Monday, September 29, 2008



I'm in the net again. 

Old behavioral patterns reemerge from buried depths

like hollow airtight buoys vainly shoved beneath: 


fills a world devoid of cosmic purpose… 

fits a life estranged from common bonds; 


inflates my masochistic ego…

conflagrates my mental sores.  

* * * * *                                  

But why encourage death's dark forest 

when time's abyss shall gain the final victory 

in its own time? 

Despite feeble grumblings and desperate fears 

the end is certain….yes. 

Yet I deceive myself 

in thinking I will have won                                   

by choosing the time and circumstances of my end. 

Not victory……………………….capitulation. 

And although oblivion might seem preferable to the pain, 

why not experience what is?

--whatever it may be--

the pain at least is memorable.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


This Friday was supposed to be the first of three Presidential Debates with the actual candidates. (I forget how many debates there were during the primary season—too many, I think.) But it now looks as if Friday’s debate may be postponed at the request of the McCain campaign because of the current financial crisis (and dare I say, could it be his lack of preparation?) At the moment, Obama and the Presidential Debate Commission still want to go ahead with Friday's debate.

Debates can be critical in determining election results. It certainly was in 1980. There were actually two debates: one between Governor Reagan and Rep. John Anderson * (the Nader-like spoiler candidate in my opinion), and a single debate between President Carter and Governor Reagan on October 28** in Cleveland, Ohio- just days before the election. About the only thing most people remember about that single debate was Reagan’s clever retort: “There you go again.” Curiously, when I printed out the transcript of the complete debate, I couldn’t find the quote anywhere. I thought I recalled that it was in response to President Carter’s comment about health care. But I carefully scanned the complete transcript and could not locate Reagan’s aside. Evidently, whoever prepared the transcript for the Commission on Presidential Debates didn’t consider an aside worthy of inclusion. But again, that is probably the only thing even political junkies remember about the 1980 debate.

“Ironically, the Carter campaign had pursued a debate with Reagan because they thought it would give the president a chance to display his great command of complex issues, and that Reagan might stumble or look confused. Only when the Reagan camp saw how tight the race was did they agree to debate at all.

They were glad they did. Rather than sounding dangerous or overwhelmed, Reagan calmly brushed aside Carter’s attacks, shaking his head and saying, ‘There you go again.’ As Carter speechwriter and journalist Hendrik Hertzberg put it, ‘When people realized that they could get rid of Carter and still not destroy the world, they went ahead and did it.’ ” Quotation from transcript of PBS American Experience on Jimmy Carter

In the paper "Quips, Jokes, and Power: Humor as Weapon in Presidential Campaigns,” Reagan’s comment is featured as a major example. “Near the end of the debate, Carter concluded an answer on Medicare in which he iterated his support for such programs by saying, ‘These are the kind of elements of a national health insurance, important to the American People. Governor Reagan again, typically, is against such a proposal.’ After the moderator called on him, Reagan chuckled briefly as he turned to Carter and delivered the now classic line, ‘There you go again.’ Then Reagan laughed a second time as the audience laughed with him.” Michael A Krasner, Associate Professor Dept. of Political Science, Queens College, City University of New York, September 1, 2004.

The real issue and the scandal, however, is that the Reagan campaign had acquired President Carter’s briefing book. They knew in advance the major points Carter was going to make. So they had the opportunity to prepare reasoned responses to the President’s attacks when they had reasonable answers. And if they didn’t have a reasonable response, well, they had a clever retort all set to go – something that deflected the issue and made Carter sound mean spirited. People don’t remember what Reagan’s aside was in response to, they only remember how calm and friendly he seemed. They don’t know or even care that the Reagan campaign cheated with a stolen briefing book. I think I’ve figured out who might have been able to acquire the briefing book for the Reagan campaign, but I hesitate to name him since I don’t have direct proof. Let me just say I think it was someone on the U.S. National Security Council who had ties to George H.W. Bush going back to his CIA days, and later became an ambassador.

