Friday, March 17, 2017

It's Not Even Past: Episode 2 - Beginning


As I said at the beginning of the last podcast, if I was being harder on the Left than I'm being on the Right, it's because I assume that it's mostly people of the Left who will listen to this podcast, as they do to podcasts generally. Educated people in our day and age generally tilt to varying degrees of Left, and the problems of the Right in American life are so unbelievably obvious and present and fecund that they need no enumeration from me. Dominance by the American Right is a simple fact of modern American life, now more than ever, and the nearly the only questions about it are under the rubric of how to defeat it. And to defeat it we have to talk a little bit about imperialism. 

Unless you feel that a person's quality of life is of truly equal importance to a person's right to life, it is very difficult to say that imperialism is a crime quite on the same level as Nazism and Communism. Imperialism is the oldest of all political crimes, the most difficult and dangerous to eradicate by far, and one crime in which every person in the modern world has to one extent or another been complicit.

And if you feel strongly that a person's quality of life matters as much as his or her right to life, then I'd ask you to seriously prioritize in a world where a person's mere right to stay alive is still so often questioned. Quality of life is surprisingly difficult to define without context, but whether or not a person dies of natural causes is generally a question whose answers are binary. But even if you disagree with that any of what I've said so far, this is, after all, my show, so for the moment let's take it as a given that the a person's right to life is more important than a person's quality thereof for the simple reason that a right to life is the obvious first step in achieving quality of life.

If a person's right to life is the most important of all factors, then the single greatest justification for lancing the boil that is imperialism until full drainage is that even with all its attendant evils, is not the inequalities of imperialism within themselves, but the near-apocalyptic events which such wealth inequalities almost inevitably seem to foretell. And in that sense, yes, imperialism is absolutely an infected limb that requires amputation. But the problem is that theft and exploitation and plunder of one civilization to the detriment of another - which as Modern China's current plunder of Africa proves, and just seventy years ago, Imperial Japan's plunder of Manchuria - is not merely a Western problem, and perhaps less an exclusively Western problem than in more than a hundred years.

Imperialism, both in its causes and its results, is so complex that the vast majority of marginal attempts that history has yet made to eradicate it have resulted in their own attendant disasters. Not only were Communists who attracted so may followers over two centuries with their championship of anti-Imperial struggles, more prolific artists of death than Hitler - albeit both over two decades more and much greater square mileage, but so by and large were second rank left-wing dictators of the quote-unquote Third World who so often perpetrated their bloody deeds in the name of fighting against imperialism - left wing dictators who were still quite a bit more bloody in their statistics than their right-wing nationalist counterparts.

And I realize how controversial that statement still is, and perhaps especially is today, but to take a few obviously selective examples: no amount of Mussolini blood in Italy's occupation of Ethiopia could spill a tenth of the blood spilled by the anti-Imperial Mengistu, no amount of French and American greed or incompetence or delusion could unleash on Cambodia what the anti-Imperial Pol Pot did. No amount of Chinese nationalism could spill blood with the joyful alacrity of Mao - no one ever has and hopefully no one again ever will. Right wing dictatorship is often not quite as bloody, and perhaps for the simple reason that the innate predisposition of right-wing pathology with its veneration for institutions and tradition is a predisposition to authoritarianism and violent law enforcement.  Dictatorship does not do as much to upset the natural right-wing order of things because conservatives already respond with veneration to authority. On the other hand, the Left, with its pathological predisposition toward upending tradition and institutions, has a natural predisposition to chaos and terror. Generally speaking, a right-wing dictatorship tries to uphold the law by the most extreme of measures, while a left-wing dictatorship, as happened most obviously under Mao and Stalin, and perhaps even to a small extent under Hitler's National Socialism - remember that Hitler was still as much a socialist as a nationalist and conservatism is different than illiberalism - will always break the law, change the law, subvert the law, to make even and perhaps especially their most loyal citizens live under the profoundest terror. The best way to do it is to kill their neighbors, kill their friends, kill their families, and finally kill them. And furthermore, when one hears about Steve Bannon's veneration for the American working class, your tentacles for detecting a national socialist philosophy should immediately go off.

Again, as we said at the beginning of the last podcast. One of Art's great secrets is its societal tremors, Art is a societal seizmograph. The relevance of this will, hopefully, make sense in a few minutes. With obvious exceptions of course, a secure era always seems to be dominated by secure Art in which the rules are clearly defined. The vast majority of the 18th century, with its intricate and unbreakable monarchical hierarchies, was the archetype of a society in which art was created with extremely distinct rules so as to not upset the precarious balance of an incredibly intricate societal structure. All official European and American buildings seemed to be designed with the kind of columns one finds in Ancient Greece or Rome, with heights determined by mathematical ratios found in nature so as to provide the most harmonious possible surroundings. Nearly all pictorial art was designed by schematic before the schematic was painted over. All music ends in the same key in which it begins, and the phrase-lengths are inevitably kept in multiples of four. The poetry was almost inevitably kept in strictest possible couplet form. The expectations of what art was supposed to be were ironclad. But as anyone who grew up in the suburbs can tell you, predictability can at times feel like a kind of prison, and when the prison walls come down, the chaos is that much more explosive because nobody remembers what chaos feels like.

By 1789, France, the kingdom well-known for having the most intricate of all Europe's monarchical hierarchies, was beset by a revolution. First came a financial crisis, then collapse, then the rise of the Jacobins and the guillotine, then the execution of a few hundred noblemen, then the rise of Robespierre who executed most of the other Jacobins and eventually was himself executed for having been responsible for the execution of 20,000 Frenchmen, then came the ten year French Revolutionary War which killed somewhere between 300,000 and 1.1 million French, and then came Napoleon to unite France under his dictatorship and who decided he needed to put the rest of Europe under an Empire united under his rule, and somewhere between 3.5 and 6 million died for the cause of his ambition to conquer the world. When there is too much order, the ensuing chaos become all the worse. It was an avalanche of death that claimed ever more lives for twenty-six years before it finally stopped.

War did not rage throughout the supposedly civilized part of the world for another hundred years, when it broke out again in 1914, it took thirty-one years to stop, and in the meantime, if we go by the estimates of R. J. Rummel, probably the best known scholar of state murder who has an easily accessible website if you can stomach such a thing, we lost somewhere between 17 and 18 million to World War One, somewhere between 20 to 50 million in the Spanish Influenza which broke out because of the unsanitariness of the battlefields, an estimated seven million who starved to death in various countries during the Great Depression, another estimated 5 to 9 million deaths due to the Russian Civil War of the early 1920s which broke out after the collapse of the Czar, and the four million deaths for which Lenin was directly responsible after he consolidated power, and the 5 million killed by Imperial Japan, the 20 million dead in the Chinese Civil War of the 30s and 40s, for which the Communist party led by Mao in the few years before he assumed power was responsible for 4 million deaths alone, the four million Chinese Deaths for which Chiang-Kai Shek's right-wing nationalist government was responsible, the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by Turkish generals which killed roughly 1.8 million if one counts a few hundred thousand non-Armenians also murdered, and the nearly million people killed by the allegedly great Ataturk who is still revered by American neoconservatives as the model of an incorruptible secularizing dictator, the well over a million killed in quote-unquote minor European dictatorships, another roughly 20 million killed in various ways by Hitler's Nazis for which we needn't elaborate, and the probable upward of 50 million people killed by Stalin's various orders and policies alone. It is macabre at best to list these totals and then add all of them up, but let's just say that the wars of the early twentieth century killed so far over a hundred million people that it's probably closer to two-hundred million. One then adds up the stupefying death tolls of the Cold War and the quote unquote Third World upon whom it was mostly perpetrated, the roughly twelve million Soviets for which dictators after Stalin were responsible, the 2 million dead in the killing fields of Pol-Pot's Cambodia, the roughly 1.7 million killed by North Korea, another 1.7 million killed in the Vietnam War and its aftermath, the 1.5 million dead in the Polish Civil War which killed my great-aunt after surviving the Holocaust, the 1.5 million killed by the various Pakistani military dictatorships, the 1.1 million killed in Yugoslavia, yes, the 6 million dead from United States actions in the Cold War. And worst of all, the roughly seventy-seven million killed in Mao's China, for which no truly reliable total is possible, and some estimates go up to a hundred twenty million people. While estimates are obviously unreliable, evidence would seem to point to that five hundred years of traditional Western mercantile Imperialism with all its attendant mass murders cannot equal the total number of deaths engendered by thirty-one years of advanced warfare, let alone the seventy five years of it from the outbreak of World War One until the collapse of the Berlin Wall. In fact, for five hundred years of Western Imperialism to reach anything even resembling the equivalent death tolls of the twentieth century one would have to not only accept the very highest estimates - such as putting the total Native Americans killed rather than felled by disease at 120 million people higher than than the 15 million that is generally supposed, but also include the casualties of Islamic Imperialism.

Even the single greatest death toll of vaguely recorded modern Imperialism which admittedly boosts arguments of moral equivalence significantly, the mass famines of Indians in the British Empire, and killed what's generally regarded to be somewhere between 12 million and 29 million people, have to be considered in the context that these were acts of starvation. Acts of starvation which the great tyrants of the 20th century were in no way beneath, but still, when compared to the mass murders of Auschwitz, The Great Terror, and the Red Guards, pale in comparison. Furthermore, as the British developed technologies to mitigate the worst of famines, the famines decreased. These were clearly grisly matters of unspeakable contempt and incompetence and horror, but it was not premeditated murder and even the most contemptible of British officers issued orders to give the subjects just enough wages to keep them alive. Some would consider this all the worse, and there's certainly merit to that argument: because it shows that people of color did not even factor into the decision making of imperial rulers who plundered a century of wheat crop from a land they ruled for the joy of ruling, and shows that they were willing to tolerate the long, drawn out suffering of those who were clearly destined to die when a bullet to the head might have been more merciful. And yet, I would also ask you to particularly consider one Emperor of the Mughal dynasty, which controlled the vast majority of the Indian subcontinent for the three hundred years before British dominance. Auranguzeb, ruling for forty nine years between 1658 to 1707, was considered to rule somewhere in the area of a hundred to a hundred fifty million people. He brought the Mughal Empire to its largest dominance, 3.2 million square miles, which held for fifty years after his death. He required from his subjects a yearly tribute of nearly 3 billion rupees, which was roughly 38 million pounds in 1700, which means roughly 10 billion pounds in today's money, which means he commanded a yearly tribute of 12.5 billion dollars, much of which was collected from penniless peasants.

In Auranguzeb's lifetime, 4.6 million were said to have been killed from war. One has to imagine that with the unreliable records kept in the 1600s all over the world, the total may be much, much higher. When one considers that in 1900, the population total of India was 280 million, it would seem that the British Empire's crime is roughly on par with the most expansionist of the subcontinent's own leaders when there was no meddling from the West, and with far less premeditation. Whether from the East or West, Man is a tyrannical animal, given to imaginative flights of crushing fellow humans as though the rulers are children learning they have power of life and death over insects.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Review Dump 5

January 20th: Johannes Debus and the Baltimore Symphony:
Barber of Seville Overture

It was Inauguration Day, and I desperately needed a musical balm which perhaps my favorite symphony would give me. In so many words, it sucked. Johannes Debus is a superficial conductor who played Brahms with all the depth of a generic symphony by an unknown composer. This was 'revisionist Brahms' that copies all the superficial qualities of Weingartner with none of Weingartner's ability to get across the essence that belies the elegance. I was so disappointed that I nearly drove up to Pittsburgh a few weeks later to hear Manfred Honeck doubtless show how the piece should be done. The concerto soloist was the extremely French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, who has seemingly recorded every piano work ever written. Except for a very few gorgeous pianissimo sounds in the cadenza, his contribution was barely more inspiring. 

January 21st: The Threepenny Opera - Spotlighter's Theater

The less said, the better. 

January 24th: Philadelphia Orchestra & Yannick Nezet-Seguin - Kennedy Center

It doesn't get much better than this. Note for note, there hasn't been a better concert I've gone to in this concert-filled month. The Philadelphia Orchestra is not the Philadelphia Orchestra of old, it still sounds like Riccardo Muti's orchestra - Stokowski or Ormandy would never have allowed for those whip-crack fortissimos pummeling you between the eyes. Except for its virtuoso excellence, you wouldn't be able to pick the Philadelphia Orchestra out of a lineup. The orchestras of Cleveland and Boston still retain something of their old sound, but it seems that the velvet of Philadelphia's golden era is lost to history. 

Yet everything, even so, was a thing of wonder. Perhaps the Philadelphia Orchestra, probably the first American orchestra to achieve a worldwide reputation, is undergoing a second golden era, entirely different from its first. When you hear the very best performers, you remember precisely what it is that the live experience gives that recordings never can. There are certain musical colors that you can never hear on a recording. Neither the Baltimore Symphony or the National Symphony, good as they both can be, give you those numinous moments with any frequency. You can only hear this kind of music making in the flesh. For the second time this season, the Philadelphia Orchestra provided them for these ears in spades. From the very first notes of Lili Boulanger's all too rarely heard music, you knew that you were in the presence of a musical greatness. It continued even continued with Louis Lortie's Chopin. I am no fan of the Chopin piano concertos, but Lortie made a 40 minute concerto seem like 25 minutes. The accompaniment of the Philadelphia Orchestra was such velvet that you think to yourself that maybe, just maybe, they still have that velvet in their veins that made Rachmaninov himself swoon. 

But even music lovers less ambivalent about Chopin don't drive an hour and a half to hear the First Piano Concerto. I went to hear Petrushka, and it was damned magnificent. The numinous moments where everywhere - the huge eruptions of bass, the all-too-spooky entrance of Petrushka's ghost, the organgrind whose piccolo decorations sounded exactly like squeaky gears, the whiz-bang orchestral kaleidescope in which every note and dynamic nuance registers precisely at Yannick Nezet-Seguin's top speeds. At times, you wished that YNS would, as Dudmel did in his very different performance, shape and bend the phrases more. Petrushka can be a human statement, much more affecting than a showpiece, and yet what a showpiece! No recording can thrill like this!

January 26th: National Symphony - Christoph Eschenbach
Weinberg Violin Concerto Gidon Kremer Soloist
Shostakovich Symphony no. 8

There was simply no way that this concert, good as it was, will register in my memory in the same manner which do the concerts which bookended it. The National Symphony is a decent orchestra, and Christoph Eschenbach, when on his game, is as good as any conductor in the history of music. But with revelations on either side of this, a very good Shostakovich 8 (a work I adore) just doesn't measure up.

Even the presence of Gidon Kremer doesn't do much to liven things up. I highly doubt that Moises (I'm not going to look up the spelling of his Russian name...) Weinberg as great a composer as people begin to allege, and yet, even if it sounds almost indistinguishable from Shostakovich, it's not truly bad Shostakovich. Few composers do their best work in their violin concertos - even a lot of immortals phoned it in. So I look forward to making the acquaintance of a composer whom, were I a Soviet citizen in the 1960's, would have probably seemed to me a perfectly legitimate candidate of the pantheon.

Eschenbach was, apparently, his usual slow self. 75 minutes by the clock. You could have fooled me. I was expecting things to feel much slower than they were. The slow movements went by in no time. The soft dynamics he got in the first half of the opening were truly breathtaking. It was only the middle scherzi which were a bit ragged. You can always tell in an Eschenbach performance which sections get all the rehearsal time - and it's almost always the slowest movements. Eschenbach is, for all his many weaknesses, a recreative musician of the pantheon who brings insights to everything he touches. In Eschenbach's presence, I finally felt as though I got a handle on the troublesomely incoherent last movement, in which the snare drums seem to signal an air bombing interruption of what sounds like people resuming normal life with its enjoyments. The final passage, which Ken Woods called the bleakest C-Major in the world, seemed to me like gratefulness, perhaps the gratefulness of a man thankful to have lived through another day. In a week without the Philadelphia Orchestra or the Staatskapelle Berlin, I'd have been thrilled to take these priceless (for me) insights home and leave it there. But this was no normal week.

January 27th: Staatskapelle Berlin - Daniel Barenboim
Mozart Sinfonia Concertante
Bruckner Symphony no. 7

Forget about that lackluster Sinfonia Concertante except to say that the very attractive principals from the Berlin orchestra who played the solo parts made me wonder how many couples have had sex in the auditorium of Carnegie Hall.

I doubt I will ever hear a Bruckner 7 to match that in my life. Barenboim's newest recording of Bruckner 7 is, along with #5, the highlight of the cycle (at least in the symphonies I care about). The Carnegie performance was even better. Of course, a few quibbles here and there - particularly the fact that the cymbal player was slightly off on his crash (You had one job!!!), and of course, even in the Staatskapelle Berlin, the brass are too loud, occasionally I wish Barenboim would have allowed for still more tempo flexibility in the Adagio (as is his wont). And yet, everything else... The flexibility of tempos, the way sections of the ensemble phrased as one, the gemutlicher warmth of the sound. Barenboim, in his greatest performances, is an artist of improvisation. He paints with dabs of orchestral color, a little more violin here and less there, signaling to a wind player to play as though they are interrupting the thought of a string section. He hears the harmonic tensions in a score on such a fundamental level that he knows how to guide Measure 40 of the opening to obtain a better result in Measure 220 of the finale.

There were so many numinous moments throughout the performance, but there was one particular type of numinosity that was so revelatory that I question if I ever understood Bruckner until I heard (rather, felt) these moments.

Why is the brass in Bruckner so loud? What purpose does it serve to drown out the orchestra as he does? It's not enough to say that Bruckner created an organ-like orchestra, though that gets us a part of the way there. When you hear the brass in the lower octaves on recordings, you all too rarely hear the high winds peaking out in the octaves over them. The high winds are there to shape the overtones. You don't so much hear them as you feel them. In truth, you have no idea if you're actually hearing what you think you're hearing, or if it's psychosomatic. All you know that the winds are there, and it creates a kind of psychedelic hallucination, as the high notes of the winds peak out from the mass of sound like beams of light.

January 28th: Staatskapelle Berlin - Daniel Barenboim
Bruckner: Symphony no. 8

As boring as the night before was lifechanging. I don't want to talk about it...

February 6th: Budapest Festival Orchestra: Ivan Fischer
Beethoven Symphonies 8 and 9

Ivan Fischer is not a natural Beethoven conductor - he wants Beethoven to be Mozart or Schubert. He does not have the killer instinct, the wild animal willing to forego subtlety - if you don't subscribe to Beethoven's metronome markings, and Fischer's clearly happy to follow the old Austro-German ways, then the blunt force which the Austro-German greats brought to Beethoven becomes even more important. When the great unreformed Beethovenians: Szell, Karajan, Klemperer, Wand, Schuricht, the Kleibers, Bernstein, Masur, Tennstedt, Blomstedt, Schmidt-Isserstedt,  even Furtwangler (some would say especially) conducted Beethoven, they knew that the force of Beethoven depended not on originality of conception, but the unwillingness to pull even a single punch. If you were not going to generate momentum through the quickness of tempo and articulation, you have to have not just an enormous, deep, bass heavy sound - which the Budapest Festival Orchestra possesses to a level that equals nearly any orchestra of the German-speaking world, but the willingness to use all of it. Fischer, known for his unorthodox seating arrangements, put the timpani at the front of the orchestra between the violin sections for both symphonies. The timpani has an extremely prominent part in both pieces, but Fischer put the timpanist in front only for the timpanist to play his instrument with the delicacy of a triangle. The spirit with which the timpani gives the rhythmic momentum to Beethoven's music was completely lost. It might have been more to the point to place the timpanist offstage and have him wail on his instrument at a consistent fortississimo.

This is not to say that Fischer's Beethoven was ever any less than exquisite, and sometimes truly brilliant in its insights. The sheer proliferation of nuances was mindboggling, the way he accelarated into the beginning of the eighth's scherzo, the thunderous way he made the strings roll their thirty-second notes in the 'metronome' movement - if only he did the same at the piece's climaxes... It particularly became a problem in the last movement of the 8th symphony, which Fischer took at a tempo that by the standards of 2017 was shocking in its leisure.

But there were two insights into Beethoven's Ninth that I would have travelled much farther afield than New York if I knew I'd gather them. The first was Fischer's brilliantly unorthodox treatment of the first movement's gigantic recapitulation into the tonic. Conductors of a spontaneous disposition tend to slow down to capture the full weight of the orchestral sound, but Fischer sped up. It was brilliant, shocking, utterly unexpected, and felt completely inorganic - which I suppose was the point. The episode did not feel like a logical extension of what came before, but an utter interruption - completely apiece with the Storm movement of the Pastoral Symphony. As far as I was concerned, it was an absolutely revolutionary way to view this passage and an absolutely valid one. I will never look at Beethoven's Ninth the same way.

Fischer is a musician given to lots of spontaneous sounding moments, but he is precisely the opposite of a spontaneous musician. Every interpretive nuance is clearly long thought over, rethought, tested in rehearsal, performed, then retested in a different manner. He's like a musical chemist, trying to find the precise formula to get a magical chemical change.

And the chemical compound he came up with for the finale was so extraordinary as to seem like alchemy. Even before the Ninth began, I heard audience members say 'Where the hell is the chorus?' Having read old reviews of Fischer's Ninths I had a vague idea of what was coming. I imagined that the chorus would be sitting in the first few rows. But I did not expect for the entire chorus to be completely dispersed around the concert hall (if you can call Geffen Hall that...), because there are no words for the risk it takes for a chorus to do this with a touring orchestra when they must have had one rehearsal at most to get it right.

It was a gambit of foolhardy courage, and the payoff was transcendent in a manner that the rest of the concert was not. No doubt, the symbolism of this was apparent to all, this this music of humanity was not meant as a ritual to enact on stage but an inspirational challenge to live more valuably for ourselves and those we love. But in practice, it felt different than that, and still more valuable. This immersion felt less like a traditional performance of Beethoven's as it did Tallis's Spem in Allium, as though angels and ghosts of humanity were bathing us in benevolence and forgiveness. It felt not just like an embrace by humanity, but an embrace by the beyond (Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen...) At first, I was so amused that I was half-temped to stand up and sing the bass part myself - nobody knows me in New York concert halls so it's not like I'd have embarrassed myself in front of anyone, but the sound was far too beautiful to spoil - both utterly intimate because of the dominance of the singers' voices nearest to us, and completely choral because of the blend of the chorus's voices in the background.

Fischer is a detail conductor. He rarely, in my experience, gives a front to back reading in which every single detail feels wholly convincing in the manner that a conductor like Mariss Jansons does (or used to...). He does not go for 'ultimate performances', he trusts that eventually his conception will win you over emotionally, and in the meantime, searches for intellectual nuances to point up. He is an incredibly odd mixture of good taste with eccentricity, and he is avant-garde as only a thoroughgoing traditionalist can be. There has never been nor ever could be another conductor quite like him.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Renewal: Some Reading Material for the Concert (parts 1 and 2)


You are at the 35th Birthday Concert of AC Charlap for which there are lots of fantastic musicians on the bill. Please ignore them all so you can focus solely on Charlap's music. If someone is making noise next to you while his music is playing, you needn't ask them to stop. They will shortly be shot. 

The composer is sure you thought you were at the concert of Evan Tucker. You are mistaken, the Evan Tucker you knew is dead; eaten by wolves, he was delicious. When he was resurrected on the third day, he became AC Charlap, a portmanteau of his Hebrew Name: Avraham Chai, and his original patrilineal surname - Charlap, a Hebrew acronym for Chiya, Rosh L'Galut l'Poleen (Chiya, head of the Exiles in Poland). Which means one of two things:

1. Someone in his family was really important and smart, for a Polish guy...
2. Some unscrupulous medieval Jewish ancestor was a merchant who knew he could make a killing by claiming he was from an important family.

This reading material exists to be consumed as you listen to Charlap's music. Please do not read this while other people are performing. as that is impolite, and we have to make it seem as though they, not AC Charlap, are the point of this concert. 

Like all musicians, Charlap is self-conscious about presenting his music to you. It's not that he finds it bad, though he knows it suffused with that touch of bombast present in all that he does; but as all composers are, he's aware of the inevitability of finding a polite but uncomprehending audience who listen to what a friend produces out of a sense of responsibility, but then go about their lives unaffected by what he's written - another forgettable experience that takes years to assemble, minutes to consume, and an instant to forget.

This anxiety is present in all artists of every form and every genre, but how much more true is it for the composer? It is a truth universally acknowledged that most Americans of the 21st century can find classical music of any kind to be a chore. Therefore the thought occurred to him that it might be a good idea to give a little bit of reading material to go along with it so that listeners might slightly better understand what his music might be alluding to. 

Writing about music, as the saying always goes, is like dancing about architecture. There is no reason to write about music unless the music is too boring to love without help. This thought is slightly despair-inducing in this composer, because in the context of 2017, it either means that his music is too dull for most people to love, or that nearly all the music he loves is too boring for most people to love. 

Of course, AC Charlap thought about turning this explanation of his music into a fire and brimstone Jeremiad like those he issues every day on social media to which you've become so accustomed to glazing over. He won't deny feeling the sore temptation to issue another denunciation/lecture of tempora and mores he types every day into the ether(net). 

But in this era of trial and tribulation, our troubles are so omnipresent that they needn't elaboration even from those who are clearly willing to give it. What is there that he can say about the universe you haven't heard from him a thousand times before? He has always found your universe a rather dispiriting, dull place. What could it matter that he says, yet again, that its recent turn to make manifest all those ugly things which always seemed to him to exist just beneath its vapid surface was, to his eyes, inevitable?

Whatever he has to say about this universe matters not at all. For the great AC Charlap, as I'm sure you've come to realize by now, does not exist in your universe. He is, rather, a holographic apparition hailing from a parallel universe, perhaps even from a parallel Twenty-First century; in which the crises of the Twentieth Century never obliterated the Nineteenth. In his universe, words like culture and civilization never acquired boredom's patina - let alone imperialism's. The world of this universe was always a dreary place to him, deserving to be burned to the ground by a President who is its most perfect incarnation. 

Whether or not this universe is as dirty and decrepit as it now seems to you, and always has to him, there is a better verse at just one remove from us all, and will remain at one remove no matter to what dark places the future shall remove us. A multiverse of ten dimensions exists where all things are possible - a decaverse where the trials and verdicts of our particular universes are met with a cosmic shrug.

The beginning was without form and void. When humans first attained consciousness, we perceived some form of infinity in our natural surroundings, to which we attributed the properties of higher beings. Whether or not higher beings are what endow us with the infinite, the infinite nevertheless exists for the simple reason that as a metaphor, we can conceive of it - shape without form, shade without color, paralyzed force, gesture without motion. 

Many thinkers believe that the simple fact that we can conceive of a dimension in which impossible concepts might exist is evidence that such dimensions do exist - and the best evidence we have of this is the arts, where the mission is to redefine how we conceive of possibility itself, and within the arts, the best evidence is music. 

How do you even describe music to someone who's never heard it without sounding like a schizophrenic? The most literal description of music is that it's vibrations that make patterns in your head that strongly suggest you to feel certain emotional states.... And yet music makes perfect logical sense to everyone who hears it. How do you possibly explain it except to say that it's a trans-dimensional experience that bends the rules of any universe of which we're yet familiar?

Perhaps this is why music and religion go so hand in hand for so many millennia. By any physical law yet discovered, music is an inexplicable miracle in itself. No neurologist can yet explain why or how the brain perceives music, only that it does. Music can open worlds of self-expression to both the performer and the listener, yet can also express things beyond the self that make each individual listener feel like just a quintillionth of speck within the oneness of all things - yet bonded with them all. To this composer's mind, music does not exist to change the world because music is not of this world. The world cannot be changed, it will always be the dreadful place whose chaos dashes hopes on the rocks. But it is the arts that give us a speck of order and harmony and peace that a better world is possible, if not here, then elsewhere. And of all the arts, none of them conjures that alternate dimension of peace with the specificity of music. Music is the only partial scientific proof we yet have of a spiritual world made manifest on earth. Every ring of a musical vibration you hear is comprised of aural rings at still higher frequencies. When it comes to music, we've never gotten a better explanation than the astral ones we got from Aristotle, Pythagoras, and Kepler.

This is, of course, the kind of pompous explanation of music that turns everybody off of classical music permanently. There isn't much Charlap can do about that. This composer's long since learned that he's a piss poor advocate for classical music. How can he possibly advocate well for something so embedded in the fabric of a life lived so differently from every other person in his generation? Not even his brothers grew up learning Yiddish. Not even his Jewish friends from Northwest Baltimore had grandparents from the 'old country,' let alone Greenie grandparents whom they'd see three or four times a week. No other family in Pikesville seemed to have his steady influx of relatives, not especially educated or wealthy, coming through the house who'd switch between English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, and Spanish as though it were something everybody does at the dinnertable - and half-a-dozen other languages on special occasions. For a kid from Pikesville, it's astonishing how Europe seemed right next door.

Somehow, he never got the memo that America was something different than this. He was once the golden child of a paradise completely apart from America, who seemed to assimilate information as soon as he read it, and to leave this paradise was a decade long nightmare from which he shall never completely wake. How could he take to the music of this new world completely when so much of it reminds him of what he lost? There's a lot of music from these other genres which he likes very much, but he can never truly love them. He can love the people who make their music, he can esteem the music enormously, but it is that fusty, dusty, musty old music from a civilization everybody hates that has his heart and always will.

Because he is not of the 21st century, he is of the 19th and the 23rd. In the 21st century, he isn't much, just an eccentric in a small and declining American city. In the 23rd, he'll probably be even less. Not much he's written yet is worthy of any kind of posterity, though he's very proud of Psalm 2, but even if his music's better than he thinks it is, what use is posterity to a creator who isn't around to enjoy it? Nevertheless, when a musician encounters a tortuous path in his own time, he tends to find some solace in the idea that somewhere, someone, eventually, will dust off the manuscript (or eliminate 200 years worth of bugs from his Bandcamp website) and appreciate in the early 23rd century what people neglected in the early 21st.

No doubt this sounds like self-pity, a characteristic for which this composer is certainly not immune. But in his defense, as he's begun to age, he's come to pity the world more than himself for all which they've missed.

What is it that separates music like this from the music of surrounding eras? Surely, this is not 'better music' than other music. There is no such thing in the arts as 'better than', there are only different types of greatness - be it the joie de vivre of Louis Armstrong, the macabre resolve of Johnny Cash, the hallucinatory innocence of The Beatles, or the simplicity that conceals infinite complexity of Mozart. Once music strikes you as great, there is no way of saying one music is objectively greater than another. And yet the greatness of some art eludes people. Indeed, the greatness of some art eludes entire generations and centuries. This composer had the bad luck to be born in an era that wants nothing to do with the era whose music captured his heart. Friends seem to hear it and hear their parents yelling at them to practice piano, which as they get older, perhaps got conflated in their subconscious with all sorts of patriarchal concepts from masculinity to imperialism to social class.

What separates it is neither that the music is more intelligent or more emotionally expressive. What separates it is its ability to articulate an extremely specific tension between emotion and intellect. What the majority of great classical music expresses is not emotion or thought, but the thoughts that our emotions generate,  the emotions between emotions, the process by which one emotion gives way to another, then another, and then another. Perhaps part of the reason that what is generally called 'classical music' is so neglected by his generation is that most people have much less need for it. In an era when people can speak their minds and freely say what they feel, there are few emotions left to bottle up. Classical music is very good at articulating emotions within you that you weren't necessarily aware existed, but in a culture that combs every hair of our emotional selves, what need is there for that?

Around this time two years ago, Evan Tucker seemed, relatively speaking, cock of the walk, yet fate ordained to teach him, yet again, that he is cock of nothing. In the span of three months, he endured the end of multiple friendships, multiple bands, and a relationship. Were his life ever made into a biopic, this would be an era when he, like John C. Reilly as Dewey Cox, would stare into the camera and say 'Wow, this sure is a dark period.'

Four years of trying to make something resembling a living as a non-classical musician was fun - but the party was over, and the more he listened to the music, the less reward he derived from it. The dance music reminded him that the party was over.The jazz reminded him of how uncool he was.  The rock reminded him how apart from the general crowd he always was. The earnest singer-songwriters articulated simple primary emotions while the emotions he felt were incredibly complex.

Only the classical music that everybody else in his generation ignores, grown like ivy over a thousand years to express the ambiguities of emotion with a specificity otherwise unknown to history, spoke to him anymore, and reached him in a dark time when every other music felt like sonic wallpaper.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Tales From the Old New Land - Tale 4 - Just Steve (Fuck this this is the real final copy)

We apply just a faint brushing to this story upon precisely the horrific explosion at which Tale 3 deposited us. Or, rather, we hope you found it horrific, though not too horrific. One friend of the Old New Land was sufficiently horrified and voices his disappointment that the third tale was schizophrenically divided between two stories, another friend of the Old New Land was disappointed because he expected worse. Either way, this narrator realizes he was treading a very fine line between haunting the listener with violence, and flooding his listeners with so much violence that they stop listening.

We have, I hope, long since established that Carmen has a memory photographic, phonographic, kinesthetic, and most of all, eidetic; blessed by God or genetics with the ability to process information at a level no person you'll ever meet will approach. Both her recall and her command of it approached infinity. Even this narrator can't remember all the references to various Jewish and goyisher texts to which our beloved Producer referred in his coke-fueled rant, Carmen knew them all, and recorded every word of what he said for fear he'd demand of her why she didn't comply with the seeming order he commanded mid-tirade to record his pearls of wisdom. She then footnoted every word of it with all references she'd recognize to sources classical, biblical, Jewish, secular, and cinematic. In fact, she did it immediately after he let her go from the ledge. She kept a copy of it on her person every day of her life, in case the Producer ever returned and demanded she produce it.


The Producer and Carmen slugged on after that night for another sixteen months. When Carmen finally became Steve's, she was more radiantly beautiful than ever before for two whole decades of their glorious life together; and considering the dangers she'd passed, one could argue her still more beautiful inside than out. Nevertheless, her ribs had the consistency of crushed ice, her joints bent in manners no being should; simply arising from bed was pain itself. Among those who've experienced repetitive trauma, it is not uncommon to deal with the constant rebreaking of bones, degenerative disc disease and an eventual lumbar spinal fusion; bone spurs, torn ligaments, degenerative arthritis, and inevitably, staff infections from corrective surgeries. And that's only from the effects from before the Producer started to hit her face. Starting around 1995, her spine began to cure as though a Quasimodo-like Charles Laughton-like hump were transferred to Maureen O'Hara's Esmeralda.


This is mercifully not a story in which to discuss the particulars of tyrannical behavior which cause internal horror. This narrator has neither the patience nor nothing resembling fortitude to speak any more than generalities about the abominations perpetrated upon her and beseeches your forgiveness for the need to speak any further on such obscenities. But if this fictional rendering of a single Hollywood player getting off on the scent of blood has anything like veracity's ring to you, then he asks that you at least consider how many thousands of powerful Hollywood men over the past century may have acted in precisely this manner to thousands of women over whom they had the power to grant a second life of luminosity upon a screen that will give meaning to the debasements upon which men constantly subjected them.


On that particular dawn, this darkness visible of a Producer found out on the night of Carmen's "window dressing" (his charming term for what transpired) that his days as a respected Hollywood player could be counted upon two digits. Don't mind us the circumstances of his ignominy, for there were any number of risible cinematic bombs in the late 70's and early 80's which wiped out Hollywood producers, production companies, and whole studios, any one of which was the work that removed our once-venerated producer from the pantheon of artistry to the risible posterity of kitsch:


There was At Long Last Love, Peter Bogdanovich's trivial homage to 30's movie-musicals, Cole Porter songs, and Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedy - because nothing oozes Golden Age Hollywood class quite like Burt Reynolds, who became a superstar a few years previously when Deliverance made us watch him kill a Georgia hillbilly with a crossbow while the hillbilly sodomized a 300 pound Ned Beatty while ordering Ned to squeal like a pig.

