How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall? Take a Bus!

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There are locations that are sacred for practitioners of the arts. For musicians, one of these locations is Carnegie Hall (the one in New York, not the one in Lewisburg, West Virginia). It has served as a mecca of music for over 125 years since its opening in 1891. Last week, I had the great fortune to attend an orchestra festival, seated in a box seat just above the main floor, and listen to three youth and community orchestras perform. I came to see the Charleston Chamber Orchestra, which was the last of the three groups to play. They played three pieces, with the centerpiece being a movement from the Shostakovich Piano Concerto #2. The pianist exuded sensuality as she pounded the keys, expressing through her fingers the quintessence of Russian soul music, flinging back her mane of curly hair as she bounced on the bench. And complementing and contrasting the piano, the high notes of the piccolo played on, providing piercing punctuation to the percussion of the piano. My wife was on stage of Carnegie Hall, sounding the high notes that as she says, “Only the dogs can hear.” Well, my high frequency hearing still must be in good shape, because the night before in a smaller venue, those same notes actually hurt my ears.

The Charleston Chamber Orchestra exists due to the vision of its founder, Dr. Scott Woodard at West Virginia State. When the resident string quartet for the West Virginia Symphony was cut loose in a cost cutting measure, Dr. Woodard was able to offer employment, and an opportunity to participate in his dream, a symphony orchestra of the community. Music students at State, high school students from the Youth Symphony, professional musicians both past and present, and members of the community who have the ability to tackle a symphonic repertoire, all are members of this orchestra. This includes a blind flutist who sits next to my wife, who is able to play despite never seeing the baton beat the tempo. The orchestra has existed for fewer than three years, but this year they were invited to a festival in Carnegie Hall based upon an audition tape (we still call them tapes even though no physical media is used to record). The orchestra has a fairly full wind section, is light on strings, but is capable of tackling serious symphonic pieces. Well enough to receive a standing ovation in Carnegie Hall.

Charleston Chamber Orchestra

 

I was able to hear this group’s improvement from its inception. My wife got in on the ground floor, having grown acquainted with Dr. Woodard when she served as adjunct faculty. The group has another performance scheduled early next year in the Kennedy Center in Washington, and a dream about collaborating with an orchestra in Vienna. In my own life, music has allowed me to sing in music festivals in Charleston S.C. It has allowed me to perform on stage with Jennifer Garner. It has allowed me to accompany my sons when they were with the Appalachian Children’s Chorus on trips through central Europe, and to Oahu. And now, music allowed me to have the experience of being seated in a box in Carnegie Hall, enjoying the sounds not only of my friends, but also to hear youth orchestras from Green Bay and from the Bay region in California. You don’t have to be a professional musician to allow music to expand your range of experience in a lifetime. But it does take time and effort, and at least a moderate amount of talent to ensure that you don’t make a fool out of yourself. The musicians in this orchestra? Let me replace the word moderate with the word plentiful, and that comes closer to capturing their performance.

The day after the performance, we boarded a bus back to Charleston. It was ironic that the first movie that was played on the return trip was “The Bucket List”. Many of those in the orchestra had just completed checking one or more items off of their personal bucket lists.

 

The Amateur Hour

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Amateur – 3. A person inexperienced or unskilled in a particular activity

The United States is conducting an experiment. An experiment that affects each and every person inside of the country, and many others around the world. This experiment involves turning over the operation of the executive branch of government to a group of amateurs, and observing what happens when amateurs are turned loose upon the gears of diplomacy, economics, and the military.

