Tuesday, May 31, 2011

This Weather: Feel the Heat

Open the door. Peer out from the front porch and...ugh!
You can feel it.
There's only one way to phrase this properly.

It was hotter than you know what out there.

Heading into the Memorial Day weekend, I knew about the heat without bothering to venture far outdoors.

Inside the house, the air conditioning seemed to be running all the time.

My current project of cleaning out the garage had to be abandoned as sweat streaked my face and stung my eyes. The garage felt like living inside an oven.

The indoor/outdoor thermometer placed to the right of the kitchen sink told the story in numbers.

And that was the temperature at 7 p.m.! Earlier in the day we had hit a high of 107 F. degrees (41.6 degrees if you're a Celsius fan).

This was news that unfortunately this Van Winkle couldn't avoid by closing his eyes or stopping his ears. And it was pretty clear. There was more to come.

It made no sense.

A Brief History of Our Weather
Downtown we have this longtime business,
but do we really need them to supply MORE sun?
Where we live in the western mesquite plains is no stranger to high temperatures, but the inferno-like days normally arrive toward the halfway point of summer. The heat lasts into August and early September. We aren't supposed to be sizzling in May.

But in 2011 our weather has been fouled up and fouled up good.

It began with March and April when the normal springtime once-a-week thunderstorms failed to arrive. No thunder and no lightning and no rain. Just hot winds which fanned wildfires...

Finally we had a major downpour on Easter. We also received baseball size hail. Then we returned to the new norm.

Windy and hot.

So when I got up on Saturday morning at 6 a.m. and the thermometer already showed 79, I knew what was to come. Rather than complain about it, I enlisted our son to make a contest of it.

We would try to wish the temperature to go as high as possible. Hotter than anything we'd ever felt before.

A Festival of Heat
Around 4 p.m. I told our son, "This is it. It probably won't get any hotter." We had a plan. We would document this hottest day ever.

We drove downtown and parked in front of the restored Paramount Theater which shows classic films. Our son held up the thermometer. I snapped the picture. It was a juxtaposition I couldn't resist. And it was NOT Photoshopped!

Shucks! Why couldn't we get to 112 degrees?

Move Over Mythbusters
The other idea we had was to find out how hot the sidewalk was. Just trying putting your palm on it and keep it there. Ouch!
We had a more traditional experiment in mind, sort of our own episode of Mythbusters.

Could we fry an egg on a sidewalk while the outdoor temperature was hovering around 112?

I should tell you that the heat was accompanied by a fierce wind. Gusts up to 30 mph. This actually made it less horrible to be outdoors than if there had been no air circulation. But the wind also affected our first attempt to get a picture of the egg before I cracked it. We suddenly had an impromptu post-Easter egg roll.

Come back! The wind sends our egg
rolling away...

I chased down the egg and we started over.

With the temperature now down to a balmy 109 degrees, we stared at the puddle of ooze for a minute. Another minute. Another.

Not exactly summer blockbuster reading; it's more
like a summer block of a book on my end table.
Nothing happened. Our son suggested we drive over to the library (where air conditioning awaited us) and browse some books and then come back in half an hour.

To the library we went. I acquired a copy of a 900-page biography of Dostoevsky. Our son found out that Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman was, alas, checked out.

It was time to return to our sidewalk egg and see if it had achieved the state of sunny side up.

Well, the edges had cooked a little. And, funny thing, touching the surface revealed that the transparent part had morphed into a semi-hardened, rubbery consistency.

But the myth seemed to be busted. You could not fully cook an egg on the sidewalk on a hot day. But who would want to anyway? Maybe the experiment should be updated to something people might actually desire.

Next time we could try thawing out a frozen microwave dinner on the sidewalk. Or a frozen pizza. A half hour beneath ol' sol and it would be party time.

Final Confession
Throughout The Van Winkle Project I've been candid whenever there have been news leaks that have sullied my desired state of pristine ignorance. I'll admit just such right now.

From accidentally overheard conversations, I know that the weather in major portions of the U.S. has been bonkers for at least a month now. I've heard mention of monster tornadoes, killer tornadoes, tornado clusters, deluges and floods.

Given my overall lack of information, including any details, the weather in my not so fair city has me concerned. What if  it's part of some larger degenerate meteorological pattern hostile to bipedal life?
As always, the less one knows the more opportunity there is for fear. And perhaps this is the ultimate fear, when the enemy is nothing less than the blue, blue, relentlessly blue sky. But I can't stop looking up at the sky. I'm hoping for clouds and that thing they used to call "rain." - V.W.

Not raw egg, not cooked egg, but something mysterious
and in-between...


Friday, May 27, 2011

Men's Neckties: The Trial

Father's Day is less than a month away.
Of course, a traditional gesture for that occasion is to gift Dad with...a tie.

