Sunday, March 11, 2012

Adventure #4, An American Sentence: A Life in 17 Syllables

(See "An Adventure a week . . ." for a description of this project)
Week of February 26
That straight lip wavered, maturing to frown, stuck for a breath to a tooth.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Adventure #2, Opera at the Gracie: Broken Wings to "Meow, Meow"

(See "An Adventure a Week . . ." for a description of this project)

Week of February 12

In from the needling cold, I enter The Gracie theater, with its roof shaped like a gentle ocean wave or a rakish pompadour. I pass the tasteful art, acrylic collage on large canvases, lining the entrance-way; a calming light filters down the dark walls. I suspect that the stroll calms the patrons, depositing them in their seats in a state of slack-jawed bliss, ready to receive the evening's entertainment.

Duly benumbed, I am led to my seat by a slender attendant, who assures me that even though "row 'H' hasn't been numbered yet" she will find me my seat. Around me, happily limping, galumphing, and hacking into their seats, is the over-sixty set, the group that makes up the majority of the audience. Lodged between canes and purses and ensconced in clouds of acrid perfume and aftershave, they roar on about politics and the misadventures of their children and grandchildren. Behind them plop down pockets of undergraduates illuminated by the wispish lights from their cell phones as the tiny devices stutter on and off. They unfold and refold their extra-credit assignment sheets and whisper concerns about "the purpose of . . . " or the "point in journaling about. . . ." Others enrapt slouch in their seats, tapping clammy fingers on the bridges of their noses.

In a tuxedo, with mirror-shined black shoes, the signer mounts the stage followed by his pianist, who sits quickly and flips first this and then that way through the evening's sheet music. Immediately something strikes me as odd; I've seen something, but I haven't yet processed it; my mind is compiling the cross-sections to form a coherent image. Then, catching the light, the stain on the crotch of the singer's pants takes shape, a comma pursed in a pout, a glaring opprobrium. Transfixed, I can imagine at least three reasons for the stain. (1) The male member, being a wily thing, and the prostate, being an occasionally unreliable valve, can work in concert to retain and then release just enough urine to besmirch one's slacks in that moment of relaxation after raising, buttoning, belting, and zipping up. (2) Also, as ads for ED treatments attest (and we know that pharmaceutical companies never lie), one cannot always predict or fully prepare for an amorous moment. And because of this, as any sixteen year old might admit, accidents can happen. (3) However--as William of Okham made clear in his often misquoted razor, "the most likely explanation is the one that is easiest to understand"--the simplest conclusion to draw in this case is that the stain was probably a dollop of makeup transferred from the singer's right thumb to his crotch in a pre-performance adjustment (remember that the putative member is often unruly). But, rather than detracting from the event, this humbling guffaw added humanity to it, an element that can seem lacking in the most polished operas.

The first opera I attended was a huge production of Der Rosenkavalier at Vienna's StaatsOper in 1991, during the semester I spent abroad. I attended the performance with one of my English Professors and a classmate, who fancied himself something of an aesthete (he did have, as he often reminded us, both French and American citizenship, which informed a snobbishness I often redressed with that age-old and ill-informed American crassness, "You're nothing until you pick one or the other"). In the stiff, lightly padded seats, I watched the gender-bending tale unfold through excruciating recitatives and often moving soprano arias while actors in wonderful 18th Century costumes gallivanted up then down and around a gigantic staircase. First performed in 1911, the opera did seem a prelude to the crown prince of Austria's assassination, for who wouldn't want to slap that opulent look off those puffed and powdered aristocratic faces.

Nodding in and out of the performance, unable to care much about the amorous misadventures of oligarchs being all oligarchish, I noticed my English professor's blissful countenance. Her head wafted subtly, as though it were attached by a lose string to the conductor's wand, suggesting that this music transported her to a time along the shores of the Danube or Rhine Rivers when affection was communicated in such emotionally eloquent (and insincere) tones.

