Saturday, December 31, 2011

And that was 2011

Hello! Hello! I hope everyone is well and having a good end of the year holidays season!

I had a rather unexpected change of residence again a month ago. Was going to move out of state to snowier pasture, but was blown away by a whirling wind of weirdly freaky circumstances and now I'm hanging in limbo for another month. May still move to another state later in January, or may stay put as a Southern Californian beach bum. Don't know how it'll go. We'll see!

For a boring smorg, 2011 was rather eventful: I made some new friends and got closer to a few who are effortlessly even nicer and more caring when the times are rough than when the going is good. Even if you don't know who you are (darn these good Samaritans! They do good deeds so naturally that they don't recognize their own goodness much of the time!), you are a jolly good fellow, fellas. Thanks very much!
Being boring can be a virtue in dog-trainers...
 Inspired by the amazing Youtube clips by Kikopup (Emily Larlham) I also acquired another side job/hobby of dog-training. There are dog-trainers and then there are dog-trainers! It is amazing what you can teach just about any dog to do with positive-reinforcement technique only... with no punishment at all! Once you get the concept, it is quite easy... Of course, the hard part has to do with training the dog owners to stay with the program and not give in to intimidation/punishment-based 'short cuts'. As tempting as they are short cuts have ways of coming back to bite you in the long run! Anyhow, I got to meet quite a lot of cute and cool dogs in the past year for this. It may make the neighborhood cats more wary of me (you look sort of like a human but you smell like 4 or 5 different dogs. What the flea is wrong with you???), but on the whole it really is a lovable experience!

I slacked off this year a bit on the opera/concert-going front, though. I don't know if I'll be around to catch the San Diego Opera's 2012 season yet, but it sure looks a very tempting one! For the first season since the 2008 market crash the SDO now has enough cash flow to put on four operas instead of just three. What's more, they even managed to poach Renee Fleming, who will turn up here in America's Finest City for a concert in March.

Renee Fleming is coming to San Diego on March 24th, 2012!
After years of dodging religious evangelists at street corners and bus-stops, I broke my tradition and hung out with a few Mormon missionaries for quite a few months. A few are staying friends even though there isn't much hope of them ever converting me to that strangely socialistic and polytheistic religion. It is possible to love people even while being utterly repulsed by their dogma, I found. I hope our encounters benefited them as much as they benefited me.

Ever since I broke away from religions I've loathed to look back on the days that I spent in one. The missionaries reminded me of my younger evangelical Christian self, and it has been endlessly fascinating to re-examine things from such a different perspective. The more I learned about Mormonism the more inclined I am to worry about my new friends... but these gals are intelligent, I think, perhaps more so than I was. If I could escape my net, then I'm sure they can, too... and their journey is one they have to make themselves.

Having been such a slow reader of late, I am surprised to find that I managed to read more books than I thought I would in 2011. Robert Conot's River of Blood: Years of Darkness about the 1965 Watts Riot in Los Angeles started of the year on an alternatively chilling and instructive note.

I'm a genre-spree reader. I get into a certain sort of books and read a bunch of them one after another. Having labored through Bill Clinton's pudgy biography, My Life, I went a bit flaky and picked up Andrew Morton's Diana: Her True Story from a pile at a thrift shop's books section... along with one biography of her former spouse, Charles: Prince of Wales, by Anthony Holden. While Morton's homage to Princess Diana seems to have been written by someone a bit overly sympathetic to his subject, Holden's treatment of the young Prince Charles (before he married anyone) is quite fair and incisive. Pele's autobiography, Pele: My Life and The Beautiful Game, was a revelation. I already knew of his technical grace on the football field, but what he overcame to get to where he was and to still maintain his integrity was very inspiring.

Reading Gordon Ramsay's Roasting in Hell's Kitchen somehow didn't make me admire the man more. I love his UK version of Kitchen Nightmares, but the US version put a bad taste in my mouth (why does Fox have to turn every show into another version of hyper-sensationalized Judge Judy?). His sure is an interesting life, though he is such a type-A personality even in writing that I needed a break from the dude by the end of the book.

Even though I'm not a fan of operatic coloratura sopranos (though I'd make exceptions for Edita Gruberova and Natalie Desay), I was not above picking up Beverly Sills' Bubbles while browsing a local bookstore one summer evening. For all the bubbly persona she displayed in her public image, the gal was one tough cookie... and a heck of a singer, too!

I also got into a spree of real life adventures reading with Bear Grylls' Facing Up, Sir Edmund Hillary's 'Nothing Venture, Nothing Win', Stephen Venables' Everest: Alone At The Summit, Freddie Wilkinson's One Mountain - Thousand Summits, and Peter Jenkins' Across China. Except for the last one, these recount high-altitude climbing. Grylls was the youngest Briton to summit Everest in 1998 at age 23. He is better known to us Americans as the weirdo who does dare-devil stuff doing extreme survival things on a tv program where he seems to enjoy taking his clothes off for a skinny dip and eating raw fish fresh from the stream. Somehow his book persona seems quite more normal and sane by comparison. 

Venables' account of his amazing first oxygen-free ascent of Everest via the Kangshung Face is gripping and gives a great glimpse into what sort of mentality drives people to risk so much to achieve something that doesn't really seem to benefit anyone. Freddie Wilkinson's telling of the 2008 K2 disaster not surprisingly made me revisit the similar story of the infamous Everest tragedy of 1996. It amazed me that the only two climbers (Chhiring Dorje and Pemba Gyalje) on K2 in 2008 who had enough stamina to mount a rescue attempt after having summitted the peak themselves were, like Anatole Boukreev and Lopsang Jambu on Everest in 1996, superfit professionals who were climbing without the aid of supplementary oxygen. It's food for thought, at least, that in the end technological short cuts are no match for knowledge and rigorous preparation.

Sir Edmund Hillary's memoir is now one of my favorite books for his no nonsense and amazingly understated and unassuming narration of his remarkable life. The man was so bent on not crowing about his own abilities that I almost felt the urge to slap my mental image of him in the head... Of course he mentions his ascent of Everest, but that is only an icing on an already remarkable cake, I think. I hadn't known anything of his leading an expedition to the the South Pole, and the various other things that he went about doing that most people would only dream about. It takes a very secure man to not let all that get to his head.
I don't climb high mountains, though that doesn't stop me from reading about them.
Peter Jenkins didn't climb any mountain in his book, though he walked across quite a magnificent expanse of foreign landscape. I was familiar with him from his first book, A Walk Across America, a very interesting tale that got a bit less interesting for me when the dude turned religious toward the end of it.

I got 3/4 way through Rebecca West's venerated tome, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, about her travel through the Balkans in the 30's, but didn't finish it. It is an amazingly insightful book... though sometimes the author annoys me to no end with her philosophy.

The more interesting books I read this year, though, were Bronislaw Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Akio Morita's Made in Japan, Azar Narfisi' Reading Lolita in Tehran, Stephen Jay Gould's Ever Since Darwin, and Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. Malinowski's account of the Trobriands of the Kiriwina Island (near Papua New Guinea) almost made me wish that I had majored in anthropology in college instead of biochemistry. If Indiana Jones could write a book about his exploits... I don't know, I think I'd still go for Prof Malinowski's vividly objective prose.

Akio Morita was a co-founder of Sony Corporation, and his self-made story is one capitalist Americans would love to claim for our own but can't. I suppose most of you readers will have read Narfisi's book and already wonder how to write like that in one's second language. Being a slow slug I'm still trying to catch up on the background reading required to completely understand her lessons!

Having to take lots of biology classes in college saved me from having to catch up on much background readings for Stephen Jay Gould's Ever Since Darwin, though I still found that I feel a bit smarter each time I re-read the book. The man made critical thinking seem so sexy...

Oddly enough, I found Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible reading through one of my favorite Mormon missionaries' favorite books list. It is a remarkable book. I should have liked to come across it while I was still a teenage Jesus-freak. I don't regret having gone down that road once, but I do regret the amount of time I spent on it... that and the lost opportunities. The book probably reads quite differently for those going through a religious phrase than it does for me. All the same it still flabbergasts me a little how anyone can read and like this thing and still volunteer to go on a religious mission afterward. confused smiley #17417

Anyhow! Tonight the calendar flips to a new page. I guess I will be staying up late, though mostly to try to get more work done than to watch the ball drop in Time Square. I don't think the cats around here even know what a 'new year' is, so I don't really celebrate days like this as much as normal people do (on the other hand, I love it when the wind changes to bring in a new season... or when the earth does strange things like trying to swallow the moon like it did earlier this month!). I'll be too busy to post much here for a week or two, so here is thanking everyone for putting up with my rambling posts. Wishing you all a very happy holiday season and 2012!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Mostly Religion-Friendly Holiday Music CD

Happy Holidays!