So far, the results have not been catastrophic. Taking the issue of the economy for example, the trends established since the economy bottomed in 2009 are continuing to result in gains in employment, and in measured economic growth. Despite claims of exceptional performance under the current administration, GDP growth averaged 2.2% from 2010 through 2016, while GDP growth during the current administration has been 2.6%. Using the statistical t-test, the two sets of data (past administration vs. current administration) are equivalent. There is not a statistically significant difference between 2.2% and 2.6% growth. But the one knob that this administration has turned, the tax cut, has yet to factor into the performance of the economy. The tax cut does have the potential to increase the rate of GDP growth significantly. However, the tax cut comes with a cost that has yet to be reckoned. The estimated deficits will increase greatly due to reduced tax revenues, and if there is an economic downturn in the next few years, the normal response of loosening fiscal policy to boost the economy will likely not be available. So we are at the mercy of the amateurs in the administration who believe it to be prudent fiscal policy to significantly cut taxes at a late stage in an economic recovery that has entered its ninth year. But what do experts know, anyway?

If you consider diplomacy, there is certainly a mixed bag to date. It does appear that twitter tirades and brazen bluster did result in at least enabling an initial meeting between North Korea and the US, with a generic agreement being signed. If this is indeed a first step towards a ratcheting down of tensions on the Korean peninsula, then this administration will have accomplished a worthwhile and noteworthy goal. But if the North Koreans continue playing Lucy with the football to the US’s Charley Brown, then relations may end up worse off than if there was no meeting.

That is the good news on the diplomacy front. Elsewhere, it is evident that this administration has zero respect for, and zero admitted need for diplomatic experience and expertise. Witness the exodus of State Department veterans over the first year of this administration. As of last November, 60% of the top management of the State Department had left government service, according to the American Foreign Service Association. A hiring freeze instituted under Rex Tillerson has been lifted by his successor, but nothing will replace the institutional memory and experience of those who were driven out by the bias of the current administration against subject matter expertise. The supporters of this President would say that this reduction in long-time employees is “draining the swamp”. What they do not realize is that this world is complex, and the diplomats at the front line in embassies around the world are essential in preventing US interests from being damaged. There will be costs, some of them severe, in the years to come due to the sabotaging of the diplomatic corps.

Meanwhile, the diplomatic style of this President was fully on display at the recent meeting of the G-7. The petty nature of the response to Prime Minister Trudeau’s press conference, replete with the denunciation of Trudeau as having “stabbed the US in the back” by declaring that Canada would not be bullied by the US, shows how much of this President’s actions are guided by his personal perception of slights. The threats unfurled against the strongest allies and trading partners of the US show that he has a vanishingly small knowledge of international trade and the risks to the economy of the world, by insisting on retreating to an era when America may have been great, but by imposing tariffs, we helped to drag the world into depression shortly thereafter.

Militarily, we are repeating the follies that have bedeviled military planners ever since military technology began changing year by year. That is, we are fighting the last war, not the next war. Thus the huge increase in the military budget over the coming years is earmarked for more ships, more fighters, more bombers, more in-air refueling capabilities, and keeping older hardware systems running. Meanwhile, the funding for cyber security ends up with a scant 4% increase when all of the ups and downs of spending by department are added up. Undoubtedly, there is a need for building ships to replace those that are near the end of their useful life. Likewise, replacement aircraft are needed. But the budget funds multiple generations of new weapons systems with no apparent overall strategy on what the military force of the future should look like.

The wars of the future will increasingly be economic or cyber in nature, and seeing funds spent on hardening the electric grid, purchasing large numbers of replacement transformers that could quickly be put in service should a grid disruption occur, these funds would be well invested for our economic and physical security. In fact, just as we used to have strategic metals reserves in case our supply got cut off, we should have a strategic transformer reserve, where these substation-level transformers that will be fried in an EMP (Electro-Magnetic Pulse) event can be quickly replaced. The best way to provide such a reserve was investigated by the Department of Energy and the report was issued to Congress in March of 2017. It does not call for a Federally owned reserve, but calls instead for increased coordination across utility companies. It does call for an increased reserve but one that is maintained and controlled by utility companies. Will such a program work when it is called upon? No one knows. But we do know that the huge increase in military spending is not going for what can happen in the present or future. No, it is going to the weaponry of the past.

