Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Now Departing from Dock 1 ...

It has been touch and go for weeks now, with a trial standing in the way. However, I'm relieved to be able to now look forward to this:

and this:

and this:

If that scene seems vaguely familiar, that's because it is.

Grandma and Grandpa are taking all the grandkids and their parents on one of those trips that we will all remember forever. And I came this close to missing it.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Hybrids are Great -- Ow!

A new section is currently being written in the Law of Unintended Consequences. Automobiles using a so-called “hybrid” powertrain, which combine a conventional internal combustion engine with a battery-powered electric motor, are all the rage these days. There are a select few systems on the market, principally offered by Honda and Toyota (which licenses its technology to Ford and Nissan). The Toyota system’s unique feature is that, unlike the Honda, under the proper conditions it can run on the electric motor alone.

Toyota’s unique engine/motor management system is good for fuel conservation, at least around town, but not so good for pedestrian safety. Have you ever been near a Prius as it was driven into or out of a parking space? Absolutely dead silent. That’s quite an achievement, until you realize that one of the senses we use when walking about in the presence of cars is the sense of hearing. Without thinking about it, we are attuned to be wary of what we hear in parking lots, knowing instinctively that cars can approach without us seeing them.

The Prius and its kin render this sense of self-preservation useless. I was recently startled by a Prius backing up in the small parking lot of Michael’s preschool. It had pulled almost completely out of its parking space as I walked nearby before I noticed it, because it made no sound. I hate to sound like a nanny-state advocate (whose adherents have succeeded in adding weight, complexity and ugliness to cars the world over – another post), but these things really should have some sort of warning beeper when they are operating in reverse, at which time the driver’s outward vision is more limited. After all, even golf carts, which are louder but much lighter than a Prius, typically emit a raucus beep or buzz whenever reverse is engaged.

I have a tangential connection to a major development in this area. Surely you have been awakened by the obnoxious bleating of a garbage truck or other heavy vehicle as it reversed. That noise is prescribed by law in California in no small part due to a tragedy that befell a schoolmate of mine. When I was in junior high, the older brother of one of my classmates was killed by a garbage truck that was driving in reverse, without audible backup warnings, on the wrong side of the road. I recall an assembly at which his death was announced and explained to the students; a scholarship was created shortly thereafter, of which someone in my class was the first recipient. More importantly, my classmate’s mother lobbied the California state legislature until the vehicle code was amended to require garbage trucks to be equipped with audible backup warnings. Vehicle Code section 27000(b) exists because of her efforts.

While a Prius does not have the mass of a garbage truck, a small child is in just as much danger, and would be difficult for a driver to see. I don’t ordinarily push for government-mandated devices on cars, but unless Toyota and other hybrid or electric car makers voluntarily install audible warning systems, a tragedy that would have been simple to prevent is going to result in just such legislation.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Book Review: Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”

Cormac McCarthy has long been described as this generation’s William Faulkner (it is not accidental that McCarthy’s first major editor had been Faulkner’s). In simple terms, that means he eschews conventional rules of grammar, and is difficult to read. In a broader sense, however, while McCarthy’s writing carries some of the same brutal weight of Faulkner’s best work, McCarthy is a unique voice in American literature, a true living classic. His recent novel, “The Road,” has a chance to be one of the most discussed and dissected novels of our day, although perhaps not for the usual reasons.

I have read a couple of McCarthy’s breakthrough novels, “All the Pretty Horses” and “The Crossing.” In both novels, the desolation of the bleak south Texas/northern Mexico landscape is matched by the spare yet richly textured prose and thin dialog. McCarthy has been fairly described as a most masculine writer, chronicling the exploits of dusty, hard men in fraught circumstances, who communicate in fragments of sentences. “The Road” follows in this vein, following the journey of “the man” and “his son” through a landscape for which the term “bleak” would bestow a sense of joy and comfort the setting does not deserve.

“The Road” has come to the attention of the average reader in part due to its somewhat inexplicable inclusion recently in Oprah’s Book Club, and as of today because it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Ironically, I found the book on a rack in an airport last week, and, knowing nothing about it, bought it because of the author and before I noticed the Oprah seal of approval (which might have put me off buying the book, snob that I am). Oprah viewers, I’m sure, and others drawn to the novel because of its awards and the author’s pedigree are likely to be in for a shock. While ultimately deeply affecting, “The Road” is not an easy read. Oh, it is a fast read, as it is actually relatively short (I managed to get through it in about four hours), but rather than tricks of grammar, it is the subject matter that troubles the reader.

“The Road” takes place in somewhere in the southeastern United States at an indeterminate time following a nonspecified holocaust. Just about everything living thing on or in the earth has been annihilated. Those humans that remain (as it does not appear that any other form of life survived, save one dog glimpsed from afar for a moment) are reduced to terrifying bands of cannibalistic savages who roam the still-smoldering roads, or terrified individuals who stay in hiding away from the roads and who must go to scarcely imaginable measures to survive. Into this searing, seared landscape of endless ash and unrelenting gloom, the man and his son travel to the unnamed coast in search of … what? In the end, all that matters is that they cannot stay where they are, wherever it is they happen to be.

