Thursday, July 31, 2014


On July 31, 1789, the U.S. Congress passed its fifth act establishing 59 custom collection districts in the eleven states that had ratified the constitution, and, thus, began a tradition of service that has grown with the nation.

I have worked in international trade at the United States Customhouse in San Francisco since August 1983 (except for a four-year-plus absence for grad school and other things between 1987 and 1991).

Our customhouse opened in 1911-- two years before the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which legalized the income tax. (I emphasize 'legalized' since Lincoln had imposed an income tax during the Civil War; but the Supreme Court later declared that tax unconstitutional, requiring the amendment.)

Prior to the income tax, customs duties were the principal source of revenue for the federal government. President Jefferson used customs duties to purchase Louisiana. They were used also to acquire Florida, finance the Mexican War, the Gadsden Purchase, and to buy Alaska. So a large proportion of the physical territory of the United States is a direct result of customs duties.

Several people have commented that our building is a cross between a fortress, a palace and a bank. All three descriptions are apt because the customhouse then represented the might, majesty and wealth of the United States of America.

When I started in 1983, our mission within the Department of Treasury was "To collect and protect the Revenue." Today our primary role within the new Department of Homeland Security is Anti-Terrorism. Even so, revenue collection continues to be an important function of the Trade side of the Bureau of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Image:courtesy GSA

Internal Defibrillator Procedure ~ July 31, 2008

Six years ago today I had an operation at Kaiser-Permanante in San Francisco to implant an internal defibrillator-- or an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD). This was recommended by my cardiologist, Dr. Sheryl Garrett, because of damage to my heart after my heart attack nearly ten years ago.

I was resistant at first, but was persuaded by two other cardiologists when my regular doctor was on maternity leave. My good friends Adam, Justin and Martin came to visit me right after the procedure, and Adam took me home by taxi the next day. Fortunately, it hasn't been used yet, though I am rather curious to know what it would feel like. My defibrillator is about the size of an average cell phone on my chest. The battery should be good for another three or four years. Then I'll need another minor procedure to replace the battery, which will actually be the entire unit. Chances are it will then be smaller and more powerful.

An internal defibrillator is a small, battery powered electrical impulse generator that is implanted in patients who are at risk for sudden cardiac arrest. They provide an electrical shock to the heart during periods of irregular heartbeat, and can save someone’s life. Internal defibrillators sense intrinsic cardiac electric potentials, and then send electrical impulses if the potentials are either too infrequent of absent, due to a problem with the patient’s heart. The electrical pulses stimulate the myocardial contraction, which causes the heart to beat at a normal rhythm.

The process of implanting an internal defibrillator is similar to the implantation of a pacemaker, since both devices contain electrode wires that are passed through a vein to the right chambers of the heart. In most cases, the wires are lodged in the apex of the right ventricle, and the device is kept in the patient as long as they live.

An internal defibrillator works to continuously monitor the heart, and detects overly rapid arrhythmias. They can detect ventricular tachycardia, which are a rapid regular beating of the ventricles and the bottom chambers of the heart. Internal defibrillators can also detect a rapid irregular beating of the ventricle, which is referred to as ventricular fibrillation.

When a patient experiences either of these arrhythmias, the pumping efficiency of the heart is impaired. Fainting and sudden cardiac arrest are usually a result if a patient experiences an arrhythmia, but an internal defibrillator can prevent that from occurring. Patients with coronary heart disease and heart muscle diseases tend to experience arrhythmias; therefore they are the most qualified candidates for an internal defibrillator.

The implantation of an internal defibrillator is much less invasive than is used to be, due to advanced techniques and technology. An internal defibrillator is a tiny computer hooked up to a battery, and then placed inside a tiny titanium case. It weighs only about three ounces, and is about the size of a cassette tape. The device is implanted under the skin below the collarbone, and tiny wires are used to send signals from the heart to the internal device. A programmer is also found on the small device, and it allows a doctor to set it at the correct rhythm for each specific patient.

