Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Modest Proposal

Oil spill? Wattaya say we just go with it?

So it's been a couple of months now, and so far all attempts to seal the leak at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico have failed to do anything but slow it down a bit. I've got a better idea. Let's use this as an opportunity to establish one of the world's largest petroleum holding tanks right in our own back yard.

First off, forget trying to plug the leak. What's the point? With thousands of other oil platforms out there something else is bound to happen to another one someday and we'll be right back where we started. Instead, let's pop the cork on the rest of them and REALLY start filling the Gulf with oil. After a while there should be so much of it that the water will be displaced completely, leaving us with a thousand mile wide lake of crude to draw on.

Of course we'll have to prevent it from escaping into the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, so that's why we'll need the good old Army Corps of Engineers to build a sea wall from the Florida Keys to the tip of the Yucatan peninsula. We'll let the water out but keep the oil in -- don't ask, let's just let them figure out a way. I think oil floats, right?

Speaking of the Yucatan, we'll need to address finding a way to keep Mexico from sucking up some of our oil. After all, we drilled the holes and built the big sea wall, so we should have exclusive rights to the oil even though about a thousand miles of the Mexican coastline will be helping to contain it. Well, all right, maybe we'll let them share. There has to be some role for diplomacy in all this.

Finally we'll have to address the danger of fire. That's why I propose to invest in the installation of a line of NO SMOKING signs about every 100 feet around the whole circumference of what will now be called the Gulf Oil Lake. Of course we'll need to have guards patrolling the edges also and making sure that people obey the signs. This is very important, because you can just imagine what the environmentalists would say if the whole thing turns into a giant torch.

Admittedly, that is a worst case scenario, but we should be prepared for this too. That's why NASA will be called in to capture an asteroid of the right size and place it into Earth orbit. Then if the oil lake ever catches fire, they will land the asteroid in the middle of it, and the tremendous rush of air will snuff the flames out.

I realize this sounds a bit scary, but remember it's only a worst case scenario. If everything is designed and built properly, and everyone is careful, what could possibly go wrong?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A New Old Fave

That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.

- Twelfth Night

Proving that it's never too late to discover classical works for the first time, I can say that I have a new favorite piece of chamber music following my introduction to Schubert's cello quintet in C major at a recent performance at the University of Miami.

No, silly, of course it's not five cellos, but a string quartet (in this case Miami's own Amernet) augmented by an extra guest cellist (in the person of Gary Hoffman). What this makes possible is the creation and evolution of some achingly beautiful dual melodies handed back and forth between the pair of cellos and the pair of violins, or in some cases violin and viola.

What I mean by dual melody is that the theme is written in harmony, with an upper and lower voice singing in unison or winding around one another in counterpoint, but impossible to separate. Neither voice can be said to represent the melody on its own; it exists for two voices or not at all -- something like the monumental double fugue built into the last movement of Beethoven's ninth.

Another facet of this inspired composition is the ineffability of the theme. Hearing it for the first time, I seemed to have known it all my life. But the day after the performance I was unable to reconstruct it in my mind. I had to hunt down a recording to end that maddening sensation of having a forgotten song on the tip of my tongue. (And let me say that the CD with the Cleveland Quartet and guest Yo-Yo Ma is at least as good as the live performance I heard.)

The slow second movement is a study in stasis, with measured accents in pizzicato like the ticking of a clock to punctuate a melodic progression that seems in no rush whatsoever to get anywhere. I found myself recalling the old song by the Talking Heads that says, "Heaven ... heaven is a place ... a place where nothing ... nothing ever happens ..." This movement is certainly ethereal enough to qualify for the afterlife. Then the piece achieves rebirth in the gutsy scherzo that follows.

Also fascinating is the way Schubert hearkens back to the first movement's theme in the fourth. It nearly sounds like it will be a recapitulation note for note, but instead he gives it a different twist. In fact, it turns out to be a wholly different melody that somehow alludes to the original one. While the tune in the beginning is full of yearning and becoming, the one at the end seems to be a fond memory, a summation while bowing out in conclusion.

We feel works like this are "deep" in proportion to what we bring to them and how they seem to reflect our experience of life. Perhaps my own attraction to this one is partly due to my own maturity and the ability to look back across a lifetime toward the distant events of childhood and adolescence.

But don't let age or experience get in your way of the rich enjoyment to be found in Schubert's works for chamber ensemble. The cello quintet doesn't stand alone; it's part of a large body of string quartets, piano trios and quartets, and at least one octet including a few wind instruments.

Another sea to dive into and swim around in. Come on in, the water's great.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

How I Spent the 17th Century

-- and the early years of the 18th, too ...

When I first spotted the first volume of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle at the book store my initial reaction was "Oh no!" (in the immortal words of Mr. Bill). It was so huge, at 900 pages, and so interesting to me, and so soon to be followed by two sequels of similar length, that all I could see was the huge investment of time I was sure to make in absorbing the whole opus. (The original three volumes were later printed in eight smaller installments, so it's not accurate to call it a trilogy.)

