Monday, March 30, 2009


Last night we went to see Hair in previews at the Al Hirschfeld Theater. The place was packed with folks of almost all ages—some sporting 1960’s type tie-dyed T-shirts and beads. I hadn’t seen the musical when it played in 1967-8—I was too young—so this was my first chance to see it in live performance with a professional cast. The staging made great use of aisles and doors as ways to involve the audience—nice for example, having Burger (Will Swenson--on the right in the picture above) come over to put his arms around me as he sang part of one song, the songs and dancing were high energy pieces that made it across the decades well, and whatever they used to get the smell of weed going through the hall—hard to believe it was pot itself—made it even more realistic. I enjoyed the performance a lot. While it clearly didn’t have the controversy it would have had playing to the 1960’s audiences who would have had a stronger reaction to the cursing, drugs, sex, treatment of the American flag, and nudity, it served instead as both a walk down memory lane and a critique of American society then and now.

It was a chance to remember what it felt like to wear bellbottoms or elephant bells with contrasting cloth added into the bottom seams, how much sexier men look with long hair, and how questioning authority played such a big role in day-to-day teen life. And, in the next to last scene, when Claude (Gavin Creel) came on with his hair trimmed and his military uniform on, it was also a chance to wonder how many of the older folks in the audience had at some point in the years since the 70s, made that same kind transition from free and wild to tamed and tailored during the forty years since.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


I spent part of this past weekend reading Ayn Rand’s novella Anthem. It’s not one of her books that I’d heard of, much less read, until recently, but it sounded like a short science fiction story that I’d loved as a teen (more of that later) so I decided to give it a try.    Anthem is a dystopia of the future presented through the secret journal of Equality 7-252, a street sweeper with a curious mind.  Humankind has entered another dark age and lives in a collective society in which candles provide light, books are on scrolls, children are raised by society rather than parents,  and everything is done in the best interest of the many.  Individuality has been largely eliminated from society – people speak in the first person plural rather than first person singular-- and happiness consists of an unreflective middle of the road life.    

Despite the draw of what I hoped would be a good story, I was hesitant to read any more Rand.   I find lots of flaws with her philosophy and in her life. (When I think of Rand, I automatically think of her delight in testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities) back in the 1940s.   But Anthem was written several years before such testimony.  In fact it was earlier than The Fountainhead and doesn’t have the fully developed ideas of Objectivism found in the latter and in Atlas Shrugged.   The last chapter of the book begins to develop the objectivist ideas by having Equality 7-2521 (now calling himself Prometheus) explain that from that day on he would pay attention first and foremost to his own self-interest without any concerns for others (“To be free, a man must be free of his brothers.”)  Part of that speech makes sense in the context of the extreme collectivism in which he has previously lived (“Neither am I the means to any end others may wish to accomplish. I am not a tool for their use. I am not a servant of their needs. I am not a bandage for their wounds. I am not a sacrifice on their altars.”), but part is Rand’s philosophizing on justice (which for her is using reason—always reason—to judge people by their value to you) and the immorality of selflessness.  But I’m not sure the ending works very well, though it did remind me in many ways of the recent ending of the TV series Battlestar Galactica and captures the American promise of a new world as Rand probably intended it to do.

Some of the book is wonderful.  My favorite description, for example, is of Equality 7-2521 explaining what being in the dorm at night with his brother sweepers is like: “as  we all undress at night, in the dim light of the candles, our brothers are silent, for they dare not speak the thoughts of their minds. For all must agree with all, and they cannot know if their thoughts are the thoughts of all, and so they fear to speak. And they are glad when the candles are blown for the night.”  But there are a whole series of major problems with it.  The book is loaded with sexism, suggesting that Rand was unable to make a space for her idea of objectivism in women’s lives.  At the end of the story, the Golden One (Equality/Prometheus’ love interest who has left the collectivity to follow him) is renamed Gaia because her job is to be the mother of future society.  He reads all the books they find and tells her about them while she is to bear and raise children.   Prometheus looks forward to “the sons” she will bear him.  Rand pushes for reason as a way to decide everything but none of these things—or even Equality’s relationship with the Golden One- is decided by reason. And, in his final speech, a speech that Rand means to reflect freedom and independence, Prometheus sounds very dictatorial.

I was originally drawn to Anthem because the summary of it reminded me of a story that I’d first read and enjoyed in 9th grade and have reread several times since-- Stephen Vincent Benet’s “By the Waters of Babylon”.  That short story was also a dystopia set by the Ou-dis-sun (the Hudson River) some time in the future after  the “great burning” when a bomb had been set off in New York City. It’s always struck me as a more symbolic, better done spin on the movie Planet of the Apes.  Now that I’ve read Anthem I see even more similarities between the two stories: information presented as entries in a secret journal; an “illegal” love interest in a society where reproduction and child-rearing are heavily regulated; people known by number rather than name; and the discovery of an earlier society of individuals that was destroyed by a major catastrophe that they brought on in one way or another.  Since Benet’s story was written before Rand’s novel, I wonder whether she had read it and was building on it in Anthem.  If she had, while some of the new storyline is interesting, I still prefer Benet’s telling of such a world.


