Sunday, October 26, 2008

JOSHUA BELL at the San Francisco Symphony

Photo by Timothy White

Saturday night I went to the San Francisco Symphony with my friend Russell David from work to hear excellent, young violinist Joshua Bell. (No relation that I know of – though I wish. Besides being a great violinist, he’s really great looking. He played the violin solos in the movie The Red Violin.)

Joshua Bell is a virtuoso equal to the programmed show-stoppers by Saint-Saëns: Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, Opus 28; and Ravel: Tzigane, Concert Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra. Both were technically impressive, though not substantial. S.F. Chronicle reviewer, Joshua Kosman, put it: “His playing was so strong that it left the listener eager to hear him tackle something a bit meatier.” Here I am doing something I usually criticize music critics for: that is, writing about the programming rather than the performance. Nevertheless, Bell was superb.

Strauss's wild take on Don Juan [R. Strauss: Don Juan, Tone Poem for Large Orchestra (After Nicolaus Lenau), Opus 20] opened the program. I adore the music of Richard Strauss. He was only twenty-four when he wrote this glorious tone poem. His orchestration is utterly brilliant. It borders on being bombastic, but is so technically proficient and appropriate that I couldn’t refrain from smiling broadly throughout the performance, conducted with “fierceness and finesse” by visiting Italian conductor Fabio Luisi.

Composed in the early 1930s, Franz Schmidt's Fourth Symphony was “reminiscent of a lost Vienna—opulent in sound, by turns wistful & impassioned” as the S.F. Symphony web page put it. Reviewer Kosman wrote: “The San Francisco Symphony introduced two new presences to its roster during Thursday night’s superb concert in Davies Symphony hall. It’s a close call which of them left a more exciting impression. One was Italian conductor Fabio Luisi, who made an invigorating and fiercely dramatic debut with the orchestra. The other was Franz Schmidt’s ravishingly beautiful Fourth Symphony, which joined the orchestra’s repertoire a mere 65 years after its premiere. The combination was breathtaking, a potent display of rhythmic vibrancy, lush phrasing and brilliant solo contributions from all quarters of the orchestra.”

Following the concert we had the opportunity to meet Joshua Bell for a CD signing at the Symphony store in the lobby at Davies Hall. He was gracious, but had a right to look a little tired.

Earlier in the day— after brunch with Adam, Rose and Rupert at Catch— I had intended to go to Fort Mason to the Annual San Francisco Fall Antiques Show. My cousin Clae had given me her free pass. But I was tired and took a nap instead. I plan to go this afternoon. I’m particularly looking forward to the collection of antique architectural models.

Friday, October 24, 2008

PEACE of WESTPHALIA ~~~ October 24, 1648
Just a short posting today— to commemorate the signing of the peace treaty of Munster on October 24, 1648. It was one of two peace treaties comprising the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War in Germany and the Eighty Years’ War between Spain and the Netherlands. "The Peace of Westphalia resulted from the first modern diplomatic congress and initiated a new order in central Europe based on the concept of state sovereignty." Wikipedia

Separation of Church and State and the practice of religious tolerance in the West may have been a direct result of the cruel intolerance manifested during both those wars, particularly the Thirty Years’ War.

This ideal separates us from our earlier history and from much of the rest of the world, particularly the Sharia law of Islam. Traditionally it had been universally agreed that if religion meant anything at all, then it was the most important element of the social fabric and needed to be incorporated into the civil law. Certainly Constantine the Great would never have agreed to any separation of Church and State. (More about Constantine next week)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


President Kennedy addressing the nation October 22, 1962

The election is less than two weeks away! It surely looks as though Senator Barack Obama is going to win a landslide victory –with significant coattails. That is, of course, unless the “Bradley Effect” is still alive after more than twenty years… and unless Republican charges against Obama begin to stick.

The most potent charge against Senator Obama is his perceived lack of experience— particularly executive experience— since he has been only a Senator… and for less than a full term. By that standard, however, what executive experience does Senator McCain have?

If Senators don’t gain any executive experience, what’s the difference between four years or more than two decades? Perhaps that perception is one reason the last Senator to be elected was John F. Kennedy in 1960; and he was one of only two, I believe, to be elected directly from the Senate in the history of the Republic. So by that standard, the only so-called qualified candidate among the four major contenders is Governor Sarah Palin. God, help us!!! Clearly, other experience matters. And perhaps, even more important are temperment and judgment.

George Will recently wrote that experience can be gained, but temperment is fairly constant or something to that effect. His conclusion was that Obama’s temperment is steadier than McCain’s.

Former Secretary of State, retired General Colin Powell's eloquent endorsement last Sunday on Meet the Press gave additional validity and gravitas to Obama's candidacy. "Experience is helpful, but it is judgment that matters."

President Clinton has said that nobody has the experience to be President before gaining office, and I think that is probably true.

What about Abraham Lincoln? Besides being un-photogenic, and reportedly having a high, squeaky voice, Lincoln had had only a few terms in the Illinois legislature and a single term in the U.S. House of Representatives— more than a decade before— when he had opposed the War with Mexico. By today’s standards, he would never be considered a serious presidential contender.

Although he was roundly criticized by all sides last summer, I think retired General Wesley Clark made a valid point. To paraphrase VP Dick Cheney (in reference to energy conservation) holding up well under enemy captivity may be a sign of “personal virtue” and perhaps of patriotism and distinguished valor; but –by itself— it does not necessarily demonstrate any executive or military decision-making capability.

Temperament and judgment are sometimes true conservative values: that is, careful, deliberative, non-reflexive action. (I contend that many so-called conservatives today are really radical-reactionaries. If so-called conservatives can denigrate the positive definition of liberalism, then it’s only fair to describe so-called conservatism by what it actually is and does.)

In the Cuban Missile Crisis forty-six years ago in October 1962, * both President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev demonstrated true conservatism by ignoring the demands of their respective generals to start offensive action. Perhaps it was just luck and not good judgment – but how lucky we all were!! Maybe both Kennedy and Khrushchev were like General Dietrich von Cholitz, the “Butcher of Sebastopol” hand-picked by Hitler to destroy Paris when given the order. He didn’t. Evidently he didn’t want to go down in history as the man who destroyed Paris. Similarly, Kennedy and Khrushchev perhaps didn’t want to go down in history (providing there was any history left to write) as the men who destroyed civilization.

I contend that Senator Barack Obama— more so than Senator John McCain— has demonstrated the careful, steady temperament and judgment needed to deal with future world crises. I think the world would be a much safer place with a President Obama in the White House.


* I recall how ominous events seemed to be in October 1962. I was thirteen. My Dad returned home early from a business trip to be with the family and listen to President Kennedy address the nation on October 22, 1962. There really was a palpable fear that this might be the end of civilization as we knew it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Benjamen West's The Death of Nelson:

Today is the 203rd anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. Lord Horatio Nelson defeated the combined fleets of Imperial France and Spain, and effectively ended the threat of any French invasion of England. We had a special show at the Bohemian Club three years ago for the 200th Anniversary. I think it was the last event Dennis ever attended at the club until the reception after his funeral.

(But I guess he didn’t go to that – though I did have two large photo collages of him by the entrance of the main lounge.)

I bought a commemorative decanter of Pusser’s Navy rum and a pair of etched whiskey glasses for the 200th Anniversary, and also sent a pair to my Australian friend Jeffrey Hardy, then in Brisbane, Queensland. (He’s now in Manhattan.)

Jeffrey is a direct descendant of Captain Thomas Hardy, in whose arms Lord Horatio Nelson died after the battle. Because of that relationship, Jeffrey and his sister once had a private tour of HMS Victory at No2 Dry Dock at Portsmouth's Royal Naval Dockyard.

Tradition is that Lord Nelson’s final words were: “Kiss me, Hardy.” Jeff tells of two other versions: “Kismet (fate) Hardy;” or “Kiss me? Hardly!” Oh well, I guess we’ll never really know for sure.


Postscript: I went to the Bohemian Club tonight for the annual meeting of the Aviary Chorus. At the bar in the Cartoon Room I came across Cole Thomason-Redus, fellow member of the Schola Cantorum SF. He had just had his auditon for Aviary after being sponsored by David Conte, a professor at the SF Conservatory of Music and a superb composer. Cole was wearing one of Dennis' navy blue blazers. I had given him most of Dennis' clothes because they were the exact same size. This blazer had English nautical buttons, appropriate for Trafalgar Day. I nearly wept when I saw that Cole had kept Dennis' carefully ironed handkerchief. Dennis was very particular about how he folded his handerchiefs. I've not been able to reproduce it precisely; but Cole had retained his exactly as Dennis had folded it.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


The election is just two weeks from Tuesday. Finally! It seems like it’s been going on for years – and it has. Parliamentary systems seem to do it better, with entire campaigns sometimes over within two months.


Apart from the Presidential campaign, there are Senate and House seats at stake, and there’s a good chance the Democrats may gain substantial, workable majorities— perhaps even a filibuster-proof Senate. And there are important state and local issues as well.


This brings up one of my pet peeves. I really object to the over-use of ballot initiatives in California. I have voted in two other states, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. When I voted there, ballot initiatives were rare – maybe one or two every other election. In California, however, we are bombarded sometimes with more than a dozen state propositions and twenty local ones. It becomes a crap shoot. Most people don’t vote, and those who do frequently are uninformed or misinformed about the propositions. Look, we live in a democratic republic with representatives elected to make decisions for us. But frequently the hard decisions— the ones that officials lose elections over— are thrown back to the people, who sometimes vote against their own interests, because it’s so hard to figure out what the propositions mean. I’d be in favor of a new proposition – one that would make the threshold so high, that we would have only one or two each election, and then voters would be able to make reasonable and informed decisions.


Another skewed situation in California is that it takes a super majority to pass a budget – which really means that a determined minority can block progress and the will of the majority. Yet it takes merely a majority of one to change the Constitution. Isn’t that completely backwards?


In election 2008 there is State Proposition Eight. It asks to take away the right of gays and lesbians to marry.  Now I’m not a disinterested person because Dennis and I were married at City Hall in 2004, even though our ceremony was later declared invalid.  I still wear both of our wedding bands. He died before the State Supreme Court allowed marriages this year.


Apart from my personal interest, amendments in general to the state constitution should be extremely difficult to pass and be forced to meet rigorous requirements on a number of levels— as with federal amendments— particularly when you’re talking about minority rights. After all, the bill of rights in the U.S. Constitution was designed to protect the rights of minorities against the potential tyranny of the majority.


And this whole nonsense about “Joe the Plumber.” First of all, his name isn’t Joe and he’s not a registered plumber.  Then he currently would receive a tax decrease under Obama’s plan even though he objects to it—and he’s delinquent in his current taxes. Furthermore, he opposes social security in principle. If he had his way, social security would be eliminated altogether. Is that what you want? Do you really want to set him up as a model voter and citizen?


Republicans always seem to complain about taxes. (I know my grandfather did.) If you followed their theories to their logical conclusions, there would be no taxation …. and no services. We’d all (who weren’t homeless) end up living in walled compounds with broken glass on the walls. Dennis was fond of Oliver Wendell Holmes' comment:         “I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.” So yes, Senator McCain and Governor Palin, paying taxes can be patriotic – particularly in a time of war.


Saturday, October 18, 2008


Grace Cathedral Choir of Men & Boys on tour at Westminster Abbey 2007

Tomorrow I sing at Grace Cathedral as a sub for fellow Yalie and Bohemian John Kelley. He’s one of the few people I know, who can sing all four parts. I sub for him as an alto. After singing at Grace in the choir of Men and Boys for more than two decades, I finally left in 1995, primarily because of conflicts with multiple commitments on Thursday nights. But today as a sub for three people, I’m able to choose when I sing at Grace, so the conflicts are more manageable.  For a few years as a child, I was a boy soprano myself.


John Fenstermaker, former organist and choir director at Grace Cathedral, used to say that boy sopranos are judged by absolute standards and not given allowance for their age as boys; that –unlike sports, or even playing musical instruments— singing as a soprano in a cathedral choir is one of the few circumstances boys are judged by adult standards. Jeffrey Smith, the current organist and choir director at Grace, certainly maintains and promotes that performance point of view. I was not able to sing in the choir at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania –my home town— because my Dad was minister at Grace Methodist Church a few blocks away.


In the summer of 1960 before going to New Hampshire and Canada, I spent five weeks at the Columbus Boy Choir Summer Camp at Fred Waring's estate at Shawnee on the Delaware near the Delaware Water Gap. It was my first time away from home or the family. (I was there at the time of the Republican and Democratic political conventions for Nixon & Kennedy.)


I loved the singing and the music. We lived in tents and rehearsed in an old barn, where we had movies on weekends. I especially enjoyed Erroll Flynn in The Prince and the Pauper.


I brought my 'cello, and practiced once in a while. I also brought along three volumes of Will Durant's History of Civilization, which Mother and Dad had bought me from the Book of the Month Club, as I had requested for my  tenth birthday. One of the adult counselors recommended Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, which I read, but didn't fully appreciate until I read it again at Mercersburg.


In my free time I built dams on one of the creeks, and used Mother's brownie land camera.  We went swimming in the river and took canoe trips.


Some of the boys liked to enact wedding ceremonies. One boy pretended the piano was an organ and would play the Wagner and Mendelssohn wedding marches— and I would be the minister.


At the end of camp, we gave a final concert around the pool of Fred Waring's Hotel.  We sang a Bach Easter cantata, Mozart's Ave Verum and several comedy numbers. The Director, Mr. Bryant, wanted to talk with Mother and Dad after the concert. He was about to offer me a scholarship to their school in Princeton.  Sherry had just finished his freshman year at the University, and I was thrilled at the prospect of going to the Choir School (today called the American Boys’ Choir.)


I saw Dad. I had never seen him look like that before. He was sporting a Van Dyke beard. He had grown it for the Harrisburg Centennial. I was such a little twirp. I didn't like Daddy's beard, particularly, a Van Dyke. (Today, they're back in fashion, and look rather becoming on some people. I had my first Van Dyke a month and a half ago to disguise a black and blue chin after fainting from some of my heart meds and hitting my chin against the marble sink at home. I shaved it off – keeping only the moustache – as soon as the black and blue cleared up, but that was because it was too gray.)


Anyway, Mother and Dad said they would consider the offer; but I don't think they ever really did. Mother had gone away to boarding school at the age of twelve, and I think she regretted it.  I was the youngest child – I don't think Dad wanted me to leave home yet. It was a big disappointment.


So I went back to sixth grade at Steele School. I was in the Special Interest Class (meaning accelerated –but we were conscious about not saying so). The spring before, I had been interviewed by a school psychologist to be eligible for the program. He had given me a battery of tests –including several free associations.  I figured I was supposed to impress the guy; so in the midst of other things, I listed the first six Roman emperors and several of Napoleon’s marshals. I have no idea what he actually thought of me. I would be startled if a ten-year old did that to me today, and would think he probably needed some help with self-esteem.