(Think how Mike Dukkakis might have answered Bernard Shaw’s trick question about Kitty Dukkakis as a rape victim, if he had had a similar heads up about the question. He could have dramatically exclaimed that he would want to hammer the guy, strangle him with his bare hands…. but….we live in a society of laws, not men, and that the law would have to take its course. Or something like that – at least better than the perceived cold, unfeeling response he actually delivered, when he was attempting to be measured, calm and probably presidential.)

The possibly treasonous scandal of the 1980 election, however, had already occurred in early October – weeks before the Presidential Debate. I’ll write about that on its 28th anniversary— this October 2nd.

* Rand, a colleague at work, mentioned that President Carter declined to attend the first debate in 1980 and that Governor Reagan went ahead anyway and had it with Rep. John Anderson -- but left Carter's empty chair on stage. It will be interesting to see how Friday's debate plays out if McCain stays away and Obama has the stage to himself. Republicans, I'm sure, will be critical of Obama for going ahead, despite the Reagan precedent.

* *Anniversary of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge between Constantine and Maxentius in Rome in 312 C.E., one of the major turning points in world history. Coincidentally, also the anniversary of Mussolini’s March on Rome 1n 1922.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Evolution of Meaning and Two Flip-Flops

The study of history is partly a study of words –or the definitions of words. Over time there have been switches in meanings.  The word ‘revolution’ for example: most people think of it as a violent change, or the overthrow of an existing political order. Unfortunately, I cannot verify my source. I think it was Professor Martin Griffin from my English History course, freshman year. As Dean of Saybrook College, however, he died of a heart attack, while crossing one of the courtyards in the snow. For my 40th birthday, Dennis and I went to a Yale Alumni Seminar at the R.L. Stevenson School at Pebble Beach, and Yale Professor John Boswell (since then a victim of AIDS) said that my recollection about the word ‘revolution’ could not be right. He contended the word was derived from ‘revolt.’


Unless I reached the conclusion myself, I think I recall Martin Griffin’s mentioning that the word ‘revolution’ was first used in a political sense during the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. That was when Parliament kicked out the King, James II, and replaced him with his daughter Mary, the wife of William of Orange. The legal argument was that the King had violated the terms of the Restoration of the Monarchy, and that Parliament was merely restoring the situation to an already agreed upon compact. In other words, it was not a violent overthrow, instead, it was a righting the ship of state—or a seasonal correction. Martin’s point was that the word was borrowed from astronomy, and when you have a complete revolution of a moon or a planet, you end up exactly where you started.


When the American colonies sought independence from England, it was the colonials who called it a ‘revolution.’ The English called it a ‘rebellion.’ Clearly the word had a positive meaning to its adherents, and was a reflection of the political writings after 1688. The revolutionaries claimed that it was the King who had violated the compact. Read Mr. Jefferson’s Declaration (though I would contend that most of the charges against George III would not hold up in a fair court of law.)


The meaning of the word changed drastically, when the French adopted it for their own political upheaval, which then became very violent and bloody. Ever since, that’s what people think of as a political revolution.


Or take the word ‘comfort.’ Is it a hard word or a soft word? Most people contend that it’s a soft word—to comfort, as to console. But think of the King James version of the 23rd Psalm. “…Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” That’s a closer example of the intended meaning. It’s originally from the French: com-fort, or, with strength. The Bayeaux tapestry shows Duke William comforting his troops, at the point of a sword. He is encouraging them— prodding them— as a shepherd does his sheep.


So when people today say it’s important to stretch yourself, to get out of your 'comfort zone,' that’s exactly what the original meaning intended.


I suppose, if you were being attacked by Vikings, and were protected in a castle keep, you might feel consoled by being protected – but that comfort comes from strength. 

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A First Day in PARIS

I was a weird little kid. I was somewhat knowledgeable and would have been absolutely thrilled to wander through the Louvre as an eleven-year-old. * But I didn’t visit until I was thirty. I did go to Paris for a single day when I was twenty-nine. It was the Monday after the middle weekend of my first fortnight in Britain – thirty years ago next month.