The internal defibrillator is able to correct irregular and regular heart rhythms, just by sending a timed and calibrated electrical shock directly to the heart. It is similar to a defibrillator used in hospitals when someone’s heart stops, yet it is implanted in the body and ready to be used at any time. It can save the life of a loved one suffering from a heart problem, because a stopped heart needs to be shocked right away. By preventing cardiac arrest, patients with heart problems can live normal lives without having to worry. Patients with internal defibrillators can live normal lives and participate in activities they like, since they don’t have to worry about experiencing cardiac arrest or any other serious heart problems.

(Two years about a week and a half ago, I thought that my defibrillator was about to go off, because I had severe pain in that area of my chest. It turned out instead to be an outbreak of shingles-- nevertheless, not a very pleasant experience. I've been on anti-viral medication for a week, and with luck I should have no permanent residual pain. Evidently some older people do. I learned from a doctor at dinner at my weekend retreat that shingles is the primary cause of suicide in patients over 75. I think I caught mine in time. I was persuaded, however, to continue taking vicodin for pain-- that it's essential to break the cycle of nerve irritation. In addition, there is also a shingles vaccine, which I should get some day, since it is possible to get shingles more than once. My good friend Deb Cornue has had it twice a few years ago, and last year had the vaccine, which should prevent any additional outbreaks.)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Catherine Palace presented to Russian Empress Elizabeth ~ July 30, 1756

The Catherine Palace (Russian: Екатерининский дворец) is the Rococo summer residence of the Russian tsars, located in the town of Tsarskoye Selo (Pushkin), 25 km south-east of St. Petersburg, Russia.


The residence originated in 1717, when Catherine I of Russia engaged the German architect Johann-Friedrich Braunstein to construct a summer palace for her pleasure. In 1733, Empress Anna commissioned Mikhail Zemtsov and Andrei Kvasov to expand the Catherine Palace. Empress Elizabeth, however, found her mother's residence outdated and incommodious and in May 1752 asked her court architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli to demolish the old structure and replace it with a much grander edifice in a flamboyant Rococo style. Construction lasted for four years and on 30 July 1756 the architect presented the brand-new 325-meter-long palace to the Empress, her dazed courtiers and stupefied foreign ambassadors.

During Elizabeth's lifetime, the palace was famed for its obscenely lavish exterior. More than 100 kilograms of gold were used to gild the sophisticated stucco façade and numerous statues erected on the roof. It was even rumoured that the palace's roof was constructed entirely of gold. In front of the palace a great formal garden was laid out. It centres on the azure-and-white Hermitage Pavilion near the lake, designed by Zemtsov in 1744, overhauled by Rastrelli in 1749 and formerly crowned by a grand gilded sculpture representing The Rape of Persephone. The interior of the pavilion featured dining tables with dumbwaiter mechanisms. The grand entrance to the palace is flanked by two massive "circumferences", also in the Rococo style. A delicate iron-cast grille separates the complex from the town of Tsarskoe Selo.

Although the palace is popularly associated with Catherine the Great, she actually regarded its "whipped cream" architecture as old-fashioned. When she ascended the throne, a number of statues in the park were being covered with gold, in accordance with the last wish of Empress Elizabeth, yet the new monarch had all the works suspended upon being informed about the expense. In her memoirs she censured the reckless extravagance of her predecessor: "The palace was then being built, but it was the work of Penelope: what was done today, was destroyed tomorrow. That house has been pulled down six times to the foundation, then built up again ere it was brought to its present state. The sum of a million six hundred thousand rubles was spent on the construction. Accounts exist to prove it; but besides this sum the Empress spent much money out of her own pocket on it, without ever counting."

In order to gratify her passion for antique and Neoclassical art, Catherine employed the Scottish architect Charles Cameron who not only refurbished the interior of one wing in the Neo-Palladian style then in vogue, but also constructed the personal apartments of the Empress, a rather modest Greek Revival structure known as the Agate Rooms and situated to the left from the grand palace. Noted for their elaborate jasper decor, the rooms were designed so as to be connected to the Hanging Gardens, the Cold Baths, and the Cameron Gallery (still housing a collection of bronze statuary) - three Neoclassical edifices constructed to Cameron's designs. According to Catherine's wishes, many remarkable structures were erected for her amusement in the Catherine Park. These include the Dutch Admiralty, Creaking Pagoda, Chesme Column, Rumyantsev Obelisk, and Marble Bridge.

Upon Catherine's death in 1796, the palace was abandoned in favour of the Pavlovsk Palace. Subsequent monarchs preferred to reside in the nearby Alexander Palace and, with only two exceptions, refrained from making new additions to the Catherine Palace, regarding it as a splendid monument to Elizabeth's wealth and Catherine II's glory. In 1817, Alexander I engaged Vasily Stasov to refurbish some interiors of his grandmother's residence in the Empire style. Twenty years later, the magnificent Stasov Staircase was constructed to replace the old circular staircase leading to the Palace Chapel. Unfortunately, most of Stasov's interiors - specifically those dating from the reign of Nicholas I - have not been restored after the destruction caused by Nazi Germans during World War Two.

When the Nazi German military forces retreated after the siege of Leningrad, they had the residence intentionally destroyed, leaving only the hollow shell of the palace behind. Prior to the World War Two, the Russian archivists managed to document a fair amount of the contents, which proved of great importance in reconstructing the palace. Although the largest part of the reconstruction was completed in time for the Tercentenary of St Petersburg in 2003, much work is still required to restore the palace to its former glory. In order to attract funds, the administration of the palace has leased the Grand Hall to such high-profile events as Elton John's concert for the elite audience in 2001 and the 2005 exclusive party which featured the likes of Bill Clinton, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, Naomi Campbell, and Sting.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

Johann Sebastian Bach ~~~ March 31, 1685 ~~~ July 28, 1750

Johann Sebastian Bach (31 March 1685 [O.S. 21 March] – 28 July 1750) was a German composer, organist, harpsichordist, violist, and violinist whose ecclesiastical and secular works for choir, orchestra, and solo instruments drew together the strands of the Baroque period and brought it to its ultimate maturity. Although he did not introduce new forms, he enriched the prevailing German style with a robust contrapuntal technique, an unrivaled control of harmonic and motivic organisation, and the adaptation of rhythms, forms and textures from abroad, particularly from Italy and France.

Revered for their intellectual depth, technical command and artistic beauty, Bach's works include the Brandenburg concertos, the Goldberg Variations, the Partitas, The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Mass in B Minor, the St Matthew Passion, the St John Passion, the Magnificat, The Musical Offering, The Art of Fugue, the English and French Suites, the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, the Cello Suites, more than 200 surviving cantatas, and a similar number of organ works, including the celebrated Toccata and Fugue in D minor and Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor.

Bach's abilities as an organist were highly respected throughout Europe during his lifetime, although he was not widely recognised as a great composer until a revival of interest and performances of his music in the first half of the 19th century. He is now regarded as the supreme composer of the Baroque, and as one of the greatest of all time.

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My Dennis loved the Bach suites for unaccompanied 'cello, originally written for viola da gamba. Yo-Yo Ma's recordings were some of the last sounds he heard. I had Greg, a fellow Bohemian, play a sarabande at his funeral at Grace Cathedral from the font before the procession. Someday I may work on them again.

Jacqueline "Jackie" Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis ~ July 28, 1929 ~ May 19, 1994

Jacqueline "Jackie" Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (July 28, 1929 – May 19, 1994) was the wife of the 35th president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, and served as First Lady during his presidency from 1961 until his assassination in 1963. She was later married to Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis from 1968 until his death in 1975. In later years she had a successful career as a book editor. She is remembered for her style and elegance.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

GERTRUDE STEIN ~ February 3, 1874 ~ July 27, 1946


Picasso portrait of Gertrude

Gertrude Stein (February 3, 1874 – July 27, 1946) was an American writer who spent most of her life in France, and who became a catalyst in the development of modern art and literature. Her life was marked by two primary relationships, the first with her brother Leo Stein, from 1874-1914 (Gertrude and Leo), and the second with Alice B. Toklas, from 1907 until Stein's death in 1946 (Gertrude and Alice). Stein shared her salon at 27 rue de Fleurus, Paris, first with Leo and then with Alice. Throughout her lifetime, Stein cultivated significant tertiary relationships with well-known members of the avant garde artistic and literary world.

Two of Gertrude Stein's notable quotations are: "A Rose is a rose is a rose." and in reference to Oakland, California: "There is no there there."