The author has stripped the land completely bare. Every place the reader would hope that the man and his boy would find something with life, something that represents hope, McCarthy takes it all away. The man of the story must be clever, determined and downright lucky at times in his efforts to provide food, shelter and clothing for himself and the boy, who constantly hover on the edge of starvation. McCarthy is also not above shocking the reader, in the brief glimpses one would take upon unexpectedly encountering the detritus of a car crash, with imagery that man, boy and reader all wish could be unseen immediately thereafter. The oppressiveness of the falling ashes, the cold, grey skies, the endless, hopeless hunt for food, and the constant fear of exposure to any other person eats away at the reader. Against this hideous tableau, a father lovingly looks after his son. Here is a sample from the first part of the book, starting with the very first words:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. ...

When it was light enough to use the binoculars he glassed the valley blow. Everything paling away into the murk. The soft ash blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop. He studied what he could see. The segments of road down there among the dead trees. Looking for anything of color. Any movement. Any trace of standing smoke. He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again. Then he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land. He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.

When he got back the boy was still asleep. He pulled the blue plastic tarp off of him and folded it and carried it out to the grocery cart and packed it and came back with their plates and some cornmeal cakes in a plastic bag and a plastic bottle of syrup. He spread the small tarp they used for a table on the ground and laid everything out and he took the pistol from his belt and laid it on the cloth and then he just sat watching the boy sleep. He'd pulled away his mask in the night and it was buried somewhere in the blankets. He watched the boy and he looked out through the trees toward the road. This was not a safe place. They could be seen from the road now it was day. The boy turned in the blankets. Then he opened his eyes. Hi, Papa, he said.
I'm right here.
I know.

Remember “bleak?”

And yet the relationship between the father and son redeems both them and the story. The tender yet murderous determination the man shows in caring and providing for his son tugs every bit as firmly on the heartstrings as the richest, most lush Dickensian serial. The boy struggles to come to terms with his father’s fierce loyalty to him that includes a aggressive dismissal of any and all other beings that place themselves in his path. The boy, who cannot share his father’s memories of the world we know, innocently implores his father to intercede on behalf of the few others they encounter, and must learn to understand how the man, who will do anything for his son’s sake, will exhibit the worst forms of self-preservation when faced with other lonely stragglers.

It is too simple to label “The Road” as merely a fine novelist’s foray into science fiction, with a chilling view of what happens when man allows his inhumanity to rule. The barren world is too vividly conjured, the relationship too preciously rendered, for that analysis to hold. The richness of “The Road” is in how life is to be lived in the small, desperate spaces of a father’s heart, in the expression of the universal longing of every father to see his son grow and succeed. That the man’s quest to see his son survive is under circumstances blessedly far removed from anything we know, and hope never to know, only heightens the intensity of McCarthy's portrayal.

Notwithstanding Oprah’s pedigree and the approbation of the Pulitzer committee, “The Road” really is not for everyone. This is not a feel-good story unless the meter with which you evaluate human existence can be calibrated to find joy and hope in minute discoveries and victories that are usually undetectable in our everyday experience. The depth of the love between the man and his son, however, is undiminished by the death of the earth around them, and will linger profoundly even as the reader seeks out the real sun to escape the sadness and waste of so much of McCarthy's goulish, fallen world. Ultimately, although death is visited upon a horrifyingly large portion of the human race in "The Road," it cannot kill humanity.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Romance of Language

I spent much of yesterday in the company of a business associate who was in town (that town being San Francisco, incidentally) from Florida for a meeting. As we chatted genially about e-mails, time zones and cross country flights, it occurred to me that, even in the midst of our post-modern, 21st Century digital lives, the questing, adventurous spirit that is uniquely American lives on, embedded in our very language.

Those of us who have spent most of our lives on the West Coast speak of going "back East" when traveling to the East Coast. Conversely, travel in the other direction is usually expressed in terms of going "out West." Have you ever spoken of flying "out East" or "back West?" There is something inherent in our language, it seems to me, that preserves the sense that the East Coast is the starting place, the home and the root, and that all else West is the destination, out there somewhere. I even edited the first sentence of this post to take out my original construction, describing my collegue as having "flown out" to California. Even us Westerners (or at least this one) acknowledge by our language that this is still the outpost, to which others journey from the well-established settlements in the East.

As reduced in size and time as we believe our world has become over the recent decades, there is something in this unconcious mapping of our syntax that comforts me, that there is still a cultural memory of journey, adventure and hope.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A Melodious Reunion

This past weekend I had the opportunity to take part in a reunion of the Schubertians, the men's chamber choir of which I was a part while at UCSB. The group was in existence from 1964 to 1995, and had just over 200 total members in the course of its history. We have had a few formal reunions in the past, which now take on greater significance since the group is no longer active and Carl Zytowski, the director, is in his mid-80s (but still going strong).