Here at The Van Winkle Project we are sharing the following in the hopes that it might be received in time to prove helpful to our readers. And maybe to some dads...

Ties - Guilty or Innocent?
I was cleaning out my closet the other day, getting rid of shirts and pants that I seldom wear.

I noticed a row of ties, That's when a little fantasy popped into my head...

Suddenly, in Kafka-like fashion, I was transported to the inside of a courtroom where a trial was being held. A male lawyer was standing before the jury box and making his opening statement. Except this man didn't look like the lawyers one sees, on TV, for instance, on Law and Order. He wore a suit, but it was paired with a white T-shirt, and no tie.

 The lawyer looked kind of like this...

Meet my dream lawyer...
sans tie!
 And the lawyer was saying:

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, let me begin by asserting that the accused--these neckties--have caused years of damage to the plaintiffs in this case, Mr. Van Winkle and other men around the globe. They have grasped men's necks in a choke hold and brought undue distress to their persons.

What have the neckties offered in return? Very little. As the evidence will show, these neckties are guilty of being dangerous, superfluous affectations. They should be found guilty and condemned to be banished from closets forever!

The lawyer presented evidence in the form of two photos he passed to the jury. Since I was the representative plaintiff in this fantasy class-action lawsuit, the photos documented how my parents had their three sons dress up every time we traveled on a train or an airplane. In the parents' minds there was some kind of strict etiquette. Perhaps they had inherited their sensibilities from olden times. They believed that if people are going to see you, you need to put on your Sunday best.

Placed in Evidence:

Photo No. 1 - Family is traveling by ferry. Suits, ties for the boys!

Placed in Evidence:

Photo No. 2 - Family in the nation's capital. Suits, ties for the boys!
The laywer continued:

How do you think having to dress in this manner made my client feel? I will tell you. He felt uncomfortable and dorky! You can see it in these pictures. Is he smiling? I don't think so!

But I want you to realize that it is NOT Mr. Van Winkle's parents who are on trial today. It is the very idea of a man's tie. What is the point, I ask you? A dangling little piece of cloth that is supposed to provide a slash of color, you say? It is a traditional fashion accessory like a woman's scarf?

All right, but at what cost? A HIGH cost, I say. Have you priced ties? Let me present you some more evidence and ask: Are any of the following worth $35 to $85? A price that is as much or more as the cost of a men's pair of khakis?

TIE NO. 1 - $35

TIE NO. 2 (from the Jerry Garcia Collection) - $55

TIE NO. 3 - $85

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I leave the final decision in your intelligent hands, mixed metaphor and all. For the sake of comfort and economics, the silly fashion of men's ties must finally be banished for all male persons. I am sure you will do the just thing.

The Verdict
Well, the fantasy trial ended at that point. Without a verdict, I began thinking of how our 13-year old son loves suits and he has no problem wearing a tie either. It his personal counter-reaction to an American culture where a vast number of people dress in a way that in the past would have been called "sloppy." They delight in making themselves appear to be wrinkled, untucked, baggy peasantry fit only for strolling in Wal-Mart or drinking beer on the patio. Or so would say any fashion snob worth his/her salt...

But I'm not one to react against "casual." Having grown up with a sport jacket and tie as required attire every Sunday when we went to church, I've had my fill of formality. A suit, a tie? They don't make me feel well dressed so much as constrained.

It's all context-sensistive, I suppose. I have to say those NBA coaches in their suits on the sidelines look dynamite. So do most politicians. And I wouldn't want to be represented by a lawyer who dressed in glad rags like a tattooed Johnny  Depp.

But as I stand at the threshold of my closet and I'm left with the echoes of the mock trial, I bring down the gavel and I decide. I am keeping exactly one tie. It will be for weddings and funerals. May there be many of the former and few of the latter--until they hold the biggest funeral of all. For the tie. - V.W.

BONUS FEATURE: The real purpose of a tie revealed!

State and Main (2000) is a film written and directed by David Mamet. The movie tells what happens when a Hollywood film crew comes to a small Vermont town to shoot a movie.

The story reveals how the Norman Rockwellish townspeople aren't really much different than the Hollywood folks. Everyone is interested in making a buck and bending the rules to suit themselves.

Even the old, venerable town doctor who walks down the street carrying a alligator valise as if he still makes house calls is a bit of lush and he has a tart tongue. At one point he waxes eloquent about why a bow tie is inferior to the other kind.

               DOC WILSON
               It's the truth that you should never
               trust anybody, wears a bowtie.  Cravat's
               sposed to point down to accentuate the
               genitals, why'd you wanna trust somebody,
               s'tie points out to accentuate his


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Whatever Happened to the Great Society?