Monday, March 23, 2009


In between soccer games at Becca’s March Madness tournament in Baltimore this weekend, we managed to join another couple and sneak away from the team dinner on Saturday evening to go to the inner harbor for a meal. For all of us it was the first time we’d been in the inner harbor since the entire inner harbor has been renovated. Most of the feel of the old harbor seemed gone except in little Italy. Since we were near that and wanted seafood –Norm kept talking about the raw oysters he couldn’t wait to eat-- we ate at Mo’s Fisherman’s Exchange. The place didn't look fancy, which was good given the gentrification of the entire area surrounding it. We should have expected, based on the number of diners leaving the place with plastic bags and Styrofoam containers, that there would be large portions of food, but somehow we didn’t. For example, I ordered a Caesar salad and the hot crab dip (which I shared with the rest of the table) and found myself already full. But then the entrĂ©e—salmon stuffed with crab and shrimp, all in imperial sauce—arrived and it was huge, almost covering the full dinner plate. It was delicious, though I could eat only about ¼ of it. There would have been enough for another two full meals. And Kathy’s crab cakes were like nothing I’d ever seen before—almost entirely large lumps of crab with almost no breading, each about six inches in diameter. My tablemates all had the same problem finishing their meals. We all lamented how there were no minifridges in our hotel rooms and so no way to bring the food back with us. All Sunday, as I was stuck eating Dunkin’ Donuts in between the semi-finals and the finals, I imagined that fish and what it would taste like to be heating it up and having it as leftovers. And, oh yes, Becca’s team came in first!

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Real Easter?

For me, each Jesus and Mo comic falls into one of two extremes--either extremely lame or extremely funny.  Here's today's:

Monday, March 16, 2009

Orchid Show

As we begin to transition each year from winter to spring, one thing that always helps is heading down to the Orchid Show at the New York Botanical Garden.  Last year we’d gone on the last weekend of the show and a lot of the orchids were past their peak, so we decided to go earlier this year. On Saturday morning we headed out so that we could be at the gardens as soon as they opened.  Getting there early was probably a good decision as far as parking and not having to wait in line, but the conservatory was still packed with people.

            The theme of this year’s display is Brazilian Modern.  Since I associate orchids with Brazil, I thought it would be amazing.  I was disappointed.  There are interesting tiles and abstract paintings mixed in with the orchids (most of which are in large boxes), but the flowers themselves were nothing spectacular.  Most of the brighter blue/purple orchids that I’d so loved in past years were nowhere to be seen.  Instead, we had mixes of yellows, whites, and oranges, most arranged in wooden boxes that did nothing for me.   

There was one wall of a hall that was amazing—covered with white orchids—but the final hall, which usually blows me away with its beauty, was a disappointment. 

            The contrast with previous years puzzles me.  Last year’s show was themed around Singapore, which I don’t think of as having as many varieties of orchids as Brazil does.  It had a pagoda to capture the feel of the country and most of the show consisted of trees covered with orchids.  The arrangement worked very well.  The year before, if I remember correctly, was a much more traditional layout of the flowers, with most of them exhibited in formal beds, but even that worked much better than this current Brazilian theme.  

            I’ve love orchids ever since I worked in a greenhouse as a teenager and learned more about them from my mother’s boss, whose avocation was growing and exhibiting orchids.  I appreciate any chance to see orchids—especially new or interesting varieties—so,while I was disappointed with this year’s show in comparison to those of previous years, I’m still glad we went.

The Big Bang Theory

I don't watch a lot of  TV, but about six months ago I ran across The Big Bang Theory and have been hooked on it ever since.  Almost every episode has something in it that I find extremely funny (and I LOVE many of Sheldon's T-shirts to boot)! Here's a clip from one of the earliest episodes I saw:

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

From This Week's Sanskrit Class

I've been fascinated with the connections between vibratory sounds and the sacred as well as their effects on the physical for some time now.  It led me to an interest with chanting, especially kirtan.  I've never much liked the idea, however, of chanting lines from the Gita or Vedas that sound beautiful but that I don't understand, so learning Sanskrit seemed like a wonderful "to do someday" project.  This weekend I got started by taking an intensive Sanskrit class with Jo Brill that taught me the alphabet and how to read basic words.  At the end we practiced our reading  one last time with the following list of names: