Thursday, March 19, 2009

Out of Exile

It was a good omen when the cats never uttered a sound on the way home. When we had gone to Perugia three months ago to escape the daily rigors of fetching firewood and the terror of heating bills, they sang a sad lament all the way, and once inside the apartment, they hid under the bed for two weeks. Now they're home, taking the sun in the morning and sitting by the fire in the evening.

Our own return was traditional in that upon our arrival, Filotea, the most generous and prolific cook in the village, presented us with a large batch of freshly made fettucine. While she suggested it would be good to freeze them right away, I would have none of that, so we cooked and devoured most of them right away. Thank you Filotea. Yesterday, our second full day back, we joined the rest of the villagers at the funeral of Romana, a 95 year old woman we'd seen every morning for many years waiting in the piazza for the bread delivery van to appear. Later, we foreigners gathered for our weekly Happy Hour at the Circolo. This week's discussion centered around the AIG bonus scandal. Yes, even here in rural Umbria, people are outraged. The day's best arguments on the subject come from Gail Collins, on the lighter side, and Eliot Spitzer, with a meatier analysis.

Perugia was OK. We enjoyed the opportunity to spend more time with two of our grandchildren and their parents. Just as August is not the ideal time to spend in Miami if you want to visit that city, the three months of winter are not the ideal time for a sojourn in Perugia, although it served our purpose and it gave me a chance to know the city a little better.

I see Perugia as three distinct zones, corresponding roughly with heaven, purgatory and hell. The compact hilltop center can be seen as a paradise for pedestrians. Corso Vannucci, the main street, is a wide avenue, closed to traffic, and always full of people. Along with Perugia's stepped and arched streets, it is prominently feutured in a wonderful book I've had for nearly 40 years, Streets for People, by Bernard Rudofsky. The book is a tribute to the world's most pedestrian friendly places, many of them being in Italy. It also gave me another little push toward moving here.

Unfortunately, just outside the medieval walls enclosing the center, the more recently built neighborhoods that continue down the steep hillsides have been built with the "rational" idea of having the streets follow the contours of the land. (Oh, if only the crackpots who had imposed the rectangular grid on San Francisco had operated here!) The result is a serpentine weave of long, looping, terraced streets that make short distances seem immense. From my daughter's balcony you can look down on a supermarket about 400 or 500 meters away and the equivalent of 15 stories below. Walking up with a lot of groceries is beyond the abilities of the aged or infirm and there is no simple and direct path to walk, so going there typically involves a 2 or 3 km trip by car, assuming we use one or two slightly illegal shortcuts to avoid long loops on one way streets. Otherwise the trip might run to 10 km. There are some straight (up or) down the hillside streets (we lived on one) but they often have one lane for parking, one for traffic, and no sidewalks. What could be a small area, easy to traverse on foot, has become a zone almost completely given over to short trips by car, with all the attendant problems of parking.

Once you get to the bottom of the hill, the new Perugia (Zone 3- Hell) begins. The flatter terrain should have meant easier and better planning. Instead the city fathers went with the 1960's American strip mall pattern and we have an unplanned nightmare of of big box stores and factories on roads divided into right and left turn lanes forcing you to go to God knows what other anonymous horror of a place. The outer circles of this hell spread well beyond the city limits to other growing towns which have engulfed the surrounding countryside, leaving the occasional old rural building sitting in the midst of mostly garish new strip malls and apartment buildings. Perhaps the worst is Via Settevalle, a complex series of chainlike one way roads resembling an urban road racing circuit. Just as lane markers identify the pit lane of such circuits, here they determine the direction you must take at the end of each 500-800 meter straightaway. Obviously pedestrians are banned here, and when someone accelerating to swerve to the other lane happens to crash into another car slowing to pit at the parking lot of a big box store, the police (race wardens?) also must arrive by motorized vehicle to sort out the mess. Despite my love of auto racing, shopping on a F1 circuit has little appeal.

Note: Objectivity requires mention that younger members of my family find a paradise in this hell. Inside those big boxes can be found all manner of stuff, from Chinese electronics to cars, to baby accessories, clothes, housewares, and international kitch. Being of an age where I no longer have any further need or desire for more stuff, I can only tender my apologies to the makers and vendors of stuff for not doing more to support the economy. My only possible help for Perugia's economy is to suggest that they put more people to work building sidewalks and stairs.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Karrin Allyson closes Terni in Jazz Winter Season

On Saturday night I had my first chance to hear a live performance of Karrin Allyson and I'm happy that I made the effort and the 180 km round trip to do so. The other three members of this fine quartet were Ed Howard on bass, Todd Strait on drums, and Rod Freeman on guitar. The concert, in the comfortable Palazzo Gazzoli Auditorium, started off in a bossa nova vein with Allyson singing in a fluent Portuguese, and a good deal of the concert followed that direction, although there was also a Joni Mitchell song in the mix. My favorite of the evening was a lively vocal interpretation of Hank Mobley's "The Turnaround", enough so that, after the concert, to fill in a notable gap in my record collection, I bought Allyson's Footprints CD, which contains that number along with many other vocal interpretations of jazz instrumentals. I recommend it.

While Allyson's voice and delivery are completely her own, the slight raspiness in her voice on slow tunes and her sex-kittenish manner and delivery made me think of the late Eartha Kitt. It was a fitting end to the excellent winter season of Terni in Jazz. If you get a chance to hear Karrin Allyson in person, by all means, go!