One thing I know, even in my Van Winkled state, is that we have reached the time of year when caps and gowns are worn and students walk across the stage to receive their college diplomas. This means that throughout America esteemed men and women are stepping to podiums to offer words of wisdom and encouragement to the about to be graduated.

President Johnson articulates his vision
of "The Great Society.".
Forty-seven years ago this Sunday past there was a famous person addressing the graduating class at the University of Michigan. Standing before the microphone and cameras for approximately fifteen minutes, he delivered what some rhetoricians have listed as one of the 100 greatest American speeches of all time.

I refer to President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" speech of May 22, 1964.

Flash Ahead Two Years...
Back when I was growing up my father worked for a major petroleum company. This explains why by the time I was ready for junior high our family had moved about as many times as I'd spent years in school. Our parents practically had rehearsed lines. Each time they told my brothers and me, "Dad is being transferred. We're going to have to sell the house, pack up, and move to... [city, state]."

In 1966 we received the biggest shock of all. Mom and Dad filled in the blank for their three sons as follows:

"We're going to move to Anchorage, Alaska."

Living Out of a Suitcase
When we arrived in the 49th state it had been just over two years since the Good Friday earthquake that struck on March 27, 1964. That epic earthquake was the strongest ever recorded on the North American continent.

The day the earth shook. Along Anchorage's 4th Ave.
four blocks dropped 20 feet below street level.

Parked cars were left in an odd position.

Two years was long enough that most of the debris had been hauled off. My brothers and I were a bit disappointed. We had seen pictures of downtown Anchorage like those above. Yes, it was tragic, but it was also drama writ large and the childish mind desired to be titillated by devastation.

Instead, the city was in full recovery mode. Especially near our new temporary home, the third floor of the Turnagain Arms Apartments. The oil company was leasing this apartment for us until our parents found us a house to buy or rent.

The Turnagain Arms was an unimpressive structure across the street from the high-rise Anchorage Westward Hotel. The first day we were in town our parents took us for lunch at the Westward. Two things happened.

There was an earth tremor and we stared, mouths agape, as the large chandeliers in the dining room swayed above us.

A bigger shock came when our parents (ever thrifty even when eating on the oil company's expense account) tried to order us the cheapest thing on the menu, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. They'd heard that "due to transportation costs" Alaska prices were 30-40% higher than in the States, but in 1966 they weren't prepared for a $5 PJB.

We never dined at the Westward again.

In 2008 I returned to Alaska and took a picture
of where our family lived in the fall of 1966.
The cost of living wasn't the only problem.

Just down the street from us was the "Buttress Area" where the destroyed downtown buildings had been cleared away. Engineers were supervising crews who were driving iron piling into the earth in order to reinforce it so it could be built upon again and (perhaps) survive a future earthquake.

Clank, clank, clank was our soundtrack. They were driving piling twenty-four hours a day. Like the world's worst headache, it never stopped.

The President is Coming
It was a definite adventure being in Alaska in those days. The city of Anchorage was half raw frontier where you could see how recently the land had been scraped away and the bears and moose pushed back a short distance in order to make a tenuous urban existence for about 60,000 souls. You only had to drive for five minutes and you were out of the city and into the woods.

Modern conveniences taken for granted in the rest of America were a big deal here. For example, people still remembered how the Turnagain Arms Apartments were home to one of the first elevators installed in the city. They said that people used to come over and ride it just to experience it.

All I knew was our apartment was old, the wall-to-wall carpeting smelled of cigarette smoke, and that the once shiny new Otis elevator was rickety and slow.

It was a weird life living out of suitcases (all our furniture and possessions were in storage) and walking through downtown to go to school each day, and on weekends getting into the car to join Mom and Dad when they went house hunting.

We had arrived in August and by the fall, with the first snow imminent, we still didn't have a real place to live. That's when we heard that the president was coming. He would be staying across the street from our apartment. In the Westward Hotel.

The LBJ Style
There's really not much of a record of the president's trip to Alaska on Nov. 1-2, 1964. Perhaps that's because it was just a stopover. LBJ and Lady Bird were ending a 17-day Asian tour. They overnighted in Anchorage, which meant they were with us only 9 hours total.

Still, it was memorable.

We kept waiting for a gentleman in a suit to knock at the apartment door, show us a badge, and ask my mother a few questions about who we were. Oddly, no one from the Secret Service came by. I say oddly because it was only 6 months since bullets cut down President Kennedy in his motorcade and it was all too apparent that the windows of our apartment would give us a sniper's view of LBJ's limousine as it arrived at the Westward Hotel.

The president issued an executive order.
Everyone would go to the bonfire located on
the west end of the Buttress Area (red star).
A further breach of security occurred courtesy of the president himself. Was he worried about his safety? Hardly.

As soon as the limo pulled up we leaned out our windows for a perfect view. The president got out, waved, and shook hands, exposing himself directly to the crowd.

Soon the people in the street was surging forward in an almost uncontainable fashion. LBJ deftly backed away and got on the running board of the Lincoln Continental. He grabbed a microphone that was wired to a speaker on the car while the Secret Service agents, some of them holding Thompson submachine guns, no less, nervously scanned the crowd and those of us dangling out the windows.

"Now everybody stand back. We don't want anyone to get hurt," LBJ said in a gentle drawl. "We're all going down to the bonfire."

It seemed that Lyndon Johnson had a spontaneous urge that night. The president's Alaska hosts had built a giant fire in the Buttress Area in honor of his arrival. There were plenty of demolished building materials to ignite. Although it was not on the official schedule, LBJ had decided he wanted to check out the "bawn-fower," as he pronounced it. Why? I have no idea. Maybe he thought it would be neat to see. Maybe he thought it was the polite thing to do. Maybe it reminded him of his youth. Maybe he was cold...

So to the bonfire the presidential party went. The limo rolled ahead, out of my  sight.

It was the closest I ever got to a president of the United States.

The Beginning and End of Something
I have to admit that until now I've hardly thought about Lyndon Johnson. But with the anniversary of the Great Society speech I find myself taking stock. That speech represented Johnson's vision for his presidency. If you read it or listen to it, you'll notice that there were three areas he believed should be improved in order to make a better America: our cities, the natural world (what today we'd call "the environment"), and education.

And it's also worth noting that four times in a speech that was only 1,800 words long LBJ used the word "beauty," including my favorite paragraph in which everything is summarized thusly:

    The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich
    his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome
    chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness.
    It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and
    the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for

What happened to the Great Society? Well, the record shows that Congress passed 84 bills submitted by President Johnson. Everything from Head Start to Medicare to the National Endowment for the Arts had its genesis in this ambitious reshaping of American civil and cultural life.

But that was never supposed to be the whole story:

      The solution to these problems does not rest on a massive program
      in Washington, nor can it rely solely on the strained resources of local
      authority. They require us to create new concepts of cooperation,
      a creative federalism, between the National Capital and the leaders
      of local communities.

Ah, we supposed to all work together. But look at what happened.

By 1968 many of the cities LBJ wanted to regenerate were in flames as race riots spread across the country. Crime was on the rise. City streets were not safe to walk.

As for the beauties of nature and LBJ's desire to prevent "an ugly America", ahead of us were Three Mile Island, Love Canal, the Exxon Valdez, and the strip malling of the suburbs.

The percentage of Americans graduating from
high school soon leveled off.
And education? The goal was to increase the number of Americans graduating from high school. For the next five years this number rose from around 73% of the total population. But as you can see in the graphic on the left, it plateaued in the seventies and has stayed at mid-80 percent.

Presidential Report Card
The problem that LBJ was beginning to face in 1966 was a seemingly containable situation that had grown into an enormous conflagration: Viet Nam. This was why he had been on the 17-day Asian trip and was stopping off in Alaska. What would follow would be regular announcements from the White House, echoing the generals who assured the president that we were "winning the war."

Until it became obvious that we weren't. After that the political ground began to shift beneath the president.

People often talk about what America might have become if John F. Kennedy had not been murdered in the streets of Dallas, but I'll always wonder what would have become of us if Lyndon Johnson had turned away from Viet Nam. Could the Great Society have become a project we labored mutually to bring into being? A society where our cities were temples of commerce, education, and culture? A place where leisure meant a chance to both build and reflect? A place where we encouraged each other to seek beauty and community? A place where all of us appreciated the beautiful land we live in the midst of?

I can't help thinking that LBJ's response to the Gulf of Tonkin "crisis" in August 1964 became his equivalent of the Great Alaska Earthquake. His resorting to an ever-escalating military solution shook to the foundations all his Great Society plans to the point that he decided not to run for re-election in 1968.

After LBJ left office others tried to rebuild from the fractures of the sixties and all the rubble that piled up. We heard about George H. Bush's "Thousand Points of Light," Bill Clinton's "Bridge to the 21st Century."

All such dreams may well be unrealizable, but I have to say I still like, best of all, the idea of a Great Society.That's why in my memory I continue to stare at the flames of a bonfire on a cold northern night. If only that fire would never go out, but of course it did and that's what they call history. - V.W.


Friday, May 20, 2011

Experiencing the Big "O" (opera that is...)

Herr Wagner
As I noted in my last post, our son wanted to go to the movie theater recently where a live performance of the Metropolitan Opera was being broadcast in High Definition.

The opera was the second in Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle which tells the story of the struggles between the gods and their relations with humans and the decline of the celestial order.

Die Walkure.

This opera is 330 minutes long, which includes two 30-minute intermissions. For the math challenged (sometimes me), that works out to five and one-half hours.

