June Ramblings

June 2, 2019

It’s been a while since I’ve commented on the music I listen to. It fluctuates between jazz and classical. One exception: Susan was too nice to complain that Electric Ladyland echoing through the house was disturbing her work.

My large CD collection is in the basement, so I periodically re-alphabetize the 3 dozen or so CD’s I’ve schlepped up to the armoire in the den. I’m always curious whether recently-listened-to jazz or classical will predominate (but I never count to be sure). This time it seems to be evenly divided.  In the process of re-filing, I found a few disk mates to long lost covers. What joy! This is even better than finding long-missing socks!

Rewarding myself for repatriating (almost) all the migrants from the armoire, I picked a bouquet of lovelies for the evening. But even these new bijoux took second place to the joy of mating cover and disc of Charlie Parker, Live at the Royal Roost (probably Christmas/New Year’s 1949-50). Complete with unctuous broadcast MC, Miles Davis, Max Roach, Curly Russell, Tad Dameron—then New Year’s with Miles, Max, Kenny Dorham, Tommy Potter, and Al Haig. From a nicely recorded (for the time) broadcast. If you haven’t heard Miles with Bird from this period, it’s interesting. Miles (kinda) keeps up with the speed and range of the frantic bebop, but that’s not what we have come to expect from him. My wife discerned some “funny” notes in the trumpet solo (but not in the alto). Some kind of bent, introverted tones and phrases. (She’s right: I taught her well.)

[pause for dinner and real life]

After dinner, it’s Brahms Second Symphony with Jaap van Zweden, the current conductor of the NY Philharmonic. We saw him conduct Mahler’s Das Klagende Lied in Paris a few years ago, before he became more prominent. As a Mahler fan, it’s always invigorating to see a performance delivered with understanding and brio. Now he needs to lead the standard repertoire on an everyday basis. Is his Brahms one to treasure? Do I listen to it with a predisposition to find it revelatory since I retrospectively saw his genius before The New Yorker knew who he was? Beats me. Listening while I write, I haven’t noticed anything radical or uncharacteristic or not consonant with my idea of Brahms. The lightness in some passages is pleasurable; sometimes Brahms can sound granitic (and sometimes he does), but not everywhere.

So what have we learned from these ramblings? I think I know: Dave’s been reading too much navel-gazing, introspective, pervy, onanistic, fascinating, self-absorbed shit by Proust. I’m now about 100 pages from the end of the penultimate novel, The Fugitive. How can someone maintain their interest and understanding of character and plot through seven novels when many paragraphs (or even sentences) are a page long. I can deal with it because I’ve figured out how to read it. Sometimes I parse his labyrinthine sentences aloud, trying to anticipate the relative clauses in my inflection as I navigate their winding course. I often marvel, after de-coding the sentences, leaving out non-essential clauses, parentheticals, and asides, at the subtlety, intricacy, and precision of the description of a feeling or a state of mind when I join the part of the sentence back together.

Now it’s time to say goodbye; Marcel is calling. He wants to tell me that this time he’s forgotten Albertine for sure. (He’s been working at it for about 200 pages.) What a whiny, naïve, juvenile, un-worldly, self-conscious, egotistical, snobbish, foolish baby! It’s fun to scorn him for all the inadequacies and doubts we find in ourselves. It’s a bit of a Freudian fantasia. Glad it’s not me.

Playing Trump

Sunday, January 13, 2019

I had always intended to make this blog a Trump-free zone. Haven’t you had enough? So many brilliant essays and op-ed pieces slicing and dicing Trump for his arrogance, ignorance, boorishness, narcissism, lying, corruption, ineptitude, gaucheness, authoritarianism, and bad hair?  There have been so many memorable, and, ultimately, tiring, screeds. Do we really need another snarky take-down of such an easy target?

So: I’ll refrain from rehashing true facts (as opposed to false facts) cited by the Failing New York Times (henceforth “FNYT”). Who cares about facts anymore? Isn’t that so 2016?  Regardless of demonstrable evidence or statistics, Trump needs a face-saving strategy to shore up his ego and his wall and, oh yes, the government shutdown. All he needs to do is to declare victory. It’s that simple.

This marvelous solution came to me as I was mindlessly pedaling an Exercycle at the gym and watching a wall of silent TVs. As usual, they were tuned to Fox, CNBC, Fox, and Fox. Suddenly, Trump’s face appeared on TVs 1, 2, and 4. I was blissfully listening to the umpteenth recording of Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto before digging into my novel. Hmm, it looks like Don’s back to his yellow-and-orange motif: a break from the old gray hair-and-white face theme. No matter, the message is the same. I like the spray tam and the orange hair, though. It gives me confidence that Big Brother is healthy. Big Brother is inescapable.