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Wager's PARSIFAL Premiered July 26, 1882

Parsifal is an opera in three acts by Richard Wagner. It is loosely based on Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, the 13th century epic poem of the Arthurian knight Parzival (Percival) and his quest for the Holy Grail.

During the first act, Parsifal, an apparently witless fool, sees the suffering of the wounded Amfortas, King of an order of knights who guard the Grail. In the second Act Parsifal wanders into the domain of Klingsor, a magician who is trying to corrupt the Knights of the Grail and who has stolen from them the spear used to pierce Jesus Christ during his crucifixion. There Parsifal meets Kundry, the slave of Klingsor, who attempts to seduce him. In resisting her, he destroys Klingsor, and recovers the Spear. In the third Act, Parsifal returns to the Grail Kingdom to heal Amfortas.

Wagner first conceived the work in April 1857 but it was not finished until twenty-five years later. It was to be Wagner's last completed opera and in composing it he took advantage of the particular sonority of his Bayreuth Festspielhaus.
Parsifal was first produced at the second Bayreuth Festival in 1882. The Bayreuth Festival maintained an exclusive monopoly on Parsifal productions until 1903, when the opera was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Wagner preferred to describe
Parsifal not as an opera, but as "ein Bühnenweihfestspiel" - "A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage". At Bayreuth a tradition has arisen that there is no applause after the first act of the opera.

Wagner's spelling of Parsifal instead of the Parzival he had used up to 1877 is informed by an erroneous etymology of the name Percival deriving it from a supposedly Arabic origin, Fal Parsi meaning "pure fool".

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I was in the offstage chorus for the San Francisco Opera production of Parsifal starring Jess Thomas.

A re-posting from November 8, 2008:

A brief return to the Bayreuth-like acoustics of the top balcony at the San Francisco Opera: when I saw Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love last Saturday night, I was somewhat surprised and amused that Adina’s story of the elixir was actually a version of Isolde’s love potion – and was written decades before Wagner’s supreme creation, with a very different outcome, indeed!

Last year I finally joined the local Wagner Society –many years after I probably should have. I figured it’s the only way I’ll ever afford to go to Bayreuth. The year before last, my Australian friend Jeffrey Hardy looked into my getting tickets to the Bayreuther Festspiele in August before returning to Venezia with some of Dennis’ ashes. It turned out the price for a single ticket was greater than the roundtrip airfare from San Francisco to Munich! But as a member of the Northern California Wagner Society, I would actually be able to afford to go someday. Next year’s program would be ideal:
Tristan und Isolde, Meistersinger, the complete Ring, and Parsifal, of course (which was written especially for that theater, and for many years restricted to be performed only there.) Alas, this year won’t be financially feasible or fit into my planned schedule! I also haven’t been a member long enough to be eligible, I think.

A few months ago at coffee hour after the Sunday morning service at Grace Cathedral, I mentioned to Dr. Jeffrey Smith, organist and choir director, that I noticed he had quite a collection of books on Richard Wagner and Bayreuth. He stopped and beamed and then began an extended discourse on the wonders of Bayreuth. He had been there a few summer’s before with his wife, Elisabeth, who is a journalist. Almost all the Wagner operas are long – indeed endurance events for the singers and for the audience. But at Bayreuth, the operas begin in the early afternoon— with hour intermissions between acts for lunch, tea or dinner— so even though extending throughout the day, there is sufficient rest between acts for singers and audience alike to appreciate the grandeur and majesty of Wagner’s art.

At Bayreuth there are no center or side aisles between rows of seats. Instead there are separate doors for each row, I imagine a little like the doors on English trains. Dr. Smith described how at the end of each intermission, patrons silently line up in order, and then return to their seats without a sound. Whenever I go to a performance here in the States and hear hacking and coughing, particularly at quiet moments— when I conclude the audience is really only bored— I think how that would never happen at Bayreuth. Patrons who are actually sick choose not to attend. And others, who need to cough, somehow do it in a way that is totally inaudible! (Reportedly Igor Stravinsky was once severely frowned upon by surrounding patrons for daring to withhold a sneeze at Bayreuth.)

Titian in the Frari (Venezia)