My Australian friend, Jeffrey Hardy, was living in Farnham, Surrey, and was an actor in the Michael Redgrave Repertory Theatre there. He invited me to visit. I saw him in a performance of Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers. I recall that I stayed with him at the home of a Miss Titmarsh, and used Farnham as my base for going around England. I went as far north as Edinburgh, and had lovely days in York, Cambridge (to hear the choirs at Kings College and St. Johns), Oxford, and London, of course, for St. Paul’s, Temple Church, Westminster Abbey, and the Queen’s Chapel at St. James Palace— the National Gallery, Tate, British Museum and the V & A. I took a boat trip to Greenwich, and enjoyed a beautiful Sunday at Canterbury Cathedral.

My brother Sherry and his wife Sallie had recommended I go to Paris, if only for a day. So from Canterbury, I took the train to Dover and had a night crossing to Dunkirk and arrived in Paris early Monday morning. I didn’t take any public transportation, but walked all over the city. I had planned to do only three things for sure: visit Sainte-Chapelle, Notre Dame, and Les Invalides (Napoleon’s tomb). Of course, I did more. It was a perfect autumn day. I particularly enjoyed strolling through the Jardin Luxembourg, and climbing the Eiffel Tower as high as you were then allowed to go.

On my return to Gare du Nord, I noticed the headlines: “Jacques Brel Est Mort!” So my first day in Paris, was the first day that Jacques Brel was not alive and well and living in Paris.

A year ago July, I was in France for my nephew Sheridan’s wedding in Nantes. I spent July 4th in Paris and most of that in the Louvre. My Polish friend, Adam, texted me, and I replied: “Here I sit in the loo in the Louvre.” Quipped AK: “So that’s how you celebrate your national holiday!”

* As an eleven-year old, I stunned our dentist neighbor from Baltimore, whose cottage adjoined ours on Pine Island on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. The Cooke family had just returned from a vacation in Europe and put on a slide show for us. Dr. Cooke proudly showed us slides of his favorite places in Italy. When he put up one particular slide from Venice, I said: “It looks like a Titian.” I don’t think I had ever seen it before. It just looked like a Titian to me. In fact it was: the Assunta (Assumption of the Virgin) in Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice’s enormous Franciscan church, where my partner Dennis currently resides in an inlaid Moroccan box underneath an enormous chest within sight of that wondrous altar piece.


Years ago, back in the 1960’s and ’70’s, there was an SF Chronicle columnist named Charles McCabe. I remember a particular column of his that must have been from the late ’70’s. I can’t locate it now, but think I still recall much of it.

McCabe was staying at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong on the Kowloon side. (I had had tea there in October, 1977; so I think the column was written sometime after that.) Anyway, McCabe had breakfast brought up to his room. He remarked that there was a copy of the London Times, a single red rose in a bud vase, a pot of strong French roast coffee, and.... a perfect croissant. The column went on to discuss the glories and origin of that marvelous breakfast pastry.

It goes back to the second Turkish invasion of Vienna in 1683. (The first invasion in 1529 was conducted personally by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. But after a siege of several weeks, he retreated without capturing the city because of illness and approaching winter. Legend is that coffee was introduced to Europe when the Turkish forces— in their rushed retreat— left whole and ground coffee beans behind with their provisions.)

Anyway, our tale deals with the second Turkish invasion in 1683 (when Charles II was King of England, and Louis XIV, master of Europe).

According to Wikipedia: The large-scale battle was won by Polish-Austrian-German forces led by King of Poland Jan III Sobieski against the Ottoman Empire army commanded by Grand Vizier Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha.

The siege itself began on 14 July 1683, by the Ottoman Empire army of approximately 90,000 men. The besieging force was composed of 60 ortas of Jannisaries (12,000 men paper strength) with an observation army of c.70,000 men watching the countryside. The decisive battle took place on 12 September, after the united relief army of 84,450 men had arrived.

McCabe related that the Turks attempted to undermine the walls around Vienna by digging a tunnel and planting explosives before the arrival of the relief army commanded by Polish King Jan Sobieski. (The wall was where the Ringstrasse is today in modern Vienna.)

According to McCabe, some Viennese bakers had their ovens inside the walls, and heard the Turks’ tunneling. After the bakers warned the military authorities, the Viennese dug a counter tunnel and confronted the Turks and bought time for Sobieski’s arrival to save the day.