This sign is above Theater No. 5.
They must showing the opera here...
As I walked into the movie theater, I noted approximately 40 other brave souls. I noted too that the average age of these long-distance opera patrons was around 70. This was a big day for the senior discount! Maybe by the time you're retired you have nothing else to do with an entire afternoon of your life?

I reminded myself that my main goal wasn't to ponder the demographics and extrapolate the future of opera, but to make it through the entire performance. I had no expectation of anything other than a notable level of physical pain and psychic discomfort.

Such grim expectations appeared to be met as time passed and the big screen continued showing slides with info about upcoming opera productions. The big deal live feed for which we were paying $22 each brought us only the sounds of  the orchestra tuning up. No Maestro James Levine. No opera stars. No million dollar innovative set. No images live from New York City.


Oh no! What could this mean? It meant that we would sit where we were and be regaled with repeats of the previews and trivia about the Met's opera stars while we worked our way through a tub of buttered popcorn. Yes, eventually the curtain would open on Die Walkure.

Forty minutes late.

A thought flashed through my mind: "The opera should be halfway through Act One. But here I sit. Three hundred and thirty minutes left to go. I'm going to die..."

The Gods' Entrance into Opera
I'm not going to write a review of this production of Die Walkure. I'm sure those exist in many places and some of them are written by knowledgable critics and opera buffs. I only want to report on two things and then conclude with a flury of impressions.

1 - We made it all the way to the end! We had gone into the theater at 11 a.m. We walked out blinking into the sunlight at 5 p.m.

2 - We liked the opera! Crazy thing. My son and I are thinking about going back in November for the high-def screening of the third Ring installment, Siegried.


Twaddle Time?
I wouldn't even consider attending a long opera sung in a foreign language if they were not subtitles. But early on, as the German coming out of the characters' mouths was converted efficiently into English, the words I was reading at the bottom of the screen gave me some cause for alarm.

Only after our hero gets his coveted drink of water
do things start to become interesting...
Our noble buff looking hero Siegmund collapses on the hearth at the home of the fair Sieglinde. The latter is stuck in a forced, loveless marriage.

We know from the first chaste but flirtateous glance what's going to occur. These two are going to get together.

Except there's no cut to the chase. Instead, for 15 minutes the would-be lovers sing to each other something like this while there's much pouring of liquids into vessels and into mouths.

Siegmund: I am faint! I am thirsty!

Sieglinde: You look exhausted. You have been pursued!

Siegmund: I've been pursued. Bring me water!

Sieglinde: I'll get you water! I'll pour it in your mouth!

Siegmund: Ah, the water is good!

Sieglinde, my sweet, the mead is awesome!
You're my sister, so let's get married!
Sieglinde: I can get you some mead! The mead will give you strength.

Siegmund: Ah, mead is good! I will feel strong!

Sieglinde: The mead I'm pouring from the horn into your mouth is like oil funneled into a 12-cyclinder engine. It is reviving you and your handsome body!

Siegmund: I'm feeling better now! It must be the mead!

Fortunately, the libretto's dwelling on minituae is temporary. The twaddle ceases as these two lock gazes (and soon limbs) and they move on to more important matters.

Through further vigorous singing exchanges Siegmund and Sieglinde discover that they are twins, separated in their youth when their mother was killed and their father had to flee. Now guess what? They really feel a kinship. So much so that Siegmund concludes that since Sieglinde hates her husband there's a perfect solution. They'll get married.

Instant incest!

Of course, this is Wagner and the "Sieg" twins are offspring of the god Wotan. Different conjugal rules perhaps apply?

Seriously, Folks...
The foregoing is the only part of Die Walkure I can make fun of. I found the rest of it riveting. There are only five main characters which means we get to experience them more in depth than  if they were being interrupted by singing choruses of happy townspeople and milk maids.

Wotan is a god who agonizes and is reluctant
to use his terrible power.
It is in this respect that viewing this opera in the theater is perhaps superior to actually being in the audience at the Met. The camera is able to bring us close-ups and different angles on the characters.

I felt like I got to know them.

I watched nuances of emotion flicker across their faces. Bryn Terfel's Wotan is nearly as conflicted as Hamlet when he is forced to apply the letter of the law to his beloved Valkyrie daughter, Brunnhilde.

And in a great high definition moment, Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund drooled a long string of spit during his song immediately prior to his battle and death. He just kept on singing, spit and all, and I knew this singer making his Wagner debut was already a pro.

Brunnhilde the Valkyrie rocks!
But the real standout for me was Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde. She's a wild woman. A crazy red head. She's hot to trot onto the battlefield and do her Valkyrie job of inspiring warriors and, when they fall, she'll carry them to Vahalla where they will spend eternity serving the gods at their banquet table.
This daughter of a god has spirit, spunk, fire and mirth in her eyes.