My holiday music playlist this year is a bit more religion-friendly than usual since I've been spending way too much time with some really religious people of late. The Mormon missionaries I hung out with are required by their mission rules to avoid music that aren't church-based or classical instrumental. That quite foils my attempt at introducing them to many of my favorite tunes since the best bits of the juiciest opera tend to involve more passion than so chaste a post- and pre- polygamy religion can handle. But, a bit of compromise goes a long way in making and keeping friends who don't think the same way I do about things, so I made my favorite missionaries a custom CD of relatively religion-friendly opera and classical for Christmas. Here it is!

1. VILLA-LOBOS: Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 [Elina Garanca]
2. MONTSALVATGE: Madrigal - El cant dels ocells [Garanca]
3. Bulgarian folksong: Svatba [Cosmic Voices of Bulgaria]
4. MOZART: Cosi fan tutte: Soave sia il vento [Lorengar, Berganza, Bacquier]
5. HUBAY: Le Zephyr [Mirijam Contzen & Valery Rogatchev]
6. MASCAGNI: Cavalleria Rusticana: Intermezzo
7. MASCAGNI: Cavalleria Rusticana: Regina coeli [Julia Varady]
8. Armenian folk hymn: Soorp [Isabel Beyrakdarian]
9. Rumanian hymn: O, ce veste minunata [Roberto Alagna] 
10. Bulgarian folksong: Day mi, Bozhe, krila lebedovi [Vesselina Kasarova]
11. VERDI: La forza del destino: La vergine degli angeli [Leontyne Price]
12. SAINT-SAËNS: Samson et Dalila - Danse Bacchanale
13. MENDELSSOHN: Violin concerto in E minor [Tasmin Little]

I know I gave her a hard time in a few early reviews of her recordings, but Elina Garanca has been growing on me quite much. The voice is just to die for, and her musicianship is exquisite. She still isn't as keen on varying her vocal color as I'd like her to, but I'm finding her live performances a lot more engaging now than a few years ago. I love her in recital pieces, though. While the opera tracks from her Aria Cantilena CD leave me cold, Villa Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 and Montsalvatge's arrangement of the Catalan madrigal, El cant dels ocells, are great showpieces for her gorgeously flawless sound... and even benefit, I think, from her detachment. The first is a nature-loving chant, and the latter an intonation of the nativity as witnessed by the birds. I wonder if ancient Bethlehem was home to the same sorts of birds that live in Catalan now... but that's besides the point, I think.

One of my all time favorite recordings has to be the first CD of Le mystere des voix bulgare, which features this really cool Boyar wedding song, Svatba. Sung by the Cosmic Voices of Bulgaria Women's Choir, I thought its rousing spunk might spark celestial thoughts in a few listeners. It helps that the tune somehow transfers really well into the farewell trio from Mozart's farcical opera, Cosi fan tutte. The story is silly, but sometimes even the flakiest of ladies are capable of some really benevolent benefaction!

Of course, benevolent benefaction should prudently be taken in small doses or else immediately followed up by an upshot of merry laughter. I would supply my own, but imposing my mischievously evil laughter onto others this time of year could very well be considered bad form, so I outsourced it to a good humored pair of laughadelic violinist and pianist instead, belly-quaking to Jeno Hubay's The Zephir.

People often ask me what my most favorite opera is. It's not an easy question to answer since there are many favorites and they tend to appeal to me differently depending on my differing moods. The safest choice that I can always listen to, though, is Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana... with its gorgeous intermezzo and, since we're being friendly to religious listeners here, Easter hymns. Well, I know it isn't Easter yet, but at least it's better suited to the occasion than Turiddu's lusty Siciliana or his spatty duet with Santuzza (my favorite parts of the show! But then I'm a heathen).