From the 40's through the 70's, jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington were very much a part of the shared popular culture. Three female jazz singers, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn tended to monopolize media attention, despite the fact that there were many other great singers around. As specialized radio and the internet gained our attention, audiences were fragmented and channeled into ever more narrow categories, so that the only singers who gain wide recognition appear to be those who provide salacious videos and keep their names on the pages of gossip magazines and police blotters. Nevertheless, after the passing of the three great ladies of jazz, a remarkable number of first rate female jazz singers has emerged. None of them has arrived at a dominance of the category the way Ella or Sarah did, but instead we have an all-star team of a dozen or a score of really excellent singers, all of whom deserve wider audiences. Karrin Allyson is part of that imposing team.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Lent and the Inner Conservative

Like all Americans of my generation raised in moderate Republican, suburban homes, by the time the Reagan revolution signalled the extinction of that slice of the American political pie, I had found a new political home. Giving in to the assurances of my multi-cultural urban friends that fears of John F. Kennedy's blind allegiance to the Pope were unfounded, I adopted the identity of "liberal". After years of GOP efforts to redefine the term as an obscenity, and the cowardly acquiescence of Democrats hiding behind the "progressive" label, I persist in my auto definition as "liberal". Please note that the opposite of liberal is illiberal, not conservative. Indeed, while people like me were shifting their allegiance to JFK and his party, the more radical elements of our sheltered communities, inspired by a poisonous melange of watered down futurism and the unadulterated bile of objectivism, embraced a nihilistic, social Darwinist creed bizarrely described ever since in the popular media as "conservative".

The 100th anniversary of the publication of the Futurist Manifesto passed largely unnoticed last week. It's a shame since nothing else I've seen could so plausibly explain the life's work of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. While the foot soldiers of the Reagan Revolution have been white men in the Sun Belt whose soft minds have been molded, by jingoist Sunday sermons from evangelical pulpits and non-stop 24/7 talk shows hosted by Goering clones on their truck radios, into supporting policies diametrically opposed to their own interests, the command center has always been manned by Grover Norquist-style oligarchs. These two disparate classes at the top and bottom of the coalition would never have gotten off the ground without the intermediate cadre of radicals, usually from such down-to-earth fields such as economics and engineering, captivated by the second tier "isms" of futurism and objectivism. Among them, Alan Greenspan has recently confessed that his conversion by Ayn Rand contributed to the Wall Street meltdown. These people were united by a limitless conviction that their personal successes resulted entirely from their own hard work, talent, and natural superiority, and by a religious faith in the infallibility of the "market". I regard such people as the black sheep of the family and the neighborhood, and they reciprocate in kind, but the lines are never all that black or white. Though I pay little more heed to to the Futurist Manifesto than to the Ayn Rand claptrap, I do admit to an irrational futurist love of racing cars and my favorite artifacts in the Garden State are the Pulaski Skyway and the old brick industrial buildings near the Great Falls in my native Paterson, while the objectivist/futurists tend to favor fake colonial style ranch houses in gated two-acre plot sylvan exurbs, despite, or in addition to, a boyish fascination with weapons and supersonic airplanes.

Soon after my seduction by Camelot, my inevitable liberal tendency toward appeasement asserted itself again when I married a Catholic, rendering null and void three decades of anti-papist indoctrination. Not just any Catholic, but one of the most ardent Catholics in all of Christendom. I've gone on to sire an ever expanding Catholic family, and while I continue to dash hopes of a death-bed conversion, I do allow myself to be dragged into the occasional mass, usually when it's too cold to sit outside in the car for an hour. As my two devoted readers know by now, I am fond of old places, things and rituals. Despite our divergences in matters of faith and doctrine, my wife and I agree that the substitution in "liberal" churches of recycled 70's guitar-strumming folk singers for the majestic unused organs, is an inexcusable abomination. We both prefer the Latin mass, she for the tradition, I because of its mystery and reassuring incomprehensibility. I love much of Catholic tradition: the art, the architecture, the ecclesiastical robes, and the incense, giving me as legitimate a claim to the title of "conservative" as that of any of my radical right brethren.

The other under reported event last week was the beginning of Lent. It usually comes up only in stories covering Carnevale, Fasching or Marti Gras, unless you read church bulletins, but for someone raised with no idea of Lent, the cyclical concept of Rabelaisian revelry followed by a period of repentance and purification is as appealing as the waving of the incense. It's similar to why the four season climate of New York or Rome is so much more appealing to some of us than the always perfect, always warm and sunny weather of Florida, no matter how much we may lament the cold. For many years I have given up something for Lent, usually wine, but sometimes all alcohol, less from a devotion to God than from a concern that my liver might be in need of a period of repose and regeneration, but also, in part, from the satisfaction obtained through self-discipline. Sadly, with the ravages of time and a declining economy, the pre-Lenten celebrations have become ever less Dionysian.

This year I decided to shield my friends from my self-induced suffering and consequent foul humor, so when those rare occasions for socializing with friends come up, I will momentarily set aside my vows of sobriety in the name of conviviality. I will however renounce the warming embrace of Jack Daniels on those bleak evenings of lingering winter. My daily bread will be taken with water until we celebrate the resurrection of Christ, the coming of spring, and with a little luck, the beginning of an upturn in the economy. This year promises sacrifices for everyone. There is something to be said for voluntary sacrifice. Think of it as spring training for the long season ahead.