When Brunnhilde is condemned by Wotan to become a mortal, nay, not just a mortal, but a mediocre woman who will have to serve as a doormat to an earthly husband, we can tell that she would prefer death. She then begins the greatest campaign in history to change a god's mind, even outdoing Lot's bargaining with Yahweh (Genesis 18).

Technology is Handmaiden to the Gods?
The final star of the show has to be designer Robert LePage's hydraulic moving, morphing, computer controlled set. Those involved with it call it "Le Machine." It is a series of planks mounted on an horizontal axis. As the planks spin into position and assume various shapes, projectors light them with computer generated images to give them the texture of tree bark, stone, animated fire, or whatever is needed.

Le Machine surrounds Brunnhilde with a flaming barrier
atop the mountain at the end of Die Walkure.
Le Machine is a big deal. Literally. It weighs so much that steel reinforcing beams had to be placed beneath the Met's stage. A space in the basement had to be created for the engine. It takes nearly 20 stage hands to run the beast.

Turns out Le Machine is a bit of a diva. It has malfunctioned and left the gods hoofing it off stage rather than climbing a stairway to Vahalla (Das Rheingold). It has tripped Brunnehilde (premiere of Die Walkure). It was Le Machine's fault that we waited 40 minutes for the show to begin.

Even as a technological skeptic, I was all right with Le Machine. There was a sort of cubism elan to it and, in the last act, a decided Salvador Dali-esque atmosphere. These different evocations of non-realistic art helped me slip into this surreal world of Northern gods in crisis. I also appreciated that the technology had been humbled; it wasn't perfect which made it, dare I say, almost human? Like a clanking R2D2. What's not to love?

As I see it, Wagner is all about excess. Excessive music, singing, costuming, and story-telling. So why not a gigantic, ultra-expensive Le Machine in the mix? It is all of a piece. The Ring operas are about the gods and the gods have created a gianormous mess with their philandering, quarreling and war making. Not unlike what we humans do, eh?

So the operas are a life study but it's not undertaken by staring into a puddle and counting paramecium. It's a plunge into a stormy ocean teeming with leviathans of drama and emotion.

If you're willing to get wet, I recommend it. - V.W.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Climbing Mt. Met (an Opera Challenge)

Believe it or not, challenges don't come much larger than this.
We're talking Richard Wagner and Brunnhilde the warrior daughter...
a potentially life threatening combination.
 Challenges. I like them...

That's one reason why I try to write novels. In one instance it took me seven years and 1100 sheets of paper to get to the point where I reached the last sentence of the last chapter and I finally typed "The End." Now that's a challenge.

Challenges are also why I'm attracted to running even when my feet and bones try to tell me they're feeling old and they don't want to slap pavement and or beat a path along the trail anymore.

The truth is that the prospect of a greater than average challenge is what drove me to undertake The Van Winkle Project. I wasn't seeking to become a better person. I wasn't expecting exquisite insights. I just wanted to make my life more difficult...

So far, ugh, I'm getting what I asked for. This is hard.

Since I still have to deny myself for another four months, I find myself wanting to go the other way--as a sort of compensation for being deprived of the news, entertainment, sports and weather that I crave.

I want a challenge that is the opposite of Van Winklian self-denial.

I want to over-indulge. I want to pig out . I want to scoop up every single morsel. Gorge myself until it hurts. I'm not talking about food, though. I'm looking for something of substance that will stuff my empty brain and overload my senses.

Fortunately an opportunity has presented itself.

Die Walkure is an opera by Richard Wagner.I've decided to make it my fresh challenge, a temporary mountain to climb. Here's what I want to find out.

Can I sit through five and half hours of big men and large ladies singing and running around with swords while wearing breast plates and helmets with horns sticking out of them? Can I endure all that and not die of boredom? Can I even extract something valuable from the experience? Or is this going to be worse than a root canal?

The Details
Our son just turned thirteen. One of the ideas he had to celebrate his birthday was that he wanted a gift or activity that reflected his love of classical music.

This was my idea of a Wagner opera growing up.
Bugs Bunny in "What's Opera Doc?" Classic!
A few months ago he noticed at the local cinemaplex a poster for live broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera.

Yes, whenever the Met is performing an opera a person living out here in mesquite country can buy a $22 ticket and slip into an air conditioned theater and watch the same show as the tuxedoed and gowned ladies and gentlemen are seeing in New York City. Our version comes to us on the big screen in High Definition.

This sounded as if it had to be quite an improvement over the Sunday Texaco Opera my father used to tune into on our home radio/intercom system back in the days when we lived in Alaska. I suppose Dad felt a need to import some culture to the remote 49th state. All I knew was that the tinny intercom speakers in every room were blasting this exotic stuff. Opera!? I couldn't escape that awful singing in foreign languages!