While roaming around youtube checking out various clips by my favorite singers, I chanced on this rather cool one of Isabel Beyrakdarian singing an Armenian hymn. I liked it so much I looked up a few more Armenian songs, then decided to branch out a bit and searched for hymns from other countries with famous opera singers I know of, and hit pay dirt with Roberto Alagna's rendition of the Romanian hymn O ce veste minunata (he isn't Romanian, but his then wife, Angela Gheoghiu, is). Of course, that also led me to Bulgaria and this clip of Vesselina Kasarova singing 'Give Me, God, Wings of the Swan' with the Cosmic Voices of Bulgaria.

I figured to close the CD with a proper Italian opera prayer, Leonora's prayer from la forza del destino, but there was a lot of room left on the blank disc, so I couldn't resist filling it up with a few instrumental favorites. First off the bat, just because I can only stand listening to so much religious music without a proper break, the 'or classical instrumental' escape clause that the Mormon mission gave their missionaries is my main excuse for breaking out of the pious mode with the (in)famous Bacchanale Scene from Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila. After all, the story is biblical! 

Amazed that there was still so much room on the disc after all that, I turned into a spoiled brat and put in my favorite recording of Mendelssohn's famous and extremely popular E minor violin concerto that just about every concert violinists has recorded. There are tons of awesome renditions of this thing around, but the fiddler who strikes it closest to my ideal combination of fleet-fingeredness and passion is the rather not that well-known (at least on this side of the Atlantic) English virtuoso Tasmin Little. The lass makes me dance... three legs and all!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

December has been here two weeks already???

Sorry I've neglected the blog a bit. Have moved to another part of town and been settling in and sorting out mails that kept going to the wrong address!

We are having our slice of the rainy winter this week. I sort of luck out since I did my traveling last weekend and can now enjoy the cool rain from inside the dry house. Will have to go out tomorrow, though I think the rain clouds will have left us for the greener pasture east of the Rockies by then.

I'm busy writing articles at the moment, and when I'm not writing I'm trying to catch up with a bunch of reading. Aside from all the books I've been meaning to read since before the local sycamore trees were still leafy, I'm still reading the Book of Mormon and James Talmadge's Jesus the Christ. No! I'm not converting, though my lovely missionary sisters had inscribed messages in the latter before presenting it to me as a parting gift, so I'm sort of compelled to be a good sport and read the thing. Besides, it gives me a good excuse to still meet up with them every now and then, you see. I don't find the church and the dogma very sensible, but the Mormons themselves do intrigue me a bit.

Anyhow, Christmas/Winter Solstice will be here before long, so here's to jump start the holiday season a bit with Elina Garanca's gorgeous rendition of Montsalvatge's arrangement of the Catalan madrigal 'El cant dels ocells' (Song of the Birds). It's the birds' experience of nativity, I think.
“En veure despuntar …… When they saw the rising glow,
El major illuminar ………. of god’s great star,
En la nit mes joiosa; …….. Which floods the earth abright;
Els ocellettes cantant …….. The birds arise in song,
a festejario van, …………… warbling all night long
Amb sa veu melindrosa,…… of joy and glad tidings.

Ocells, veniu, veniu……… Come birds, come,
A festejar l’aurora, …….. And rejoice in the dawn,
I a la millor senyora, ….. And with the great lady;

La garsa, griva i gaig, ….. Magpie, thrush and jay
dieun: la ve lo Maig; ….. Say: ‘May is here’;
respon la cadernera: …. The goldfinch answers:
Tot arbre reverdeix: ….. ‘Every tree revives,
Tota planta floreix ……… Every plant abloom
Com si fos la primavera. .. As if it were spring.”

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

More Kasarova Updates

Hello! Hello!

Vesselina Kasarova, the White Shirt Republic's favorite operatic muse, was awarded the Bavarian State Medal for Social Services (Bayerischen Staatsmedaille für soziale Dienste) on Monday.  Herzlichen Glückwunsch! :x lovestruck

Vesselina Kasarova receives the Bavarian State Medal for Social Services from Social Minister Christine Haderthauer. (Foto: StMAS)
The engaging Bulgarian - Swiss mezzo-soprano will also appear on KlickKlack Musikmagazin on Bavarian TV on December 1st (rerun on Dec 3rd & 4th).

Unfortunately Frau Kasarova got sick and didn't finish her run in L'Italiana in Vienna. It seems opera singers are dropping like flies to this year's early flu/cold season, so here's wishing everyone who's been knocked out of work due to illness a happy and speedy recovery!