I sang in the chorus. I remember auditioning with "Hello Young Lovers" from The King and I. (I had played one of the princes in the Harrisburg Community Theatre's production back in fourth grade, when I had to dye my hair black, and received special permission to arrive late to school after long rehearsals.)  I tried to sound like Deborah Kerr as Anna in the movie. Little did I know that the singer was actually Marni Nixon, who also dubbed for Mitzi Gaynor in South Pacific and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. (Did you know the origin of the title of that play, derived from Shaw? Professor Higgins never calls Eliza his fair lady. Instead, Eliza was a cockney girl from Mayfair. So with a cockney accent, she was a 'M’eye-fare' lady – anyway, that's according to my actor, solicitor, friend, Jeffrey Hardy).


In the autumn of 1960, Robert Clippinger, my Dad's church organist, asked me to sing the boy's role in Felix Mendelssohn' oratorio Eljiah with Grace Church choir and another Methodist church in Williamsport, near Woolrich.  Dad said I had a very lovely voice; but I should learn to project better.  That could still be said about me.


[It's funny about opera singers: they can have serious problems with intonation, have too wide a vibrato, have little sense of line or language, certainly be deficient in theatrical skills and physical good looks, not even have a pretty voice; but if they can be heard over the orchestra, they can make it to the top. If not, why even bother. On the other hand, groups like Chanticleer, Episcopal men and boys choirs, and the Schola Cantorum—with whom I currently sing— do very well with moderate dynamics and a pure, clear sound. They depend, however, on appropriate settings and supportive acoustics.]


A few weeks after I sang the boy in Elijah, I went to the Camp Curtin Junior High School football game against our city arch-rival, Edison, and screamed my little heart out.  I strained my vocal chords so much, that the doctor told me I shouldn't sing for a year, or I'd never sing as an adult. So that was the end of my career as a boy soprano.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

October 2, 2002 Iraq Resolution


AFP: File Photo

The third and final Presidential Debate starts in about half an hour. Although current major concerns of this presidential election year deal primarily with economic issues because of the credit and stock market meltdown (the market lost more than 700 points again today) — from the beginning of the campaign several years ago, there has been disagreement over the war in Iraq and whether it was correct or wise to start the war in the first place. Republicans by in large contend that how we got in isn’t important now— the question is where do we go from here. The problem is: if we don’t examine how we got involved in the first place, we may find ourselves making the same mistakes in the future.


It’s unfortunate that Jim Jones adopted as his motto George Santayana’s pithy remark:


 Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

                  George Santayana, 

The Life of Reason, Volume 1, 1905


Just because Santayana’s quotation was used inappropriately, with spiked cool-aid at Jones-town, doesn’t diminish its validity.


Conventional Wisdom holds that every member of Congress and the Senate who voted for the October 2, 2002 authorization, in fact voted “for the war” against Iraq. So Senators Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden have been labeled as originally supporting the war. But it’s much more complex and nuanced.


An important question to ask is: What did President Bush say the authorization meant—before the vote?


On September 19, 2002, on CNN, President George W. Bush stated:


“I am sending a suggested language for a resolution, that I've asked for Congress to support, to enable the administration to keep the peace, and we look forward to a good constructive debate in Congress………


That'll be part of the resolution – authorization to use force. If you want to keep the peace, you've got to have the authorization to use force. This will be –it's a chance for Congress to indicate support. It's a chance for Congress to say, ‘We support the administration's ability to keep the peace.’ That's what this is all about.” (My italics)


Reports and memoirs of several members of Bush’s cabinet reveal that President George W. Bush stated his intent to overthrow Saddam Hussein at the very first cabinet meeting in January 2001. 9/11 had nothing to do with it— nor even did weapons of mass destruction.


If you read the wording of the resolution, it is clear that it was not a declaration of war. It was an intermediate step subject to further review. And remember that the war actually began almost half a year after the resolution.


So who was it who changed his position –or misrepresented it in the first place? Now I’ll admit, that anybody who took President Bush at his word was a fool – but isn’t that a sad state of affairs! 

Monday, October 13, 2008


Today, October 13, is the official Columbus Day Holiday, though when I was a kid we celebrated it on the 12th, not necessarily on a Monday. Of course, today it’s PC to call it Native American Day or some other generic holiday.

In the late 19th Century there were no such qualms. The 400th Anniversary of Columbus’ landing was commemorated with a spectacular world’s fair in Chicago. The fact that it opened in 1893 rather on the actual anniversary the year before was due to the logistics of the fair itself, and not a statement of policy.

I’m reading a fascinating book about the fair, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. It was recommended to me by our new Port Director, John Leonard, originally from Boston, after I gave him a tour of our San Francisco Custom House and described construction techniques used for San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific Exhibition in 1914-15, compared with the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1903 and the earlier Chicago World’s Fair. They were basically stage sets composed of plaster of Paris, paper mache and chicken wire. It’s amazing they survived a single rain storm, let alone an entire season. The only building still standing from 1915 is Maybeck’s Palace of Fine Arts, which was rebuilt in concrete about fifty years ago, and was just recently restored for many millions of dollars.

