Making Sense of A Child of Our Time

During the Thursday night opening performance of Sir Michael Tippett’s modern oratorio A Child of Our Time, I started to understand the piece a little better. I had been struggling to interpret the libretto in light of the circumstances of its composition—specifically, as a response to the tragic story of Herschel Grynszpan, the young Polish Jew whose assault of a Nazi official gave the Nazis the excuse for the Kristallnacht pogrom. And certain aspects of the libretto make sense in this context, particularly the action of the second part of the oratorio. This, the story of the Boy who, frustrated by continual persecution, shoots the official and is imprisoned after a violent retaliation, appears as close to a retelling of Grynszpan’s tragedy as possible.

But this section is surrounded by meditative passages on the nature of good and evil and the duplicity in men’s hearts, of the love of parents for their children and of winter and oppression. Most puzzling of all is the identification of the slain official as the Boy’s “dark brother” and the ultimate rejection of the Boy—“He, too, is outcast, his manhood broken in the clash of powers.” What is Tippett getting at?

After last night’s performance, I think the key is in the mysterious introduction to section III:

The cold deepens.
The world descends into the icy waters
Where lies the jewel of great price.

These lines from the chorus, coming on the heels of the Boy’s imprisonment, suggest a continual worsening of the situation actually brings about something valuable. What is the jewel of great price? Judging from the penultimate chorus, “I would know my shadow and my light, so shall I at last be whole,” Tippett’s drama is aiming not at social justice but at self knowledge and a deeper understanding of mankind. The Boy’s fate, his lack of redemption, suggests that Tippett condemns him for descending in his despair to murder, and believes that only through embracing his shadow, his dark brother, can he reach the “garden” that “lies beyond the desert”; only through rapprochement can he be healed.

As a response to Kristallnacht, this seems an inadequate, if not astoundingly naïve perspective. Indeed, Tippett in later years commented that while this sort of reconciliation may be possible among individuals, it appears to be impossible among nations. But separated from this specific conflict as a statement for the growth of a man and of mankind, it is a powerful message.

Ultimately the tension between the dramatic exigencies of the Boy’s story and the reflective, meditative lesson that Tippett attempts to draw in the final sections is responsible for the work’s philosophical incoherence. But it is a fascinating, if doomed, struggle between light and dark that forces the listener to ask how else one could respond to events of such horror. And today, as we all engage in our individual assessments of the horrors, wars, persecutions, and failures of humanity of the years since the oratorio premiered in 1944 and in the last five years in particular, it reminds us, just as does the story of Rosa Parks, that the individual’s response to this darkness is the most important thing of all.

Old Arlington maps

arlington 1898

Speaking of the Arlington list, someone just posted a fantastic find: a working map of the town dating from 1898. What is most interesting about this map is that it sets some theories of our neighborhood’s development on their head. I have been told by my neighbors, and even by the folks we bought our house from, that our land originally belonged to the folks who built the house next to ours on the corner, which dates to the 1920s. In fact, the map of our neighborhood not only shows Grand View Road, but shows the plots for our house and the house on either side, in more or less the places they are today. The house next to ours may have been built first, but it never owned our land.

Interesting what you can dig up if you look.

Snow? In October??

I figured that since most of the leaves in our neighborhood were still firmly in place, we were safe from winter weather a while longer. No such luck. As I was leaving my barber’s shop in Arlington Heights, there were honest-to-goodness flakes of snow. Small, still, but getting bigger. By the time I picked up a few light fixtures that had come in at Wolfer’s in Waltham, the flakes were pretty big, and they stayed that way all afternoon. I think we got close to an inch, though it only accumulated on the grass and a few parked cars.

One of my neighbors on the Arlington List got some great photos of the storm, which he dubbed “Hall-snow-een.”

Taking care of business, in a flash: closing up the walls

I’d like to introduce you to the table saw on the right, also known as The Machine That Saved My Ass. Ryobi isn’t a lusted after brand of power tools the way Porter and Cable or DeWalt is, but for my money and for today this is the Power Tool That Walks on Water.