In commemoration of the event, the bakers created a new pastry in the shape of a Turkish crescent. So why is a Viennese pastry considered quintesessentially French today? Well, when Marie Antoinette became Dauphine of France, she brought along her favorite Viennese pastry chef, who introduced the croissant to France and from there to the world.

According to another legend, even the origin of the bagel can be traced to the same battle. Supposedly the shape of the bagel commemorates the styrrups of King Jan Sobieski’s cavalry. Imagine that: two staples of modern breakfast originating from the same event!

The Austrians, Germans and Russians should have remembered and have been very grateful to Jan Sobieski. Perhaps they were— even as they partitioned Poland the following century.

When my brother Sherry (Sheridan) worked at the embassy in Paris in the early 1980’s, I visited him over my birthday. Just before returning to San Francisco, my sister-in-law Sallie helped me buy ten fresh, out-of-the-oven, croissants from a bakery near their apartment in the Place du Pantheon. We carefully wrapped them in slightly damp paper towels and plastic wrap, and I delivered them to my flat-mates and co-workers the next morning. Fresh croissants from Paris! But not quite – you really must eat croissants within a few hours – and to my thinking, there is no finer morning pastry.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Hail, Anachronism of another Age

beckoning again some golden, distant past --

that fallacy of idle dreamers

who, discontented with their present state,

invoke utopias unsurpassed--

through time's misty haze

and memories forgot.

But truly, thou should be at ease

amidst the splendour of Lorenzo's court…

commissions of immortal works.

Oh, were thou a model for Donatello!

Or grander still, heroic Michelangelo,

preserving for posterity the face of David

and thy nobility and grace.

But Raphael -- of gentler fame --

would need to recompense thy charm

and wandering Leonardo

paint the mystery of thy mouth.

Enough! Such vain, affected phrases

fail to capture You (not Thou).

Esoteric images less than flatter

what is real and now and yet

I know not what is.

You are but a phantasy, a distant mirage,

Here…………but unapproachable.


When I was in Italy a little over a year ago to revisit some of Dennis’ favorite places and to scatter his ashes under rose bushes in Venezia, Vicenza, Firenze, Roma, and then Istanbul, I made a special point to see the original Donatello statue of Judith and Holofernes (1460) in the Hall of Lilies (Sala dei Gigli) in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. I had already seen the copy on the Piazza della Signoria, in front of the Palazzo Vecchio (not far from where Savonarola had burned books and ‘degenerate’ art in the “Bonfire of the Vanities,” and then was later hanged and burned himself).

According to Wikipedia, the statue, which depicts the assassination of the Assyrian general Holofernes by Judith, is remarkable for being one of the first Renaissance sculptures to be conceived in the round, with its four distinct faces. Quite frankly, I don’t think the sculpture is very attractive, though it is powerful. It was used as a symbol for the Florentine Republic. It had originally been commissioned by Cosimo de’Medici as decoration for the fountain in the garden of the Palazzo Medici-Ricardi. It stood in this palace together with Donatello’s David standing in the courtyard, both depicting tyrant slayers. (David was being restored in the Bargello museum when I was there a year ago.)

My interest in Judith, however, is the base. According to Rudolf Wittkower in his essay on “The Renaissance Baluster and Palladio” in Palladio and English Palladianism (1974), the first Renaissance use of the baluster was Donatello’s bronze base for this statue with symmetrical double balusters at the four corners. In addition, the entire bronze statue and base is raised on a single giant marble baluster, signifying the importance of the architectural motif. I mentioned this to my knowledgeable hosts in Firenze, but it was news to them. I’m sure, though, that whoever commissioned the marble baluster pedestal was aware of its significance; and it was used for both the copy outside and the original in the Sala dei Gigli.

Wittkower reported that the balustrade, as an architectural element, did not seem to be known by either the Greeks or the Romans. (So when you see the outdoor swimming pool at Hearst Castle used as a backdrop for Laurence Olivier’s villa in the movie Spartacus, the marble balustrade is clearly an anachronistic foreign element. The set designers seemed to be aware of this and used the Roman predecessor—which looks something like a British Union Jack— whenever they constructed sets from scratch.)

