Friday, November 26, 2010

Giving Thanks

On 22 August 22nd, 1958, while bar hopping in lower Manhattan with a friend from college, I stopped in at the Five Spot Café on Cooper Square to hear Thelonious Monk.  I was already a jazz enthusiast but I’d never seen nor heard anything like Monk.  He played his own compositions featuring strange chords and infectious rhythms.  While the other members of his quartet played their solos, he’d get up and shuffle around in a little dance, seemingly oblivious to everything but the music.  I subsequently went to hear Monk in many other places such as The Jazz Gallery, Town Hall, Randall’s Island and even Central Park.  His records began to dominate my record collection.  When I was introduced to printmaking, my first woodcut was of Monk.  I've drawn and painted musicians for years but the most compelling image for me was always Monk.  When Michelangelo painted The Creation of Adam, he depicted God as a muscular man with a long gray beard.  Were I to undertake such a project, I could just as easily imagine God as a well-dressed, stocky black man in a strange hat dancing around a piano where he has just established the rhythm.

On a recent trip to England I was able to pick up a copy of a new biography, Thelonious Monk, The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D. G. Kelley.  It’s a massive, scholarly dissertation, which took Mr. Kelley fourteen years to research and write.  Monk’s life is documented from his family origins in North Carolina through his death in 1982 in twenty-nine heavily footnoted chapters.  Just the acknowledgements of assistance in the book’s preparation take seven pages.

What emerges is a story of total dedication to music, with more than its share of tragedy, yet laced with humor.  Monk was a funny man and humor is there in much of his playing and comments.  He suffered from what has come to be known as bi-polar disorder, yet his playing was prolific, even if his recording was not.  Monk left school at sixteen to play in local clubs in his San Juan Hill neighborhood on Manhattan’s West Side.  Apart from touring the country for two years as pianist for a woman evangelist, he continued that pattern until he was hired as the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem at the start of 1941.  It was his first regular job and he was twenty-three.  There he learned from older musicians and taught the younger ones.  When bebop took off after the war, musicians he had played with, such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, started becoming famous and had steady work, both at clubs and in recording studios.  That eluded Monk until the fifties.  Known and revered by the jazz community, Monk really only came to the wider public after getting a long engagement at the Five Spot in 1957.

Several themes permeate the book, beyond or behind the music: the women in his life; the effects of drugs and racism in the environment, and the irony that his long delayed success and critical acclaim never brought him the financial rewards that would have been expected.

Thelonious, who was named after his father, was supported, physically, morally and financially by three women in his life.  His mother Barbara took her three children to New York when Thelonious was four years old to get them out of the poisonous, racist atmosphere of North Carolina.  She raised him amidst considerable adversity and helped support him through many lean years.  He married Nellie Smith, the sister of his best friend, in 1948.  Nellie was his wife, closest companion and mother of his two children, personal manager and chief caregiver until his death in 1982.  However, through most of his career he had a patron and friend in Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a Rothschild heiress.  Monk met her in Paris on his first European tour in 1954.  She had married Baron Jules de Koenigswarter in 1935 and had two children before the war and three more after it.  Both Nica and her husband were decorated war heroes but following the war, the Baron became a career diplomat.  She grew bored with the diplomatic routine and they separated.  Her love of jazz took her to New York City where, to the chagrin of the management, her suite at the Stanhope Hotel became a second home to jazz musicians.  Charlie Parker died there, and two decades later, her house on the Palisades, overlooking mid-town Manhattan, became Monk’s home for the last nine years of his life.

Monk’s life and career spanned a period of extreme racial turmoil.  His mother took him out of the south, but San Juan Hill was not without its own racial tensions, and the young Thelonious had to fight his way to and from school.  His oft-cited moodiness may have been a symptom of his manic-depressive imbalance but the frequent reports of racially motivated killings contributed to it.  Monk played many benefit concerts for civil rights groups but he didn’t talk about it much.  He was scheduled for a Time Magazine cover story on Nov.28th, 1963. His image was replaced by that of President Johnson, following the November 22nd assassination of JFK.   The Time cover story would eventually appear three months later.

Drugs surrounded him.  He lost a nephew and countless friends and colleagues to drug overdoses.  At times, Monk was the only member of his quartet not addicted to heroin.  While he escaped addiction, his career was hindered by his arrest and thirty days of jail time in 1948 for possession of marijuana.  That cost him his cabaret card and the ability to play in NYC jazz clubs for a decade.

Time had written its cover story and Monk had a successful 12 city tour of Europe to introduce his first record for Columbia, Monk’s gross income reached $78,680.  However, after deducting travel and recording expenses, salaries, commissions and taxes, he was left with a net of $33,055.  Despite continuing to tour and play fairly regularly, that net had declined to $17,735 in 1966, not really a princely sum for a musician acclaimed around the world.  It got worse from there on.  His last recording date was in 1972.  In 1973 he withdrew to Nica’s house and only rarely played in public after that.  Two concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1976 were his last public performances.

Reading through the stories of a vast number of musicians whose lives were cut short by drugs brought up some personal thoughts.  In Gay Talese’s book on his Sicilian roots, Unto The Sons, the story of how the Sicilian Mafia facilitated the way for American troops to move through Sicily and up the Italian peninsula is illuminated.  It’s well known that the Mafia collaborated with the US Government to keep the Communist Party out of power in post-war Italy.  What is less well documented is the theory that some part of the government conspired with the Mafia to sedate the frustrated black masses in American cities through the supply of massive amounts of heroin.

People, and young people in particular, are incredibly influenced by peer pressure and by what’s going on around them.    When Monk’s peers in New York City were dying like flies from heroin, I was growing up in the nearby white suburbs.  The main commercial and peer pressures that we faced were to wear dirty white buck shoes, to smoke cigarettes, and to dance the Twist to the music of Chubby Checker.  I gave in to the first, but I found cigarette smoke so repulsive, and most pop music so irritating, that I never really succumbed to the others.  However, I was influenced by other people around me.  The father of my neighborhood friend smoked wonderfully aromatic cigars and my proximity to them started a lifelong habit.  Later a college friend took me by the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee,  introducing me to another substance I’ve used and abused ever since.  Indeed, at this time every year, I look forward to a pumpkin pie laced with Jack Daniel’s Old No.7.  The influences we’re subjected to in our youth cast a lasting shadow on our lives.   Some are more fortunate than others.

This week many of us are following the pilgrims’ tradition of giving thanks to God for our survival, our food and shelter, and our family and friends.  In doing so, I am adding another personal thanks for being born in the right time and place to be exposed to one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The UK Revisited

Last spring, following a joyful visit to the UK, I commented with uncharacteristic enthusiasm.  The country had changed dramatically since my three-month sojourn in London at the peak of the punk period in the late 70’s.  I was favorably impressed with the gentlemanly demeanor of the three candidates for Prime Minister and the brevity of the electoral campaign.  Nick Clegg was quoted as saying: ”This almost unseemly knee-bending allegiance to the White House: I don’t think it’s good for Britain…for our self-respect”, prompting optimism for a more rational and independent UK leadership.  Up until the election, the Lib/Dem leader Clegg was regarded as the rising star of British politics, but when the results were in, he was among the losers.  With the Liberal/democrats suffering an unexpected net loss of votes and seats, Clegg had little choice but to join in a coalition government with the ascendant Tories.  

Last week I returned from another visit to the UK, during which the first major initiative of the new government was announced.  While this government shows no tendency to do the bidding of the White House, the drastic new budget cuts smell of the same Neo-con ideology that guided the Bush Administration to precipitous decline.  George Bernard Shaw said that “Britain and America are two countries divided by a common language”.  They are different though, in more ways than just linguistic nuance.  The UK has an extensive network of social services while the US government probably provides less services to its people than any other industrialized country in the world.  Given the dimensions of the welfare state in the UK and the magnitude of its public debt, perhaps some reform of the welfare system is necessary, desirable, or even inevitable.  “Everyone” seems to think the cuts were needed.  Being an expert in neither economic theory nor in the economy of the UK, I tend to put my trust in the analyses of Paul Krugman and George Monbiot rather than “everyone”.  The former insists that a major recession is not the time to cut public spending, while Monbiot cites the current measures as another example of what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism”, i.e. the use of economic crises to initiate policies designed to redistribute wealth upward.  The effectiveness and fairness of welfare reform are subject to reasonable differences of opinion, but cuts to public transportation and education hardly seem rational at a time when the economy is in recession and there is a widely held desire to see more people move from welfare to the workforce.

The US and the UK may be divided by language but on this trip I was reminded of their shared taste for irrationality.  One of the few bright spots of my stay in the England during the 70’s was an appreciation of its adoption of the metric system.  British irrationality tends to run to the quirky and idiosyncratic.  I suppose I would be asking too much of a country that lived for centuries with a monetary system featuring (if I remember it correctly) twelve pence to a shilling and twenty shillings to a pound, or twenty-one to a guinea, to fully accept a systematic decimal system.  Still, when one reads the opt-repeated stories of fish mongers being fined in the market for selling fish by the pound, one can only wonder why local districts aren’t fined for posting road indications in miles, or why nurses are not arrested for recording patients’ weight in stone.  Our American irrationality appears to be grounded less in nostalgia than in laziness and disease.  I remain convinced that President Reagan’s mid-stream cancellation of metrification in 1982 was the first sign of the tragic onset of Alzheimer’s disease.  

Before we left London, I saw a newspaper article relating that sales of bidets in England were way down from a few years ago when people had the money to travel more, and it was thought “smart” to have a bidet in your bathroom, but recently the mode had changed.  Here I’d thought that British hygiene had finally taken a great leap forward but no, it was just a matter of trendiness.  Bathtubs are also being phased out.  Who knows when and if flush toilets will be deemed no longer modish?

The curiously incongruous aspects of British life may be amusing but in the US our abrupt swings between black and white absolutes seem more schizophrenic than quaint.  Not so long ago, smoking and drinking were promoted by the government and various other American institutions, while gambling and many forms of sexual activity were illegal and suppressed.  That’s all been reversed, which may be a good thing, or not, but the vehemence and speed of the turn-about have been radical.  This week’s mid-term elections have followed a similar pattern.  Only two years after voting for change, the electorate has returned to its embrace of oligarchy.

While our language may divide the two countries, we are united in our belief that English is the only language of any importance.  On this trip we spent some time in the company of an English high school student, i.e. one who’s doing her A levels, in British parlance.  I was amazed that among the four subjects she was studying, none was a foreign language.  For years I’ve suspected that pre-collegiate education in the US isn’t very good but I’ve never been aware of any American high school that doesn’t require the study of a language.  Perhaps it’s worse than I thought, or maybe by now the Texas Department of Education has decided that foreign languages are as un-American as the Constitution.  

It’s true that one can manage in much of the world speaking only English, but it’s also true that people from countries where it’s the only language tend to be the hardest for other people to understand.  Our hubris extends to believing that our colloquialisms and regional accents are universal.