Perhaps I should back up. As I previously wrote, we figured out this weekend that we needed to trim most of the lumber we were using to frame the radiator niches so that the wallboard the plasters were to install would be flush with the existing wall surface. Unfortunately, my plan to use a circular saw hit some snags: lack of a good long work surface, inexperience with the tool, and most importantly lack of time. Because I needed to get the niches framed and insulated by Thursday morning, when the plasterers were due to start working. But I was rehearsing Tuesday night, Wednesday morning, and Thursday morning, and singing a concert Thursday night.

So basically I had Wednesday night after an abbreviated work day to rip a sill plate and top plate and studs for five wall openings, then nail them into place and insulate them. I called Lisa and shared the news. She said, “Can you get that done?” I said, “I think I need to get a table saw.” She said, quite reasonably, “But where would you put it?” Right now our garage is full of plumbing fixtures waiting to go in our upstairs bathroom, but it won’t have a lot of room even in the best case scenario. I told her I would find a portable model, and crossed my fingers.

Sure enough, the Ryobi above folds down and even has wheels to roll it away into a corner. It was pretty quick to assemble. I left the office at six, had it in the back seat of my wife’s Prizm (a tight squeeze, but it fit) by 6:40, and was home and assembling it by 7:30. At 8 pm, I connected the ShopVac to the dust port and started ripping lumber, and was done by 9. The ripping process was an absolute breeze.

I started working. The process I followed was to dry-fit the plates and studs, shim or trim where needed, and then start fastening everything together. I nailed the top and sill plates into the framing above the niches and the floor joists, respectively, using a big heavy framing hammer and some 16d nails. (My forearms are still aching, btw). Then I used construction adhesive to fasten the end studs to the finished plaster sides of the niches, and toenailed the center stud into place. I should probably have used more than three studs on some of the openings, but for the sake of time I left some wider bays.

Wednesday night I only finished two bays (and applied the adhesive to the rest) before my body shut down at 10:30. Thursday morning I got up early, insulated the bays in the kitchen and our bedroom, then cursed as I realized I had cut the plates for the living room some six inches two short. I had to leave at that point, so I kept my fingers crossed that the plasterers would not have enough time to address all the openings yesterday.

On the way from the office to the concert I stopped at Home Depot and picked up two more 2x4s, then swung by the house and ripped and crosscut them to fit, and dry fit them in the living room. I was too tired after the concert to do anything else, so I got up this morning and finished nailing and insulating the remaining bays. As I was working on the second to last one, the plasterer arrived, so I hurriedly finished it and moved on to the last bay, where I had to install an electrical box as well as nailing in the framing and insulating the cavity. Somehow I managed it and was out the door at 8, passing the plasterers who were already screwing blueboard over the first cavity.

It was a close thing, and my arms will ache for a week from all the hammering. But I got it done. Thanks, Machine That Saved My Ass! You’ve earned your precious floor space in my garage.

Well, that was a surprise

For someone (like me) interested in the Bush administration’s ongoing troubles, it was a bad morning to spend in a dress rehearsal. The withdrawal of Harriet Miers’ nomination for the Supreme Court signals more troubles on the horizon and a further diminution of the President’s mojo. Even if the withdrawal came as no surprise.

And it should come as no surprise at all: Salon’s War Room points out that columnist Charles Krauthammer practically scripted the withdrawal and the reason for it in a post on last Friday. For a man whose biography brags that he found Stephen Hawking’s popular books on cosmology “entirely incomprehensible,” Krauthammer nailed this one on the head. The adminstration and the Senate, in deadlocking over the release of documentation  from Miers’ tenure in the White House, found a way to force the withdrawal of a nominee who was widely seen, on all sides of the political spectrum, as unfit to serve in the nation’s highest court. A neat trick: by quibbling over matters of executive privilege, we can still pretend that the emperor has clothes and that he has not shown himself incapable of finding them.