Giuliano da Sangallo was among the first to employ balusters in Renaissance buildings. He even used them in his pen and ink restorations of antique Roman monuments. In any case, within a few decades of Donatello’s statue, the baluster as an element in parapets, railings and staircases became ubiquitous in Renaissance and later Neoclassical architecture. Bramante used the motif in his Tempietto (1502); and his conception –adapted from Sangallo’s— later influenced balustrades of Raphael, Samicheli, Palladio and Scamozzi. Michelangelo was also influenced by Sangallo’s treatment, but then developed his own variation. He seemed to prefer the vase shaped or low center of gravity “dropped baluster.”

Wittkower didn’t mention any earlier predecessors of the baluster, but there seem to have been isolated examples of balustrades in several medieval and gothic buildings.

According to Wikipedia again, the earliest examples are those shown in the bas-reliefs representing Assyrian palaces, where they were employed as window balustrades. I was fascinated to notice a connection between an Assyrian source for the element in a statue depicting the beheading of an Assyrian general. Was this purely coincidence? A young architect— I used to know— thought possibly not. Many original sources seem to have disappeared over the centuries. Who knows what traditions and documents Donatello may have had access to that we seem to have lost. Perhaps they were burned a few hundred meters away in Savonarola’s “Bonfire of the Vanities.”


Photo of staircase ballustrade is from my workplace, S.F. Customhouse.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Hawaiian Coffee Mug

Last Saturday I went to the Fall Picnic at the Bohemian Grove with my friend Adam K, whose birthday is coming up the end of next week. He’s going to celebrate it with a short trip to Hawaii. We spent a few days there together this past February. John Renke, the founder of Schola Cantorum San Francisco (about which I’ll write much more later) is now the organist and choir director at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral in Honolulu. John is one of the few people I know who will probably never get “Island Fever.” That’s because he’s so busy with his various music programs.

I just had my morning coffee in one of my most prized possessions – a touristy Hawaiian coffee mug – with shadowed palm trees at sunset. It was given to me by Mattie Tolbert, a member of my team about ten years ago. Mattie had been a contractor before becoming a regular Customs aide when we were still the U.S. Customs Service as part of Treasury.

Mattie was very sick. I didn’t realize how much until much later. I didn’t know exactly what her illness was, but I knew she had some kind of treatment every week. Besides the scheduled sick leave for her appointments, she hardly ever took a day off work.

Mattie had a teenage daughter in high school, and she was the joy of Mattie’s life. As soon as Mattie had worked three years at Customs and had acquired career status with full benefits, she took an extended weekend trip to Hawaii to celebrate her birthday. She was gone from work only two days. On her return she gave me the coffee mug. The next day she called in sick --the first time that I could remember. She then was hospitalized. I think she died only a few days later. Mattie had had cancer and had been sick for several years. But she was determined to leave something for her daughter and had struggled to survive until she had reached the threshold for career status. She had timed it almost to the day.

Most of the Entry Branch went to Mattie’s funeral in the East Bay. It was an open casket. I recall that Mattie had a serene, beatific, and most satisfied expression on her face.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


Today is the seventh anniversary of the attacks on

September 11, 2001. We had a Liquidator (specialist for

completion of paper processing) at work named America,

and I remember how upset she was when our Port Director

waited several hours before sending us home. America

stormed out before we got authorization. I think we finally

were let go when it was reported that the Transamerica

Pyramid was a potential target and was only two blocks

away from our building. That apparent paralysis was similar

to the response after JFK’s assassination, when my Junior

High School principal waited an equally long time before

allowing us to leave. I remember how my Dad picked me

up in his car when I was half way home. There were no cell

phones, of course, so there had been no coordination

between us. He just wanted to find me.

On 9/11 Dennis had been called at home not to go into

work at Lang’s Estate Jewelry. The first thing he did when I

got home from Customs was to go to Sam’s, our Jordanian-

American corner grocer at 23rd St and Valencia. Dennis

wanted to let Sam know that we didn’t blame all people

of Islamic faith. Then Dennis felt compelled to go grocery

shopping. He wanted a free-range chicken and fresh produce.

Then of all things, Dennis and I went looking for a new


But remember, while Dennis was working full time,

we seldom had a day off together except for holidays.