Over the years may politicians have taken credit for imaginary achievements, acts of God, the market, or acts of the prior administration. Trump has often referred to his idiotic real-time decisions as the fulfillment of the auguries revealed during his campaign. Of course, he’ll re-present these prophesies as realized or stymied by the enemy for 2020. (These forces prevent the effective draining of the swamp. Won’t you help me, please?)

I’ve also read that illegal border crossings have declined in recent times. Whether that has anything to do with migrants being afraid to approach the border due to fear of Trump’s policies or not, he can easily claim that his administration has put forth such a ferocious disincentive, painful as it may be, that the poor migrants and asylum-seekers have been chastened. A win! Then he can shake his (short) finger at them: [I’m writing your Tweet here, Don, please pay attention!] ”Next time I won’t be such a Nice Guy!! For now, I’ll let my Government bees start working again.  And I’m putting you guys on Notice! The NEXT TIME I see those drug and terror-bombing rates go up, boys, you’re GONNA GET IT!!!!”

Your correspondent hasn’t worked out the “Mexico will pay for it“ bit yet. Trump’s explanation that the cost was baked into the successor to NAFTA rules went over like a lead taco. It didn’t convince anyone except those who had already drunk the Kool-Aid. He needs to find a way to humiliate Mexico as compensation to his base for not otherwise tightening the noose.  The combination of a declaration of victory by the administration and the important statistic that during Trump’s reign, and the fact that not a single Mexican or Central American terrorist has threatened the United States doesn’t have as much visceral power among Fox-watchers as watching the Mexican government grovel and snivel at Trump’s ugly feet. “But it’ll have to do as long as I can continue to pay my mortgage,” said Mort Lifer, Director of the Federal Bureau of Scapegoats, Pawns, and Collateral Damage. “We’ve been through this before, and it’s nothing we’re not accustomed to.”

I reduced illegal immigration. Problem solved. Nothing a little Sarah Sanders, some PR, and a rally with the Base can’t cure. At least until their implications and effects become more obvious in the longer term. But who thinks about that nowadays?

Maybe a big parade through Galveston or Laredo? Federal workers get paid, border security, er, I mean “the wall” is discussed later.

Meanwhile, Mueller works a plea deal with Manafort and Cohen that allows reduced jail time if they reveal the names of the Russian escorts that serviced Messrs. Trump, Kushner, and Trump, Jr. Cohen, wearing a wire, says, “Look, uh, Dad, uh, you’ve been in a ‘schwitz,’ right?… Well, are you ready?  What we’ve got planned tonight is gonna be something special!  And you can take home a video to help you remember this special night!”

No more Trump. I swear!


On an ordinary Saturday night, my wife and I were having dinner with another couple at our favorite nice place in downtown Wheaton, Suzette’s Creperie. My Wheaton, home of Wheaton College, a liberal arts college known as the evangelical Harvard. We’ve lived in Wheaton for more than 25 years. I’ll pause here for those of you unfamiliar with Wheaton: close your eyes, relax your shoulders, relax your arms, and float. Eyes closed? Good. Got it there in focus? Well… All I can say is that yes, the streets are very clean. We like it.  

Hipsters that we are, we knew that Judy Roberts was playing at Suzette’s that night. Judy has been a mainstay pianist/vocalist on the Chicago jazz scene for decades: an institution like the late Von Freeman. Some fans remember her from the Lincoln Ave. scene; some before, some after. These days, I think she spends a lot of the year in Arizona, with her husband, saxophonist (and vibist) Greg Fishman, who comprise tonight’s duo. The atmosphere was casual. The “bandstand” is a couple of feet in front of the front tables. But that’s ok with the folks nearby, it’s all kind of clubby. Judy’s talking to the audience between numbers. She’s been doing this for years, so she feels at ease. Before she and Greg take a break she asked for requests. Her exit path was just past our table, so I raised one finger to get her attention. She came over and looked at me, and before I could speak, she said, “Wait! You’re Jewish, right?” I was speechless. Then I laughed at her audacity, we chatted for a bit, and I asked her sing “Lush Life.” (She did.) For the record, I think Judy’s Jewish. “Roberts?” “Rabinowitz?” Huh? Huh?

I was born into a Conservative Jewish family (in today’s parlance, would that be “cis-Jewish,” or DJAB, i.e.,”designated Jewish at birth”). As a kid, almost everyone I knew was Jewish. For the last five years or so, Susan and I have been Unitarian-Universalists (or “UUs”). UU is a non-creedal religion that emphasizes freedom, logic, science, curiosity, respect, liberalism, democracy, morality, fairness, and inclusion. Manifestations of spirituality are many and varied; God(s) is optional. UU churches get a lot of refugees suffering from PTSD-like existential ennui caused by other traditional churches. Besides the lifelong and long-time UUs and the refugees are the truth seekers from the Church of None: agnostics, atheists, Humanists, Theists, and Pagans. All and all, an interesting bunch of folks.