Back to the White City in Chicago: the book is utterly gripping. It’s a fact-filled combination of architectural history and Sweeney Todd, or Jack the Ripper. I’m only half way through, but it’s an amazing tale.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


As I fully expected, Dave Jones' 50th Birthday Celebration was a brilliant affair. The event was held in the main dining room on the second floor at the Bohemian Club. The place looked festive with balloons and streamers. There were at least six food stations with sushi, fresh pasta made to order, shell fish, various vegetables, Caesar salad, carved roast beef, plenty of hot hors d'oeuvres and a dessert table including five or six birthday cakes with some for other guests who had recently had birthdays, including Herb Goodrich. 


The live band played fine renditions of rock and soul standards from the 60's, 70' and 80's. I danced a couple times with Lissa, our hostess, and joined in the conga line. Adam and I had a terrific time. His headache from the day before was gone...but I'm not so sure about tomorrow.


Before the birthday event, I went to the Sunday matinee of San Francisco Opera's production of Korngold's Die Tote Stadt. My Bohemian friend Richard Evans had invited me the night before, when his wife decided she couldn't make it. Richard is one of the best musicians I know. He's a wonderful composer, who has written a number of shows for Bohemia, and I've had the privilege of singing principal roles in two of his Grove Plays. And Richard is probably the best accompanist I know. On a first run through he can play a sensitively accurate written-accompaniment or produce a creative one following every nuance of the singer’s performance for a piece he may never have heard before!


Die Tote Stadt is a marvelous opera.  I was familiar with Erich Wolfgang Korngold from his film scores in the 1930’s and 1940’s. He wrote the music for Robin Hood and a number of Bette Davis movies. I had heard he had been a child prodigy (so I guess it’s appropriate his middle name was Wolfgang). He wrote this opera—not his first— when he was in his early twenty’s. The orchestration is extraordinarily rich – reminiscent of Richard Strauss, Mahler, some Wagner and early Schoenberg. The size of the orchestra is about the same as Der Rosenkavalier, one of my favorite operas.


The dead city in this case is Bruges in Belgium. I spent ten days there with Chanticleer in 1981 for a music festival. I guess you might consider it dead from the standpoint it didn’t expand and develop in the 19th and 20th Centuries. But that was to our great fortune, since the medieval and Renaissance city then survived intact. It’s a brick city with canals—and along with Amsterdam and St. Petersburg— is a smaller Venice of the north. (There’s a terrific recent film noir In Bruges I highly recommend.)


Without getting into the plot, the sophisticated story moved me with its depiction of obsession and loss. I had learned after my return from Bruges that my dear friend Gary Murakami had committed suicide while I was gone. So I could relate to the psychological elements.  San Francisco’s production and staging was absolutely first- rate…and the singing was superb.

Richard had been given excellent comp tickets: row K in the orchestra right on the center aisle. They were by far the best seats I have ever had at SF Opera.


Continuing backwards…on Friday night I saw ACT’s marvelous production of Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll. I took my friend Juling from Starbuck's. She's a wonderfully enthusiastic supporter! (At first I thought I couldn’t afford to continue my friend Craig’s subscription, so he changed the series from Wednesday to Friday nights. In doing so, he gave up what I thought were the best seats in the house… the exact two center seats seven row back.  He still has a great row in the center section, but the seats have moved a little to the right. He convinced me to buy his series… at least for another year. Craig bought a condo a few years ago, and I’m just keeping his seats warm until he can afford them again.)


Stoppard is one of my favorite playwrights. I first saw Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the Yale Dramat my sophomore year in college. (One of the leads was Philip Anglim, who later played The Elephant Man on Broadway, and was Richard Chamberlain’s lovechild in The Thornbirds. His mother Paule has an art gallery on Geary Street in San Francisco.)


Tom Stoppard is Czech and English was not his first language. It’s incredible to me how someone can be such a brilliant writer in a second language. (The same, for Joseph Conrad.)


Rock ‘n Roll is set in Cambridge England and Prague from 1967 through the fall of the Soviet block in the early 1990’s.  So I relived my teenage years and young adulthood. I clearly remember Prague Spring, and I think I was selling ice cream at a summer job in August 1968 when the Soviet tanks entered Prague. Last February I spent a few days in Bratislava, Alexander Dubcek’s home town, and Praha, while accompanying Chanticleer on a winter tour of Central Europe.


ACT’s production was superb in every way, including the sets. Manoel Feliciano (Jan) was brilliant, and the ubiquitous Rene Augesen performed one of her best double roles yet.


So already it’s been a full Columbus Day weekend. I’ll write more about the holiday itself tomorrow.


Saturday, October 11, 2008


Recently I’ve written a lot about death and funerals. So it’s a pleasant change to talk instead about birthdays. Today I had brunch with my young Hungarian friend Szilard, who turned twenty-three today. Adam K was supposed to join us, but had a bad headache. So Rupert, Rose and I walked to the Castro and sat outside at Catch to celebrate Szilard’s day. He’s going to be moving to Las Vegas soon, so it was good to see him on a beautiful autumn day here in San Francisco. I had ordered a small chocolate cake from my favorite local French bakery, Tartine, on Guerrero & 18th.