He worked Saturdays, and I was busy with church choirs

almost all day Sundays. Dennis was diligent to arrange

his various medical appointments on his regularly scheduled

days off, usually Thursdays. As sick as he was the last few

years, he took very little time off work. That’s another reason

he was bitterly resentful when he was let go from Lang’s

after their robbery on Sutter Street. (That’s quite a story for

another time). He probably had a better attendance record

than all the other employees!

As it turned out, being let go was a real blessing.

It gave us almost three years with the most time

we had ever had together. It also allowed Dennis

to be in Iowa frequently for his Dad, Walt, and later

to settle his Dad’s estate.

As we commemorate the horrible and tragic events of

seven years ago --that changed our country forever--

it’s curious that one of my memories of that day was

the purchase of a new refrigerator. Of course, like the

assassination of President Kennedy, 9/11 was an event

that people who experienced it will remember for a

lifetime-- where they were and what they did.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Close Encounter with HRM

Early last May 2008, I flew to Philadelphia for my second Point to

Point steeplechase in Wilmington, Delaware at Winterthur, one of

the DuPont estates with a wonderful American furniture collection.

This was only my fifth horse race. All have been specialty races.

The first two were at Ascot in 1987 and ’88. They weren’t Royal

Ascot, but the Diamond Stakes sponsored by DeBeers in honor

of King George VI. Because of that, Dennis figured the Royal

Family would attend—and he was right. We paid extra to be in the

Reserved section next to the Royal Enclosure. Queen Elizabeth,

Prince Phillip, Charles and Diana and the Queen Mum were sitting

only a few hundred feet from our seats. Anne, the Princess Royal,

rode and won one of the races. I shouldn’t have been surprised—

but as the English drive cars in the opposite direction— they run

horse races clockwise, rather than counter clockwise as we do.

When Anne won, we followed the crowd to the paddock to watch

the Queen award the prize to her daughter. Elizabeth II was wearing

a handsome yellow silk outfit with matching hat. Dennis remarked

how the Queen was perfectly at ease and adjusted her belt just like

anybody else. Why not? We had the mandatory Pimm’s cup and

spent a glorious afternoon at Ascot.

The next summer we returned for the same race. We walked by

the Queen Mum’s stately Daimler with its sterling silver Lion hood

ornament. Because of our experience the previous summer, I knew

to go to the paddock to watch the Queen award the prize after a race.

In my attempt to stride ahead to get to the paddock to watch the

Queen I nearly had a very close encounter with her Britannic Majesty.

All of a sudden two-well dressed men grabbed me & pulled me aside.

They must have seen that I was looking several hundred feet ahead to

the paddock, and that I didn’t notice that the Queen and her Lady-in-

Waiting were roughly four feet in front of me. Elizabeth II is rather

short and I was stretching my neck to look over her head. This was

before 9/11 and I wasn’t even interrogated. No doubt today I’d be

taken away.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

D'ARTAGNAN (excerpt from my poem REVERBERATIONS: a Gay Lament)

Your features need no vain disguise

to complement the beauty of their form: 

a perfect nose enhancing piercing eyes, 

a noble brow and mouth with molded chin 

all framed in brown from lion crowns 

with shaggy manes and princely ways. 


Why add the growth above your mouth… 

that curious sprout beneath your lips? 

In truth they render precieux airs 

-- superfluous to purest form-- 

and more disposed to foppish counts 

from courts of Louis Treize ou Quatorze.


            Yet even now

                        you are diminished

                        not a hairbreadth's distance

                        from your fairest self,

                                                my D'Artagnan.



Arthur Rackham image/ 

Just after I started working for Customs, Ross and I took our previously planned holiday to Germany. He had studied in Munich, and still had several good friends in the area. We were there for Oktoberfest, which –as you undoubtedly already know— is celebrated in September. That was one of the few times in my life that I have drunk beer, and half enjoyed it. Of course, Bavarian dark beer is very different from standard American varieties.