Despite the misgivings, it was a good trip.  Ryan Air has smoothed out its loading procedures at Stansted.  We got to see the beautiful Dyffryn Gardens near Barry and we spent a lot of time with our delightful ten-month-old grandson.  While in London, I was able to replenish my supply of Mr. Taylor’s Moustache Wax at Taylor of Old Bond Street, located naturally enough by British logic, in Jermyn Street.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Waiting- My New Career in Film

Cinema may not be big in Todi, in the sense of a movie-going public, but the three year old summer film festival in the nearby village of Izzalini first featured films shot in or around Todi (e.g.The Agony and the Ecstasy, Romanoff and Juliet), then, in the second edition, films starring Ida Di Benedetto, an Acqualoreto weekend resident, and this year, six or seven films of Ben Gazzara, who has a house eight km. down the road near Melezzole.  Indeed, we’re surrounded by people from the world of cinema.  Besides Ida Di Benedetto, actors such as Memè Perlini and Adriana Asti have houses here.  Bernardo Bertolucci was here for much of the summer again this year and Danilo Donati, the set and costume designer for films by Fellini, Pasolini and Bertolucci, was a long-time resident of Acqualoreto and now occupies a prominent place in our cemetery.  It would almost be enough to make those of us in the village who are not involved in cinema to feel like outsiders, except that those of us whose names end in consonants already know that we are outsiders.

Every five years one of our more successful ex-patriot friends throws a spectacular birthday party to celebrate another half decade of the good life.  At the most recent manifestation, while the hundred guests were seated for dinner, a young woman circulated asking for volunteers to participate in a film being shot in Rome.  My wife, in her normal skeptical tone, asked why would anyone want to do that, but my American pioneer spirit jumped at the opportunity.  Why not?  At last, a chance to become a member of the cinematic community.

Two days later I found myself getting up at 5 AM to meet a cheerful woman in Amelia named Federica, who would drive me to the set in Rome, along with another aspiring American extra named Scott.  Scott runs a bed and breakfast in one of Amelia’s historic palazzi.  Federica has the effective habit of starting every sentence with the name of the person she’s addressing, as in “Scott, have you done any acting before?” thus creating a sense of familiarity among people who’d never before met and insuring recall of their names.  Yes, Scott did have some acting experience.  As for Federica, I’ll never have a problem with her name since I equate Italian cinema with Federico Fellini, and she’s the movie woman.  Her job is to round up extras, have them sign all the releases, and pay them.

The film was to be a two-part TV movie on the Fontana sisters, who were big in the fashion world starting in the 40’s.  The day’s scenes were to be at a villa in Olgiata, Rome’s gated suburb to the northwest, with the villa standing in for one in Beverly Hills.  After reporting for duty we were sent directly to the wardrobe people, who, equipped with one or two racks of clothes, miraculously managed to dress up twelve extras from head to toe in slightly exaggerated 1950’s outfits.  When one of the wardrobe women first saw me, she muttered “American?  He looks more Russian.”  Once dressed, we were sent to makeup where I was shorn of all the hair above my ears with the little that remained pomaded straight back.  One fellow recruit from the party showed up, along with his partner, who proudly proclaimed himself to be a dealer in derivatives, i.e. a master of the universe, as well as a lecturer in economics at American universities in Rome.  He thought he might meet young women on the set, since this was August and his wife was away at the beach, per Roman custom.

Among the other extras were some mostly retired Italo-American women from the International Club of Rome and students from American universities.  The girls all seemed pretty and slightly overweight, a trait emphasized by their casual attire.  In a flash they emerged from the wardrobe tent transformed into Kim Novak replicas with cinched-in waists, billowing skirts and hair piled up under silly little hats.  Scott was immediately dressed up as a waiter and was so convincing in his demeanor that all day I kept wanting to ask him to bring me a gin and tonic.   The box lunches filled with a nice pasta and tomato sauce, roast veal, and assorted fruits and vegetables, arrived soon after we were all costumed and made up.  I managed through supreme effort and concentration to keep the sauce off my wool suit and tie, but the scheduling did seem a bit strange.

After lunch the extras were all ordered out to the street in front of the villa. This is a small street in a gated residential community but it seemed like we were on the Via Flaminia and nobody seemed able or inclined to halt or divert the traffic.  Filming was done in brief spurts between the passage of cars, construction trucks, motorcycles, anything you could imagine.  I found myself on the street escorting one of the costumed ladies, wondering what we were doing or where we were going when I heard a distant voice say “you, come over here”, after which another extra stepped into my place.  It was all over right there, but I just didn’t know it, and I waited around all afternoon in my wool suit wondering if I’d be called for another scene.  They switched to the driveway where a 1954 Oldsmobile convertible pulls up to the villa and Scott unloads the luggage from the trunk, even getting to say something, creating speculation on his part as to whether his name will appear in the credits.  The masters of the universe were long gone.  They’d said at the outset that they could only stay until 1:30 and the filming hadn’t gotten started until 3:00.  Eventually Federica started calling the extras to be paid, the girls traded their new glamour for their baggy shorts, and I finally realized that I hadn’t even made it to the cutting room floor.