When I was off work after my heart attack four years ago, I used to take Rose and Rupert for a walk over the hill to Tartine for a hot chocolate and fresh croissant. The walk was good. I’m not sure it was such a great idea to have a croissant every day.

Two weeks ago, we three R's --Rupert, Rose & I -- attended a champagne reception at Chris Wahlgren's house the week after his fortieth birthday. Chris is our friend who owns Nomad Rugs on 24th Street near Church. Dennis used to help out there after being let go from Lang's Estate Jewelry. And Chris is very dog friendly. I've never been to a party at his place without at least five or six dogs in attendance.

Yesterday was Herb Goodrich's birthday on 10/10 (the anniversary of the rebellion that started the Chinese Revolution in 1911. Sun Yat-sen was in San Francisco on the day, a little like Lenin's being in Switzerland at the beginning of the Russian Revolution. Leaders sometimes don't start world events, they just manage and manipulate them.) Herb is a good friend and Bohemian...a fine writer, composer and director. He wrote and conducted the wonderful score for last summer's Grove Play. I called him Friday and sent him a Jacquie Lawson online card.

Tomorrow Adam and I are going to my friend Dave Jones’ fiftieth birthday celebration at the Bohemian Club. Dennis and I went to his extraordinary wedding several years ago on September 1st (my parents’ wedding anniversary) at an estate in Carmel. We were put up in a fine hotel in Monterrey for several nights. It was a wonderful affair. Dave’s wife Lissa Morgenthaler-Jones, originally from Cincinnati, really knows how to throw a party.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

SEA BATTLE OF LEPANTO ~ October 7, 1571 ~ Venetians & Holy League versus Ottoman Turks

Had I not been so occupied with personal business last Tuesday, I certainly would not have overlooked the anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto. It’s a major event in Venice. Besides which, the 400th anniversary was the date of my senior recital at Yale back in 1971.

Yesterday my nephew Sheridan had me talk to his friend Christie Burke, who was at the airport on her way to Venice for the first time. I came up with several suggestions, including, of course, the Doge’s Palace with a number of spectacular paintings of this great battle. Despite the expected hoards of tourists in Piazza San Marco-- even at this time of year-- I advised her not to miss it. (I did recommend that she visit the Ducal Chapel -- that wonderful copy of The Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople [since demolished] -- during an early morning Sunday service to avoid the crowds.) Fourteen months ago I was able to see the Venice and the Islamic World exhibition at the Doge’s Palace after having missed it at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It was far better to see it in Venice.

Some historians contend that the Battle of Lepanto really wasn’t so significant. The sultan, however, was lusting to conquer Rome and turn St. Peter’s into a mosque as Mehmet II had done to Hagia Sophia. What a different world it would have been had he been successful.

The Holy League, commanded by Philip II’s bastard half-brother, Don John of Austria, prevailed primarily because of its superiority in canon power, creatively placed in the bows of the galleys. I suppose my two day delay allowed a greater consistency in several earlier postings. And I guess it’s fun to place it after Row, Row, Row Your Boat since Lepanto was the last major sea battle with oared galleys.

(A literary aside: Miguel de Cervantes was maimed in his left hand in the battle and later taken prisoner-- an experience which no doubt influenced Don Quixote).


Wisdom can be found in strange places.
One of the wisest sayings I know is expressed
in a children’s nursery rhyme.

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream!

The key is to 'go with the flow'

(sometimes that's a challenge to determine)
and not merely to drift...
but to participate in life.
And…. be joyous in the adventure.
Ultimately, however, life is an enigma—
it 'is but a dream.'


Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

So goes one of the stanzas in the hymn St. Anne,
“O God, Our Help in Ages Past.”
It’s one of my favorites.
We sang it at the end of Dennis’ funeral,

as well as my Father's and my Mother's.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


My father, Sherry Bell, Sheridan Watson Bell, Jr., died twenty-six years ago this October 30 --about seven weeks before his 74th birthday. His funeral was on November 1, 1982... All Saints Day.

Late this morning I attended the funeral of a twenty-eight year old co-worker, who died of liver failure. Her age made it particularly sad, more so than Adam K’s grandmother's funeral the week before. Of course, in the larger scheme of things – in geological time— there’s not really much difference between 28 years, 82 years, or two months.

I recall an incident regarding time when I was six. I went with Daddy on a call to the Dauphin County Home. I stayed in the car. He said he would be a ‘minute.’ It was probably closer to half an hour. The next week I was walking to school with my sister Cynthia. As we passed the McFarland Rose Garden, she said to hurry up or we'd be late. We had only two minutes. I said we had plenty of time.

What is time? What is life? ……What is death?

We spend our days and minutes, indeed our lives, reflecting constant past, projecting constant future-- the present never really is. But in another sense, all that really is, is Eternal Now.