There was The Exorcist II: The Heretic, a shameless money grab of a sequel starring a miserable looking Richard Burton during a period when he looked like he took parts to pay his astronomic bar tab.

There was The Swarm, a horror movie about killer bees starring Michael Caine, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, and Olivia de Havilland - because what everybody wanted to see in the late 70's was the biggest stars of 1945 in a horror movie too absurd to be filmed by Roger Corman.

There was I Spit On Your Grave - a film that wasn't even distributed for two years because of its quarter-hour depictions of gang rape - notice the plural.

There was Caligula, an X-rated movie produced through the combined talents of literary lion Gore Vidal and Bob Guccione - publisher of Penthouse Magazine. The idea simply to record a literal rendering of the depraved events within Roman Emperor Caligula's palace in Tacitus's Annals. Every imaginable degradation found its way to the screen; raping a bride on her wedding day - and her groom, sex shows involving children and the deformed (if you don't believe me, watch it), gladiatorial public execution, and a confusing scene for which poor Helen Mirren has to use what's hopefully a prosthetic vaginal cavity to depict herself giving birth as part of a (literally) execrable performance amid so many execrable performances. After seeing the original cut, Guccione decided the audiences weren't getting their money's worth, and insisted upon a forty-five minute bisexual orgy near the end which Roman Senators and their wives are coerced into having.


There was, of course, Heaven's Gate, which lost 30 million dollars, ran to nearly four hours in original cut, deliberately killed a horse with explosives, and yanked from movie theaters after less than a week, forever bankrupting United Artists, which many think still the greatest of all movie studios. Some swear it's a misunderstood masterpiece, this narrator doesn't want to find out... Of course, it portrays a five-and-a-half minute gang rape...


There was Inchon, the B-Movie hagiography for America's Five-Star General in Asia, and for a moment in 1952, America's would-be dictator, Douglas MacArthur. Financed with forty-million dollars by a combination of the United States Military and world's most infamous cult leader, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, with MacArthur played by the world's greatest actor - the ailing Lord Lawrence Olivier - who took a cool million for it, screenplay by The French Connection's writer Robin Moore, and directed on Korean location by Terrance Young - who made the first few James Bond movies. Costars including Kurosawa's favorite samurai star Toshiro Mifune, the original Shaft - Richard Roundtree, and Ben Gazarra, best known to our generation as smut peddler Jackie Treehorn in The Big Lebowski. The plots include the Korean War, the different Korean experiences of the Korean War, the founding of the United Nations, the Cold War, American military infighting, multiple romances, marital fights and affairs, comic side characters, and cute kids. Who'd have imagined that a movie conceived from such disparate parts could come unglued?


There was Tarzan, the Ape Man - the mythical White Ape is found, and he's nothing more than a white man raised by apes and therefore must be brought back to civilisation-with-an-s in England where he can be taught proper discourse and ordinary decent respect. Nevertheless, he retains the animal magnetism of Africa, which overwhelms poor proper and prim Jane. Tarzan's character was found offensive by some in the 1910's when movies first told the story of Tarzan. So imagine the reception by 1981. Somehow, there have since been another six Tarzan movies since then.


And who can, or should, forget George Lucas's Howard the Duck? A live-action movie in which transports a loveable alien duck through a wormhole to our world. In the course of this PG romp for kids, he gets dumped by a club bouncer into a hot tub with a couple mid-coitus, an alien disguised as a human extends his tongue like an erection in the presence of Lea Thompson, Howard duckbill-addled lust compels him to attempt biting the onion-like posterior of a sixty-something black woman, Howard excitedly opens Playduck Magazine to ogle photos of ducks with curves and hair and feathered white nipples (and later in the movie we see duck boobies with pink nipples), the Cleveland Police Department sexually assaults Howard the Duck, and the famed character actor Jeffrey Jones (himself now a convicted sex offender) walks in on Lea Thompson seducing Howard.


And, of course, Ishtar. The only of these risible and bank-busting movies directed by a woman, and the only one whose director never directed a movie again. Perhaps Ishtar was, truly, the last movie of the Old-New Hollywood - directed by Mike Nichols's old comic partner Elaine May, Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty starring, Coppola and Bertolucci's cinematographer of choice Vittorio Storaro doing the photography, co-starring New Hollywood luminaries like Tess Harper that played Robert Duvall's wife in Tender Mercies, Charles Grodin - grew up in an Orthodox family, Jack Weston - once Jack Weinstein, Carol Kane - played Woody's first wife in Annie Hall and an Oscar nominee for a part in Hester Street acted entirely in Yiddish, Aharon Ipale - an Israeli, Fred Melamed - best known for his portrayal of Sy Ableman in A Serious Man, and David Margulies - practically Hollywood's character actor of choice when you needed a Jew. Is it any wonder that a film with so many Jews involved would bomb when it's set in an Arab country?


Something rotted in the fresh air of freedom which made the New Hollywood Golden Age possible. Every action has equal and opposite reactions. The freedom which allowed for realistic depictions of ordinary people with their ugliness intact, with sex, and violence, and emotional turmoil unshielded by a production code, curdled into freedom's betrayal by making its depictions into something sickeningly exploitative - eventually, even freedom's very liberators will betray it, it's inevitable. What appears to be a glorious liberation is merely another swing of the pendulum that lands on equilibrium for barely a instant before swinging over to decadence.

And thereafter was placed a new production code on Hollywood, enforced with a hand all the more iron for being unofficial - a code that allows for rivers of blood so long as the violence is confined to an unrealistic genre and human consequences soft-pedaled, a code allowing for a child's naive innocence to continue unabated into adulthood with bro comedies about manchildren, a code allowing only for romantic comedies that airbrush love's ugly moments out of existence, a code dominated by action movies for special effects are the true stars.

Just as in the old production code, today's Hollywood movies can still be damn good, but in the opinion of this not humble enough narrator, they don't show us ourselves. There are ways around the problem - The Social Network and Her and WALL-E and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which show us a complex image of the human spirit by showing us how technology may have reshaped it; or movies like Boyhood or the Before movies or (believe it or not) Borat, the experimental gimmick that makes them possible is so radically extreme that they can only be done once and never be copied.

There are some fine and human directors working in its orbit if not actually 'in' Hollywood: at least two American treasures: Alexander Payne and Richard Linklater, who manage in every movie to say something elusive about America. Among the 'tribe', there's Jason Reitman, or at least there was, who made three of the great American movies at the beginning of his career, and there's John Sayles, whom nobody remembers, but twenty years ago was the God of directors trying to abandon Hollywood. There's Ang Lee, who isn't even American. And of course, there's Errol Morris, and can you even call his movies movies?


Other than them, there are, as Woody once called them, the Academy of the Overrated: Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, David Lynch, PT Anderson, Wes Anderson , Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufmann, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Steven Soderbergh, Sofia Coppola, Peter Jackson, Ken Burns, David O Russell, the Wachowskis, Gus Van Sant, Tim Burton, James Cameron...


Directors so enamored of movies they jam pack theirs with references to other movies at the expense of references to life. There is a kind of ersatz profundity to their movies - movies like The Matrix and Inception and Avatar and I Heart Huckabees with philosophical messages one can fit inside a fortune cookie; ponderousness which PT Anderson mistakes for profundity, incomprehensibility which Charlie Kaufmann mistakes for intellectual challenge, cynical darkness which David Fincher and the Coen Brothers mistake for gravity, arrested development which Tim Burton and Wes Anderson mistaken for whimsy, reliance on other movies which Tarantino and David Lynch mistake for ironic commentary, reliance on CGI which Christopher Nolan and the Wachowskis and James Cameron mistake for visual artistry.

In these movies, it's the technicians who are the artists, not the director. What can a director say about life that a director before him hasn't already? The movies before him were simply too good. so rather than compete with them catharsis for catharsis, he creates homages to what old masters do better than he, and critics call these postmodern homages 'original' when the only thing original about them is the lack of emotional demand. They are movies about movies, movies that mistaken technology for the humanity, and therefore perhaps movies against movies. There are more breathtaking shots in today's American movies than ever before. If nature doesn't give you the background you want, if the lighting on some actress's face is not quite right, if her jawline or skin is not quite perfect, you digitally alter it to any specification you like; but to what end?


Elsewhere, people who devote their lives to film tell us the world's experiencing a Golden Age of movies from which the United States is the only wealthy country that remains excluded. As with so many things about America - soccer, news, public transit, languages, condoms, history, black humor, paid family leave, cheap health care, gun laws, and vegetables - we have only the dimmest awareness of the feast that happens on every corner of the globe but ours because we're too busy playing with our toys.

Our generation can't even remember a time when the highest grossers were character based movies. That ended with Jaws in 1975, but between '75 and 1990, there were plenty of smaller films during that did well, but those fifteen years made technology become the box office king, and after that came the systematic gutting of movies that portrayed Americans in their natural state anywhere but the ghettos of independent film and Miramax. Just over the other side of 1975 lay the Star Wars Trilogy and Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Indiana Jones and ET and Back to the Future and Roger Rabbit - and how human and full of personality do those movies seem next to the blockbusters of our time!


The New New Hollywood was the walls of an artistic ghetto, constructed because the knowledge that movies like Caligula and I Spit On Your Grave and Heaven's Gate and Howard the Duck gave us was too terrible. The freedom to create greater and more uplifting spectacles also bequeaths gifts too vile and revolting for contemplation. All it took was less than a dozen movies presenting us the human animal in all its stinking shit, and movies run away from their truth ever after.


Our beloved Producer could be working on any of these movies, does it really matter which? But by the Window Dressing's first anniversary, The Producer hasn't worked on a movie in nine months; nine months during which his fists perform upon Carmen an abortion. Five minutes after every time he went off, he begged her not to leave, just you wait, he'll make you happy again, Hollywood can be something better than its ever been, and you'll be its leading lady! Perhaps hitting her becomes his sole source of relief. No glamorous friend returns a phone call, relieving him of his glamor and all sycophants who glom onto it. Friendship is fleeting, love mere folly, and how more true is that Shakespearean cliche in the 'Dream Factory?'


There's the time the Producer bruises Carmen's father after the father asks about Carmen's bruises. Two minutes later, the Producer gives her Dad a $10,000 wad and personally drives him to the emergency room in his 1977 Lamborghini Countach. The moment the producer enters, he takes out more cash for the doctor, the nurses, and the other patients - they saw nothing.

While they're in the ER, Carmen's sister practically kidnaps her to a courthouse to get a restraining order. Carmen is unwilling, worried the Producer will kill her if she tries. The judge listens very patiently and carefully and evinces great compassion for her suffering, excuses himself to his chamber for five minutes, comes back and refuses the restraining order. Twelve minutes later, the Producer is at the courthouse, gives Carmen a huge hug and kiss as she sobs tears upon him, takes her home and tells her over and over again how much he loves her. Two days later, they're engaged, and she's the one who wants to go to the courthouse right away; but the Producer promised her a wedding the whole world will know about, the wedding she deserved.


Who could turn down the life he promised? Here's a man who turns the curvature of the Earth to the angle of his whim. He's the best actor in Hollywood. For more than a decade, he dealt with creative geniuses, yet he is a genius of life itself. Every event, the most glamorous, the most spiritual, transcendent, intangible, can be picked apart and reduced to components. Nothing in life was a mystery to him, and all he demanded in return was she be no more difficult than the concierge in Oviedo.


It was at this moment that our dear Producer, his tastes in cuisine seeming upscale LA specialties like shellfish, steak, and sushi, develops a yen for rouladen, kasespatzle, saurbraten, kartoffelknodel, bretzels und wurst. Carmen has no idea why the Producer wants German every night, and he won't explain anything except a different dish to try. One night at Old World German Restaurant, the next at Van Nuys German Deli where you order from a standup counter - but Carmen must still wear heels, next at Alpine Village, the same rotation every night for five or six weeks. In a month, the Producer's a good twenty pounds heavier, but the moment Carmen's dress seems a bit tighter, the Producer does what he can to make her not finish what he orders. She'd wrap up the remains and take them home in a doggie bag, and find them missing from the fridge.


About five to six weeks in, the Producer points to a table across the restaurant. (whispering) "That's Karlheinz von Huntze, Executive Vice-President of Polygram Entertainment." Until the 60's, Polygram was a third-German, third-Dutch, third-British corporation responsible for seven major classical music labels and another ten major Popular Music labels. A number of these labels were happy to collaborate with Hitler's culture ministers, but Polygram bought them up and controlled a vast swath the world's musical glories set down before, during, and after the Second World War: Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Earl Hines, Dizzy Gillespe, Woody Herman, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Oscar Petersen, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Eartha Kitt, untold numbers of Broadway Musicals, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, the Rolling Stones and Elvis during some of their best periods, Eric Clapton, Talking Heads, the Ramones, KISS, Billy Joel, Donna Summer, the Village People, the Bee Gees, ABBA, The Osmonds, Yves Montand, Jacques Brel, Edith Piaff, hundreds of other pop acts; nearly every major mid-century conductor, untold numbers of and opera singers and chamber ensembles and soloists, premiere recordings of every postwar work by Britten and Vaughan Williams, thousands of moderately obscure and young and unproven composers no major label today would take a chance on, the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, London Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic... In 1963, it's Polygram's subsidiary, Phillips Electronics in Holland (founded by Karl Marx's uncle), that invents the tape cassette.


By 1980, Polygram is too big to fail, and yet... the catalogue is just too large, so it either expands significantly to compensate for losses, or shed an enormous portion of product. There's very little in music that they don't own a significant portion, so it was time to move into Movies. What better way to do that than Movie Musicals? Polygram had a 50% share in RSO Records, which gives them a huge profit in the Disco because RSO had the music distribution rights to Grease and Saturday Night Fever. This is in addition to money made from contracts with the Bee Gees, the Village People, Donna Summer.... Unfortunately, nowhere near enough to cover the bill. They need a movie musical of their own.


Enter Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band... THE MUSICAL! Yes, all your favorite Beatles songs are here, sung as you've always wanted to hear them by Peter Frampton, the Bee Gees, and Steve Martin. Cameos from Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Earth Wind & Fire, Dr. John, Etta James, Curtis Mayfield, Bonnie Raitt, Frankie Valli, and a hundred other musicians - none of which sing their original music, and narrated by George fucking Burns (because there's a name that'll put young asses in the seats...). God knows what Polygram has to pay to acquire the rights from EMI, but it's just another couple hundred million sucked into the drain of this spectacular black hole of music.

Ever the artistes, John and George refuse to even attend the premiere, though of course they took the money; while ever the workhorses, Paul and Ringo went to the premiere, then refuse to have anything more to do with either the movie or Polygram.


And there sits Karlheinz von Huntze, all sixty-seven years and 350 pounds of him squeezed into a fecally brown suit that fit him when he was fifty-five with a badly tied thin tie that doesn't even reach his naval, unashamed of his brown teeth and double chin that goes past his neck, all of which bites with great begeisterung into the giant plate of braten and sauerkraut in front of him, but vain enough about his hair to wear a spectacular salt and pepper toupee whose base levitates an inch and a half over his boneless skull and continues up six inches. On his left hand, a wedding ring might at any moment pop off his brat-like finger.


So this is it... The perfect movie musical star - a gorgeously unique looking petite girl with a large head, well known and liked by everybody in Hollywood, packed to the gills with brains and... lungs; no singing lessons, no acting lessons, minimal dancing, plays piano, knows every song in the Real Book. All it takes is one movie and she has her choice - greatest living singer or greatest living actress and needless to say who's on her arm and advising every decision.


And she's brilliant when she talks to Huntze - how could she not be? In ninety seconds, the Producer excuses himself to the bathroom and stays in there for forty minutes. They speak the fluent German she picked up from opera training, they compare the Schubert and Goethe they love best, they sing the Papageno and Pamina duet from Mozart's Die Zauberflote at the table (the restaurant bursts into applause, more for Carmen...). He orders four different deserts, and insists on splitting each with her and that she eat up the every mouthful of her half. He invites her to visit him and his wife in Hamburg so she can see the Kunsthalle and the Dichterhallen and walk through the taverns where Brahms played as a child, and tells her that he'd love to hear her play piano before he leaves town. He writes down the address of a freund's mansion.


Of course, very little piano is played. Someone as thoroughly demoralized as Carmen has no illusions left of the necessities expected. If anything, Herr Huntze's patronizing kindness makes her thankful. The cutesy/schatzi German nicknames, the grandfatherly forcefeeding of Stroh and Obstwasser before geschlechtich verkehren and makronen afterward (which of course came to her mouth via his boneless hand). He tells her she's a shoo-in, all she has to do is meet with a few more people at Polygram ...


It is needless to tell you what's expected at meetings with every member of the Polygram team: Germans, Austrians, Swiss, Dutch, Danish... Alte welt gentlemen all of them, their Höfische Manieren justifying their sense of entitlement. A few of them are attractive - tall, silver-haired Kavalieren with tailored three-piece suits and paisley ties or ascots tucked into shirts perfectly pressed; sculpted hair and pencil-thin mustaches above their constantly pursed lips that smoke cigarettes long and thin. They wear scarves in the summer and walk with ornate canes - even the young ones seem old. The bald ones have combovers more mousse than hair, the fat ones watch chains on their vests.

Never would she leave without a gift - a Channel perfume, a Swarovski Chocolate Box, a De Beer diamond ring, a dress from Christian Dior (and of course, even after she gained weight, the measurements were perfect). Meeting her at the door they would bend down and kiss her on the hand, or kiss her on each cheek, sometimes thrice rather than two. Conversation always pleasant, the meals the height of gourmet and gourmand, the wines are amazing (at least when they're not German...). Occasionally they even fly her to Germany. Karlheinz got her to the Dichterhallen.