A week later Federica called to see if I was ready for another day as an extra.  Of course!  I spend lots of days sitting or standing around and usually I’m not paid.  My overly protective wife worried “How do you know that this isn’t a disreputable film?” instantly conjuring up lascivious thoughts of my being an extra in a new Tinto Brass epic.  Alas, it was the same film, but this time the filming would be done at the Alitalia Training Facility at Fiumicino.  I’d been called two days ahead for all my clothing sizes and when I arrived, my costume had my name pinned to it.  Today’s extras were divided into “Italians”, mostly darker haired people dressed as peasants, who would be doing a dusty bus scene at an old villa in Ostia Antica later in the day, and “Americans”, who would be passengers on two or three flights simulated at Fiumicino.  There are Americans of every size, shape, color and ethnicity and by now I suspect that young Italians think of Michael Jordan as the prototypical American, but this was a 50’s film and they wanted the people to look like the ones in the movies of that period.  Ironically, there was a tall, stocky red-headed (Italian) fellow working on the set who looked more like that American stereotype than anyone I’ve ever seen, but nobody thought to simply have him stop working long enough to put him in the movie.  There was more confusion of nationalities in the hangar as we were getting started.  They called for the “Americans” but then said we need some “real Americans”, apparently because someone might have to be seen speaking.  Among the day’s extras there was one good looking woman, casually but elegantly dressed enough that I immediately assumed she must be Italian.  Another young woman looked like she could be her daughter or younger sister.  The first one emerged from wardrobe looking fifteen years older and very American, with her hair scrunched up under a funny little hat and clothes that completed the look.  I suppose it was fair since she turned out to be a teacher from North Carolina, but she seemed a little disappointed when I told her I didn’t think they’d done her any favor.  Her ”daughter” turned out to be a lovely young woman from Naples named Simona, who works in the fashion industry in Rome.

We were only in the hangar for a short time when the “real Americans” were called into the fragmented plane interior.  I was told to sit next to the star, Alessandra Mastronardi.  When the others were in place I was told to pretend to be asleep and I did as told.  I’m not the director, and he seemed to know what he’s doing, but I wonder how many flights Ms. Mastronardi is on where men sitting next to her fall asleep.  I was on another flight later but since I’d been in a close-up, I had to sit in the back row with my face behind a newspaper.  Scott returned for the day’s shooting too but having been a servant at the villa, he couldn’t get too close to the camera this time either.

As we were waiting around the hangar between scenes, rather than reading a book, I pulled out my ever-present sketchbook and started drawing some of the extras.  When Simona saw this, she jumped up and asked if she could draw me and vice versa.  She did the sketch at the top of this piece in a few minutes.  It’s in ink and rather decisively done.  I was impressed, as well as flattered.  By then it was five o’clock and unfortunately, as I started to sketch her, she had to leave for her ride back to Rome and I had to go to Ostia Antica with Federica for the remaining scenes.  While waiting for the crew to finish, I passed a little time sketching the villa.  The  bus scene was done expeditiously, but the filming was held up by the need to reshoot a scene with a little girl who had appeared in an earlier scene and whose parents were holding out for more money to bring her back but Federica got it resolved.  Around 10 PM the corks popped, signaling the end of the production and the time to go home.

The Fontana Sisters film is due to be shown on RAI this fall or winter.  The director is Riccardo Milani.  I’ll be curious to see it; even more curious to see if Federica calls again.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

In A Sentimental Mood

In the course of attending Umbria Jazz for the past thirty-six years, I’ve developed the habit of sketching musicians as they perform, wherever that may be. This season, most of the sounds I’ve heard have emanated from the legions of grandchildren making pilgrimages to the family home, but on Friday, July 16th, I managed to slip out to Perugia for some music. Too late for the Roberta Gamberini concert, not inclined toward the over-elegant confines of the Hotel Brufani to hear Hilary Kole sing, and confused about the whereabouts of the Funk Off concert, I just had an ice cream and waited for the concert I’d come to Perugia for, that of Sonny Rollins.

What I saw is documented in the drawing here, and what most of us there really couldn’t see, appears in the photo. What I heard was something else again. Rollins started the concert with a long, raucous number that could have been the death rattle of some aging beast. Not an auspicious start, but as he played on, the power and the beauty of his music emerged. He is indeed a beast. He turns eighty on September 7th and while his walk gives away his age, his energy and creativity never abate. Backed by a four-man rhythm section of guitar, bass, drums and conga drum, Sonny Rollins played virtually non-stop, pausing only briefly for an occasional solo by guitarist Peter Bernstein. The concert featured standards from his repertoire of recent years, but some of the titles seemed particularly timely. He hit his stride with a thoroughly unsentimental version of Duke Ellington’s In A Sentimental Mood and went on to his calypso classic, Global Warming. Rollins was born in Harlem to parents from the Virgin Islands and his affinity for calypso songs runs deep.

Despite a harebrained US Senator erecting an igloo on the Washington Mall last winter to mock the concept of global warming, this has been the hottest first six months of the year since measurements were kept. The 32-35° temperatures (90-96 American degrees) in Perugia kept Corso Vannucci, normally carpeted with people at this time of the year, looking semi-deserted. Nevertheless, the huge Arena Santa Giuliana was ¾ full to hear the Saxophone Colossus, and while the hellish temperatures had abated somewhat with the sunset (the sun-baked concrete seats retained their heat), Sonny Rollins played without a break from 9:45 until midnight.

Sonny arrived on the jazz scene in the 40’s and 50’s, playing with Bird, Diz, Monk, Miles, Trane, Bags, Dexter, Stan and Bud. He’s survived all of them, as well as his wife of forty-six years, Lucille. She was also his manager, taking care of everything but the music until she died in 2004. He’s had to adjust, but he keeps on going, playing these Olympic–sized concerts. Five days before Perugia he played in Rotterdam and four days after the Perugia concert he was scheduled to play in Norway.