As a P.K. (Preacher's Kid) son and grandson of Methodist ministers, and great-great-great grandson of an 18th Century Methodist circuit rider on my mother's side, I grew up in the Church. But as some of my Jewish friends consider themselves atheist or at least agnostic— and real Jews; so it was with me as a "cultural Christian." For years I spent more time in church than the rest of my family. That was because I was a professional singer— a music mercenary. I loved the liturgy and music for its own sake. I wasn't certain there was any substance. Oh sure, religion attempted to answer some questions and to provide meaning for existence, but I had doubts about the ability of organized religion to address these issues in any authentic way. I was still left with the question: "How do you explain God?"

My Father was a wise man. He knew I was searching--that was all that mattered.

After exploration of other traditions--especially Buddhist and Vedantic— I have let myself be open to experience the validity of my own western religious background. The basic problem with religion is that it is essentially non-verbal. As soon as I attempt to describe religious experience, I face the limitations of language itself. Yet I have come to believe that the great religions of the world are repositories of religious truth— it isn't on the surface-- most people never find it— and those who do are usually rejected by society at large. It is the task and the joy of some in each generation to peal away the layers of the onion. As some have said, "All paths lead to the top of the mountain." Or others," All wells—if deep enough— reach the under-ground spring." The important task is to choose a path and follow it, or start digging a well. I believe (in the Greek sense of the verb in the creed— I have let myself be still in order to experience) that there is a God, a Creator of all life, who loves his Creation. In time all Creation (vegetable, mineral as well as animal) will be redeemed.

This acceptance has been an evolution for me. At one time I was convinced that life was but a cruel joke and that it would be far better to get over with it. (When I was a child I became extremely agitated by suspense in TV or movies. Over the years my reactions have been a source of amusement for my friends. Even today, with a rented video [or now with DVDs], I sometimes fast-forward during the suspenseful parts. When I know what's going to happen, I can look at it without embarrassing myself. It is a fear of the unknown. Perhaps that same fear played an element in my junior year college crisis. While I fancied myself a nihilist, I was afraid of death; but, as it was the only certainty, why not embrace it?)

The idea that spiritual consciousness might evolve— that my consciousness evolves— that Jesus' (Joshua ben Joseph's) spiritual consciousness evolved was a concept that opened possibilities for religious faith. The very aspects about the movie and book The Last Temptation of Christ that were so offensive to some Fundamentalists are the very ones which appeal to me. That Jesus at the outset of the movie screamed he was a sinner, and heard voices (depicted a little like Jeanne d'Arc's voices) suggested that there was an evolution in Jesus' consciousness. (Can you imagine anything more blasphemous to a devout Jew of the First Century than voices proclaiming you to be the Son of God? No wonder he thought he was a sinner in the context of the film. Perhaps some voices were temptation in the wilderness; but others traditionally were valid). This depiction of evolution in Jesus' consciousness resonates with me. If his consciousness did not evolve, then Jesus knew in Mary's womb that he was the third part of the Trinity, Creator of the world. If he knew how things would turn out— could run the video forward, as it were, and know, really know that he would rise from the dead on the Third Day— then the Crucifixion is meaningless: no worse than going to the Dentist. Jesus had to surrender— to risk. He had to believe, but not fully know how events would resolve. He had to trust. Only then can he be a model for us: otherwise, a sovereign, perhaps; but not a model.

I have come to experience continuity. I cannot intellectually conceive of life beyond death; but as St. Paul said: "Now we see through a glass darkly, but then, face to face." I am confident that I shall. Dad related to me that he had experienced an extraordinary sense of ease at his own Father’s death. All was right. All…….is right.

Monday, October 6, 2008


Two months ago, I had an internal defibrillator procedure at Kaiser. It’s a little like having a small cell phone on my chest. My defibrillator is about four times bigger than a pace-maker. The point is not so much to enhance my day-to-day activities, as to provide insurance against sudden cardiac arrest, for which I guess I’m at serious risk. I had a major heart attack forty-nine months ago.

I suppose if you’re going to have a heart attack, I had mine at an optimal time. I recently read an article about the efficacy of angioplasty and of stents. Its conclusion was that preventative stents are of questionable value—that the gold standard for inserting stents needs to be within an hour of a severe heart attack. That qualification fit my scenario to a ‘T.’

Saturday August 28th, 2004 was the wedding of Dan Hutchings & Rachael Lu, musician friends (Dan of the Schola Cantorum at St. Francis) in the Green Room of the War Memorial Veteran’s building next to the opera house. Dan sang Schubert and Rachael accompanied him on the piano.

Dennis and I went to the ceremony and reception in the same room and sat at the table with Tom Hart from Chanticleer days. He said I looked terrific.

Earlier that day, I had gone to William Stout Architectural Books near work and bought a huge folio of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the great 19th Century German architect. The book weighs about 80 pounds. I brought it home by taxi, but carried it upstairs and moved it around several times before settling on the floor in front of the Napoleon window in the dining room.

When I later suggested to my cardiologist, Sheryl Garrett, that this might have been the proximate cause of my heart attack the following morning, she agreed. She said it was the first time she had heard of a heart attack caused by a book! More common was somebody lifting a car engine.