Updated on December 1st: Frau Kasarova is still ill and has canceled her appearances in Maria Stuarda at the Philharmonie am Gasteig in Munich, Germany. She will be replaced by Alexandrina Pendatchanska, another very dramatically and vocally delicious Bulgarian singer.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Kasarova in Moscow broadcast footages

Denis strikes again, much to the Kasarovian Republic's delight, by uploading clips of the broadcast of Vesselina Kasarova's 2011 Moscow concert to his youtube channel for those of us who had no access to the original showing.

Now this is a good way of starting the holiday season in my book. Thanks very much, Denis! 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Where in the world is Vesselina Kasarova?

It's been a while since I last posted about my favorite operatic muse. Vesselina Kasarova is keeping busy as a bee. She is currently in Vienna, rocking the Staatsoper as Isabella in the Ponnelle staging of Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algeria). The lass is indeed shifting the center of her repertoire toward the more dramatic, but she apparently hasn't lost any of her magical bel canto touch and vocal suppleness. Next up from this current run of L'Italiana is two performances of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda at the Philharmonie am Gasteig in Munich, Germany. 

Vesselina Kasarova as Isabella in Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri at Wiener Staatsoper. November 2011. (Photo: Michael Pöhn)
Her amazing Russian fan, Denis, also informed me that Russia's TV Kultura is set on broadcasting Kasarova's recent concert at Moscow's Tchaikovsky Concert Hall on their channel on November 23rd. I'm green with envy and hope my Russian friends get to enjoy the treat! 

For those of us who don't live close enough to her frequent performance venues, there is consolation in that Baerenreiter is about to publish her first book (co-written with music critic Dr. Marianne Zelger-Vogt), Ich singe mit Leib und Seele (I Sing with Heart and Soul). It'll hit book shops in March 2012 in Germany and in German language, of course, though perhaps with English version coming out a few years after... Or you could just try to learn the language. It's quite worth it! 

Happy belated Birthday to Yves-Lucien, too, while I'm at this! :x lovestruck 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Missing Richard Feynman

I never had the pleasure of meeting Richard Phillip Feynman, but that doesn't stop me from missing the man every now and then. Why?

"Question: When you are looking at something, do you see only light or do you see the object?
Prof Feynman: The question of whether or not when you see something you see only the light or you see the thing you're looking at is one of those dopey philosophical things that an ordinary person has no difficulty with.

Even the most profound philosopher, when sitting and eating his dinner, hasn't any difficulty in making out that what he's looking at perhaps might only be the light from the steak, but it still implies the existence of the steak which he is able to lift by the fork to his mouth. The philosophers that weren't able to make that analysis and that idea have fallen by the wayside from hunger."

Really, how can anyone not miss this man?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Mormon Encounters: Part 6 - A Talk Among Friends

Entire Mormon Encounters series
Part 1: First meeting       Aside 1, Aside 2 
Part 2: Reading the Book of Mormon
Part 3: Going to Mormon Church
Part 4: Mormon Battalion & General Conference
Part 5: The Missionary Sisters
Part 6: A Talk Among Friends
Part 7: Adam & Free Agency
Part 8: To the Investigators
Part 9: To the Missionaries

I had a bunch of visitors yesterday. My Mormon missionary friends Sisters Begeistert & Sanftmütig came over for a late lunch visit. Since all of us were a bit sick with something or the other we had fried rice with a hot and spicy bowl of tom yum chicken soup which cleared our sinuses out like a super-concentrated tub of Drano.

The Sisters have really became good friends in such a short time. Last week when I was sick with the flu (well, if felt very much like a flu then, but has since moved down to settle somewhere down my throat, so I guess it should now be called a bronchitis) they turned up in the rain -- and one of them didn't even have a rainproof coat or umbrella on -- on Friday evening just to bring me a big and very yummy bowl of chicken soup! 

In case any senior Mormon missionary supervisor come across this, as much fun as we three have during these visits, the sisters aren't neglecting their proselytizing duty any. Any lack of progress should be attributed solely to devious me. I keep distracting them with jokes left, right and center, and once all the laughing is done there just isn't much time for them to concentrate on what they were planning to say.