Once again, the amateurs determining the strategy for national defense are insistent upon spending large to procure the weapons of the past, while ignoring the needs for the defense of our nation and our lifestyle from the real threats that we face.

The concept of amateurism is good. In athletics, we maintained the fa├žade of amateurism for many decades, but eventually it was broken down. In tennis, in the Olympics, in all sports, it is recognized that if you wish to have excellence in performance, it is necessary to have people who can dedicate their lives to the sport by being paid for their efforts. We followed the same principles in our government. Those who were willing to sacrifice much larger private sector paychecks for the limited compensation of government positions were recognized and honored for their expertise and their service. But in this misguided administration, we have sacrificed those who developed their expertise over decades, in order to promote the agendas of the amateurs who struggle against the current of events in their fields. The problem is that there are real consequences that come from having amateurs deal with issues that can cost real money, and real damage to international relations, and cost lives when dealing with the military.

 

Three Degrees of Separation

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I claim to be only 3 degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. I make that claim due to a play I did 29 years ago this summer. The Charleston Light Opera Guild always had a summer show, and that year the show was “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”. The summer shows were an opportunity for some of the high school dancers who were in our director’s dance studio to have roles on stage, and see if they wished to pursue dancing and acting further. Well, one of the high school dancers played a courtesan, and I remember her distinctly as she had a blue jewel in her belly button. Her name? Jennifer Garner. But I cannot bring many other memories of her back over this time period (btw – that gives you a good idea how old she is now as you see her on the Capital One ads).

No, this tale is about another of these high school dancers, who contributed to the single best moment I ever had while either on stage, or in an audience watching a play. First, a bit of background on Forum, as it was known. This was a slapstick musical comedy set back in Roman days, where a cunning slave named Pseudolus was continually plotting to gain his freedom. He belonged to my character, Senex, an older man who was dominated by his wife Domina (subtle this play ain’t). Meanwhile, my son Hero was in love with a courtesan-in-training who was owned by the brothel owner Lycus, who just happened to live next door to me. The play is a series of comic scenes ending up with a family reunion, Hero being able to marry his love, and Pseudolus able to gain his freedom. On Broadway and in the movie, Zero Mostel played Pseudolus. It was the funniest show I’ve ever been in, even without the events I am about to relate.

Now, of the courtesans, Jennifer already was decently endowed. But another of the courtesans needed a bit more augmentation in the breast area. This was accomplished through the means of two water balloons strategically placed in her upper costume. We had done many rehearsals, and several performances, and the water balloons served their purpose admirably.

Except, for the one night, where one didn’t. Our dancer (whose name will remain anonymous to protect her), was out shaking her booty as she displayed her wares for a potential buyer. That night, one of the water balloons escaped its bondage, and bounded on down to the floor.

Now odds were that the water balloon was going to burst once it hit the floor. This being Forum, of course that didn’t happen. What did happen was that the water balloon bounced, then rolled to a stop halfway across the stage. When it stopped rolling, one of the eunuchs pranced over to the water balloon, went “Oh! Oh!”, scooped it up in his hands, and presented it back to the unbalanced courtesan. I can’t remember exactly what she did, but the audience and most of the cast broke up, eventually leading to the show going on.

If we ever could have been assured that the water balloon would not burst, we would have built that into the blocking and it would have been the funniest thing ever in a scene. So it is ironic that in my one legitimate attempt to be a name dropper on one of my acquaintances, it was her friend, who never made the trip to Hollywood and became a big star, who left the greatest impression on me. As it turns out, that was the last big play I’ve been in, as I had just gotten married, and life in the form of children interrupted for a long time. But if that was my swan song for the musical stage, what a way to exit.