I lost my faith around the time of my Bar Mitzvah. I did well in Hebrew school, I soaked up the language at that early age. The school people wanted to show me off by having me chant an extra- large portion of the Torah at my Bar Mitzvah. (“Dilgent boy!” [sic]; “A-level student!”)  The rabbi told me to concentrate on learning the passage; don’t worry about your speech. I’ll write it for you.

How lucky! I’d pawn off the work of expressing my deep thoughts on becoming a man on somebody else (“Dolly, get me speech #34b, please.”) and all I had to do was pull my performing seal number—beach-ball, unicycle, horns, the works. Shortly thereafter, I discovered Sartre.

At some point in the preparations, my parents hauled me in to see the rabbi: “Tell him what you said! Tell him what you said!”

“Uh, that I don’t believe in God?”

The charlatan wouldn’t defend himself. There’s the proof of my mature manhood at 13!

We went through with the Bar Mitzvah anyway, and my parents’ friends and relatives were so overjoyed that to mark my elevation to manhood and responsibility, they gave me money, an introduction to my dad’s bookie, and tips on the 4th race at Arlington. An older cousin gave me a package of condoms.

 I don’t think I appear particularly “Jewish.” My nose isn’t distinctive. Did I have my hanky in the wrong pocket? My voice, while distinctive (I know), doesn’t indicate its geography or heritage. I imagine it as vanilla as David Letterman’s or some newscaster from Ohio or Ted Knight. Maybe it’s the way I pronounce words like “schmuck” with the genetically-imprinted integrity of the chosen people. With a sigh or an eyebrow or an attitude. Not that I know German or Yiddish at all. (Just the swear words and a few for which there’s no English equivalent.)

I was outed a few years earlier by two shrink/friends I had to dinner. Carol is a brainy old traditional therapist who works for a vast bureaucracy. A small woman, she reminds me of Linda Hunt. Jenny, a graduate of Wheaton College, is more of a new-age therapist than evangelist. She was, however, a gifted child evangelist in upstate New York. She lived two houses down and we liked to talk about philosophy and kids and stuff. She told me about some exorcisms she had performed. Both are fun people to talk to.

We were talking and laughing and drinking wine. I can’t remember the context, but the two women decided and agreed that my sensibility and my sense of humor were definitely Jewish. Was my body language or inflection a giveaway?

The answers really don’t matter to me. I’m a secular Jew, a JewUU. I don’t believe. Culturally, I’m a product of the Jewish Petri dish I grew up in in ways I realize and in ways I don’t. It’s the problem of the overly self-conscious assimilated Jew in the post-World War II epoch: it’s an apparently inexhaustible trope.  As a baby boomer, I inherited the world of Philip Roth. Other ethnicities have their own stories of integration, The big-city Jewish version–full of neuroses, competitive achievement, and tsoris (Woody Allen movies, episodes of Seinfeld) just got more exposure..

The whole issue of secular Jews and assimilation came to me serendipitously today from two sources: a newspaper essay and a short story.

Today’s Chicago Tribune carries an excellent essay by longtime Chicago journalist Ron Grossman. Read it here.  It’s a great description of the lost-and-found of faith, tradition, and culture in America. I’m not sure how applicable it is to Gen X’ers or later. Their experience of the diaspora has been watered down by a generation or two. But it’s a great piece worth reading.

I can’t link you to the second source directly. It’s the third story in Deborah Eisenberg’s latest book of short stories Your Duck is My Duck.  Deborah Eisenberg is one of today’s greatest short story writers. It’s such a pleasure to read her finely crafted stories, each one a complete world. Pretty damned funny, too.  “Cross Off and Move On” is about class and class-consciousness. It made me think about my mother. I had read Eisenberg’s other collections, so I was waiting for this one. If you don’t already know her, what are you waiting for?

Welcome to the Birksworks Blog

October 7, 2018 8:30 p.m.

What am I listening to right now? <To be a continuing question>

Hindemith’s Symphony Mathis der Maler conducted by Hindemith himself with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1955. I used to know and love this piece but haven’t really listened to it lately. Why not remind myself of the felicities of harmony and drama and hear the message from the composer? What imaginary nuance can I ascribe to the ur-conductor, missing from more recent recordings with showier sound? Like Stravinsky, he ought to know how it goes. (How different are Stravinsky’s interpretations of his own work from the ones we hear today? I’d like to think I know, but I don’t. I do tell myself I have preferences in Mahler and familiar repertoire like Beethoven or Schumann piano music, however.)