I put it off as long as I could, but this year I bought all three volumes in trade paperback format and wallowed my way through one of the most rewarding reading experiences I can remember. It's not the longest series I've got under my belt -- that distinction goes to the 20 volumes of Patrick O'Brian's epic about the Napoleonic Wars. But Stephenson's efforts are certainly to be classed with O'Brian's as mileposts in historical fiction.

Like O'Brian's work, Stephenson's is global in scope, with historical allusions going back to medieval alchemy and forward to contemporary science, cryptography, computers, and multinational corporate greed. The characters range from the noble in birth to the slave, from the greatest scientific minds of the day (Newton and Leibniz) to the self-centered idiots who generally people the rest of the world.

The principle characters are Daniel Waterhouse, a college roommate of Isaac Newton's who goes on to play a pivotal role in the machinations of the plot; Jack Shaftoe, a mercenary soldier and erstwhile street urchin who becomes a "vagabond king" legendary all over Europe; and one Eliza, a woman who was taken as a slave and escapes from a Turkish harem to become Duchess of the (mythical) island of Qwghlm and a femme fatale of international finance and intrigue.

If those names sound familiar then you must have read Stephenson's earlier work, Cryptonomicon, to which the Baroque Cycle forms an enormous prequel. In that novel, two generations of the 20th century descendants of Waterhouse, Shaftoe, and Eliza fight their way through World War II into the age of the Internet and global finance.

In all, the four volumes constitute a fascinating meditation on the nature of money, the influences of science and mathematics on the real world, and the origins and direction of technology. At the same time, the story is pure adventure, filled with sword fights, desperate battles and escapes from imprisonment, lust and romance, and the old tale of rags to riches -- and rags again -- that never fails to disappoint the reader.

Of course any good novel must come with a villain, and due to its size the Baroque Cycle has room for a number of them, all of whom come to wonderfully satisfying bad ends. But I won't spoil things by naming them or describing their fates. For that you'll just have to buckle up and go along for the ride.

What makes a piece like this work is, in a word, texture. Stephenson has achieved a nearly perfect synthesis of modern narrative with the best features of careful classical description. No detail is so minor that it can't become the subject of historical analysis, or etymology, or lengthy depiction, or all three, until the picture becomes almost like a memory of having had the experience. Repetition plays a role also -- I lost count, for example, of the number of allusions, all of them disgusting, to the Fleet Ditch (later to become Fleet Street) that sliced Baroque London with a reeking open sewer.

But the earthy horrors of the day are counterbalanced by the lofty flights of the first stirrings of modern science, the birth of the Age of Reason. You can argue that it's an age whose time has yet to come, but its aspirations are as timely now as they were 300 years ago. After setting down the last volume, I almost felt as if I'd been reading for that long, or that I could remember what it was like to be there ... how I myself had lived, centuries in the past.

Saturday, June 05, 2010


I've still got mine ... what about you?

It's true. I'm one of the few people I know who still has all his marbles. The ones from my childhood, I mean. Somehow in spite of losing track of all my toys and everything else I used to own, the marbles have always come along with me. Maybe because they were relatively compact and could just live quietly in a jar or a dish on a shelf, content with just a passing glance from time to time.

It occurs to me there may be younger people out there who passed their entire boyhood or girlhood without ever owning any marbles or playing with them. I can only say I'm sorry. They will never know the crazy glee of marble season, when suddenly everyone was bringing bags of them to school and using every spare moment to scratch rings in the nearest patch of dirt and test their skills. The marble bags of the winners grew fat, and the losers made their way back to the toy store to buy more. As with any good gambling game even losers occasionally made gains, which was enough to keep them coming back.

But I also had an aesthetic relationship with my marbles. I could spend an hour gazing into them, holding them up to the light, looking through them, admiring their colors and patterns, pretending they were planets, getting to know them, memorizing them like the faces of old friends. There were aggies and puries and cat's eyes ... some like the colors of fruit stirred into milk, some like real stone, others like glowing stained glass windows, still others like flowers frozen in ice. There were new ones, pristine in clarity, and old ones battered like gladiators with the scars of many collisions in the dusty ring.

I picked my favorites and set them aside, reluctant to risk losing them at play. I had my game marbles and my keepers. It may have been selfish, but it was better than the way the kid next door kept all his black marbles in a segregated bag where they carried on a "separate but equal" existence. In those days of unbridled bigotry he called them his "nigger marbles" and would put them in the ring when he was losing, out of spite to the winner. Where are you now, Eugene? Lost years later in Vietnam, I'll bet.

So that's what I start thinking about whenever I pick my way through the marble jar. Oh -- and who is one of the few other people I know who still has their marbles? Happens to be my wife. We made this discovery in the process of merging our households, so now there are two jars on the shelf, looking very much alike.

At some point we made a ritual exchange of a single marble, just as royal offspring used to be wedded off to one another to cement the relations between two countries. The marble I contributed to her jar is lost like a drop in the ocean, but I can still pick out familiar faces in my own jar, little planets that orbited in the imaginary spaces of my 9-year-old mind ...