Strangely enough, the Producer seems OK with all this. He never asks where she's going, gives her free use of whatever car she wants, seems happier than he's ever been in their relationship. He's on the phone 18 hours a day, his old friends are friends again, his life is back to a whirlwind of tennis, power lunches, and movie pitches.


Early in the evening of September 19th, which they vaguely remember is Kol Nidrei Night, Carmen returns to the house. Every light's on, the mirrors covered, the unshaven Producer wearing a white bathrobe and fisherman's cap on his head. All of the cap but the bill covered by a blinding white shawl with blue stripes.

Carmen knows a tallis when she sees one, but for the occasional lapse into grade school Yiddish, the Producer never seemed Orthodox enough to wear one that long. He stands in the corner of his living room, his back to the wall, bending his torso up and down at the speed of sound as he davens from a Siddur. His lips move light speed with barely a sound. He doesn't seem to notice, and as she walks toward his line of vision, she sees he's wearing his favorite tie, cut around his sternum, almost the entire way.


Before she could even ask what was wrong, he looks at her and intones,... incants:


"Vahyigah hadawvawr el meylekh nineveh mikis'aw va'yo'aw'ver ahdahrtaw meyawlawv."


And then he begins to walk directly towards her, staring her deadly cold in the eye, taking a step a few inches forward with every seven words:


"For the word came unto the King of Nineveh and he arose from his throne and he laid his throne from him and covered him with sackcloth and sat in ashes and he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the King and his nobles saying let neither man nor beast nor herd nor flock taste any thing let them not feed nor drink water but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth and cry mightily unto Adonai yea let them turn every one from his evil way and from the violence that is in their hands."


He stares at his hand for a moment that seemslike fifteen, as unaware as she was about what he was about to do.


"You didn't get the part."


And then he dislodged her cornea.


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This is the last we will ever say of the abuses' particulars perpetrated upon Carmen, and while he can make no promises, the narrator very much hopes that this is the last time he feels the need to elucidate any details of gendered violence in what will hopefully become a mega/meta-novel that takes decades to write for many, many hundreds of pages, if the good Lord is kind enough to allow anything like its completion in this ascendent age of horror. We do, however, have to speak rather lengthily about the repercussions of what was perpetrated upon Carmen, but fortunately or unfortunately, the details of that will proceed organically from the story - with some digressions of course...


"Of course you can stay at my place. However long you need to. I hope you don't mind though, my housemate has a friend staying on our sofa but my room has a foldout couch."


Steve lets Carmen in, they walk into his room, she sees the 250 books on his shelves, she sees the violin case on the fold-out couch, she sees the projector screen covering the window and the projector at the far end of the room with a pile of classic movie canisters as tall as she is; the proverbial cat is out of the bag and she breaks down weeping. Steve holds Carmen to console her with his hips held away from her to conceal his half-mast, but he has no idea what he's consoling, and while he asks, he's not about to push the matter.


When Carmen finally feels better, she walks over to the canisters, picks out Casablanca, and for two hours they lie down and decide that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world... It's a Monday night. On Tuesday, they watch The Best Years of Our Lives. On Wednesday, It's A Wonderful Life. Thursday, City Lights. Friday, It Happened One Night. Saturday,  The Philadelphia Story. Sunday, Steve finally shows her his favorite movie: Sunrise; meaning not that his favorite movie is somewhere between a pretentious statement about nature and a pickup line, but Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, the 1927 masterpiece co-awarded the first ever Best Picture Oscar (even in the first year of the Oscars they couldn't award it all to the best movie...) and a movie that should reduce every living being to a puddle of feelings by its end. It was directed by F.W. Murnau, a young German moviemaker recently immigrated to the United States, who might have proven greater than either Hitchcock or Welles had a car accident not claimed him four years later.


On this, Steve and I completely agree, Sunrise is more than a simply great film. To me it is, next to Citizen Kane, nothing less than the cornerstone of all movies ever made in this country. The dawn at the end of Sunrise is not simply a metaphor for the dawn of a reinvigorated rural marriage, it is a metaphor for the American dawn, for the dawn of movies themselves, for the dawn of witnessing art enacted for us by our fellow humans on a durable screen rather than in our imaginations from a flimsy piece of paper; for the dawn of a modern era when the hope of the New World emerges from the despair of the Old - for the passing of the torch from a world that once coveted Northern European ideals like civilization, education, and culture, to a world that coveted American ideals like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These days, the new ideals are seeming equally unfulfillable to the old ones, but not yet at least, and while there's no doubt that it's hokey to say that the Sun rose on a new day with this movie, it's no less true for being hokey.


It's probably worth mentioning that some night after one of these movies, Steve and Carmen have sex for the first time, and perhaps nearly as importantly, Steve has sex for the first time; this era was a few years before it became a given that 95% of students would lose their virginity by the end of college. I'd like to say that they first did it after they watched "It Happened One Night," but that is much too on the nose...


Steve, like most men, particularly most young men who've never had sex before, has no idea what might cause women discomfort, even if it might seem obvious to them in distant retrospect. It somehow never occurred to him that even a woman as intelligent as Carmen might dislike a movie in which a man who attempts to work up the nerve to drown his pure, Aryan-looking country wife (and you can tell how innocent she is by her long blond hair wrapped in the tight bun) so he can take up full time with his knowing city tramp of a mistress with a nose slightly too large to escape a semitic connotation, but if that's not enough to get the point, you can tell how 'knowing' she is from her black flapper haircut...). Shortly before he tries to kill his wife, he also tries to kill his mistress when she suggests to him that he should kill his wife - but both times, being the splendidly ethical man he is at heart, he manages to stop himself, and after his nearly killing the two women closest to him in twenty minutes, he resolves to redeem himself because of the purity of his wife's being and sufferance in his ignoring her, his wandering eye, and his bad mind for business that puts their country farm in danger.


After he stands over her, his hands lurched outward in the manner of exaggerated silent movie murderousness as he attempts to work up the murderous nerve to throw her overboard from a canoe on a lake, she waits for her coward of a husband to row back ashore so she can abscond to a bus heading for the city, and he runs after her, begging her not to be afraid of him. She can't escape the iron grip of a husband a foot taller and wider in frame, and as he holds onto her, they wander into a city church, and they watch and listen as a clearly Lutheran priest officiates an expensive city wedding and intones from a cue card "God is giving you in the holy bonds of matrimony, a trust. She is young... and inexperienced. Guide her and love her... ...keep and protect her from all harm. Wilt thou LOVE her?" At which point this wayward, murderous hulk of a man becomes a teary and dewy eyed portrait of remorse who collapses into the lap of his suffering wife like Jesus in a Pieta consoled by the Virgin Mary. Because what clearly matters here is the husband's suffering, not the wife's.


And if that's not enough to make the Carmens of this world cringe, there's then the moment in the beauty parlor, when the wife runs away in horror from a barber with the temerity to try to take her hair out of its virginal bun - her purity thankfully intact. Then there's the set piece with another 'knowing floozy' who tries to give the husband a manicure, suggestively pulling his hand out from underneath the barber's smock, only for him to swat away her ministrations to his wife's all-consuming relief. A moment later, when an upper-class man tries to get fresh with this innocent country wife and breaks off one of the flowers bought her by her husband to put into his lapel, the husband emerges from under the barber's smock, freshly shaved, and this so recently almost murderer draws a pocket knife, only to nip the flower off as the gentleman covers his neck with his hand, clearly certain that the husband was about to give him what OJ Simpson's defense team called the Colombian Necktie.


And yet, amid all this psychotic violence is the simple story of a married couple falling back in love with one another by experiencing a new facet of life - an innocent rural couple, firmly fastened to the prison of country life's slowness that's caused so much desperation and longing in modern literature, arriving in the bustle and activity of the city to find the life and action for which they ache, and arrive at that perverse balance between the innocence of children and the tragic knowledge of adulthood's sacrifices that is romance - that bond we all seek, the eternal spring of life's being, the fleeting moments which we wish are forever, when life as must happen disappears and all that remains is life as we wish it to be. And yet in order for life to occur as we wish it to be, life must be disappointing enough to form our wishes.


And after bits with a drunk pig, impossible to explain, accidentally breaking the head off a statue during some horseplay, making out while blissful seems to transform a crowded thoroughfare into the Garden of Eden, and later drunkenly making out as flying angels form a ring around them,  shortly before which the husband wants to beat up yet another upper-class twit for suggesting that the couple do a country dance for a large city crowd - which they're then convinced do to the city dwellers' eruptive delight. They sail home by moonlight, 'a second honeymoon' the wife calls it with all the literalness of a pure country girl, her errant husband, who nearly drowned her on the same boat that morning, as in love as he probably was on their first honeymoon. She falls into blissful sleep upon his chest, and he gently places the lapel of his jacket over her face, turning in the span of twelve hours from a near-wife murderer to a good husband again who protects his wife.


But in these days before doppler radar, a frenzied storm erupts as suddenly as the moonlight seemed eternal but a moment ago. Even the city dwellers duck for cover. The calmness of the lake upon which they live turns into a roaring sea, while the pure and terrified country wife holds onto her husband for dear life, preventing him from doing the rowing necessary to save them.


The desperate husband wakes the whole town up and forms a search party on the lake. She survives by holding onto a bundle of bamboo picked and placed into the boat by his mistress so he could float to safety after killing her - but not before the husband tries to kill his mistress yet again when she comes to claim her prize, and this time, nearly succeeding while we're half-rooting for him to be successful! But a figure who is probably the wife's mother tells him that she's been found and is alive. He forgets his mistress mid-murder, and immediately returns to his wife's bedside and sits by it for the rest of the night, the entire town relieved and overjoyed that one of their own is not lost. The movie ends with the wife awakening, her long blonde hair finally let down, bedecked in white nightgown and white sheets, her roughly four-year-old son sleeping by her side, and she awakens at the rising of the sun to her husband by her bedside, and they share a kiss that dissolves into rays of sunlight and the burst of the sun. Is it not the most beautiful image in all of cinema?


18 hours after this husband almost became a wife-murderer and a few minutes after he almost becomes a mistress murderer, his wife awakens, and they live on, if not happily ever after, then redeemed with a second chance at life - the seemingly redeemed husband seemingly proven utterly deserving of happiness and forgiveness, never mind that had he remained a good husband, the life of his wife would never have been in danger, let alone twice, let alone that the first of the two times he was the direct cause of the danger, never mind that he almost became a murderer yet again just a moment before his reunion with his wife.


Sunrise is exactly as melodramatic a movie as it sounds, with those utterly unbelievable silent movie gestures and a dramaturgy that wouldn't be believable in a Christmas pageant. And yet it should matter not a whit. Its melodrama is just a symptom of the metaphysical drama taking place onscreen. The metaphorical stakes are nothing less than a human soul, the husband's soul. What yetzer will the soul embrace? Will evil be rewarded and virtue punished? Is a redeemed soul that once strayed deserving of any reward?  As melodramatic as Sunrise is, these are not questions easy to answer, and as any Hollywood movie must, Sunrise tries to answer them definitively, and yet it cannot. How many days before the husband erupts again in a violent rage? How many days before he tires of the farm and eye wanders again to another city girl who's probably named Rachel



Sunrise speaks to us from another world where cynicism has yet to be invented. Men are men, strapping, quick to anger, quick to lust, quick to violence, yet able to be soothed by the purity of love, for which it is woman's holy duty - a duty she can either assume, thereby becoming an intercessing goddess, or reject, thereby becoming a whore. It is very easy to be cynical about such movies, and yet one's critical faculties feel an overwhelming urge to melt in the presence of such sincerity. Just as in the music of Bach or the painting of Rafael;  Murnau arrived on world history at a very specific moment when his chosen artform was on an indivertible course to conquer the world with its power. 1927 was the final full year of film's Silent Era, and the very moment when visual storytelling blossomed in a manner never seen before and perhaps never since. In this final twilight of Silent Film, everything about the visual components of movies become as fluid and poetic as ballet - sets, lighting, costumes, exposures, even overacting: Sunrise, Metropolis, Faust, Flesh and the Devil, Mare Nostrum, The Son of the Sheik, Sparrows, The Temptress, What Price Glory?, The Winning of Barbara Worth, It, The Italian Straw Hat, London After Midnight, The General, Pandora's Box, The Crowd, The Wind, Underworld, The Unknown, Steamboat Bill Jr., An Andalusian Dog, Lonesome, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Queen Kelly, Sadie Thompson, Show People, Diary of a Lost Girl, The Lodger, Man With a Movie Camera, The Last Command, The Docks of New York, The Circus, 7th Heaven. Just as it was forty-five years later, there was something magic in the cellophane - but the magic dissipated far more quickly. The Golden Age our parents may currently reminisce upon took sixteen years between Bonnie and Clyde on one side and The Right Stuff on the other. The Golden Age which their grandparents remembered began around 1926 and was all over by 1929, but for those threeish years, all a director seemingly had to do was be competent at his job, and he'd set something eternal down.

Set something down indeed. The Viennese writers who were rockstars in their own time: Polgar, Altenberg, Hoffmanstahl, Friedell, Kraus... where are they now? They're intellectual nowheres, lost to time because their best insights were performances of conversation which audiences lined up to hear in the Viennese Cafes - and everybody was having too much fun to write down what they heard. But so many directors of the first Old New Hollywood: Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Capra, Elia Kazan, Michael Curtiz, Fred Zinnemann, William Wyler, Fritz Lang, Erich von Stroheim, Otto Preminger - all immigrants who created a golden age of American myth by bringing the core of European values over to America - even Alfred Hitchcock went to Berlin to learn his trade. Look at their movies now, how old world, how sophisticated, how thoroughly un-American they all seem. And yet, even if it's only a husk of an audience, just us lonely bachelors who dream of a cafe life where we can be celebrated like Polgar and Altenberg without having to write anything down, but since we have nothing to do but wile away our nights in the dwindling art-film revivals, we're still watching these guys, and they live on where Friedell and Kraus have died a literary death.

But it's one thing for effete eccentrics to love these movies. Think of 1940's America, its unbreakable moral fibre only strengthened by Great Depression's and World War's privations, looking at these louche louts of upper class society - and dreaming of nothing but being Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. It's almost inconceivable in the 21st century that America once longed to be Europe, but there it is.

What happened that created a Europe out of America? All I can do is let the British director Michael Powell take over for a moment, he says:




"California is a hell of a place to live. Miles from anywhere. In those days it was much further than it is now. We were Europeans. We liked to be near theaters and opera and ballet and galleries and people. There weren't any of these things in California. The reason why these highly intelligent people who went to Hollywood immersed themselves in work and just made film after film after film was, I think, because . . . well, what could they do in California? No theatre, no opera--until radio and television came in it must have been the end of the earth. And people too . . . Europeans love people. It's talk as much as anything that keeps things going in Europe, particularly central Europe, where most of these people came from. Where was the cafe life in California?"

Europeans came here with nothing, bounded in a nutshell and required to become kings of infinite space. Hollywood's second creative Eden was purchased by the first film school graduates who combined the popular art of classic Hollywood with the high art of foreign film into high popular art - the mountain upon which 70's cinema stands at the zenith, steeped in the American enormities: physical lands with cities teeming with human masses and massive spaces with no humans at all, conflicting cultures and unequal races, a never ending stream of headlines, styles, desires, and optimism - then given infinite freedom to create whatever he liked. America was, and somehow still is, a carnival from which many artists can choose how to create with infinite freedom. The first creative Eden of Hollywood was purchased by the last generation of Old Europe - young men, so often Jewish, who learned their trades in the theaters of Vienna and Berlin and Prague and Budapest, steeped in German infinities - expressionism, romanticism, tradition, history, and pessimism. Americans had infinite space, but Germans needed breathing room. Even in Germany, there was no enormity of space or opportunity, particularly for Jews, so they created worlds of the spirit.

Sunrise is German Romanticism transferred to the American screen - everything about it is artificial as an abstract theater production - acting flamboyant even by silent movie standards, a giant moon that looks made of cardboard, a mist from which you can practically see the dry ice, cameras stationed at angles and jerking more than moving, double exposures every minute, and a feast of moral archetypes, all the exploding white light and black immersive shadows that every simple fable demands.

So many of these European emigres were Jewish, not Murnau. He learned his trade from the great name of Viennese Theater - Max Reinhardt, whom Viennese critics, usually Jewish themselves, never let readers forget was a Jew. But Murnau seemed as ambivalent as any other pure blooded Austrian about the Jews from whom he gained so much. The masterpiece of his German years, Nosferatu, is about a Vampire with a hooked nose who comes to terrorize Germany. The more blood of young Germans he drinks, the stronger he grows. If Murnau wasn't trying to conjure the ancient blood libel, then why did it have to be the blood of 'young' Germans?'

This is the contradiction of every Old New Land. It is the tension that exists within the tension. Not the tension between absolutes and not the tension between various shades of gray, but the tension between absolutes on the one hand and shades of grey on the other. Not the tension of an open society and not the terror of a closed one, but the anxiety that comes from knowing that all open society will eventually close themselves. It is the overwhelming tension from the deep that shifts tectonic plates within the minds of all humans. For every genius of the Old New Land, there must be a few patrons to support them, dozens of writers to take up their cause, hundreds of sycophants to keep up their morale, and thousands of consumers to talk about their work. It requires thousands of gifted people gathering in one place, competing, supporting, and criticizing each other, each of their contributions made more meaningful for their interaction. There is no single author of a great achievement any more than there is no person with distinct genetic material, there is only the thoughts masticated by generation after generation, passed from parent to child, from friend to friend, from enemy to enemy, until fate designates one person its vessel. This is what the Old New Land is, and it's almost impossible without Jews.

Jews become the moneymen, the moral support, the scientists and critics in the peer review who take up the cause, the critics who tell you your work sucks, and seemingly at all times, the dominators of the conversation, and if the host country is particularly nice to us, we occasionally become the genius himself.