One of the last songs of the concert was “Why was I Born?” It’s a question that most of us ask at some point and one that Sonny Rollins has asked more than most. He’s found his answer. Sonny Rollins is here to play his music.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Hard Choices

Upon my return from a recent trip to the UK, I recorded my thoughts about British politics vs. those of the US (You can scroll down to “A New Perspective” in case you missed it.) For those of you unfamiliar with the current state of US politics, I refer you to recent events in South Carolina. We’ll just skip lightly over all the sexual shenanigans but something seems to be in the air in the Palmetto State. Could it be powdered Viagra? More to the point is the current reelection campaign of Sen. Jim DeMint and that of his new Democratic challenger, Alvin Greene. While Vic Rawl, a Charleston County councilman and retired judge, was expected to easily win the Democratic primary to challenge DeMint for his Senate seat, Alvin Greene came from nowhere to win his first foray into electoral politics, getting 59% of the vote (although Rawl had received as much as 84% of the absentee ballots in some districts), in a state election which featured electronic voting machines with no paper trail. “Nowhere” in this case was the very modest house in Manning, SC that the unemployed Greene shares with his father after an involuntary discharge from the Army, in which he had served for twelve years. Greene’s place in the race is not yet assured since he faces felony charges relating to showing pornography to a (presumably under-age) SC University student, and because there is some question about where he got the $10,400 for the filing fee, given his serious lack of income or other resources. Daniel Vovak, a Republican who had run against Michael Steele in the 2006 GOP primary for the US Senate, claims to be Greene’s campaign manager.

I confess that Greene’s success has engendered a certain amount of envy on my part. Like Greene, I am short of cash, and even the outside chance of gaining a US senator’s salary and perks has more appeal than most lottery tickets on the market these days. Therefore, I hereby declare my willingness to run for any congressional or senate seat that someone is willing to pay my filing fee for, along with reasonable relocation expenses. Like Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton and countless others before me, I’m ready to establish residency in any state which provides suitable political opportunity, though since the cost of home heating is so high here in Italy, I would prefer the sun belt. Nevertheless, if Alaska beckons (it seems they're in bad need of new blood) or any other desolate place, I’m open to the challenge.

Unlike Greene, I have no pending felony charges, and I do have a political platform, which won’t be affected by choice of locale, given my foreign residence for thirty-seven years and my regional loyalties to Umbria. My platform hasn’t changed much since my 2008 presidential platform, ignored almost equally by both major parties. Indeed, party affiliation is also no problem. Just as I could provide an unlikely alternative to shoe-in GOP senators such as DeMint, Cornyn or Shelby, I could as effectively provide token opposition to any dysfunctional Democratic incumbent senator such as Nelson or Landrieu.
Sadly, sunny South Carolina, with its charming, sexually charged atmosphere, is out of play, barring a Greene disqualification. Returning for a moment to that contest, there is the prospect of a tough choice that South Carolinians will have to make. Jim DeMint has a perfect voting record, according to the Conservatives Fund, which gives Mitch McConnell only a 79% approval rating. He has consistently voted for all wars, guns, war resolutions, proposals and funding, border fences and corporate interests, while regularly voting against education, separation of church and state, health care, environmental protections and civil rights. Alvin Greene has no voting record at all, and his comment on any issue raised to date has been “no comment”. Still, if he votes differently on any one issue from what Jim DeMint has done until now, or if he never shows up to vote at all, we will see a significant improvement over DeMint’s performance. Weigh your choices carefully Carolinians!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Destroying a Medieval Town

Medieval hill towns, typical of Umbria, but present in most of Italy, grew up as fortified castles on hilltops where both visibility and air quality were good and would-be invaders had an uphill battle. Their massive external walls enclosed and protected artisans and shopkeepers, as well as some of the people who worked the surrounding agricultural land. Little changed in this scenario for a millennium until the advent of the automobile. Still, throughout the twentieth century these old towns continued to provide compact urban centers of remarkable architectural richness, surrounded by unspoiled landscapes.

Indeed, Professor Richard Levine, who headed an overseas branch of the University of Kentucky School of Architecture, starting in 1983, described one such medieval town, our own nearby Todi, as the model sustainable city. The town fathers were thrilled by the good professor’s praise and went on to declare Todi to be the world’s most livable city. No doubt Prof. Levine only intended to identify the urban characteristics in evidence in Todi as qualities to be emulated elsewhere. In what would be an extreme case of the law of unintended consequences, foreigners flocked to Todi to buy up houses and apartments where they could spend two or three weeks a years reveling in this ideal environment. Every third shop in Todi was transformed into a real estate agency and very quickly existing houses were priced well beyond the means of young local people who needed homes. Despite a static local population, a great deal of building has taken place on the periphery of Todi since its fame spread.

The town government has done a reasonably good job (scroll down to “The Sienese Invasion” for a notable exception) of assuring that the new buildings are compact and the materials reasonably harmonious with the existing town. However, when people are compelled to move to new houses, they want those houses to have modern amenities, or more precisely, the basic modern amenity, easy access to a car, and the new housing has provided this access. Despite worldwide evidence that we’re facing energy shortages and that greater urban densities will be needed to sustain our environment and our standard of living, Todi is moving from a compact pedestrian-oriented town to one in which most local movement is by car. Todi’s main street is a narrow passage allowing one lane of downhill traffic and, in most places, one lane of parking. It doesn’t work very well for shoppers who come by car, and merchants complain that the city hasn’t done enough to provide parking. In reality, the city has done a great deal to improve access. In addition to frequent bus service to the center, a large pay parking lot has been built at the bottom of the hill with a funicular elevator leading to the center of town. Existing parking spaces in town have been divided into those reserved for residents and others where people can park and pay with time-stamped tickets from conveniently located machines. In a town so dense and hilly, there just isn’t a lot of space to put cars. The main piazza at the apex has a busy mix of commercial, governmental and cultural activity. Local institutions make a strong effort to promote fairs, concerts, theater, etc. in the town center. Nevertheless, shops along the main street have been closing for years, and once you get 150 meters down the hill from the piazza, the empty shops outnumber those still in business, at least until you approach the hospital near the bottom. More on that another time.