 

Sustaining the Swamp

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I was sitting on a bench next to the Tidal Basin when bubbles erupted in the water before me. Slowly, my old friend Slimey, the slime monster emerged from the water, dripping from the moss and algae clinging to his arms and scaly torso. I noticed he seemed a little heavier than when I saw him last fall. He nodded to me and motioned at the other end of the bench I was sitting on. I motioned my arm to say, “Come on.”

He waddled over and plopped down on the bench. I could feel the balance shift slightly as his mass pushed down on the far end of the bench. I said, “You look like you are doing well lately.”

He looked at me and in his sibilant hiss, he said “You don’t know how good things are going for me in the DC swamp. All my fears about them draining my environment – they’ve vanished. I’ve never had it so good.” He paused to brush a strand of algae from his left eye, then continued. “I mean, Pruitt is everything we could wish for. He’s let loose a huge slug of rulings that are helping to feed me and my family. Thanks to him, all of the sludge from mountaintop removal is still flowing downhill to the Potomac, and let me tell you, that selenium is mighty tasty. But it’s not all Pruitt and EPA.” He paused.

I asked something that has been bothering me. “Do you get anything from the changes on the finance side? I know for us humans, the swamp is more than just what’s in the water.”

Slimey tossed his snout up in the air, seeming to laugh. I’d never seen his kind laugh, but the snortle was unmistakable. “Oh, my yes. I never wanted to admit this before, but when all of these tax changes support trickle-down, quite often the trickle-down misses all of the humans without money, but the trickle is a torrent by the time we get it. I mean, once that Dom Perignon is filtered through the kidneys, it gives a kind of rush to us when we taste it. And I’ve got to say, there’s been one heck of a lot more of it in this area since December. Live the good life, that’s what I say.”

I pondered on his statement for a while. “So for you, it all comes down to what’s going on with the water.”

Slimey shook away a dragonfly that was flitting around his head. “You might say that we notice things here in the water a bit more intensely. That’s why I’m so happy about getting rid of all those horrible programs aimed at slowing global warming. You don’t know how uncomfortable this place can get in January. I remember those times when ice would cover most of the water, made it damn hard to find a place to grab a breath. But now, we’re not shivering as much in the winter, and in the summer, it’s like we’re in a hot tub. I’m getting older now, and it feels so much better when I lay back and soak.”

I found I had another question that had bothered me since our first meeting last fall. “How is it that I’ve never heard of any other sightings of you, except for me, and now twice?”

Slimey dragged his long tail back and forth in the water, not ready to answer. Then, he admitted “Not everyone can see us. The way everything is polarized now, folks only see what they want to see. What they’ve been conditioned to look for. Now, look at me.” He pointed to himself with one immense claw. “What is it that you see?”

I weighed my words carefully. Though he had not given me any cause for alarm during our two encounters, he still was a massive reptilian figure with claws capable of instant evisceration and teeth capable of instant decapitation. I did not want to draw his ire, as I sensed I could not outrun him either. I finally said, “I see … someone we’d have had as a movie star in the 1950’s.” Slimey actually looked like he was honored by that, though it was hard to discern the exact expression on his face.

“You know,” I said to him. “You know, I think you might have a future in this administration. I think if you liked, I could float your name to him as an undersecretary of the Interior for wildlife management. What would you think of that?”

Slimey smacked his lips as he thought of the possibilities the position would provide. Unlimited snacks! But then he slowly shook his head back and forth, and he said “Thanks, but no. I don’t know if I could stand the cold-blooded nature of the folks I’d have to work with. You see, we never learned how to lie out here in nature. It seems like that’s a job requirement for anyone in this administration. No, I’m better off on the outside.”

Our conversation dwindled away. Finally Slimey got up, waved to me and started to slide down into the waters of the Tidal Basin. Just before his head was ready to go underwater, he turned back to me and asked. “What happens if he loses the House in the mid-terms?”

I thought for a brief moment before replying. I said “I don’t think it’ll make a bit of difference for those in the swamp. I think their fate is safe.”

He nodded his head, then slid under the murky water once more.