Islam literally means submission, Christ literally means salvation and redemption, Israel means 'he who wrestles with God.' Judaism is the only pre-modern religion for which critical thinking and active criticism is a divine mandate. Jews are the only people who have long practice in forcing the Messiah's hand. Since he clearly won't come to us willingly, we must create the conditions to bring him here. And since we do not have the divine material for the Old New Land, we must create a likeness of the New Land from old materials. But since these materials are mortal, the Old New Land vanishes every time it's conjured, and lasts for so short a period that hardly anyone realizes they're living in it until it's gone.

And inevitably, the chief beneficiaries of the Old New Land are not the Jews but the collaborators in whom Jews put their trust. Once the Old New Land brings us too close to a likeness of the Age of the Moshiach, it is over, we come too close to the truth of the age, and inevitably, who's blamed? Jews are expelled, the goyim live on the spoils of the old achievements, but no longer do they have the yeast to leaven the bread which Jews always brought to their ovens. The achievement of every civilization was not the achievement of Jews, it was the achievement of Goyim to be broadminded enough to accept Jews, and therefore generous and tolerant enough to utilize the contributions of a people adept in brutally criticizing you until you're better than you were before.

F. W. Murnau was a director who rode the worldly insights of Jewish directors like Reinhardt, von Sternberg, von Stroheim, and Robert Weine whom Nazis thought was a Jew anyway. To the worldly insights of a cosmopolitan he brought the black and white ethical view of a country bumpkin, and in this world of the Old New Land, it was the Eternal Goy who created the Movie of the Age by piggybacking on the great insights of the eternal Jew, and grounding them in the kind of innocent experience of peasant life that's true for everyone who's too innocent to be Jewish.

There were flashier directors after Murnau who had much more trenchant insights into human nature, just compare the worldly insight of Lubitsch to Sunrise's simple-mindedness, but insight into humans would dilute everything which makes Murnau so special. Just as with Bach, I doubt there is a single artist in his medium who can make you believe again in everything in life about which you abandoned all hope. If you're close to suicide, watch Sunrise. You may have thought yourself a cynic, but all bad feeling melts in the presence of its beauty - it is the beauty of dawn, of hope, of the idea that not a single person in the entire world is beyond redemption or undeserving of it. It tells the sinner within us all that no matter how badly we oppress others, we are not beyond mercy. It is the kind of hope that those of us privileged enough to feel will use as resolve to take our instinct toward sin and use it for virtue and finally feel released from our questions of what is virtuous: to move mountains, to overthrow governments, to build societies, to make a girl who was nearly a movie star into the love of your life.


And all this is precisely everything that Carmen least wanted to hear or see at this moment. Carmen was probably much too close to her agonies to experience anything like a trigger for reliving them, but the idea that a man who is so clearly evil can achieve redemption so quickly was everything that contradicted the last eighteen months of her life. When a man has murder in his heart, there is no redemption for him, and even if there is perhaps an infinitesimal possibility of redemption, it's certainly not something the man discovers over the course of a single fucking day.


Steve did not see her rolling her eyes and grinding her teeth and tensing her hands in his room's darkness. He often looked over to gauge her reaction, but never caught her at any particularly expressive moment. As we men seem to do 95% of the time, he saw what we wish to see in women, and if men much more experienced and confident around women than young Steve have no idea what women are thinking, then how was Steve to know? And therefore it came as quite a shock to him when Carmen let out an enormous guffaw toward the end when this prodigally murderous husband kneels in a state of grace at the bedside of his utterly saintly, unblemishable, wife.


The second after Carmen let out her roaring cackle, she apologized profusely, as anyone in a new relationship would after guffawing at a potential significant other's favorite movie. When Steve immediately turned the movie off and light on, she went somewhat limp, as though the dread which coursed through her heart dissociated herself from the room before she had to experience the inevitable melodrama that would ensue. But, to her astonishment, Steve was extremely interested in knowing what she thought.


But for one of the first times in her life, the inkwell of her acuity had dried, and she was at a loss to explain precisely what she found so offensive about the movie.


Why did she weep when she saw his books? Because for the last few weeks, she'd found herself unable to recall what she'd read. Books were, to her, something to access with instant neurological availability. One glance at a piece of paper, and it was committed to heart for life. Whole tractates of the King James Bible, whole acts by Shakespeare, whole chapters of the Quixote and whole stories by Kafka she could recite in the original Castillian Spanish and Prague German with the exact pronunciation of its location and period, whole piano concertos by Mozart - both the solo piano part and the orchestral score, whole albums of Edith Piaf and whole operas by Verdi which she was able to sing and play on the piano as though it were second nature, not only able to sing any jazz standard or song by Dylan or The Beach Boys or trash song by Herman's Hermits or Tiny Tim, but able to improvise half-hour piano solos around them with countermelodies and modulations and thematic interpolations of a dozen other songs by the same artist and a dozen more by the artists they influenced and the artists who influenced them. Any one of which she could summon to mind and memory as though by animal instinct, as naturally as the rest of us take a breath or eat a meal after a day's fasting; any one of which were available to call to mind for an audition.


Her parents had no idea where she came from. They were rural immigrants like any rural immigrants, perhaps a bit better at what they did than most, and perhaps assimilated a bit more easily into American life than some did. Music was not something they made themselves, but at they were aware of music and loved it, and surely all four their own parents were musical - folk musicians to whom a career in music, or any career at all, was an alien concept. When they weren't fishing or farming or selling their goods, they played the quena and the bandolina and banduryia and the bukhot; national instruments of the Philippines and Colombia, where their days were spent as farmers and fishermen, and nights around campfires and oil lamps with Tinkling and Muisca dancing - a life that could just as easily take place in either 1600 AD or BC as in 1940. You got up in the morning, you served your particular God, you did your best to avoid other more evil spirits, and you went to sleep until one unsuspecting night when sleep claimed you.  Legendary family stories developed around particular members of the family, but you didn't know if these family members died a few decades before you were born, or a few hundred years; maybe even a few thousand. Perhaps variations on these particular stories were common to every family, every town, every region of the world, and perhaps all these folk tunes are just as similar from place to place. But because these stories and this music have no historical record, they seem infinitely more authentic - coming to us from that ether generated by the long darkness of pre-history, when the world was only explicable through magic. Life itself was magic, any day when a person was shielded from death was its own miracle that required a supernatural explanation. Every respite from death was a beautiful gift, every object of order that endowed life with ever so slightly more convenience was wrested from the chaos of nature, and therefore an object of indescribable beauty that could not be conceived had it not already existed. For a moment in these people's lives of whom we have no record, these artful objects did not imitate nature as so much humdrum art does, but rewrites nature's very laws, and therefore every folk tune was beautiful and perfect, every folk tale was beautiful and perfect, every pot and plate was beautiful and perfect, every meal was beautiful and perfect, all of them gifts handed down from above and below by forces well beyond their understanding, because they were all wrested from a nature that would never guarantee a life good enough to consistently house the presence of any of them, and the appearance of any of these gifts from the spiritual realm was a gift to be savored until the spiritual realm claimed them back. A pot, a plate, an instrument, could so easily break. A musician or a storyteller could die. The fish could disappear from the water, the crops not grow, the animals disappear from the forest. And where there was light, darkness would descend upon the face of the deep.


Miracles were not supposed to happen in America, and yet, here was the miracle that was Carmen Chavez - with all the modern advances in technique, here was a person who overcame technique and played with it as a baby does a rattle. Perhaps she's a second Mozart, perhaps she's even a Shakespeare of performance - someone for whom a career as arm candy in a Burt Reynolds movie would be utterly wasted. She should be playing and singing Poulenc and Schubert at Carnegie Hall, she should be playing and singing Cleopatra and Sally Bowles on the West End.


Her parents, both of them, stopped going to church when they came to this country, but when Carmen sang lullabies back to her mother when she was six months old, when she was speaking entire sentences at nine months in Spanish, English, and Tagalog, reading in all three languages by a little after her second birthday, and reading adult books by four years old - they realized that only God could conceive of such a being, and they had to prove themselves worthy of their divinely-mandated responsibility. It was shortly after her fourth birthday that her parents had confirmation that something truly extraordinary was happening - perhaps a literal confirmation. They flew back for a cousin's confirmation in Bagota when she was four, and during the celebration in the downstairs church rec room, somebody had broken into the organ loft and made the whole church resound with the note perfect melody of Alma Redemptoris Mater. After the melody was complete, it was played a second time with harmonies, and the harmonies were completely different than the usual organist, perhaps simpler but they worked just as well, perhaps better. But this was no teenage amateur breaking in - both the door and the organ were simply unlocked, and little Carmen, four years old but barely looking three, sitting down on a bench upon which her legs were barely long enough to reach its end, let alone the pedals, and played on four keyboards all by herself. The priest who played the organ was eating bandeja paisa and drinking aguardiente just as everybody else was, so the parish monsignor stormed up to the organ loft with his ever-ready switch, expecting to find some teenager with a year of piano lessons who broke in and possibly damaged the door. But the moment he saw this girl barely larger than an infant play Alma Redemptoris Mater, he dared not make his presence known until she was done. When she was, he picked her up and kissed her on the forehead and told her she was a miracle from Heaven. He carried her downstairs to tell her parents, and they wept as they knelt in front of a statue of the Virgin. It was a miracle such as those of which their own parents always spoke. For twenty years, no matter what the state of their marriage and what pleasures of the flesh they indulged in elsewhere, they never missed a Sunday, and every spare dollar not devoted to good works was devoted to supporting their extraordinary child who came from nowhere.


The only way she could have learned how to play a keyboard was on those few times her father took her to see Uncle Ray (who couldn't see her of course), and Uncle Ray would play some songs on the piano for her while Carmen's father fixed some wiring in the lights (and why Ray Charles needed better lights nobody knew...) and Carmen watched the keys which Uncle Ray could not see as he played. As Carmen progressed, Uncle Ray was all too happy to give an occasional lesson in jazz whenever he was in town, and after the lesson was over, Carmen would be sent to play with a friend down the street with a couple dollars for candy while Uncle Ray gave Carmen's mother a lesson too.


When Carmen's Ina told Uncle Ray heard about what happened, he sat her at the piano, and instead of playing Alma Redemptoris Mater, she harmonized a note perfect and slightly out of tempo What Would I Do Without You and sang the whole song, a few words were mispronounced as a four-year-old would without thinking of what she can't understand: "I get all closer to me," instead of "Aw, get all closer to me." Even a brilliant four-year-old plays like a brilliant four-year-old, but a four year old like this could astonish the world.


This narrator has little to no interest in the details of how she appeared on Ed Sullivan and Dick Clark's American Bandstand when she was seven. He has only a little interest in the details of the private piano teacher from Hungary, Mr. Nordau (Doctor Nordau), contracted directly from Universal Studios by Uncle Ray, who paid every cent of her piano lessons for twelve years, the methods and personal manner of Dr. Nordau turned her into an obedient girl savant until her fingertips bled. He would balance a coin upon her hands to teach her finger positioning, and when the coin fell off he would strike the hand with a ruler. By nine she'd already graduated from Beethoven Sonatas to Liszt Transcendental Etudes, so the red letter days in her life were not when she mastered a new piece, but when she graduated from a silver dollar on her hand to a half-dollar, from a half-dollar to a quarter, from a quarter to a nickel, from a nickel to a penny, from a penny to a dime. The narrator also has little to no interest in the details of in the details of the other upper-middle-class immigrant teachers from Germany and Austria and Poland and Romania and Czechoslovakia and Italy and the Ukraine who taught her in the High School of Science which she insisted upon going to rather than a school for the performing arts, or who coached her in the various extracurriculars for which her abilities and work ethic could only be described, once again, as prodigious: drawing, dancing, creative writing, English, French, Italian, German, calculus, chemistry, biology, physics, philosophy, theology, history, current events... And because her preternatural ability to assimilate information, each teacher took it upon themselves, as though they were the only one to do so, to try to mentor Carmen and steer her in the direction of their field, as though netting such a prize achiever into their field would be the achievement that justified decades of surrendering some prestigious post-Hochshule career to put up with every worthless and verzogenes Gor und wildes Tier in the security of Southern California.

You might ask, how is it that Carmen could assimilate so much information so quickly? As best as one can explain talent that erupts like a natural catastrophe, Carmen's technique was to sing her information. When not quite four years old and teaching herself the order of operations, she noticed that "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally" can almost be sung word for word to the opening theme of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik: "Please, Excuse, My Dear Aunt Sally Please"


But unfortunately you'll have to permit me to fast forward to five years after we left Carmen at the beginning of this tale, sometime around 1984, when it came time to name their first daughter. Steve and Carmen already had two 'failed' pregnancies to their confution before Cleo came into the world, miscarried because of what the doctor so tactfully referred to as an 'incompetent uterus.' Due to a division in the uterine septum, the children could not derive nourishment from their mother. They therefore passed all too quickly into lavatorial oblivion. I don't remember whether it was the second or the third time that Carmen sprained her pelvis during which Steve asked an OBGYN to take a look and see if the uterine canal could be repaired during the same time that the orthopedist tried to mend the pelvic damage.


Surely enough, six months after the surgery, Carmen had a green light to get pregnant again, and nine months later, they commemorated that joyous day by naming their first daughter Clarissa, in part after Virginia Woolf's most famous creation, but in part to commemorate the day when they first got together and Steve helped Carmen to understand what became their favorite book: Mrs. Dalloway, but mostly because Steve's mother insisted that the daughter be named after her own recently departed mother, Clara, who came to Los Angeles from Berlin in 1936 with a four-year-old daughter hidden in a large suitcase with some holes punched out for air while a husband and two pubescent boys were stranded in Germany.


It was all pretty hard until 1992. Carmen's capacity as a pianist became more and more reduced. By 1987, she could not play for more than an hour at a time without straining a muscle in her hand. By 1990, the strain became a sprain. By 1993, it was a half-hour before she'd break a finger. By 1996, it was the length of a Chopin Waltz played at pianissimo, and then she had to close the piano for the rest of the day. By 1999, she'd forgotten that she couldn't play; she would sight read whatever music was on the piano stand, and would negotiate around the two or three digits she'd already broken in the days and weeks preceding with a howling scream cutting off whatever once beloved Schumann character piece or Schubert Impromptu or Debussy Prelude caught her attention from the piano stand (their younger daughter made sure to put different music on the piano every day so there wouldn't be the same piece resounding around the house forever). Even in 2002, when she had the 200-word vocabulary of a not particularly advanced two-year-old, she would slowly sight-read the music on the piano stand at a time when her dexterity was so slow that there was no longer much chance of her breaking a finger.


Through it all, Carmen still had her gorgeous voice, which thirty-five years of cigarettes could not wreck, even if it moved her voice down a half-dozen fachs. Unfortunately, she realized that any kind of performance, any at all, might put her straight into the public's black eye because of her time with The Producer. Who knows to what she could yet again subject herself, or to what she could subject her family? To remind people that another paramour of this producer still stalked the streets of LA like a ghost could reopen all manner of old trauma, put the life of everyone she cared about at risk from people The Producer might pay to silence her before she talks, and might make a scandal of her life and her childrens' to the press. She and Steve both agreed that she had to stay away from the stage until The Producer was dead, not even so much as a dinner theater. The Producer was still around Hollywood, a louche and pathetic tale of Hollywood infamy, a low-level, stipended producer allowed merely to walk around the studio lots, absorbing the sun like a vegetable in a garden as he 'supervised' B-movie releases, which the New New Hollywood let him refer to as his 'comeback.' The comeback necessitated many tabloid magazine and TV stories which would plaster his many sins and conquests and legends ten years after his trivial comeback seemed like any comeback at all. Once every two months there was another scoop chasing journalist calling Carmen, not talk about her story, but about the story of the woman Carmen was left for - Tamera Wittenberg. No comment of course.


Nobody could figure out if Tamera Wittenberg was European Royalty or white trash from Kansas, but she was tall, twig-like, leggy and blond in precisely that way which the charitable call statuesque and the uncharitable call a bimbo, but the 80's called perfect beauty. It's true, she didn't seem like a great brain, but she was as quiet as a mouse and submissive as a dog with its belly up. She was never anything but polite to Carmen.


Carmen however, had nowhere else to go, and was, in fact, living in a room down the hall from the Producer for the first five months that Tammy and The Producer were involved. Carmen had no job, and even after The Producer took up with Tammy, she was understandably worried that The Producer would go ballistic if she showed any initiative outside his house, so for five months, she simply stayed in the house, she read, she went to school, she went back to her room, where the maid would leave a meal for her at her doorstep.


This continued for five months, she would speak to The Producer when spoken to, and occasionally he would visit with her in her room - where discourse was at least a bit more civil than it used to be, and congress a bit more gentle. But one day, Carmen heard the same shouts and shattering of glass and turning over furniture and whimpering tears that she knew so well from time past emanating from the bedroom that once was hers. It was eight-thirty in the morning; she immediately walked out of the room without a single possession. She walked from The Producer's Beverly Hills house to which she belonged for twenty-three months to the USC campus to meet with Steve three hours later, and life resumed as well as it could.


Carmen wanted to teach voice, but unfortunately, there is never enough market for a voice teacher and far too much market for piano teachers. One would think that parents would go mad with the desire to teach their children the fundamentals of the world's most basic musical skill, but singing is so basic that there's no mark of respectability in it. The piano, rather, is the ultimate mark of respectability. If one can carry a tune, one can sing. But to play a piano well is no less an achievement than building your own house or creating beautiful woodwork and clay pots. In Europe, in America, in Asia, a child who plays piano well is the ultimate mark of a family that wrested order from the existential chaos of living in a lower social class.