The plan was to visit all of King Ludwig II’s castles – and we nearly did. We saw Hohenschwangau, where Ludwig had spent part of his childhood, at the base of Neuschwanstein, his paean to Ricard Wagner (as well as the model for several Disney castles) and the site of Ludwig’s arrest;

[Years ago, I used to eat Sunday brunch at Café Mozart on Bush Street between services at Grace Cathedral. The owner was a Viennese named Claus. One Christmas, he made a large gingerbread castle in the shape of a familiar landmark. “Oh Claus!” I said “ What a wonderful gingerbread model of Neuschweinstein.” “Neu- SCHWEIN- stein?!!!! Don’t you know the difference between a schwein and a schwan?!!!!” Now, I do.]

Linderhof, with it’s grotto and elevated dining table; and Herrenchiemsee with its copy of the Hall of Mirrors, and two (mind you two—though only one was actually completed) Ambassadors Staircases from Versailles, where the original had been replaced. We also saw the room where Ludwig had been born at Nymphenburg, the lake where he had drowned, and the church in Munich, where he is still buried.

Last June 2008 the San Francisco Opera premiered a new production of Das Rheingold, the first installment of an an American Western Ring cycle. 

Did you know that there may have been a California connection to the first production of Wagner’s Ring Trilogy. (Even though it is four music dramas, it’s considered a trilogy….with a prologue) The connection was Lola Montez, a Spanish dancer, who had had an extended affair with Ludwig II’s grandfather, Ludwig I. In reality, her name was Eliza Gilbert, and she was actually Irish. But she did have an affair with that architecturally crazed monarch. Unlike his grandson, his taste favored neo-classical revival, rather than medieval and baroque. Ross and I visited his large Bavarian maiden— on the edge of the Oktoberfest grounds— which seemed to be a forerunner of the Statue of Liberty.

Ludwig the First was so enamored of Lola Montez, that he virtually turned over the state authority to her. For nearly two years, Lola was de facto ruler of Bavaria. "What Lola wants, Lola gets" was originally in reference to her. When Revolution broke out all over Europe in 1848, the people of Bavaria's main grievance against their King, was his affair with Lola. Forced to abdicate, Ludwig left the throne to his son Maximilian II. But then Max died in 1864, leaving the throne to Ludwig I's grandson, Ludwig II.

The Wagner connection is this:
Once on the throne, nineteen year old Ludwig II responded to Wagner's published plea for help from a German prince. Richard Wagner had been exiled in Switzerland, both for his 1848 political, and recurring financial, indiscretions. Ludwig paid off Wagner's creditors, welcomed him to Bavaria, and financed productions of Die Meistersinger, Tristan und Isolde, and the completion of the Ring des Nibelungen.

So what's the Lola Montez connection? Had it not been for Lola, Ludwig I, no doubt, would have remained on the throne of Bavaria. He lived until 1868— a good twenty years after his abdication. Lola Montez, meanwhile, ended up in Grass Valley, California during the Gold Rush. She died of syphilis, which Ludwig had given her along with jewels and bad poetry. Had there been no Lola Montez, Tristan and Meistersinger might not have been produced at all, and certainly not before 1868 at the earliest. The problem, of course, is when you change one fact in history, you may very well jeopardize multiple subsequent facts. But the fact remains, Ludwig II was Wagner's principal sponsor, and had it not been for him, the general operatic public would very likely never have heard of Brunnhilde.

Saturday, September 6, 2008


Zavikon Island in the Thousand Islands on the St. Lawrence River


Oh, no! Not another nut attempting to tamper with the Constitution! Don’t people realize that our Republic has endured so long in part because our Founding Fathers bequeathed to us an elegantly sparse Constitution? Why clutter it up with unnecessary amendments!