The reunion was great fun. I knew very few of the men, some of them older than my parents, but the sensation of picking up a song that even the youngest of the group last sang regularly more than ten years ago and being able to hit every note and clip every cutoff was extraordinary. Thirty years worth of singers with a common thread in the music and director can yield a uniquely unified group of people that spans generations. I had the opportunity to be a part of a sub-group of Southern California Schubertians that sang two songs, plus one in combination with a Northern California sub-group that itself sang two extra songs. The one rehearsal we had at one of our members' homes in Santa Monica was the very definition of what these songs were all about: a group of musicians enjoying a fine afternoon of great music and friendship.

The reunion concert itself was great fun, a mixture of hard work, nostalgia, and sentimentality. It was a sweet thing to have wives and children fill the auditorium seats that were once occupied by girlfriends and (extraordinarily loyal) roommates back in our student days. The concert was dedicated to one of the forces behind the reunion, who is dying of cancer and wanted to have another chance to hear the songs before his time was up. Thankfully, he rallied over the last couple of months and was able to participate in the concert. He was even able to set aside his oxygen line and rise from his wheelchair to sing a solo verse in the last song. I think most of us had difficulty seeing our music to sing the last chorus after he was done.

The local Santa Barbara News Press published a very nice review of the concert that accurately captured the feel of the event. Ordinarily I would link to an article, but because the News Press has an annoying registration requirement, please indulge me while I republish the whole thing here:

IN CONCERT: Schubert never sounded sweeter


April 3, 2007 9:02 AM

Among his peers in the pantheon of great composers, Franz Schubert holds a special place. Bach and Haydn might be known for all-embracing industry, Mozart for dogged determination, Beethoven for innovations that swept away all before him, but Schubert was utterly unique in a different way: he was an archetype of sociability. He lived his life in a tight circle of colleagues, and his music welled from a source that, above all, valued intimacy of expression and companionship.

Listening to Schubert draws you into his circle. He is at his best when emotions are shared one-to-one, as in his more than 600 songs, and it is no surprise that he flops at forms, like opera, where a premium is placed on public spectacle. Though his later compositions are visionary in shape and substance (works such as the late piano sonatas and the final two symphonies), most of his output celebrates the amity of friendship.

The quintessential get-together for the composer and his friends was known as a Schubertiad, a word that referred to informal performances of Schubert's music at the home of a fellow musician or patron. These events got started in 1816 and found full flower during the following dozen years. We got a fine idea what such an occasion might have felt like on Saturday afternoon in UCSB's Lotte Lehmann Hall, when a Schubertiad was presented, logically enough, by the Schubertians.

The Schubertians, as we learned this weekend, were an enterprising group of UCSB vocalists who banded together to explore the wonderful repertory of Schubert's songs for men's voices. Carl Zytowski, who joined the music faculty in 1951 and set enviably high standards for all things vocal, was the group's founder and director. Established in 1964 and disbanded in 1995, when Professor Zytowski retired, the Schubertians included more than 200 singers during their impressive history. Approximately 70 alums from California and beyond participated in Saturday's performance, which was the ensemble's fourth major reunion in the past dozen years. With almost all of them active in professions other than music, they gave amateurism a good name.

Schubert composed for men's voices throughout his career, first as a teenage student in 1812 and finally as an acknowledged master facing a far-too-early death in 1828, and the songs span the gamut of emotions.

At the Schubertiad, we heard the light Italianate composition "La Pastorella" (The Shepardess), convivial drinking songs ("Bruder, unser Erdenwallen" and, even better, "Edit Nonna, Edit Clerus, A 16th Century Drinking Song," wrongly attributed to the 14th century in the Schubert Complete Edition and in Saturday's program), and works that pushed contemporary boundaries of temperament and technique: "Der Gondelfahrer" (The Gondolier), "Grab und Mond" (Grave and Moon) and "Der Entfernten" (To an Absent Lover), where the classically steeped Schubert defines the atmospherics of a new Romantic era.

Schubert was neither the first nor the only composer to write songs in praise of music, but far more than others, Schubert's wrench at your gut. They have immense evocative powers, and the two works of this sort that we heard, "Zur Guten Nacht" and "An die Musik," were prime. "An die Musik," in fact, which was sung by bass-baritone Michael Dean -- it's a solo song and not a choral work -- should be the national anthem for everyone who toils in music's fields.

"Nachthelle" (Brilliance of Night) was another masterpiece heard Saturday, exceptional even for Schubert, and it got a fine performance from tenor soloist Scott Whitaker, with the men's chorus led by guest conductor Jameson Marvin, UCSB alum and former Schubertian, who now is director of the Harvard Glee Club.

Conducting his choristers in the other compositions was Carl Zytowski, who, with a discreet gesture here, a telling nod there, was the picture of efficiency, leading his singers in winning performances. Their Schubertiad is one that Schubert himself surely would have enjoyed.


Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Internet Directions Are The Best

Yet more evidence that through the miracle of internet-based mapping systems, you really can get there from here.

Pay particular attention to step 20.