As the singer performs arias from a smattering of wonderful operas (my favorite was "la fleur que tu m'avis jetée" from Carmen), I can't help but be drawn, almost obscenely, to the makeup stain's half-grin, until I am certain it might giggle, tell a joke, or sputter some insult: "A priest, a rabbi, and an mullah walk into a bar. The priest says . . . and everybody goes. . ., which is why no one should eat saltines dipped in olive oil." At the end of each aria (performances of which compose the first part of the show), the man behind me exclaims, "ah!" or "oh!" or "mmm!" and claps with gusto. The singer is talented, as far as I can tell, and does seem to convey the emotional depths inherent in an operatic arrangement. Yet the first half of the show dissatisfies in the same way Kempff's Complete Beethoven Sampler does. We are presented with snippets pulled from larger tales and asked to consume them, acting the cultural jeunesse dorée nibbling on bits of finery with little sense for the slop, the rattle of mind, that makes the pretty vibrato part of a structure of feeling, a structure upon which the stained fabric of culture loosely hangs as it ruffles in the wind.

During intermission, I saunter about the atrium of the Gracie Theater. Chambers like these seem cathedrals to anticipation, encouraging supplication and whispered intonations in preparation for the spectacle that promises to elevate the yet unbuttered neophyte. Yet elevate to where or to what? The answer or the anticipation of one oxygenates the space, enlivening those present for the revelation they will vigorously investigate afterward over a glass of theater champagne or in my case a crinkled bottle of tepid water. "Go hence," says the Prince at the end of Romeo and Juliet, "to have more talk of these sad things." The atrium was built, I have no doubt, to give a certain ambiance and validity to these "sad" discussions and post-performance improvisations, improvisations that have led to warmer beds on many winter nights in many tiny apartments over many centuries.

The second half of the show is short and seems to devolve quickly into mere fancy. I am left with the impression of titterings and tra la la-ings rather than the moving exhortations of the first half. Being 8:30, I am beginning to fade and my left knee is aching when the singer rolls into selections from Candid, which seem infused too much with hay dust or hay seed, or maybe it's that I find English unoperatic. However, my observations offer little real criticism other than noting that a libretto can occasionally ring as sentimental tripe (though exceptions abound, such as Georges Bizet's libretto for Carmen). If left only with librettos, one might come to imagine that we find tragedy in the awkward clink of a tea cup and are about as observant as a blinded snail.

Wrenched out of the Candid's implausible revelry, the singer offers up a few standards from Cole Porter, which are jarringly unexpected. When I think of Porter, I imagine Billy Holliday swaying in a dim, smoke-chocked speakeasy in a cellar in Chicago or Kansas City, with the taint of spoiled beef just a few notes off the nose. Maybe Ernest Hemingway morose and blood stained leans in a corner listening, drinking a majito with fleck of mint stuck to his front tooth, imagining the simplicities of character and tapping his temple to "A Fool there Was." But the singer carries the turn with an operatic flourish that seems distinctly out of character. I want the wavering touch of the grizzled rummy but get the precision of the trained aesthete, and feel just a little embarrassed as a smattering applause follows him off the stage.

When the singer trots out for the encore (I can't imagine he still has this much energy), I hope for something serious to take with me into the atrium. However, we get "Meow, Meow." In this spoof, the singer and his pianist call and respond to the others version of "meow," which is occasionally interrupted or perhaps accentuated with a hiss. This piece is a crowd-pleaser, given that many--I imagine--probably spend as much time with cats as they do people. However, its triteness seems to undermine the express purpose of the first half of the show, which according the singer was to share the transformational possibilities of opera.

The singer seems intent upon disarming opera, suggesting that it can have popular appeal, but this is exactly the appeal I'd rather it avoid. At its best, opera provides a link to a different aesthetic experience, one that is defined by almost magical vocal and musical abilities. These abilities don't simply emerge, as they might on American Idol or the X Factor, but are learned through arduous training and apprenticeship. This process merges not only technically skilled musicians (watch someone really play the viola, for example) and singers but also those who can understand and feel some of the most complex and beautiful music ever created. I know someone could attend Mozart's Don Giovanni, Verdi's La Traviata, or Puccini's La Bohéme and care less; I've witnessed it. But doing so calls into question the very existence of that person's bellybutton, the same way that remaining dry eyed at the end of Russel Bank's The Sweet Hereafter or Tillie Olson's Tell Me a Riddle does.