At the outset, I must confess, I am not a supporter of the amendment to protect the flag. Yes, I do revere the flag of the United States of America. Some of my fondest memories from childhood were raising and lowering the flag at my maternal grandfather's summer house in the Thousand Islands on the Saint Lawrence River near Alexandria Bay, New York. We had an elaborate ceremony at the beginning and end of each day. We were extremely diligent not to let the flag touch the ground. We folded it carefully in military triangle fashion. (Curiously, I recall some regulation, which specified that burning was the only lawful way to dispose of an old, tattered flag). My grandfather had been a staunchly conservative Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania during the New Deal. I am one of his two namesakes. He and I would most likely have disagreed on most issues; but admiration for our flag is one on which we agreed. (Then there are the mythic images of Iwo Jima, Fort McHenry, and ‘Old Glory’ on the moon). My reason for opposition to the proposed amendment is: despite the opening words of the Pledge of Allegiance, I do not consider that I actually pledge allegiance to the flag— a piece of cloth— instead, I pledge allegiance to the country, to the constitution, to the concepts which establish our liberty. And one of those concepts is freedom of expression as protected in the First Amendment. I consider the proposed flag amendment to be so much political posturing. I'm not aware of any current outbreaks of flag burning. But even more important than protecting the flag, is redefining a proper balance between the three branches of the Federal Government.

Recently, there have been a number of five-to-four decisions by the Supreme Court, which ruled several U.S. laws to be unconstitutional. On the face of it, it seems to me, that a one-vote majority, by a supposedly third co-equal branch of government over-ruling legislation passed and signed by two other co-equal branches of government, is structurally out of balance. But you say, doesn’t the President, as a majority of one, have the authority to veto legislation passed by the two houses of Congress? Yes, but Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution clearly defines a procedure for the Congress to override the President’s veto by means of a two thirds vote in both houses.

The Supreme Court, on the other hand, has no such specific procedure defined in Article III. Section 2 of Article III apparently gives jurisdiction over Laws of the United States to the Supreme Court; but it wasn’t until fourteen years after ratification— a time when many, if not most, of the original framers were still alive to be consulted about their intent— that the doctrine of judicial review was asserted in the 1803 decision by Chief Justice John Marshall in the seminal Marbury v. Madison case.

The doctrine of judicial review is clearly established, so why consider a constitutional amendment on the matter 205 years later? Let me offer an example. It wasn’t until 126 years after the assertion of a Vice-President to be called “President” instead of “Acting-President” when succeeding in mid-term, that an amendment clearly defined what had already been established in practice. That was done in Section 1 of the 25th Amendment ratified in 1967. Had William Henry Harrison died in the last year of his term rather than near the end of his first month in office, Vice-President Tyler might have been content to have been addressed as “Acting-President” (as, indeed, Vladimir Putin did in the Russian Republic). Forty-seven months was apparently too long. Besides, Tyler held the office, and so appropriated the title. The precedent was set and used six more times before the 25th Amendment legalized the title as part of the procedure for selecting a new Vice-President. So here goes my proposed amendment for clarifying judicial review.

28th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America


Section 1. The Supreme Court of the United States retains authority for judicial review of all United States Laws as passed by the two houses of Congress and signed by the President, or passed by two thirds override of a Presidential veto.

Section 2. To render a United States Law unconstitutional, the Supreme Court of the United States must decide by an affirmative vote of at least two thirds of the justices on the Supreme Court.

Section 3. This amendment does not apply retroactively to previously adjudicated cases, nor to other jurisdictions enumerated in Article III.

Under the current configuration, a two-thirds vote by the Supreme Court would be six to three— or two to one— surely a more powerful and a greater moral authority for overturning legislation than a simple majority. Linda Greenhouse, in her report about the May 15, 2000, five-to-four vote overturning the Violence Against Women Act, wrote in the New York Times published May 17, 2000,that the decision in the United States v. Morrison represents the “…court’s new federalism jurisprudence….: holding Congress to its limited and enumerated powers.” The problem is, there is no countering limited and enumerated power defined for the court, itself, in the matter of judicial review of legislation. For all the criticism of the so-called activist Warren Court, many of its most controversial decisions were passed unanimously. This proposed amendment falls short of that, but is an attempt to set aright a structural imbalance between three co-equal branches of government; so that a single Supreme Court Justice would not be able to invalidate an established law simply by majority vote.

Granted, I might regret some future five-to-four vote, which would not prevail because of this new amendment. So be it. The procedure, at least, would be appropriate; and a more proper balance, established between the three branches of the Federal Government.

Rob Bell
San Francisco

Robert F. Rich Bell
Grandson of
The Hon. Robert F. Rich
Member of Congress
16th Congressional District of Pennsylvania

Titian in the Frari (Venezia)