On Sunday morning I woke up early, sopping wet. I frequently sweat a lot at night, but this was different. Dennis was still asleep. I decided to take a shower, which was probably not such a hot idea. Then Dennis got up and went down to the garden to read the paper, drink his coffee and have a smoke. I think I had some coffee. I’m sure I had already made a pot for him. Still sweating after my shower, and starting to feel a sharp pain in my back, I called to Dennis in the garden and asked him to make some phone calls for me. To demonstrate my priorities, the first was to John Renke, my organist and choir director at St. Francis, to let him know that I wouldn’t sing at church that morning. Then I asked Dennis to call the advice nurse at Kaiser.

Dennis described my symptoms to the advice nurse. As we were talking to her, my left arm started to go numb. She immediately said to call 911. Dennis offered to drive me to Kaiser, but the nurse insisted he call 911, which of course, he did. Within minutes there were six or seven strapping firemen in the house, hooking me up to all kinds of things and injecting me with whatever is standard procedure. Then they strapped me into a chair and carried me down to their emergency van, which must have been only a few blocks a- way when they received the call. For some reason they went up Fair Oaks to 20th St and then to Dolores on the way to Kaiser on Geary. I think Dennis was with me in the emergency van.

When we got to Kaiser, I was immediately taken to the emergency room. It turns out that Kaiser’s Cardiac headquarters for Northern California is at that very location. Had I been taken to a different Kaiser facility, I would have been transferred to that one. Within half an hour or so, I had an angioplasty with two stents. One of my main cardiac arteries had been 99% blocked. It was a heart attack waiting to happen.

Most heart attacks occur on Monday mornings about 8:00 am. I guess people are apprehensive about going back to work. I suppose my parallel is that Sundays used to be work days for me, when the Schola Cantorum had regular services every Sunday (until we got fired).

Fortunately, Karl Friedrich Schinkel caused my attack to occur early on a Sunday morning, when the emergency vehicle was close by, there was very light traffic, and when I had the actual heart attack the very moment we were consulting the advice nurse!

Dr. Sheryl Garrett was the doctor on call in the emergency room that day. She was not my surgeon, but heard about my arrival. Dr. Garrett later told me she has had two most memorable experiences among the hundreds of cardiac patients she has treated during her seven years at Kaiser. The first was a seventy-eight year old woman who had cardiac arrest the very instant Dr. Garrett shook her hand. The patient survived, then years later had another heart attack, and was still alive when I heard about her story.

The second memorable experience was seeing Dennis in the lobby outside the emergency room. Dr. Garrett had not yet met me, but had heard of my circumstances. She surveyed the waiting room and noticed Dennis among the group of people there. Immediately she knew who he was. She said his great concern, fear and love was absolutely palpable.

Although I was initially surprised by my heart attack, I really shouldn’t have been. There is significant history of heart disease on both sides of my family. Dad had his first heart attack at thirty-nine when he tried to hold his breath while swimming under water the full length of a pool. Then he had another one a few years later. I remember visiting him in the Harrisburg Hospital when I was three or four years old. Of course, his dramatic cardiac arrest was in 1977 when he was sixty-eight. That was when Dad collapsed after giving a tight three minute roast of the mayor at the auditorium of the Hershey Medical Center, and Helen screamed and followed Dad in the ambulance –and Mother was left behind because she was trying to stay out of the way of the care givers. Many people thought Helen was Mrs. Bell. Dad’s performance ended the show! Lastly Dad died of a heart attack the day he was supposed to be released from Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia on October 30, 1982, about seven weeks before his 74th birthday. He had been treated for a major stroke the previous June, and was going home to recuperate before a scheduled operation on his other carotid artery.

Dad’s favorite sister Alice died of heart disease in her late fifties. And Mother’s mother, Julia Trump Rich, died of heart failure about age sixty-five.

Recently, of course, was the unexpected death of my first cousin Roswell Brayton, Jr. As his sister Anne said: “He was the golden boy. Nobody expected him to die so young.” He was almost the same age as I when I had my attack – a few months after his 55th birthday. Rozzie was the genuine athlete in the family. He was the star pitcher on his Harvard baseball team and made the Harvard Sports Hall of Fame. I guess he was also a fanatic golfer, as were many others of my Mother’s family. He had a wooden box full of score cards from every golf game he had ever played (over a thousand). It was buried with him in his casket. And since his father had lived until his early eighties, Rozzie had every expectation that he would do likewise. Nevertheless, he evidently had already planned that detail of his funeral.

The irony was, he died doing cardio in the company gym in Woolrich. I suppose the hard decisions he had taken to make Woolrich competitive to survive in the new global economy took its toll. As President and CEO of the family company, he had had to let go almost 80% of the US workforce. I’m convinced it killed him.

I just received word from Dennis’ step-mom Evelyn that his step-sister Jackie’s husband died of a heart attack last week. The shame was he wasn’t feeling well and went in for a check-up, but the hospital didn’t do any tests for heart condition and thought instead he was coming down with pneumonia. He went back to work and died a few days later at the farm co-op in Clarence, Iowa.

Dennis had been sick for years, and I had been preparing myself to be a caregiver to him. The amazing thing is I never anticipated that he would be such a marvelous caregiver to me. I’ll always be grateful that I survived to be there for him at his end.

Titian in the Frari (Venezia)