Much of Todi’s revenue these days derives from tourism. The beauty of its setting and its architecture are impressive attractions, but if its economic decline continues, its appeal to visitors will diminish, creating a sad downward spiral. Some of the recent changes were inevitable, others less so. The arrival of large supermarkets signaled the end of the small food shops in the center, just as has happened everywhere else in the world. Nevertheless, small shops depend on pedestrian traffic and it can’t all be tourists.

What’s to be done? Many people have tried to answer this but the decline continues. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do believe more of a stick and carrot approach is required. The town has provided lots of carrots, such as subsidies to people opening shops in the town center, and the amazing variety of cultural promotions. I would propose taxing the owners of storefront properties on the main streets that remain vacant. The owners have to pay taxes on the rental income, an incentive to not rent, but not on the value of business potential. The community spends a fortune to keep the town viable, but by holding out for non-economically feasible rents, these owners are damaging the town by wasting a valuable community resource.

It’s also important that doctors, lawyers, notaries, dentists, accountants and design professionals keep their offices in the town center to insure an ample presence of pedestrians. Unlike supermarkets, these activities do not require a steady flow of bulk merchandise. Many doctors, etc. have already moved to the new residential districts where parking is hardly better, and where the flux of patients does nothing for the town. Whether by stick or by carrot, they should be encouraged to stay in (or move to) the center.

As local residents, what can we do? We can support the various government initiatives to promote the town. More practically, we can patronize businesses in the center, from barbers, lawyers, dentists and shoemakers, to bars and restaurants. Do your banking in town rather than at the strip mall. This violates the theology of the new religion of Convenience as God, but heresy has its own rewards. It may take more time to park one’s car and walk through Todi to a bank in the center than it does to stop at some roadside shack, but for those of us not under inflexible time constraints, the trip is well worth it.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A New Perspective

Half a century ago when I first visited Italy, I thought it was the most beautiful place in the world. After living here for well over three decades and becoming familiar with all the warts and blemishes of my adoptive country, my evaluation remains unchanged. Nevertheless, it’s good to get away now and then. The world is full of other delightful places.

I’ve recently returned from a two and a half week trip to England and Wales. It was a happy occasion, a daughter’s wedding and family reunion with all the grandchildren, two of whom I’d not seen before, and most of the new in-laws present. I had lived in London for a few months in 1977 and quite frankly, I hated it. Perhaps the country has changed dramatically, perhaps I’ve mellowed with age to the point of losing my critical edge, or maybe it was just the joyous circumstances of this visit, but I thoroughly enjoyed being there. People were friendly and helpful, the food was much better than thirty years ago, the countryside was green and lovely, and I even grew to enjoy the beer.

During this visit, national elections were held. What a revelation that was! I believe they’d only set the date a month before. I managed to see half of the TV debates between the three contenders for Prime Minister. While there were some differences on policy, all three came across as intelligent and articulate gentlemen who were mostly in agreement on the challenges that the nation faced. There was no debate about banishing evolution from the schools or the need for more concealed weapons on the streets. While the press speculated over whether Gordon Brown’s grumpiness would prove fatal to his political career, no one felt the need to question any of the candidates’ mental health or stability. As an American, I fully expected the other two to challenge the citizenship or the patriotism of Nick Clegg, whose mother was Dutch, his father half Russian, and whose wife is Spanish. Not only was no one’s patriotism challenged but neither Cameron not Clegg brought up Gordon Brown’s embarrassingly recorded comments about an older constituent he’d been introduced to.

In a lead-up to the election, a scandal regarding bogus “expenses” claimed by Members of Parliament was unveiled by The Telegraph. More than ten MPs involved lost their seats in the elections, among them Jacqui Smith, the former Home Secretary, who had claimed expenses for her family home while listing her sister’s home as her main residence, as well as submitting claims for pornographic films ordered up by her husband. Among other contested MP expenses were charges for manure for gardens, plasma TVs, massage chairs, second homes eight miles from the main home, a chimney sweep for a second home, etc. Most of the claims were trivial as well as outrageous, with amounts ranging from a few pounds on up into the thousands. MPs had avoided voting themselves pay raises in an attempt to look better to their constituents, so there was some irony in their comeuppance, brought on by their padding of expenses to round up their pay and benefits.

What a striking contrast between these tragicomic examples of petty graft and the industrial sized bribes our US Congressmen receive for selling out the interests of their constituents, under the seemingly legitimate guise of campaign contributions. High ranking Democrats such as ex-Majority Leader of the House Dick Gephardt and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle have gone on to lucrative careers peddling influence on behalf of the health care, health insurance and investment banking industries. Republican Senators such as Mitch McConnell, Richard Shelby and Bob Corker haven’t even seen fit to exit the Senate before getting those big paychecks from insurance, investment, tobacco, oil and mining interests to insure that the American public doesn’t run the risk of getting decent health care or environmental protection.

The words of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales come to mind, as when he described the provisions of the Geneva Conventions as “quaint”. The British MP expenses scandals do indeed seem quaint in this era of Supreme Court-approved corporate influence peddling. May these quaint British notions of propriety long endure and, with a little luck, may they spread to our American shores, together with their brilliant idea of one month-long election campaigns.