Our son thinks he'll like the show, although he's not sure about the length. He's mainly excited by tales of the more than million dollar "morphing" stage the Met installed just for this production. "This could be cool, Dad!"

Yeah, son, but it's an opera...

My personal jury is still out on whether I like opera or not. This is why Die Walkure presents such an interesting challenge.

Wagner wrote the ideal music for fiery death descending
from the skies in Vietnam...
Rather than dipping my toe into the operatic waters, I'm going to dive in. We'll arrive at the movie theater at 11 a.m. and walk out at last at 4:30 p.m. Five and a half hours of Rick-hard Wagner! Total bombast! All of it courtesy of the artist who most inspired Adolph Hitler (ick). The man who gave us the perfect soundtrack song for the genocidal attack on the village in Apocalypse Now, "The Ride of the Valkyries."

This may sound unappealing to some readers, but you should realize. I'll try most anything once. What's the downside for a writer? None. As I tell my creative writing students, 'If something you do turns out badly it's ultimately to your advantage. Now you have something really interesting to write about."

I know this opera will be an interesting experience. What I don't know is whether I can make it to the end without drowning in the sheer excess. Come back for the next post to find out how we fared. - V.W.


Friday, May 13, 2011

My Official Request to be a Blog of Note

Update May 16, 2011: I'm shocked and amazed that Google/Blogger has not responded to the request below. Perhaps they are still working on their software problems. For that reason I am extending my deadiine by 24 hours...


From: Van Winkle
Re:   Your Recent Outage

Dear Google:

You are one of the most successful entities in the world and the owner of Blogger. I am writing to you because even though my current project places me in a status as one who is “sleeping,” I am not in a coma. I am aware when the ground has trembled beneath me.

Tremble it did on Thursday and Friday of this week.

I am referring to the massive service outage at Blogger.

If I were reading the news (which by terms of this project I am not allowed to do) I can only imagine the headlines:







As you know, a whole nation of bloggers around the world suddenly were unable to publish on their blogs. Here at The Van Winkle Project, I was one of them. Therefore, I am with this letter asking you for appropriate compensation.

It’s very simple. You owe me. And there's one way to take care of it: Let me become a Blog of Note.

Why This is a Reasonable Request
Your outage precluded my sharing with the Internet population of Planet Earth a wonderful, amusing, one-of-a-kind post that was designed to set up my weekend activity of attending a 5.5 hour performance of Wagner’s Die Waküre.

You see, if I am going to subject myself to 330 minutes of operatic bombast and possible aural and visual torture, it’s only because like any blogger desperate for material I am able to tell myself, “At least I’ll get a post out of it!”

Now my plans have been hampered. I couldn't generate interest in advance of my going to the opera because I couldn't blog about it! Which means you have jeopardized my ability to generate more compelling content to keep my EIGHTEEN FOLLOWERS coming back to my blog with bated breath...

On the other hand, if you make me a Blog of Note , I will likely receive TENS OF THOUSANDS of new visitors. That’s not bad compensation.

Please Consider Also…

1 – My blog is attractively designed
2 – It is well written and carefully proofread
3 – It’s not sloppy and sentimental
4 – It’s not cranky or political or religious or
    atheistic or an axe looking for meat to cleave
4a -It's eclectic, sort of a Chex Party Mix genre of blog
    with something for everyone
5 – There are no naked cats, wild ferrets, or cute babies
6 – This request is, as the Brits say, “cheeky” and one
    can easily admire such boldness and temerity
7 – If no one else has asked, then that puts me at the
    head of the line, right?

Optimist that I am, I will expect you to respond to this request within 48 hours. Need I remind you that until this happened we had a beautiful relationship? Now that you have become “available” again, let’s move past this temporary setback and make the most of it, eh? I’ll have the champagne chilling in the fridge.


Van Winkle


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Van Winkle Cleans His Office

An untidy desk is only the tip of the iceberg...
At the university where I'm employed the Monday before the start of final exams is always designated "Dead Day."

Even though we call it Dead Day, it is not supposed to be an occasion of mourning, nor is it some kind of reprise of Halloween. What it actually denotes is a mandated pause.

As students frantically churn out end-of-semester papers and study for their exams, faculty such as myself spend this Monday in their offices.

Students can count on our being available should they want to drop by to see us for last-minute help.

It's a nice gesture. It's as if the students are travelers and they have a pit stop available where they can get gas, air in their tires, and a good map before heading back down the road. Come see your prof!

The Need to Clean
On Dead Day 2011,  I find myself expecting a couple of creative writing students to come by. Other than that, traffic will be slow. Which is fine with me. I have 21 faculty applications for summer research assistant grants to evaluate. I need to look at and grade some blogs that I had students create in my creative nonfiction class.