To illustrate to you what a poor communicator I've been, the last time they were here Sister Begeistert asked me again to explain exactly why I fell out of Christianity and why I am finding it so difficult to accept the Mormon truth. I told them about resolving to read the Bible without the mindset to will everything to fit to the church dogma, and finding that the only fitting explanation of all my troubles with dogma was that it (the dogma) was wrong. The sisters had a hard time understanding that, though, so I told them of one of the problems I ran into once I've had that paradigm shift: the problem of Abraham obeying god's command to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. 

Christians are taught to admire Abraham's faith in that episode; it is supposed to be an inspirational thing, something we all should aspire to emulate, that when god commands one to do something, even something as hard to do as killing our own innocent son, Abraham resolved to carry out the commandment without brooding any question. In this Biblical episode god intervenes just as Abraham's knife is about to come down on Isaac; the latter is allowed to live and Abraham is rewarded for his 'faith'. There is a similar story in the Book of Mormon, however, and it is an often cited one that is supposed to be taken in the same spirit that the Christians take the Abraham-Isaac version, it is the story of how Nephi (the first one as there are three different Nephis in the BoM) was commanded by god to kill the abusive Laban, as the latter laid unarmed and unconscious on the floor. Unlike Isaac, Laban is not spared and the killing is justified as sacrificing one to save many.

The sisters were well familiar with those stories, though they were rather shocked to hear what I told them next: "I read the story of Abraham and Isaac again, and paused to ask myself; if god turns up in my living room right now, indisputably god, and commands me to kill someone, would I do it?"
Rembrandt's The Sacrifice of Isaac
After a few uncomfortable minutes I broke the impromptu bout of silence with the only moral answer that I could think of; "I'd just tell god to go to hell." 

Sister Begeistert was too stunned by such a thought to say anything, though Sister Sanftmütig had a go; "You wouldn't, even if circumstances arise where the choice is either for one man to die or for whole nation to perish? (that is the justification that the supposed holy ghost presents to Nephi #1 as he tries to evade having to carry out such a godly commandment)." 

But what was the justification for killing Isaac? Considering that Abraham wasn't given any reason, and had no foreknowledge that god would stop him at the last minute. What if 'god' commands the sister to kill her own innocent brother? The Christians -- me included when I was one -- applauded and admired Abraham precisely for having the 'faith' necessary to follow god's command regardless of its atrocity and mercilessly irrational nature. And the Mormons do the same whenever the story of Nephi #1 and Laban turns up in ward meetings and lessons (Sunday church services). And even if the 'justification' of 'better one man than a whole lot more' be valid, I'm sure a god that had created everything in the universe from the smallest pebbles to the thinking human beings is competent enough to do the deed itself if it so chooses. I have more respect for murderers than I do the people who order others to murder for them. 

Many of the religious folks like to claim that atheists like me are immoral precisely because we don't believe in god (as the religions define it), and yet here is The God commanding an immoral commandment. (By the way, does god ever tempt people or not? In the Abraham-Isaac episode it sure did; god did, and not the devil... or so says the Bible).
Just imagining myself praising a sadistic god while suffering for my morality.
For me it comes down to three possibilities: there is no god; or there may be a god, but it doesn't have anything at all to do with what is said about it in religious texts like the Bible or the BoM; or there indeed is an immoral god who do order such things as this, in which case I say it can just make me drink the Kool Aid or throw me into its bubbling cauldron for the rest of eternity but there is no way I'll subordinate myself to a sh*tty murderous lump of cosmic bully like that. If I have to believe in a god, I wish for the former, though various Christians and Mormon missionaries keep trying to wish the latter on me.

Naturally the sisters were rather distraught. If I didn't seem a lost cause for them before I sure was looking, sounding, and smelling like one. Sister Begeistert was especially down (and probably more than a bit confused). She really wants to give this happiness she feels -and attributes to her faith- to me, and I was rather nonplussed at myself for somehow not managing to be obviously happy enough to not need such a thing. I know my atheist friends will give me hell for this, but I told her that she could just keep trying with her proselytizing attempts. The lass is such fun and pleasant to hang around with that that extra baggage of always having to talk about religion doesn't bother me that much... yet.

Monday, November 7, 2011

What? Adriana Lecouvreur with Gheorghiu and Kaufmann isn't sold out???