Note to composers

A realization that came during the orchestra rehearsal with the BSO for Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time today: in a highly complex, chromatic choral work with shifting meter and uncertain melodic lines, it is perhaps unwise to ask the chorus to sing the text “We are lost.”

Otherwise rehearsals are going well. The performances (tomorrow night, Friday afternoon, Saturday night) should be excellent. And working with Sir Colin Davis is a treat.

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks’ world seems a million miles away. It’s hard to believe it was (just) less than fifty years ago that segregation was commonplace, that someone could be arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus, that we accepted unequal treatment for citizens of our country based on the color of their skin.

Of course, in some ways, it still seems very real.

And it’s more apparent than ever that there is still a lot of work to do. That we have barely addressed the deep social injustices and divides that were reflected in the laws that Ms. Parks helped to erase, much less the economic factors that continue to put the lie to the image of the US as a land of prosperity and opportunity.

But if there is one lesson to be learned from Rosa Parks, it is this: sometimes even causes that have decades of rising social pressure on their side need a single person to stand up—or, in this case, keep her seat. One person doesn’t change the world, but one person can be the pivot on which the world starts to change.

(I decided to finish writing this even though I think David Weinberger has said it better.)

Thanks, Trend Micro, for your overzealous blockage.

Today’s definition of frustrating is finding out that your company’s new antivirus software considers the eMusic Download Manager to be a “virus” (ok, adware). Especially frustrating since I pay for that service and now can’t use it. The download experience in Firefox is dramatically worse without the download manager, as you lose the option to download a whole album at once; instead you have to click on each song, one at a time.

Emusic is a great service. It’s too bad that someone there made the poor decision of bundling the promo for their service in such a way that it hurts their image and worsens the user experience for their legitimate customers.

Radiator niches and bathroom work

Ow. Ow. Even though contractors are hip deep in our first floor bathroom renovation, we still have plenty of projects of our own, including (ow ow) framing in the niches where the radiators used to be, so that the plasterers can make them flush with the walls. This, as always, turned out to be more complex than we ever imagined.

Background: we didn’t want to find a plasterer ourselves and so had put off this project, but we’ll have one coming in to finish the walls and ceiling in our new shower. So we decided we would take advantage of his coming to have him do the work. And it turns out to be affordable, provided that we do the basic framing ourselves. So on Saturday we cleaned out all the broken plaster from the niche, which turned out to be pretty much all of it, measured, and cut the 2x4s to length. Then I started swinging a framing hammer, and learned about slow progress. Really slow project. Fortunately we finished the dining room one and I even hung a box for the outlet.

Then things started to slow down. We had to remove trim from each of the other openings—intact, if possible, since we would need to reuse it once the plastering is complete. And in some cases we needed to bring up floorboards, since we had some floor to replace where there was some water damage and need to reuse the good boards to patch the bad ones.

Then there were the two pipes, that, in spite of all our HVAC installers’ efforts, were still too high to lay floor over. Fortunately our contractor volunteered to knock one off during his lunch hour—seeing that otherwise his plasterer wouldn’t be able to finish his job. And tonight I got another one done, in spite of a nightmare of bad angles and sheer fright. (Handling a reciprocating saw to cut a few inches off a loose cast iron pipe just below our bedroom floor ranks as my least home improvement chore ever.)

But that’s done, and all the lumber is cut to length. Now I just need to rig a jig so that I can use my circular saw to trim about 5/8ths of an inch off each piece, so that the blueboard will lay flush with the wall surface or below it. A few shots of the progress here, including the shower stall pre-rough piping and tile.

Blogging to Manila from Flock.

If this works, I will have successfully blogged from Flock. To get posting to my Manila site working, I had to bypass Flock’s blog autosetup and hand-edit the configuration file, which on my Windows machine is saved in my Documents and Settings directory under Application DataMozillaFlockprofiles[default]blog_alpha.rdf.