Back in the 80's, there was a full roster of piano students whom she taught while Steve watched the kids, but Carmen knew that there were many less frustrated piano teachers in the area, so she kept her prices much lower and hoped that volume would cover the expenses which her billing would certainly not. As so many music teachers are, she was in no way cut for a job of managing children; managing their anxious mothers who want to believe their child another Horowitz, managing their bored fathers - more interested in picking her up than his children. Even among her few intermediate-level students, she knew she could never impart any valuable musical ideas to indifferent children whose parents assured them that they would understand why they needed to play piano when they were older. And even were there a way, her impaired capacity for language denied her the ability to convey it. She was becoming like so many of her German teachers, her frustration with her charges compounded by her language barrier. Even if her aphasia seemed mild to those who spoke to her, she knew just how impaired were the full glories of her verbal engine, which but a few years ago ran as pristinely as the Lamborghini's she once drove. Even were her reasoning unimpaired, even were she not Mrs. Johanssen but still the changeling Carmen Chavez who knew all, understood all, saw connections between all, and was the conduit through which all understanding flowed, she would never understand why this new generation of students were so much less obedient than she at their age. Her frustration with her charges was continually palpable to them, and most of the kids who'd been with her longest would dread their lessons in a way that ensured any inclination toward practicing killed in its inception. A few times a year, another student would break down in tears mid-lesson, and a call would follow a few days later from the mother: "Jessica has too much on her plate."


All through this life-era, Steve lost as much money as he made. Even with health insurance, the surgeries Carmen needed ever more direly were a fortune each to each - and the more surgeries she needed, the higher her premiums went, until she was just plain uninsurable and their family policy was cancelled. Steve and the children had to each get an individual plan, but Carmen was on her own, corrective surgery after orthopedic surgery after cardiothoracic surgery, and eventually even neurological surgery.


Furthermore, however long since she left The Producer for him, Steve feared that Carmen was accustomed to a luxury he couldn't possibly provide, and couldn't possibly admit he couldn't provide. If she hadn't bought a new dress or jewel in a month, Steve would buy her one (to the very end, Carmen was immaculately dressed). But not even Carmen's needs and wants, or the baby Steve thought Carmen couldn't possibly carry to term, were enough to keep Steve an accountant. When Steve told his mother he was about to go into business with a friend to operate a video store, her screams woke baby Clarissa up.


Steve's father was more supportive and said to give it, and their son, a chance to do what he wants, but his mother was right. Even in 1980's Los Angeles, there wasn't enough demand for a local independent to carve out a share of the market from Blockbuster Video. Had they closed in 1986, Steve would still have possession over the money from his accounting days to pay off their loan. But Steve and his friend kept borrowing to keep it going until early '88, by which time the bank came to repo everything in his house while his four year old daughter absorbed her first vivid memories and his wife tried to calm their screaming six-month-old second daughter: Elizabeth. The furniture, the silverware, the fridge, the beds, the piano, the violin, the books - all 900 of them, the 3700 VHS tapes, even the film cannisters and the projector equipment from college. We were lucky they didn't take the house. For the next five years, Carmen had to teach piano from a four-and-a-half octave Yamaha keyboard which her stepfather bought for her.


Steve did the only thing a real man can do in that situation, he went to his parents for a loan. His mother gave him a big hug, and of course she told him that of course they would, but he knew the condition.


So Steve went back to managing books and accounts at the very same bank that repossessed everything he owned. At least they knew him... But when he applied for a job interview, the very last place where thought he'd get an interview, the place he applied to as a private joke, was the first to call him back. Nobody seemed to remember that they took his entire life away from him just a month ago. Perhaps they did, but they were too polite to mention it, or perhaps they were trying to make it up to him; or perhaps he was too generic to remember, or perhaps he was just another anonymously bad investment vehicle among thousands. Nobody checks your credit score when you're applying to be the man who checks the credit score. All they knew was that he had shining recommendations from the last bank at which he worked, high academic honors from the Marshall School of Business, and a mother who threatened to take her account elsewhere if they didn’t give him a job.


Steve stuck with his mother's agreement in good faith for three years. Again and again, he offered to repay the loan, but his parents wouldn't hear of it. Every day was misery, this was the price he paid for doing nothing but watch movies and change diapers for three years, but Steve had a life again. He was making only $65,000 a year, but after taxes it was all pocketable money thanks to his parents (really his mother's) loan and their agreement to pay for any further surgeries Carmen needs. His beautiful wife learned to spend on a budget surprisingly well, his daughters were adorable and the older one already showed some flashes of her mother's former brilliance.


In 1991, Steve returned to his mother with a check for the entirety of the loan. He didn't pay for the surgeries  "I'm going into business again and I've quit my job."


"Please tell me..."
"No it's not in video."


It wasn't even movie related. Of course his mother refused to accept the check, and she was actually slightly enthused when she heard his plan, though not as enthused as she might have been. It's LA, people need protection from crime, and he was going to become his friend's junior partner and manage the distribution of car alarms.


It wasn't a bad idea. His parents had been burgled twice in the last five years. Sure, Fairfax was not the neighborhood it once was, but you never used to expect anything like that kind of crime can happen to you. Why can't Steve go into home alarm?


The date Steve stood up to his mother was March 2nd, 1991. The next day, Rodney King would get the pulp beaten from him at the corner of Foothill Boulevard and Osborne Street. Business was slow for fourteen months thereafter. Steve was drawing a salary, but while home alarm was something every white person thought he needed, too few people seemed to think they need a car alarm.


But on April 29th, 1992, Reginald Denny and Fidel Lopez were pulled from their cars and beaten on camera as an ostensibly racial maelstrom deluged its way through the City of Angels, and car alarms become something everyone thought they needed, not because their cars might be stolen, but because a car alarm can surely be what saves you when a pack of marauders attack you while still in a car you can lock, and all you have to defend yourself is a vehicle made of steel that can go up to 200 miles-per-hour.


By June, Steve, who'd never made a salary higher than $55,000, was pulling in $60,000 a month, and would continue to do so for the duration of the 90's - roughly $105,000 a month in the currency of a quarter-century later.


It was also in 1992 that Steve's father passed away quite suddenly; an apparent heart attack while behind the wheel of his SUV, but being slightly religious, Steve's mother didn't want an autopsy to confirm it. No sooner than her husband passed did Steve's mother want to be all the more in the lives of her only child and granddaughters. But no longer had Steve to rely on his mother for loans, no longer had Steve to rely on his mother for advice, no longer had Steve to rely on his mother for support. In the 80's, when Steve and Carmen went out on the weekends, they would drop the kids off with Steve's parents, and his mother would keep a close eye on the kids, but in the 90's, they could hire a stunningly cheap Spanish-speaking nanny. In the 80's, when Carmen needed surgery and neither Steve nor either of her parents or step-parents could pay for it, Steve's mother would sign checks with no questions, except for some private words with her son about how disappointed she was that he didn't use his accounting degree to go into a more profitable profession. But in the 90's, Steve drew a higher salary in a year than his parents drew in ten. In the 80s, Steve's mother would call four days a week, full of advice and opinions, and her son would listen to them all patiently and with seeming cheer. In the 90's, Steve was sometimes too busy to even take his Mom's call once a week.


Steve's mother - whom we'll call Denarius, not because that was her name but because that was the only thing anybody ever called her which she liked - didn't exactly hold her tongue about her opinions of her son's ingratitude, but she at least held it by her own standards. Even if she complained constantly to relatives whom she knew Steve never had any time for, she never complained about Steve's newfound independence to Steve himself. Perhaps Steve was right to be uninterested in his extended family, they never really forgave Denarius for marrying outside the faith, but her relatives all lived in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and how many semitic men were there to choose from in Pismo Beach?


Steve's grandmother, Clara, his Oma, wanted a future for a daughter with no father, no brothers, no money, no English. These supercilious ersatz Yekke relatives were born in Frankfurt and came to America as children more than fifty years ago. They made millions in schmatteh factories in which lots of Jews were forced to take jobs - Jews with the bad foresight to came over only later when there were many more of us, when business was already tougher, and when Jewish immigrants didn't have much money to bring with them.


Aside from the suits and dresses they wore on all occasions, no matter how warm the weather, these relatives might as well have been from another planet - Russia even... Jewel-encrusted rings on half their fingers, a different necklace for every day of the week, cars for both the husband and the wife which chauffeurs usually drove, a dinner fit for Shabbos every night. And yet, it was the Great Depression, so apparently they had very little money they could lend a supposedly cherished relative with a kleines Madchen. Sympathy, sympathy, sympathie for their plight, a job in the factory, but not even enough additional money to pay the rent, and not a cent offered to her to bribe Clara's family out of Berlin.


Los Angeles was a big city, but Clara knew she wasn't wanted there. If her only remaining relatives wanted to keep her side of the family as small as possible, then she knew she had to go elsewhere to give her daughter a new family.


She meant to go up to San Francisco, but as so often happens in these immigrant stories, the only Auto she could afford broke down in a smaller city, Pismo Beach. Rather than get a new car, she renovated a derelict motel and turned it into a nice bed and breakfast with a restaurant on the downstairs floor. Pismo Beach is the Clam Capital of the World, or so they say, so Clara's signature dishes were clams fried in schmaltz and clams stewed in the Yemenite Zhug which Clara's aunt taught her to make. There was kugel and matzoh ball soup on the menu, a brisket sandwich, potato latkes in the winter, a cholent every Saturday which was listed as beef stew - and which she sometimes made with ham and bacon, home-cured pastrami all year, corned beef sold for half-price around Rosh Hashana, homebaked babka, chopped liver, blintzes every spring around Shavuos - listed on the menu as crepes, holishkes - listed on the menu as stuffed cabbage, kishkes - listed as beef sausage, knishes of every flavor - which the migrant workers called empanadas, mandelbrot - listed as a chocolate chip or cinammon biscotti, lekekh served in the fall - listed as honey cake, , pickled herring, sufganyes - listed in the winter as a down-home fried doughnut, tzimmes - listed around Thanksgiving as a carrot yam stew with raisins and apricots. The Matzoh Ball soup was so popular that a number of people had the idea that Clara should put some clams in it and turn it into a Boulliabaise, but Clara's personality was so forbidding that nobody would dare make the suggestion. Nevertheless, "Clara's" was a hit, and if it had nothing to do with the winningness of Clara's personality, it certainly had something to do with her daughter's.


Clara never married again, and her daughter never saw so much as a man in her mother's life. But Denarius was the petite and exotic and funny waitress who served with a smile after school and before homework, who always took the orders right and remembered the name of every second-time customer. She was not beautiful in the way of the other swell girls in Pismo Beach; she was a half-foot shorter, she had a bumpy nose and a complexion perpetual tanned - though no one ever saw her on the beach. She wouldn't wait for the fella to pull out the chair or hold the door, and never waited for the guy to tell her what she thought before telling him first. But the swell fellas in Pismo were crazy for her. Every one of them was a faithful customer after school, and every one of them probably asked her on a date multiple times, but she'd never say yes to any of them, and because she never said yes to any of them, they'd come back to Clara's twice as often to change her mind.


One guy never asked her out, so he, of course, became the one Denarius asked out. In 1955, he became Clara's son-in-law. Frederick Johansen, six-foot-four, All-California high school football lineman, decorated Korean War vet, electrical engineer, man of five-hundred words a day, and former Lutheran acolyte. Certainly not good enough for her daughter, but good enough for America.


The Los Angeles relations refused to come to the wedding, refused to send a gift, and refused to speak to Clara for more than fifteen years. Until '55, Clara would come down every year to Los Angeles for the High Holidays and the Seders; she went to every Bar Mitzvah, every wedding, every bris. Occasionally Denarius would accompany her, but usually not. Denarius barely had half a dozen conversations with any of them as a child. Who the hell knows if these relatives ever went to shul if there wasn't a high holiday or a simcha involved? But even if they didn't, to marry a shgotz among cultural Jews is tantamount to declaring allegiance to Hitler; it is and will always be an excommunicable offense that breaks families apart forever because it's the argument leads down the rabbit hole of all theology's most important and unresolvable question: Is faith motivated by love, or is love motivated by faith?


In our modern era when tolerance has finally won a few battles over faith - who knoweth how long, the question of intermarriage becomes still more vital. When the world shows signs of growing more tolerant, what need is there to uphold the groups and struggles of old? Every intermarriage, be it Jew to Gentile, Black to White, Liberal to Conservative, Lamb to Lion, is a rejection of old polarities - a declaration that all the great struggles which your ancestors underwent were absolutely unnecessary, irrelevant to the present, and deserving to be sucked into a black hole of forgetfulness. Memory can be as much a curse as a blessing, and surely many memories deserve to be forgotten. But in the modern era, when we so often seem upon the precipice of a new and finer world in which differences can finally be reconciled, perhaps all that stops us from realizing a world that's closer at least to this finer new world is the fearful memory of the world as it once was and always threatens to be again. And because we cannot erase these memories, perhaps these memories of worse times are precisely what dooms us to never achieve a world of greater tolerance - precisely as it seems yet again as of this telling.


It was within a month of the wedding that Clara unexpectedly took up Fred's parents invitation to visit their church. In her nearly twenty years in Pismo Beach, our local legend Claradonna Zweig was never seen to socialize with anyone, and Fred's parents only invited her out of politeness. Yet by the end of 1955, she was a regular attendee to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Pismo Beach who insisted upon catering the Sunday lunches free of charge. On Good Friday 1956, she took baptism and never missed a Sunday thereafter for her remaining twenty-eight years.


Clara’s was closed every Sunday thereafter, and after Church, Claradonna Helena Zweig would return home with a friend from her congregation, Sieglinde Schafer, a widow from Breslau whose husband, a promising Captain in Germany’s Eighth Army, was felled by a hail of bullets but two months after they were married in June 1914. Hauptmann Schulz was one of the 12,000 fallen Germans at the Battle of Tannenberg, whose legendary acts of bravery enabled the slaughter of 170,000 Russians. Sieglinde was roughly ten years older than Clara. She’d found her way to Pismo Beach with her father in roughly 1920, after the German riots against the Polish, who would eventually transform Breslau into Wroclaw, burned down her extremely German father’s medical offices. Who knows how they ended up in Pismo Beach, but Dr. Schafer died in his sleep in 1938, an eloquent and celebrated member of the Central Californian Bund whose funeral at St. John’s Lutheran was attended by hundreds of German-Americans and Klansmen alike. He was eminent throughout the state, perhaps even the Western United States, for his touring lectures in eloquent but accented Gymnasium English, during which he always had many kind words and trenchant insights about the great strength of a new Germany that would rise up. All through the years of Weimar and the early years of the Fuhrer, every organization from Montana to New Mexico would engage him to speak as an expert on German politics.   


And so every Sunday in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, Clara and Sieglinde would go after church to Clara’s modest apartment over the restaurant. They’d sing all the songs of gymnasium days, they’d play four-hand duets on Clara’s out of tune upright, they’d recite all the Goethe and Heine forced upon their memories by rote, they’d talk disapprovingly of the other church members, and they’d recall friends and husbands long dead.


Clara’s daughter found Sieglinde Schafer a bit icky, and was certain Ms. Schafer was antisemite, but she was happy that her mother finally made a friend when all she’d ever seen from her mother was work and sacrifice and testiness. She too had an older friend who could remind her of whom she truly was. Even so, her mother's turn toward a new religion proved too much for her.


St. John's installed a new Pastor right before Christmas 1965. A smiling blond from Montana who sported a flattop haircut and bolo ties every Sunday. On Good Friday 1966, the tenth anniversary of Clara's baptism, he shocked the congregation by mounting the pulpit with a guitar in his hand. Younger members were overjoyed, they stood up and clapped excitedly while putting their arms in the air as though second nature. Clara and Sieglinde, on the other hand, were incensed and immediately petitioned the board for his firing. But no one on the board objected, they loved Pastor Lehmann, so that was the last which either Clara or Sieglinde ever said public about the issue. For the next twenty years, they simply sat in the back pew and scowled.


Much less objectionable to Clara was Pastor Lehmann's fundraisers for Reagan and Nixon, his preemptive encouragement of student deacons to volunteer for the Vietnam War, his public shaming of his lax daughter who asked a question about the War's justice. Clara had never been a political sort, instructing her daughter from the earliest age that political questions are what tear people apart from each other and can only interfere with people trying to go about their lives. But Clara's daughter began to notice the inveighs that Clara now seemed to be parroting from her Church about ungrateful students who protested against this great country of ours, and the ungrateful negroes who dare compare the way good Christians in the South treat their black people to the way godless Communists treat their billions of unfree citizens. The day that Fred offhandedly made a comparison to Clara about segregationists to Nazis was the day he ended up with a bowl of Matzoh Ball soup dumped on his head.


That last point about the ungratefulness of negroes was the one that Clara's daughter found truly inconceivable. How could Clara call negroes ungrateful when she owed so much of her triumph in America to a negro woman? Neither Clara nor her daughter were the sole progenitors of 'Clara's success. The third, and perhaps most consequential, in their trinity of unexpected prosperity was Mrs. Washington, the kindly lady from Clayton County in Georgia whose husband drove her to work every day from Grover Beach at four in the morning in their beat up Plymouth Valiant before he went back home to get their four children ready for school and then drive fifty miles east to his job as a farmhand and then return at ten to pick Mrs. Washington up. The kindly lady who went every Sunday to sing in the church choir at Bethel Baptist, and catered their after-service lunches every week with 'Clara's leftover provisions from the week's food supply. When Clara herself became a Christian, she immediately informed Mrs. Washington that she no longer had access to the leftovers to cater her church because Clara would now use them to cater lunches at her own church.


Mrs. Washington was the kind of woman who would always sneak Clara's daughter a cookie, sometimes two or three, whenever Clara was too busy manning the stove or the cash register to look up. Running a business takes all kinds of people, and you need a boss who can kill with kindness as much as you need a boss who delights in killing.