The applause and bows and thank yous follow me and my few remaining thoughts out of the theater and into the atrium, which is silent. A cold breeze meets my brow; I scrunch at it, the same way a dog might, and am out into the prickish winter evening, wondering how much one of those antique, bronze bed-warmers cost.

Adventure #3, Staring at the Wall: Meaning Falls Inward

(See "An Adventure a Week . . ." for a description of this project)

Week of February 19, 2012

One evening after work, I found myself staring at the wall, lost in thought and unable to move. I would say I had been hypnotized, but that isn't exactly right. No agent was involved in placing me into an introspective torpor. Rather, I had settled into that place, not only state, of contemplation, a dimension not unlike that entered when counting grains of sand or delineators along the shoulder of the expressway. How long does it take to count to one million and, once achieving this, what does one do with the number?  The last time this happened to me, and it used to happen often enough, I was in graduate school.

In those days, I would get back to my apartment (furnished in the rickety, paste-and-plywood remnants of the 60s), either after teaching for pennies or nodding through a seminar, and drop on the lime-green upholstered couch. Fatigued, I'd stare into the liminal space between the wall and the air running along it; that moment in which the temperature is changing--never really one degree or another. In some ways, I was experiencing the caloric profile of a decision, the way thought transforms sugar into energy and how energy takes root as an image, and in this resonating object-thought I was transfixed, contemplating not really meanings but rather the mere presence of this wiffling supposition, riling among the off-white chips that gave texture to the wall.

A few evenings ago, finding myself once again similarly enthralled, drawn out of myself only to fall back in, recalled the netherly explorations of a few literary characters. In Kurt Vonnegut's the Sirens of Titan, the omniscient narrator notes that at the time the novel is set the outward search for meaning had been exhausted and "only inwardness remained to be explored." A few feet from the wall and its subtle textures, I felt something of this inward turn, and noted how it related to a scene in a story I published years ago. In this story, my narrator, who just happened to be wearing my life, receives a call from his frustrated girlfriend, who asks him what he was planning to do with his life  now that he quit his job at the bank. Sincerely, he replies, "I plan to sit for a hundred years." Why, she rejoins. "Because," he says, "I don't know what else to do." The complexities that define any decision, or that determine the acts required to make any decision, are those that paralyzes this character.

The old adage that not making a decision is still making a decision muddles the issue underlying my narrator's distress and his girlfriend's dismay. He can't commit to a decision and she doesn't understand why; it is inaction as a legitimate form of action. Fyodor Dostoevsky's underground man, in his comically befuddled way, might offer some insight, but, as he would argue just to spite us, probably not: "I Am a sick man. . . . I am a spiteful man. I am unattractive." Yet this forty-year old isn't spiteful, but claims he is out of spite. The man's frustrating ambivalence (the issue that often drives dichotomy-obsessed students to distraction) indicates the nature of the liminal space into which I was staring: The way one decision, even when that decision is not made, is often immediately countered by an indecision that undermines the comfort often associated with certainty, creating the intellectual nausea or ennui that Jean-Paul Sartre describes: "Anything, anything would be better than this agony of mind, this creeping pain that gnaws and fumbles and caresses one and never hurts quiet enough" (italics is mine). One condition or reality is equally manifested in its apparent (not actual) negation, if not its opposite--pain, for example, by comfort; love by hatred; or fear by joy--which makes any proposition reductive to the point of absurdity (e.g. "I love you" but as soon as I say it I know that at some time and in some place I am not loving you. These discursive conditions are irreducible).

And into this absurd moment, I gazed with my creased leather bag between my feet. I was embraced by the process of decisions emerging as images that were destroyed simultaneously by equally viable possibilities and alternative perspectives. And because of this, I could not move. As Keats knew, the inward turn leads to outward displacement, and living is the visceral, gristle-chewing confrontation with uncertainty. If I did not believe otherwise, I would assume I am still there before that wall, working on finding something that literally makes sense, but I am here and here is quickly being transformed into a period that begins the sentence ending with a thought. You are reading that thought that I wish I could end with this period.