God save the Queen!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

A Darker Shade of Green

Early spring is beautiful in Umbria. The forsythia and the Siliquastri (Judas trees) are in bloom, as are the biancospini (Hawthorn bushes), those nasty thorn bushes that grow everywhere and are a nuisance to trim or remove but which brighten the landscape in April. Right now the light green of the fields is particularly intense but most of the woods retain a purplish gray tint as the deciduous trees have not yet sprouted their new foliage. The one sad note is that with the woods still bare, the persistence of ivy and other climbing parasites is particularly evident. One might say that this is hardly a problem, that nature will run its course, and that trees come and go. However, the Umbrian landscape is completely shaped by man. Woods are harvested for firewood every decade of so; fields are plowed and divided by linear rock piles, which become covered by blackberry vines and biancospini. Trees grow along the roads to sizes that they would never reach in the systematically harvested woods. Some of these roadside trees, mostly oaks and elms, get to be rather old. They define and shade the roads. When the ivy fully envelopes them, they can be very attractive and they stay green, despite their falling leaves, throughout the winter. Still, it’s only a matter of time before the tree is strangled. It isn’t really hard to prevent this, just a simple matter of cutting off the vines at the base, but the local culture works against it. Our local naturalists, i.e. the hunters, become furious when they see anyone cutting the vines from the trees. A fully vine-enveloped tree is a wonderful nesting area for small birds, and although there are few birds left, our “greens” are thrilled at the thought of trees full of birds waiting peacefully to be blasted into oblivion during the winter hunting season.

There are people, employed by the various levels of local government to maintain the roads, who regularly cut the grass along the margins of the road, sometimes with weed whackers, sometimes with tractors fitted out with large cutting devices. I’ve never seen one of these people touch the ivy on the trees, even though the threat to the viability of the road and to public safety posed by large falling trees is considerably greater than any threat posed by tall grass. The workers may all be hunters but one might expect some responsible person to oversee this activity and get the job done.

Likewise, children are not taught in school that vines kill trees (just as they’re not taught to avoid throwing their candy and ice cream wrappers in the street), so they all apparently grow up to join the clan of hunters rather than becoming custodians of the landscape. Parasites can be beautiful. The Spanish Moss in the swamps of Georgia and South Carolina creates an eerie and fascinating landscape, and likewise, some of our big dying trees are splendid to behold. However, the brief spectacle of these green giants is little compensation for the loss of the fifty or one hundred years that these trees could remain landmarks.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Bi-polar Baschi

Wikipedia says bi-polar disorder is a condition in which people experience abnormally elevated and abnormally depressed states for a period of time in a way that interferes with functioning. Some of us have known people with this problem but here in Acqualoreto we’ve come up with a new variant, a bi-polar local government.

Our local government isn’t really local, since the village of Acqualoreto is only one of nine towns and villages in the Comune (Township) of Baschi. Despite having only 2650 residents, the Comune covers a huge area and our village is twenty-four kilometers from the seat of government in the town of Baschi. The population of Acqualoreto may reach 150 but it fluctuates wildly from winter to summer and many residents live in the countryside or along the roads leading in and out of the village. Less than thirty people currently reside within the remnants of the medieval castle that forms the core of the village. The street running around the circumference of the core is 200 meters long.

Last summer, during the manic phase of local activity, the cobblestone paving of the perimetral street was completed. It had been started a few years earlier in conjunction with the driving of dozens of huge piles to consolidate the hill, the laying of new sewers, and the burying of most overhead utility lines. At the same time, most of the five kilometer road down to the river was repaved and the fifteen year-old concrete retaining walls, which keep the town from sliding down the hill, were faced with local stone. That so much time, effort and money was expended on a shrinking medieval village is something I don’t expect my pragmatic brethren in the USA to understand, but I rejoice that there is a determination in Italy to preserve treasures that we’ve inherited from the past.

Psychologists suspect that Vincent Van Gogh suffered from bi-polar disorder. Most of us are grateful for his manic output and creativity but his life was plagued by self-doubt leading to madness and despair.

What passes for madness and despair in Baschi appears to reside in the Building Commission, which has shown signs of instability for decades, even as the other administrative functions of the Comune have grown steadily more responsive to the public’s needs over the past several administrations. Its task may not be easy since Italy has more laws than most other countries, laws that are frequently in conflict with each other. As long as I’ve been here, rules for building on agricultural land have been restrictive, with three hectares of land required to build a modest sized house. About a decade ago, the laws were made even more restrictive, although some concessions were made allowing larger additions to existing buildings. When the new regulations went into effect, new houses started popping up in the woods like mushrooms. Somehow, despite the restrictive regulations, some of these new houses even had auxiliary guest houses nearly as large as the main house, on plots that didn’t appear to be all that vast. Whether they’re stately or garish, whether or not they exceed their allotted size or violate parts of the Building Code, nobody complains here about the new houses, or any other project for that matter, on the sound principle that everyone’s property is in violation of some regulation or other, and no one wants to be responsible for the irreversible unleashing of inflexible compliance powers.

The big wave of building subsided but it was only a lull before the depressive state returned, bringing strange projects in its wake. An abandoned house in the old village center has been allowed to disintegrate, leaking water into at least three adjacent houses, making them unsalable at best, uninhabitable at worst. Other than briefly closing the perimetral street to protect passers-by from falling roof components, the Comune has done nothing. Nearby, one owner did a nice job of renovating what had been the ugliest house in the old core. It had been abandoned for decades and now looks much better, except that the stucco walls are painted a bright white, in clear violation of local building rules. Outside the village, on the most beautiful building site on this precious protected landscape, a huge three-story stone bunker emerged from traces of an ancient foundation, all under the guise of renovation of an existing building. A nearly invisible remnant of a doorway with the outline of a tiny window above it led the archeologically expert designer/geometra to convince the Building Commission that this had been a two story building. The unfinished basement walls and windows, which were required to be enclosed by areaways and covered with soil, remain clearly in view from the village, below the elaborate stone walls above. The visual effect could be described as chaos and decadence but perhaps that’s allowing too much subjectivity to creep in.