And I like to use Dead Day to clean my office. I mean, just look at this mess!

Mon., May 9, 2011 - 8:05 a.m.

Ad nauseum...

You get the idea...

Warning "College Professor Ahead..."
If college professors were to be differentiated by a single criteria, I suppose an obvious one might be "neat office" versus "messy office."

There's much to be said in favor of the messy office. Unlike the corporate world, professors tend to settle into a place and never move. Even as they achieve promotions from assistant to associate to full professor (at a glacial academic pace, to be sure), the enhancement in rank rarely brings any other apparent change in status. They don't get a bigger office or a shiny new desk or more shelving. They stay put. This is fine. It's historically part of the profession.

It's also a great opportunity to strive to pursue the legendary messy office.

Such offices are not rare. I recently read a novel set in the academic world. In 36 Arguments For the Existence of God one prof who moves from Columbia University to a new job at another university makes sure to carefully recreate his messy office:

"Also mysterious was how everything about his cramped Columbia office has been preserved, right down to the spiky plant on the windowsill, which had been dead for years. The very arrangement of the clutter on Professor Klapper's desk was duplicated, with space cleared for the photograph of his mother in its ornate silver frame. The wooden-slatted chair into which he was poured was either an exact replica of what he'd had at Columbia or had been transported along with the desiccated crown of thorns."

I don't suppose profs love dead plants, they just tend not to notice them. It's not surprising given the stacks of student papers that need to be graded. The piles of books they need for classes they teach. Poorly engineered tilting columns are made up of books required for the professor's own research. Then there are all the documents and advertisements and catalogs that arrive in the daily mail that no one wants to deal with during the full-throttle advancement of the semester.

Things pile up. And the legendary professor in a legendary messy office could care less.

Yes, yes, have a seat...uh...right here...
When a student comes to visit, the prof looks around for somewhere for him or her to take a seat. This means shifting a pile off a chair and onto the floor. Like a soldier proceeding through a mine field, the student maneuvers past books and paper piles and gets seated.

The professor begins looking for something pertinent in the midst of the rubble covering the desk, something that's needed to help the student--a pen, a scribbled sticky note, a reference book.  Dust wafts into the air as hand pats and probes try to make headway.

All this takes a while.

The student feels ill at ease. But the professor is completely in his/her element! This is why this kind of prof can be declared "legendary." They have raised the idea of messy office to the status of an art.

With their gross inefficiency and implicit announcement that "I'm a disorganized person" this sort of prof might not last five minutes in the corporate world. But this is academia. Academia is home of the true Jurassic Park where the dinosaurs still roam and do live, in many ways, exactly the way their ancestors did in the Middle Ages.

Have you seen faculty striding around in their silly caps and gowns at graduation?

Addressing the Problem
I think I'm a middle of the road academic. I came to academia relatively late in life when, like most writers these days, I realized a university was the only place that would pay me steadily for my relatively insignificant area of expertise. I know how to write and I can show others how to do it. That's about all I have to offer...

I actually don't make such a great academic. I refuse to speak the jargon (e.g., use words like problematic, dichotomy, liminal) and I don't wear tweed jackets or cultivate a salt and pepper beard. Likewise, I've never truly gone in for a messy office. All I try to do is my absolute best at my job because if I were a student that's what I'd want from a prof.

In the midst of my teaching efforts my office does tend to deteriorate. Rather than reaching legendary proportions of messiness, it simply becomes untidy and sloppy enough that it begins to distress me. I don't want to go in there until I do something about it.

On this Dead Day I begin. After little over an hour I think the photographic evidence is clear. My office now looks worse.

Mon., May 9, 2011 - 9:27 a.m.

But no pain, no gain, correct?

Lowering the Bar (for a Tidy Office)
So I spend several more hours throwing papers into my portable dumpster, a handy cardboard box. I straighten and move piles. I find a few things I thought I'd lost. Hurray! But I am running out of time and will soon have to leave for the day. Things are better, espeically within the perimeters of my desk, but...

Mon., May 9, 2011 - 2:18 p.m.
I shift into high gear. I throw papers away in a blur. I cheat and shove messes back far enough so they won't fit into the photo frame (I have placed my camera on a tripod). I take the most wimpish of courses: I opt for a cosmetic clean...

Mon., May 9, 2011 - 3:29 p.m.

And then I shut the door. Big difference? I wish it were so. Maybe I'm more academic than I realize... - V.W.

BONUS FEATURE: The World Class Cleaning Prof..

Okay, tell me the fellow below doesn't have one of the messiest offices imaginable. Legendary! Watch what he does to rectify the problem in "four minutes". The before and after of this law professor's office are truly breathtaking.

Prof. Albert Einstein's study as it was at the time of his death...