I’m listening to the CD on my laptop, connected to a Bluetooth speaker in the den. [For posterity, I’ll say that I could have listened to any of the music on 2 terabyte disks accessible through my wi-fi.  The relatively high-end speaker is lo-fi, but serviceable. The whole music library database can be accessed by any device. I’m pretty proud of  figuring out how to plug the USB drives into the router. In reality, I believe that every teen-age geek knows how to do this. I’ve unscientifically tested this theory with several different groups of people in their 20’s. Both the graduate students and the working folks thought my setup was dope. I couldn’t believe it! I’d think this maneuver would be part of basic computer literacy these days. I can’t keep up with PC technology like I did when I was younger. Now I struggle to keep up, but I don’t try. Ergo, if I can do it, it shouldn’t be such a feat for these kids!  Even though I’m a liberal arts kind of guy, I’d think they’d learn something about networking in 8th grade—perhaps replacing the Constitution test. Isn’t that in the new STEM curriculum?

It occurred to me just now why these young people don’t like to mess with such stuff.  It’s a generational culture gap. The reason these folks never thought of accessing their music through a networked local database is due to my generation’s cultural assumptions about ownership and physical media. Decades ago I was a record collector: I owned hundreds of jazz and classical LP’s. Then came cassettes and CD’s. The albums were tangible. The music was mine. It lived in my house. Eventually there were MP3s and iTunes. Even though you couldn’t hold the music in your hand, it was your collection. As a collector, it’s always important to attend to a library’s topiary. Otherwise it would develop strange wayward growths. I do enjoy my little tangent suckers, though.

Young people these days either stream individual songs online or download them. An album-full of MP3’s or FLAC’s is an analog of a well-planned album of similar material with related notes (as on LP’s and CD’s) is a thing of the past. (I won’t mention the current retro-craze for vinyl. I don’t think its market share or the depth of its library will grow much.) There’s no context any more. Playlists generated by streaming services are more like robot/artisan-made smorgasbord of Top 40 radio. Are our attention spans so short?  

The Hindemith is a new acquisition from the library’s post-sale detritus from its annual sale of media nobody wants. I bought a few at $2, then a few marked down to $1. Now, a week later, I discovered other gems were for 50 cents each.

But I digress. I’m here to talk about a case of tragic irony in the MeToo era.

One piece of flotsam I snagged for a dollar was a 10-disk audio book: Giant of the Senate, read by the author, Al Franken.

I liked Al Franken as a writer and a comedian, but I loved him as a senator. On the cover of the audio book is a picture of Franken looking dour and statesmanlike, as if posing for Mt. Rushmore.

So much has happened in the MeToo world (and Trumpworld) since Al Franken resigned in January 2018. Dozens of rich, famous white men have fallen from grace. Al was one of the early casualties. Why am I interested in this de-tallised outcast? Of course, as a liberal, I’m dismayed to find one of my heroes as guilty as the rest. But it’s more than that.

Al was a smart smart-ass comedian whose nature it is to say or do anything for a joke, funny or not. Eventually, he got into trouble for a silly lecherous picture. It was bound to happen. I’m told that other women came forward to reveal some sexual misdeed or tasteless innuendo. (I’m sure he was big on innuendo.)

My unpopular opinion is that Al took one for the team. Even if the other women were subjected to sexual harassment (or worse) from him, I suspect it was more of the juvenile sexual humor or prank, rather than rape, masturbation, or quid pro quo favors so popular among the other perps. Almost a year ago, the MeToo movement was gathering steam. You don’t make exceptions at the beginning of a revolution. You just don’t. This is not to say that that it’s not about damned time that women spoke up about men’s piggish dehumanizing attitudes and behaviors for the last several thousand years. It’s that this poor schmuck got caught acting like a garden-variety asshole. And guess what? There are lots of them.

For all the time since Al became an activist, then a politician, I recalled something my father used to say to me over and over during my childhood (and later): “David, nothing you do will ever get you in trouble. It’ll be your mouth.” That’s Al. (Me too.)

One of the pleasures of listening to him read his last book is to hear stories about the suppression of his comedic reflexes during his time in the senate. During his first term many of his fans marveled at his ability to speak forthrightly about import issues without undermining his credibility with humor. Having established his bona fides as a serious liberal, the book—released in his second term—is the sound of him exhaling after holding his breath for 6 years. His publicity machine planted little buzz buds in the media: “Al Franken: safe to joke again!”

And what does he joke about? How naïve he was about political campaigns and the conventions of Congress. How he avoided calling someone a Big Fat Idiot—especially when he was right, goddamn it! His outing as a pervert was inevitable, especially with some non-partisan help from his detractors. As Donald Trump would say, “Sad!”