The problem with Flock’s autodetection technology is that both the Blogger and Metaweblog API attempt to use the GetUsersBlogs API call, which is not implemented on Manila. All I had to do to get it working, though, was to save a profile that called Blogger using the Metaweblog API, then edit the RDF file to set all the correct user ids and URLs based on my RSD file.

A few things I like about the blog editor—the built-in Flickr topbar is cool, cool, cool. And the UI for the actual editor is pretty nice. I especially like the option to show me the HTML of my post. I have used enough “WYSIWIG” editors that end up generating nasty HTML that I don’t really trust them anymore. —Flock is no exception to this rule, btw; rather than wrapping paragraphs in <p></p>, it ends a paragraph with a <br /><p>. Bad bad bad, particularly if your blog is HTML 4.01 Transitional. But once you drag up the splitbar to get to the raw HTML you can edit to your heart’s content. Which is good, because Flock totally mangles HTML entities. I put a curly quote in the HTML view with & rsquo;, which turned into the proper ’ in the preview; I then went and copied and pasted that into another place in the preview, but it pasted as a high ascii character rather than an HTML entity. Bad, bad, bad. And when you hit Italics in the preview, it formats it as <span style=”font-style: italic;”></span> rather than the more semantic <em></em>. Bad, bad, bad, bad. Forget what I said about the blog editor; it needs work, and I will be posting some bug reports.

Also, the draft functionality is weird. When you save as draft, your post window closes, and you have to open a new blog window, switch to the Draft account, open the Blog topbar, and click on the saved post to get it to open. Then you have to mouse down in the text field to enable the Publish button. Not intuitive.

Flocking, almost.

Flock has launched its public Developer Preview. Congrats to Sloanie Geoffrey Arone and the rest of the Flock team.

I’m playing with the release, but it’s living up to its designation as a developer preview release. For one thing, it doesn’t appear to work with my Manila blog; though the release notes state that it works with Blogger, it doesn’t appear to know how to talk to Manila’s Blogger or Metaweblog APIs, and there’s no UI for blog configuration aside from an autodiscovery engine that doesn’t work for my blog. I will be digging into the developer section and the pref files to see if I can figure out how to get around the autodiscovery feature and make this work with my blog. At a minimum, I would think the web services support would let me talk to the Manila API directly.

The Wilkerson transcript

Financial Times: Transcript: Colonel Wilkerson on US foreign policy. Don’t let the title throw you—this is one of the most astonishing insider critiques of the administration, and of the execution of US foreign policy generally, that I have read yet—and it’s only a partial transcript. The summary: a “cabal” of insiders led by Cheney and Rumsfeld has been making foreign policy decisions in secret, with disastrous results when the decisions go to the bureaucracy for implementation, and that we are all screwed as a result. But the actual transcript is far more entertaining. As Salon notes, “Wilkerson has a long working relationship with Powell and was often thought to be someone who would say aloud what Powell thought himself but was too cautious to reveal. If that’s what was happening Wednesday, the former secretary of state has a lot to get off his chest.” Yep:

And I would say that we have courted disaster, in Iraq, in North Korea, in Iran, generally with regard to domestic crises like Katrina, Rita and I could go on back, we haven’t done very well on anything like that in a long time. And if something comes along that is truly serious, truly serious, something like a nuclear weapon going off in a major American city, or something like a major pandemic, you are going to see the ineptitude of this government in a way that will take you back to the Declaration of Independence. Read it some time again…

Under Secretary of Defense Douglas [Feith], whom most of you probably know Tommy Frank said was stupidest blankety blank man in the world. He was. Let me testify to that. He was. Seldom in my life have I met a dumber man.

And yet, and yet, after the Secretary of State agrees to a $400 billion department, rather than a $30 billion department, having control, at least in the immediate post-war period in Iraq, this man is put in charge. Not only is he put in charge, he is given carte blanche to tell the State Department to go screw themselves in a closet somewhere.