Mrs. Washington was, begrudgingly, one of Clara's first hires. Clara thought that colored help, even if they worked in the kitchen, would drive customers away, but she needed the help immediately. Nobody knew who Clara was, and Clara had no idea how to get more applicants attention. The men were in the theaters of war, and their wives were almost fully employed in the factories. If Clara's was going to be a success, they needed all the help they could get. But Mrs. Washington had been waiting tables since she was an eight-year-old kid in Georgia. Clara had no idea how to take inventory, how to fill staffing needs, how to quickly update menus, and how to advertise. It was certainly not Clara who came up with the phone book advertisement in 1945: "Clara's: Home Cooking from the Jewish Mom You Never Knew You Needed," Every time a waitress broke down in tears from the stress of dealing with a customer, or from dealing with Clara, Mrs. Washington was always there with a hug and tissue. Every time a health department inspector or a supplier needed to be supplicated, it was Mrs. Washington, not Clara, who'd handle the negotiation. Every time a customer was in the hospital, Mrs. Washington would visit with a dinner tray taken without Clara's knowledge and some good cheer. Clara was an institution in Pismo Beach, but Mrs. Washington was the reason every customer over the age of 30 came back. And yet for almost twenty-five years, she never took her meal anywhere but in the kitchen.


In 1966, an increasingly infirm Clara accidentally spilled a boiling pot of Matzoh Ball soup on Mrs. Washington while she was mopping the kitchen floor. The skin on Mrs. Washington's limbs was forever disfigured thereafter, and she never properly walked again. Clara claimed to her daughter that it was the wet floor from the mop that made her slip, but her daughter always suspected that Clara, in her sixties and showing every year of it on her once waif-like and now witch-like frame, was already nowhere near as strong or coordinated as she once was.


Perhaps Clara used the accident to explain an infirmity caused by the simple accumulation of years and cares. Clara was untouched by the scald of the soup, but she claimed that her arms and knees were bruised from the fall and that she was never the same thereafter. She also claimed to have a nagging pain in her right shoulder where the pot fell on her. She claimed that she sympathized with Mrs. Washington for how badly she was hurt by the fall, but it's also possible that Clara used her own pain to absolve herself of guilt.


Clara told Mr. Washington that his wife deserved whatever Clara could possibly give her, but that Clara couldn't give her much. Secretly, Clara always thought she'd paid Mrs. Washington far too much, and always suspected Mrs. Washington of occasionally skimming from the cash register. She carefully explained to Mr. Washington that she couldn't possibly pay them anything more than something minimal when Mrs. Washington could no longer work. The hale and healthy Mr. Washington, perfectly slender, grey at the temples and the mustache, with eyes that bore into interlocutors with all too much understanding, nodded silently and sagely as he stood in front of Clara's paltry explanation; not so much as a word in response after the hello, and when she was finished, he walked out of the restaurant without saying so much as a goodbye. Clara promised the Washingtons a dollar twenty five a week for the rest of Mrs. Washington's life - a minimum wage for an employee who maximized Clara's life. She sent it in the mail every week until she died, but never got any confirmation that the Washingtons received it.


Let us now speak of Denarius’s older female friend. Denarius Zweig had never ridden a horse before meeting Annie-Jane Ivers, she’d never shot a gun, never played a hand of poker, never lit a fire, never slept under the open sky, never smoked a cigar or a joint, never skinned a deer. The boys all wondered where Clara’s daughter went when she wasn’t waiting tables, the answer was to let Annie-Jane Ivers show her the dank and steam and slit of the natural world.


Annie-Jane Ivers ran away from her father’s house in 1919, when she was only eleven - her mother perpetually bruised, her independence perpetually violated, her sisters perpetually defeated. One month later, she became a permanent worker at Monsieur Marchand’s French Boarding House named Coquette. By fifteen, "Coquette" was the Madame. By seventeen, she was turned into the street for asking that her older peers get better pay and treatment. Monsieur Marchand explained that it was not because she asked once, but that she heard his explanation, yet insisted upon asking twice.


Over the next twenty years, Annie-Jane worked as a bandit, a banker, a blacksmith, a butcher, a bounty hunter, a cardshark, a cowherd, a deputy, a gold miner, a gunslinger, a homesteader, a marshal, a medicine showman, a missionary, a preacher, a railroad laborer, a rancher, a rustler, a schoolmarm, a shopkeeper, a snake oil salesman. No coquette she. You work overtime to survive, or survival works you over.


May 1948, forty years old, five-feet ten, her hair a bluish silver, her shoulders broad and hands as calloused as any laborer in America, her face wizened by crow’s feet and laugh lines and four packs a day, her skin prunishly bronzed like a person who hadn’t been indoors in a quarter of a century, her eyes with the mischievously rapid movements of a woman hard to impress and easy to amuse, she walks into Clara’s and after ten minutes, Denarius gets her to order the cheese blintzes. Annie-Jane likes them so much that she comes back for the cheese blintzes eight nights in a row. Denarius tries to get her to order something else: the babka, the bialy, the borscht, the brisket, the bulbitchki, but no, she wants more cheese blintzes.


With Annie-Jane’s barmaid humor and her scullery maid’s crudity, Clara’s daughter had never known it was possible to laugh like that. Clara did not approve of Annie-Jane’s loud ostentation, and warned her daughter not to get too friendly with this woman, but she couldn’t exactly tell a customer not to come who stayed for five hours at a time and ordered fifty dollars worth of blintzes every day.


In 1949, Annie-Jane acquires a hundred acre horsefarm. She invites both of the Zweigs to come out and see it. Clara, of course, says no for both her and her daughter. Her daughter, of course, calls Annie-Jane up and says that she’s going to come out there without her mother’s knowledge. The next day, she asks Fred Johansen out on a date for next Saturday, on Sunday, she tells Clara that the date went so well that they’re going to have a second date that day. Clara doesn’t approve of her daughter moving so fast, but better to be with Fred Johansen than with that freienfrau.


The next day, Clara’s daughter rides a horse, shoots a deer, smokes a cigar, plays poker. Fred Johansen pecked her on the cheek yesterday, but when it’s time to say goodbye until the plans they made next week, Annie-Jane Ivers bends her backwards over her knee and gives Clara’s daughter a realization she can never unrealize.


Saturdays with Fred and Steve, Sundays with Annie-Jane. That’s how it was most weekends for eighteen years. When Denarius needed an excuse to start spending nights under the stars of Ivers Farms, she tells Fred they’re getting married. Seven weeks later, they declare their love before God under His watchful nave at St. John’s Lutheran. Within five years, the Saturday mornings and afternoons are entirely Steve’s, the Saturday nights and Sundays are entirely Annie Jane’s. Fred simply goes into the garage with his short-wave radio and tunes up his Chevy.


The Peruvian farmhands give enormous respect to Denarius, never making so much as a pass or flirt, and give her the nickname 'Denarius' because she always rode a black horse. She didn't understand the nickname, but she loved it all the same. Nearly two decades of blissful Sundays, sleeping next to Annie-Jane in fields of open California pampus, awoken by American goldfinches and Savannah sparrows, vigilantly ready for the dawn to welcome another Sunday of riding and hunting with a sunstroked and windswept face which, for eighteen years, Fred never asked once how she acquired.


Sometime around Memorial Day 1967, Denarius returns to Clara's for work on Monday, not windswept but ashen. The only person with little enough tact to ask her what's wrong is little Steve, who gets the first of many an earful from his mother.


Steve never got the full story of what happened to Auntie-Jane except what he read thirty years later on microfilm - which was that the legendary Annie-Jane Ivers was found on a small minority of Pine Flat Lake's shoreline that wasn't on her property. Her wrists had been bruised from shackles and her legs chained to a weight that the coroner said had clearly fallen off. He also indicated the presence of multiple barbituates in her system that he speculated were ingested by dissolving in strong alcohol.


One find and simple day in the early summer when he was eating some Matzoh Ball soup, a drunken hand from the horse farm showed up and started screaming some variation that only imprinted itself with any meaning when he picked up some Spanish after dating Carmen for a few years and finally imprinted upon his memory as "¡Lo hiciste! ¡Fuiste tu!" waving a gun at screaming customers while Clara sobbed unreservedly. Denarius emerges thirty seconds later from the back with a rifle, loaded and cocked, and tells the farmhand they'll talk outside. The conversation from the window was animated, but the guy never showed his face around Steve's Mom again.


What happened was probably as simple as Annie-Jane growing sick after twenty years of Denarius living her weekday life as a devoted daughter to a repressed Jesus freak and devoted wife to a beach bum drip, and who knows what a person as hard-scrabble as Annie-Jane Ivers would have done to complete an objective denied for twenty years? As Steve read the microfilm, he began to remember Auntie Jane showing up at inopportune moments like when the family was at a Howard Johnson's, which would prompt an animated discussion twenty feet from the table, or showing up unannounced at their Pismo house, sometimes appearing from some distance at the window. Steve remembered thinking it was very strange when her mother ordered Auntie Jane out of the diner, "I just want to eat here. Remember when that was normal?" she'd say. Until then, Steve had never seen Auntie-Jane in the diner himself, but he thought it as odd as Auntie Jane that she was being ordered out.


It was at the 1967 Fourth of July party of the Johanssen clan that Clara’s daughter decided to do something which surprised the hell out of everybody, particularly Fred. Steve was seven years old, and she decided he needed to go to Hebrew school. “But why?” Fred asked, not in frustration but in bewilderment. “Why does anybody need a Hebrew education in Pismo Beach?”


“That’s the problem. We have to leave Pismo.”


And just like that, they moved. Fred Johansen was the type that always got along. His entire family was in Pismo more than a hundred years earlier. Dozens of births and deaths and baptisms and confirmations, decades of toil and sacrifice and simmering family resentments that were worked through by the thousands upon thousands of little bonds of love that keep a family together through their worst periods to the moments that all families cherish - the holiday dinners, the birthday parties, the lazy afternoons on the beach, the relaxed Sunday barbecues, the drunken nights out that occasionally ended in throwing a punch or two, but always made up for the next day, the grass they smoked in the back yard. Yet it never occurred to Fred, or to any other Johansen, that such bonds had to work to be maintained, or could strain under the pressure of longer distance.


Whether or not those bonds strained, Fred kept his feelings to himself as he always did, and but for perhaps an extra whiskey before bed or a doobie after everybody was asleep, he was the same quiet picture of smiling amiability in middle age that he was when his wife forcefed him matzoh ball soup for the first time. If he disliked it, he kept it to himself, and sipped on matzoh ball soup at least once a week for the rest of his life.


So in 1967, Steve found a new job as an electrical engineer in LA, and the Johansens moved to the big city. Steve went to public school in Fairfax, and his mother, in truly theatrical Hollywood fashion, got a Bas Mitzvah at the closest Reform Temple, Beth Hoveh, and while she only knew a couple college acquaintances in LA, she made sure to turn the Bas Mitzvah into an event that announced her into a new life. She sent laminated invitations to every member of Beth Hoveh and to all her estranged relatives. Worried that these relatives might disapprove of a woman being called to the Torah, she kept calling their houses, talking their ears off for forty-five minutes at a time with whatever subject she could think up, and boaring her way into renewed ties and friendship with them until she was sure they’d relent and RSVP ‘Yes’ with all the enthusiasm to which they could pretend. The reception was not held at the synagogue, but at Nate n’Al’s Deli in Beverly Hills, near where her relatives lived.


Fred wasn’t the type who thought much about money. He didn’t spend much, and there wasn’t much on which he wished to spend. As far as luxuries went, he had a small boat he built himself, a couple rifles for hunting and a fishing pole, a wet bar in his basement, the 1952 Chevy 3100 pickup that he drove and repaired himself for forty years, and the zither his grandfather, Olaf Erikssen, taught him to play. Any luxury more grandiose than their slightly larger than average 3 bedroom house would never occur to him to buy.


But from the moment they were married in 1955, Fred’s wife made sure that every cent not devoted to home or car maintenance was tied up in Treasury Bonds and stocks: GE, GM, Coke, Chrysler, the Seven Sister oil companies, Conoco Energy, Boeing, Campbell Soup, Kellogg, IBM, Whirlpool, Proctor and Gamble, Detroit Steel, Studebaker, Collins Radio, National Sugar Refining, Zenith Electronics… Some of these investments went bad, but of course, most of them paid off quite spectacularly. All you had to do was buy the stock, not touch it for forty years, and you’d have enough money to feed a hundred generations of hearty Johansen folk who wouldn’t have to work again. If Fred ever realized that he was a multi-millionaire, he never gave much indication. Steve didn’t realize it either until his mother died and her will left him 18 million dollars in liquid assets.


From the moment Steve turned seven in 1967, his mother watched his grades like a hawk; gave him extra math problems over meals, schlepped him across town for violin lessons, bought him books with no subtle pressure that he should read, signed him up for every extra-curricular, occupied his empty moments with chores around the house.


Every Saturday from the move until Steve was thirteen, the two of them would go to whatever movies were playing at the Chinese Theater. Different movies played there every week, usually in double features, from cartoons to subtitled foreign films. No matter how adult or violent, no matter how risque, no matter how intellectually challenging or B-movie dumb, the ritual was inviolate. Steve and his Mom would sit through it together. It was their ‘thing’, a way that Steve’s Mom could show that she trusted him, and perhaps an unspoken apology for driving him so hard.


Steve eventually had to become a teenager like all teenagers, and became too old to regularly get caught with his Mommy every Saturday. Sometimes they’d go, but Steve would usually try to get out of it. By the Saturday of Steve's Bar Mitzvah, their movies became just another chore his mother pressured him to complete.


Pressure was Denarius's adult life: yelling at Steve and Fred, complaining about them to cousins whom she knew tolerated her rather than liked her, loafing around a house with the soaps on the television while her husband was at work and come home to meals that were a pale shadow of what her mother could offer when they visited her in Pismo, let alone Fred's mother. The weekend smoking habit of Ivers Farms became a two-pack a day habit in Los Angeles, and Steve would complain endlessly about how the house would wreak and show his mother every newspaper article he found about how cigarettes can kill. His mother would simply shrug, and on this issue would ask for the privacy she never gave Steve, and Steve knew better than to ever point out the hypocrisy.


When Steve got a girlfriend in Junior High, his mother decided Steve was too young to have a girlfriend, so she banned the girl from their house and staked out on weekends near the girl's house in case Steve went over there. They had to meet in secret, but Lisa tired of the sneaking around and eventually went with the running back of Jr. High football team, Mike Johnson. When high school came around and Steve was a lanky six-foot nerd with aviator glasses and a too large nose, and in any event kept too busy by extra-circulars for romance, his mother would question him pointedly about why he didn't have a girlfriend and what he could do to make himself more attractive to women.


The first true explosion between Steve and Denarius had to wait until Steve was eighteen, when Steve's Mom insisted that he not study at the film school and get a practical major that could prepare him for work. "You knew that I wanted to go to the film school and you let me apply there so I would stay close to home. Now you tell me I can't go. You just want to keep running my life!" he said in a rare moment of drama and assertion against his mother that ended with the punctuation of a slammed door to his room, a Hollywood-like gesture never seen before or since in the Johansen household. This all-too-rare moment of assertion from Steve was perceptive, more perceptive than Denarius would have guessed, but long experience taught him his mother's motives all too well. Of course this was her motive, and she didn't see what was wrong with it. Parents are there to guide their children. She didn't want Steve to turn out a wild animal like Annie-Jane, and what was the point of having children if she couldn't do better for him than she or Steve's family ever had for them. Children may disagree with the means, but they'll thank you in the end, and they'll know that you did what you did for their own good. For the week before college, Steve locked himself in his room and never came out. He snuck out through his window for dinner at McDonalds, and of course Denarius noticed, but against her better judgement, she took Fred's rare piece of advise to let him go.


Denarius was not impressed with Carmen. She was as impressed as anyone else with the stunning beauty that now hung around the Johansen household, but Steve kept telling his mother how brilliant his fiance was, yet Denarius never saw the brilliance for herself. Carmen was quiet, she dressed a little trashy, she was helpful when it came to serving and doing the dishes, and Denarius was grateful for at least that. When she heard Carmen play the piano, she was vaguely impressed, but she attributed the wrong notes to a lack of practice and work ethic that was in fact due to neurological trauma.


Steve did not dare tell his mother the truth of Carmen's condition until they were married and she was pregnant with Clarissa - knowing that his mother would accuse him of throwing away his future for a woman with such a serious condition, and no doubt would inveigh that Carmen brought these conditions upon herself due to her innate sluttishness.


But Steve's mother was in fact more understanding of it than he thought she would be. Burying her head in her hands and tearfully offering immediately to pay for any surgeries - the kind of debt which Steve would do anything to avoid. She explained, quite matter of factly, that had she known she would have of course advised him against the marriage in no uncertain terms and instantly knew that that was why Steve waited to tell her, but Carmen is now one of us and we take care of each other.


For years thereafter, Steve waited for his mother's explosion on Carmen which never came. His mother exploded plenty, but instead of using his marriage to Carmen as an example of his irresponsibility, Denarius would almost inevitably take Carmen's side - or at least what she thought to be Carmen's side: when Steve embarked on his video store venture, "You have an unwell wife to take care of and you're going off to run a business that everybody knows will be a flop???" When Steve had a second daughter, she exploded again, not even because of his recent eviction but because  "You're going to subject an orthopedically challenged wife to another pregnancy???"


Denarius would note with alarm Carmen's every new slurring of speech, every slightly hesitant step, every pause between words, every sentence unfinished, and would offer to come help around the house however often they needed. Steve and Carmen never took up Denarius's offer, but during the eighties she would show up unannounced for two evenings every week during which she'd insist on helping to straighten the house and cook dinner, and happily watched the grandchildren during those Saturday nights when Steve and Carmen went out with friends. During the eighties, she would occasionally try to get Steve and Carmen to come with the kids on Friday nights for Shabbos dinner, but they would inevitably leave after an hour-and-a-half, explaining to Steve's Mom that they had to get the kids to bed and the kids inevitably wake up in the car if they fall asleep first at her house.


