information. You know that the very first atomic bomb was code-named "Trinity"? Well it was given that name by Oppenheimer, who named it thus after a famous line from John Donne: "Batter my heart, three person'd God." So poetic! And interesting, considering Richard Rambuss's description of that poem (in Closet Devotions) as a metaphorical gang-bang. I wonder if John Adams works this into Dr. Atomic.