Wrap-up of press coverage at The Washington Note by Steve Clemons, who was instrumental in organizing the talk at the New America Foundation (full video is also posted at that link).

Introducing the alternate merge

I feel unfair posting this in my Boston category, since it’s equally applicable to Seattle residents, but I feel compelled, after my 30 minute commute stretched to an hour this morning, to introduce a new concept to my fellow Massholes Boston-area motorists:

al-ter-nate merge
(n.) A method of bringing two lanes of traffic together into one lane in which a motorist from one lane proceeds and the motorist behind him yields to a motorist in the other lane to allow them to merge into the flow of traffic.

You think this is funny? That the term doesn’t bear defining? Well, the number of motorists who speed up to cut off mergers from the other lane, or who attempt to merge two or more cars in front of a motorist from the other lane, or who don’t come over when it’s their turn to merge even when you open a space for them, tells me that it’s not a well understood concept.

In Seattle, the problem is typically that the lane being merged into is populated by people driving under the speed limit and not leaving enough space between their cars for a motorcycle, much less another vehicle, to merge into traffic. In Boston, it’s worse:

  • People in lane 2 speed up when they see someone coming over from lane 1;
  • Drivers in lane 1 try to beat their turn to merge by cutting over behind the front driver in line, and blocking his merge attempt;
  • Drivers in lane 1 pull out and drive well past the merge point rather than wait their turn to merge, often cutting into lane 2 at the last possible second whether a space exists for them or not. (Especially common at the junction of Rt 2 westbound and 128 south in the mornings.)

I don’t know. Maybe I’m making up this whole concept. Am I alone in thinking that everyone should understand alternate merge?

We are ALL not consumers.

I’ve been getting an unusually high level of linkage to a post I wrote in July, called “I am not a consumer. I am a human being,” after Doc Searls linked it (and my recent rant about the crippling effects of the c-word) on Saturday. The attention is flattering, but I’m not the first person to express this sentiment. In fact, the web is boiling over with it. A brief survey yields these variants:

  • “I am not a consumer. I am a person. Start treating me like one.” — michaelw
  • “I am not a ‘consumer,’ a ‘recipient’ or any other abstraction. I am I. I am a person, I am a self.” — Harold A. Maio
  • “They do not see us as disabled. They see us as able. I am not a consumer who consumes government aid at exorbitant costs and never improves. My crew and I are producers…” — Bruce Ario
  • “To refer to citizens as ‘consumers’ indicates a pro-business bias.” — Christopher Palms (comment to FTC on Do Not Call registry)
  • “…being American means I am NOT a Consumer above all else.” — Roger Born
  • “I am not a ‘consumer’, I am not a number. I am not a walking wallet for companies and government to fight over. To the corporate heads and government rulers I say ‘HEY! You F**kers work for ME! Remember THAT!’” — “Phugedaboudet”
  • “I am not a consumer of your political products, I am a citizen!” — David Weinberger, cited at Blogads and at GreaterDemocracy
  • “I will not spend my money with a company whose CEO thinks I am nothing but a consumer (I despise that word) of useless media crap from Hollywood and the Copyright Cabal. I am not a consumer. I am a customer. And I will not be treated like a criminal.” — Terry Frazier
  • “I am not a consumer but a reader of books…” — Katherine MacNamara

Point? While there is certainly a fair amount of consumer-label-resentment directed towards the broadband providers, the same backlash is appearing against the music industry, the retail industry (through Amazon), Hollywood, marketers (tele- and otherwise), and the political establishment. That’s a lot of minds to start to shift.

So it’s time to start shifting them, to take the power back.

Update: Doc points out that I missed a very important variation on this, from Cluetrain: “we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings – and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.” Doc: I missed it because that’s written as an image with no alt text, and thus was not turned up in the Google search!!! Irony is alive and well.