Even when Steve's mother was at her most furious with him for his video store venture, she would call him most weekdays and talked to him for forty-five minutes. Steve would roll his eyes to his partner or the rare customer he had to handle, but he would always take the call and answered any questions she posed within the paragraphs of verbiage and shul gossip with an undertone of indulgent irony.


Fred, whose pot belly grew exponentially after the move to LA, died of a heart attack in the winter of '93, a few months from retirement and the beginning of the whirlwind vacations Denarius was planning. About a month after he died were the LA riots, during which Denarius braved the whirlwind of violence and traffic to come directly and unannounced to Steve's house with a rifle and twenty pounds of dried goods to make sure that everybody was safe and well-fed.


It was shortly after the riots that Denarius noted a difference in how she was being received by Steve. The realization that she might be shut out of her son's life dawned upon her in gradual steps: pride her son was finally working hard, bemusement the work never let up, suspicion she was being avoided, alarm she was being shut out, devastation at the loss of her son.


It wasn't a total shutout. How could Steve completely shut his mother out of his life? But four calls a week became one call a week. Forty-five minutes became a half-hour, zealously guarded; or so Steve's mother believed. After five weeks, Steve's mother began to time him to see how long it would take before he would say he had to go. The goodbye would take five minutes as she inevitably recounted to him all the things she wanted him to do that week. On week six, the stopwatch said 29:35; week seven, 28:46; week eight, 27:54; week nine, 26:43, week ten, 25:37;, week eleven, 24:45. Once their talk time slipped below 25 minutes, she was positive she was being avoided.


Steve's mother resolved to redouble her commitment to her son and his family, she showed up unannounced at Steve's gate three evenings during the workweek instead of her customary two. She would show up at precisely five in the afternoon with dinner and dessert in tow, just as their nanny was bringing the kids home through the door from school, so that the nanny wouldn't clog her grandchildren's arteries every day with Pepian, a spicy Guatemalan stew with all its fried cornmeal and shredded pork.


One day, after Steve and Carmen came home from babysitting, she was talking to Steve after the kids and Carmen went to bed, and said she wanted to talk to him about how often she came to the house. Steve also wanted to talk about it. Denarius wanted to come over four times a week, Steve wanted her to come over two.


Steve: The kids need to concentrate on schoolwork.


Mother: Is my help for them not good enough?


Steve: It's fine, they just think you're too strict.


Mother: They think I'm too strict? Did you ever tell them how I was with you?


Steve: Let's not use that metric.


Mother: What metric? They have to get good grades and they've inherited their father's lazy gene.


Steve: I don't want to make my kids lives more stressful than they already are.


Mother: What's stressful about them?


Steve: Cleo's miserable in school.


Mother: I'm sure she is, you're letting her gain weight hand over fist. Of course, if you didn't move out to Orange County with all these shallow snobs that might not be such a problem.


Steve: Mom, kids are kids, and I just want to let my kids have some fun if they can.


Mother: They can have fun and still learn some discipline.


Steve: Yeah but Cleo says you're raising your voice whenever she puts down a wrong answer. You don't have to do that, do you?


Mother: Math is important! It saved your life!


Steve: Math is important, but it's not so important that you have to make Cleo cry.


Mother: I didn't mean to make her cry. She just wasn't paying attention! She needed to stay focused!


Steve: Look Mom, you just need to be a little nicer. To her, to us. Sometimes I think you're always under a lot of stress because you're lonely, maybe it's time to start going out and meeting new people. Have you thought about dating? It's been more than two years..


Mother: (cutting Steve off) ..I'm not lonely! I'm just taking care of my responsibilities!


Steve: Mom, sometimes I think you don't need to be so responsible.


Mother: Oh? Who's gonna be responsible if I'm not?


Steve: We can be perfectly responsible when you're not here.


Mother: And where's the evidence of that?


Steve: That's unfair Mom.


Mother: You do nothing but put your happiness first. You try to go to film school rather than get a real degree, I have to make you go into finance. You leave your accounting to operate a video store that everybody knows'll go belly up, and I have to find an apartment for your family and pay for your wife's surgeries out of pocket.


Steve: Come on Mom, you were already paying for those before I got the video store.


Mother: That's supposed to make me feel better?!?


Steve: I'm sorry you feel that way Mom but nobody's stopping you from being a little more selfish. Everybody wants you to be happy.


Mother: I'm happy when I'm with you and your family! I'm happy at my Temple and what would make me really happy is if you came to temple more often with the girls!


Steve: We can talk about that another time Mom.


Mother: Always another time. You always put me off.


Steve: When have I ever put you off? I see you three times a week! We talk on the phone all the time!


Mother: You barely talk to me on the phone anymore! We used to talk four times a week for forty-five minutes. Now you can only talk once a week and you can't even talk a half-hour! I timed it!


Steve: You timed it?


Mother: I had the suspicion that you were trying to get me off the phone after a half-hour, so I've timed it for the last five weeks, and you're not letting the conversation go more than a half-hour.


Steve: Do you have any idea how absurd that sounds?


Mother: Do you have any idea how absurd it is that we talk so little anymore?


Steve: I'm hard at work, I'm making money, I have a family, it's exactly what you always wanted from me. Even if it's true, who cares? We still see each other three times a week!


Mother: So you're deliberately hanging up on me after a half-hour?


Steve: I have to work! What's the big deal?


Mother: I don't have anybody else! I've got my friends from Temple and a few cousins. Who else am I supposed to talk to?


Steve: I thought you said you weren't lonely.


Mother: I'm not lonely if I'm doing things for people I care about!


Steve: Are you saying that the things you do for us are really for you?


Mother: How can you say that?!


Steve: I'm just saying that's what it sounds like you're saying.


Mother: The things I do for you are for you! Family is my biggest priority!


Steve: It's mine too!


Mother: Is it really? You spend less time with your children than I do!


Steve: I'm at work till late, things have to get done! Carmen is with them, and whatever she can't do anymore the nanny does.


Mother: The nanny does... That's a nice thing a person does whose priority is family, pawning them off on a stranger because your wife can't properly look after her children.


Steve: That's really not fair Mom. Emely is great with the kids!


Mother: A mother should be the one looking after her kids, and if she can't because you chose to marry somebody with a mental handicap, the grandma should look after them!


Steve: Mom that's a terrible thing to say about Carmen and I'd really like you to apologize.


Mother: All I said was the truth. Carmen is mentally handicapped and you chose to marry her anyway. And now we all have to sacrifice to make up for what she can't do.


Steve: Mom, I hired a nanny to help Carmen out. Nobody is asking you to sacrifice anything.


Mother: I want to sacrifice. I just wish you didn't make me.


Steve: I'm not making you!


Mother: Of course you're making me! You married a stupid woman with a pretty face and now I have to look after her!


Steve: Carmen is not stupid and she's not just a pretty face. Carmen has, is, and will always be the woman of my dreams. What was I supposed to do? Not marry her?


Mother: Yes! That's exactly what you're supposed to not do! Do you honestly think your Dad was the person I dreamed about? You honestly think I wanted to spend forty years talking cars and zithers? But your father was a good man, a sweet man who did everything he was ever asked to do! I married him because I knew he would give his kids the best possible life, and he did. And what did you do with the life he gave you? You use the best possible life to marry a pretty girl who's mentally retarded!"


Steve, as ever, never really challenged his mother. He simply indulged her until she decided to leave, and then resolved that he would never see her again.


The Johanson family, like 4 million other California families of the upper-class in the 90's, lived in a gated community. For the first week, Steve simply instructed security to not let his mother car into the community.  He knew this plan would only last a week until his mother harangued the security guard into letting her in - so he’d have to be bribed, but she could also find a way to climb the gate. Living on a six acre property with a massive garage in their 5,400 square foot mansion, Steve and Carmen had barely ever met their neighbors. Their neighbors might have seen Steve's mother's Ford Taurus station wagon pull into the driveway, but even if neighbors saw her pull in, her car would disappear behind a twisted, winding, downwardly sloping driveway into a veritable forest of sugar pines before the car would disappear from the pines into a garage that could hold five cars.


So that first week, Steve went door to door to all sixty houses of his development to instruct his neighbors to beware of a high-strung woman in her early sixties who claimed to be his mother and was stalking his family. The neighbors all seemed like very nice people, many of whom invited him into their house for an hour of conversation. The Jewish couples would serve him coffee and cake, the black couples would serve him wine and cheese, the goyisher wives would get him a beer. They were all lovely people, and he never socialized with any of them ever again.


Surely enough, Steve's mother was spotted by neighbors, whom of course had no idea who she was - how could they if Steve swore she wasn’t whom she claimed she was? She’d inevitably climbed the gate when they spotted her; her pants were full of soot, her shirt torn at the belly, she was bleeding from her arms. She was detained by the police as a vagrant. She called Steve to bail her out, but Steve would not answer. She was held in a cell at the police station for four days before the Synagogue Rabbi posted bail.


Steve also left very specific phone instructions. He instructed his secretary to tell his mother he wasn't in however many times she called. For seven weeks, she called every hour of the workday, on the hour, to ask if he was back yet. In three years, he never gave his mother his unlisted private office number, yet after two weeks of his not returning calls, his mother located the number and demanded from the first sentence why he was refusing to speak to her. Steve hung up immediately and took his phone out of the jack for the next nine months.


The daughters were strictly told to never answer the phone; not that it mattered, because Elizabeth was four, and Cleo had no friends to call. The nanny was told to simply hang up if it were Steve's mother. And Carmen, by the way, was having so much neurological trouble by this point that she rarely remembered how to use a phone.


After four months of calling every day, and thirteen attempts to get onto Steve's property, Denarius finally gave up calling. Three days after she gave up, she found out she had stage 4 lung cancer. Seven months after that, she had died without telling Steve anything. Her synagogue supervised the funeral, and there were no mourners for whom to hold a shiva house, so her shul and cousins davened mincha and maariv at the cemetery, shoveled some dirt onto her grave, and went home.


It was only when the executor came to the house that Steve found out. Not only was his mother dead, but he had inherited eighteen million dollars. Steve was already worth $11 million, it's not like this news made him eat better than he ever did before, but how in God's name did Steve, whose every possession the bank repo-ed less than a decade earlier, now stand at a net worth of $29 million?


He might have required every penny to get Carmen through what followed. Steve’s mother died in 1995, and in 1995, Carmen had the five-thousand word vocabulary of a six year old, and not all in the same language. By 2000, a neurologist estimated her vocabulary to be the 800 word lexicon of the average three-year old - she’d forgotten the names of her spouse and parents and children, but at least had some dim idea that some sort of bond connected them. By early 2004, her vocabulary was down to 50 words and she had no idea whom anyone was. Neurologists assured Steve that only an extraordinary brain could have declined so thoroughly yet so slowly. Emely, a certified nurse before she left Guatemala, became the house’s lady; driving children to school and Carmen to medical appointments, observing and recording Carmen’s decline very closely, talking on the phone with doctors for at least an hour every day, bathing and dressing Carmen, administering medications to both Carmen and Clarissa with an exact schedule, trying to provide the emotional support to Steve’s frustrating daughters that their given family did not, administering physical therapy to Carmen, cooking and cleaning for the family and house, and marrying Steve the year after Carmen’s passing.


Yet through her entire decline, Carmen’s ability for singing remained undimmed, and for hours at a time, she would tirelessly sing melodies from their bedroom like a lark - the only pasttime life would still allow her. Even the option to walk was almost completely unavailable to her. Doctors assured them that any attempt at physical therapy for Carmen could only put her body in more danger, but Emely refused to believe so and attempted to administer it on her own, which of course prove the doctor’s prognosis exactly right. The simple act of movement was so dangerous that Carmen was only allowed to walk to the kitchen for meals and for regular trips to the bathroom - which she eventually could not notify anyone about in advance. Soon, even that proved too cumbersome. By 2000, Carmen mostly had to be tied to bed lest she break a bone while moving too strenuously. She was strapped by the arms and legs until a day the next year when she forgot why she was being strapped down, and repeatedly writhed so terribly that she managed to break most of her extremities and dislocate both a shoulder and a hip - all of which would of course cause her to cease her singing and howl like a flayed wolf. For the rest of her life, she would have to spend all but roughly 20 minutes every day strapped down to her bed, unable to move any part of her body.


Steve, while no Carmen, was musically far from illiterate, having not only been to more than his share of rock concerts and knowing the same half-century of top 40 hits that we all do, but also playing the violin and subscribing for years to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And while he could sometimes place the melodies she sang, he could never place most of them. He always wondered why Carmen never composed her own music, but it would seem that his wife, wrenchingly robbed of movement and memory, finally found her own voice as a composer. For two years, he placed a tape recorder next to her bed to take down all the melodies - nursing a secret hope that Clarissa, during a period when she felt more forgiving to her father, would turn her mother’s songs into fully fledged and arranged music.


Steve and Emely began their affair in 1999. Emely was a few years younger than Steve and Carmen, no great beauty, thin and pinched with eyebrows that seemed to be ruffled in a perpetual scowl, but nevertheless attractively petite and swarthily complexioned much as Carmen was, but whereas Steve ruled Carmen, Emely ruled Steve. It was Emely who convinced Steve to throw Clarissa out of the house in 1999 when she was caught smoking weed in her room, yet again. And it was Emely who took Elizabeth to evangelical church and Bible study.


The affair began as an occasional thing, a surrender to temptation which happened roughly once every six weeks by two people working in close quarters in a big house in which they knew where to go to not get caught. As Steve, a multi-millionaire boss with hundreds of employees and plenty of time off, began to do even his work from home, it happened more and more often in the middle of the day while Elizabeth was at school, sometimes just a room or two over from where Carmen was strapped down to her bed.


In March 2003, Emely let slip something - Steve knew it was a test of loyalty, and he was too dependent upon her to say no. Emely was tired, she’d been administering to Carmen for more than ten years, she’d been everything and through everything for Steve’s family, and there’s nothing she did for Carmen which an up-to-date professional couldn’t do much better. Steve, as his father before him, simply shrugged and gave in to the whim of the woman who worried about his life so that he wouldn’t.


In May, Emely placed Carmen in Solheim Lutheran Home in Eagle Rock, twenty minutes from their house. A young woman who nearly became world famous for her genius was placed in a memory care ward with people twice her age whose sole memories came from an era before her parents even came to America. But her constant singing was such that even if the other patients couldn’t hear her, their children certainly could. After four different complaints about the noise, Steve was asked to take Carmen out of their facility.


In December, Emely placed Carmen in St. John of God Retirement and Care Center in South LA, a full fifty minute drive from the house. A still beautiful forty-five year old woman without a single gray hair on her head was placed in an elder care facility with white-haired and no-haired people twice her age, and looked after by orderlies half her age. The next April, Steve and Emely came to visit, Carmen was, as ever, singing, and looking perfectly beatific as she immersed herself in her music, but while Steve was walking back from Carmen’s bathroom he noticed something slight. When Emely was ready to leave, he asked Emely if he could have a moment alone with Carmen. Emely was hardly in a position to say no, though she certainly made a mental note of it. Steve immediately went over to the trashcan, and could not fail to recognize what was in front of him without having to pick it up: a magnum condom wrapper. Steve knew instantly that Emely had to take her out of this facility immediately.


Steve was too shocked to respond to Emely’s questions in the car with more than one-word answers, which Emely noted with growing alarm. In their now bedroom, after Elizabeth went to say her prayers and go to bed, Steve told Emely what he saw and what they had to do. Emely, relieved to find out what was bothering him, immediately told him he was being ridiculous and to forget about it. It couldn’t possibly be a used condom. Steve, however, was adamant - a fight proceeded during which Steve wanted to take Emely back to the facility. He swore up and down that it was a Magnum. Emely asked him what he saw, he said he saw the M and part of the a - Emely assured him it was a candy bar wrapper - a Mars or a Milky Way. She also reminded Steve that he had an important meeting with a statewide car dealership in the morning for which twenty or thirty million dollars could be on the line and salesmen all around California would be there, so he badly needed sleep.

The next morning, Steve called from the car to postpone that meeting and drove to the facility. No secretary was at the door, no nurse on the wing, no patient in the hall. It seemed and sounded like an empty facility. From the moment he came in, all he heard was Carmen’s singing. She was singing the same melody, over and over again, the Gregorian melody to Alma Redemptoris Mater which she played on that church organ in Bogota forty years earlier, and whose story Carmen’s mother and father recounted to Steve on so many occasions. As he walked to her room, he heard it everywhere, in the lobby, in the elevator, on the wing, and finally in her room. She smiled with the smile of the blessed as she sang it. The trashcan had been emptied, and all that was left for Steve was to pause in awed admiration for the final performance of this goddess at whose temple he was granted the life-justifying purpose of being its sole worshipper. After she was done, she sang it again, and again, and again, six times through Alma Redemptoris Mater. And in a manner that no one can know how many elder care patients have been euthanized, Steve placed a pillow on her head for her seventh rendition, which she sang all the way through before expiring her last breath and passed without so much as a mild convulsion in struggle. On her seventh rendition, she rested.

A week later, Steve and Emely quietly buried Carmen in a church funeral, and in contradiction to her sister's wishes, Carmen was buried in an evangelical cemetery. A week after the funeral, Steve and Emely were having dinner at China Garden Restaurant on Brentwood Blvd. Steve, in his gloom, had to fake good cheer to say hello to an old acquaintance of his from Beth Hoveh Hebrew School sitting two tables over. His overenthusiastic friend, sitting not just with his overweight wife but his entire extended family, gave his family a ten minute explanation of exactly how they knew each other from Hebrew school and an explanation of every minute detail about their old hijinks, the peculiarties of the teachers, and updates on what everybody from Hebrew school is now doing with their lives. Steve had to smile through it all, and all through it, his old friend greeted him not as "Steve" but as the name Mrs. Kramer gave him: "Shmuel!".

After six minutes of stories at which the family cackled hysterically, Steve finally managed to say "Actually, it's just Steve now."