Our general store/bar went out of business about five years ago when the owner died. Now the ground floor of the building is being divided up into two mini-apartments, one of which has a main room with no window. It gets light from a glass entrance door facing directly onto the street, an interpretation of the Building Code which could be seen as extremely creative, although more objective analysis would suggest it to be the product of a severely depressed, dysfunctional mind.

More recently, one neighbor built a simple but handsome and well-constructed stone guesthouse near his larger old farmhouse. The houses sit on a remote hill facing the village from a distance of about two kilometers and they blend nicely into the landscape. At the far end of the new house a balcony was built outside the bedroom on the upper floor. In keeping with the rest of the house, the detailing and workmanship were excellent. Apparently the balcony was not shown on the plans submitted to the Comune for approval. The geometra who drew up the plans either said, or was told by the authorities, that an upper floor balcony had to have an exterior stair to the ground to look like farmhouses did in the days when the ground floors were occupied by animals.

A few months after the house was completed, the Comune had its ultimate Van Gogh moment. The authorities, in the form of a Forest Ranger of all things, intervened and directed that the balcony, like Van Gogh’s ear, be immediately cut off. Bi-polar disorder can often be controlled through medication, but how does one medicate a comune, and can you get rid of the symptoms of depression without also halting all that good manic activity?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A Modest Proposal

Recently I read in the Giornale D’Umbria that the University of Perugia is facing a shortfall of Five Million Euros for the year and plans to sell off some of its real estate to cover the deficit. Critics say it's like selling your house to eat or burning the furniture to stay warm. For a large university such as Perugia, €5 million doesn’t seem like an enormous amount. Surely, there has to be a better solution than selling off assets.

I’ve been watching an unhealthy amount of American football this year, both college and pro games. Professional sports in Italy are similar to those in the United States. While American football is a different game from football (calcio) in Italy, the successful teams in both countries mostly play in the biggest cities in front of rowdy, drunken louts with painted faces in moderately large stadiums, and the teams and the players all make obscene amounts of money. I won’t deal here with the differences between the two versions of football. The US version has been played in Italy for decades with little success and I don’t see that changing. There just aren’t enough 300 pound (136 kg.) Italians, and while the numbers are growing, most of the growth is among middle aged women in small villages. The American game is very specialized and requires discipline and planning, qualities quite different from the pure athleticism and acting skills favored in Italy.

Although the professional games have similarities, Italy has absolutely nothing reminiscent of American college football. While the pros play in front of sixty or seventy thousand dedicated fans in New York or Houston, college teams regularly sell out their 100,000 seat stadiums in places like Ann Arbor, Gainesville, State College, Tuscaloosa, and Columbus throughout the fall season. There’s big money in college football, at least for the coaches and the universities. Urban Meyer, citing the stress of the game as a threat to his health, recently announced his resignation as head coach of the University of Florida team. After ruminating for five days on the fact that he still had six years and $24,000,000 left on his contract, and perhaps after consultation with his wife, he retracted his resignation in favor of a leave of absence of unspecified duration.

The players don’t share the cash, but they do get full scholarships, which these days translate into real money in the US. Any effort to bring money-making college sports to Italy would be hampered by the fact that tuition is so low that scholarships wouldn’t have much pull. There are other perks for players in the US. The University of Tennessee is now under investigation by the NCAA for alleged recruiting irregularities involving attractive coeds attending the high school games of college prospects and attempting to lure them to their school. Tennessee is not the first or only university to use attractive young women as bait.

The most sought after job in Italy is that of the “veline”, i.e. the sensuous and perfectly formed young women who adorn every quiz and variety show on Italian television. There are thousands and thousands of well-qualified applicants. Only a few make it on television, but all that unused talent could form a solid basis for the legions of recruiters needed for a new intercollegiate Italian sports program. Successful footballers become some of the wealthiest people in the country and some even go on to politics, so exposing the future leaders and owners of Italy to a university for a few years might have benefits beyond the obvious financial rewards.

Despite Italian backwardness in college athletics, we’re ahead of the curve here in some respects. In my youth, college was a four-year deal and upon graduation your connection with the school was abruptly terminated, at least until the alumni association started to come to you for money. In graduate school we couldn’t even get student tickets to games, much less play on those teams. Times have changed, as American universities have moved to a more Italianate approach. This season, every third player is referred to as a “true freshman” or a “red shirt freshman”, and in a few strange cases, players have graduated the year before but returned to play their final year of eligibility. Athletic eligibility is still limited to four years but those years can be spread over as many years as the coaching staff wants. In Italy about 90% of students are red-shirted, and they don’t even play sports. I believe there’s a ten-year limit for a four-year degree. Just imagine the financial rewards for the educational system of signing up adolescent Peles and Maradonas to commit to playing four years for their university of choice.

The opportunity is there. Italian football is cheap. No helmets or shoulder pads to buy, just a ball, a pair of shorts and a field. The stadiums are not in place just yet, and they would require substantial financing, but Citibank has taken bigger risks on housing and commercial real estate. This is a sure thing! Many successful American stadiums have been named after the original Coliseum right here in Rome. It’s time to turn the tables and borrow from American sports entrepreneurial initiative. €5 million operating loss? Peanuts! Perugia should be paying its coaching staff that much, and raking in maxi-millions

Forza Perugia!