I just got this email from the Opera Orchestra of New York (OONY). They're promoting $10 student rush ticket for tomorrow's concert performance of Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur at Carnegie Hall. Hey New Yorkers, DUDES!!!!, how can there still be tickets laying around available for $10 rush in a show starring Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann??? You've gotta be kidding me!

To purchase, please present you ID at the Carnegie Hall Box Office at
West 57th Street at 7th Avenue on the day of the performance.

All remaining tickets can be purchased at the Carnegie Hall Box Office or by calling CarnegieCharge: (212) 247-7800 or at

Move your butt to the Box Office right now and fix that. Like IMMEDIATELY!!!

Off The Main Road: La fleur qu’il m’avait jetée

I made a quick trip to the grocery store a mile or so away this morning. On the way back as I cut through the park I spotted this cute black phoebe perched on a tree watching my approach.

A black phoebe (Moucherolle noir) I saw months ago in the park. Alas I didn't get a picture of the one I met today.
Black phoebes are this area's sparrows. There are always a bunch of them around rustling in the bushes and on tree limbs. So, though I'm always saying hello and waving to them (I know they probably think me wacky, but I like watching how they react to that) I hadn't taken a photo of one in a long time... and certainly not this one this morning. He got a bit nervous and hopped to a higher limb as I got close. Then when he saw that I was not one of those nasty cats with the bad habit of looking at him as if he is a piece of Tartar steak, he started pecking at a bunch of leaves nearby. I was almost under him when he pecked loose a little flower -- it drifted a little in the gentle breeze and landed on my open fingers just as its dislodger hopped away into someone's backyard bush.

You do bring me flower, you do sing me love song...
Being a rational dude that I am, I'd have no trouble thinking that it is just a particularly nice sort of accident. Sentimentally, though, I'd like to think it a little present from a bird that appreciates weirdos who try to talk to him in a strangely unmelodic language as if he would abandon his infinitely more pleasant songs just for the sake of associating with a featherlessly slow-moving lump of ground-bounded biped. 

Maybe it was a female black phoebe, in which case I shall now call her 'Carmen,' and hope that doing so wouldn't condemn me to the fate of Don José (though exceptions can be made if I then get to look and sing like Jonas Kaufmann with my new featherly friend transforming into one Vesselina Kasarova... almost anything is worth that!!!).

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Confession to the Tooth Fairy

Even when I was a skinny little kid who refused to eat anything fishy, smelly, liquidy, flaky, or spicy, my mouth was easily plied with anything that was composed mostly of glucose...

Assorted sweet at a shop in Old Town San Diego
Hard candies, soft candies, chewy candies, and even airy ones (love those cotton candies!). Spongy cake with hard icing, chocolaty German cakes with cherry on top, blueberries cheesecakes with candy crust, hot fudge over corn cake and all sorts of sorbets and ice-cream. If only any of these counted as a wholesome healthy meal... 

A sort of luggage that's sure to disappear before you claim it.
While I'm thinking sweet, I ran into this strikingly unappetizing cake at a farmers' market a while back. No, I didn't upload a wrong photo, dudes. The luggage IS the cake!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Mormon Encounters: Part 5 - The Missionary Sisters

Entire Mormon Encounters series
Part 1: First meeting       Aside 1, Aside 2 
Part 2: Reading the Book of Mormon
Part 3: Going to Mormon Church
Part 4: Mormon Battalion & General Conference
Part 5: The Missionary Sisters
Part 6: A Talk Among Friends
Part 7: Adam & Free Agency
Part 8: To the Investigators
Part 9: To the Missionaries
Last week was especially hectic for me since I had an extra work that needed to be done by a fast-approaching deadline. I stayed up late into the night with it and spent a lot of time in a zombic state with nothing in my head but a whole lot of math work. That was such a case on Thursday evening. I was bent over a notebook, so intent on working out the equations on the computer screen that I barely registered the strange giggling sound waffling in through the window from the terrace below.
Lord Voldemort kept his soul in a locket, a book, a cup and other things. I keep my brain in a hippo...
Quick! What is the sum of the interior angles of an octagon? Scattered scratches on the window. More giggles. Impish neighborhood kids! Got the angles sum, now have to subtract from it the known angles to find the unknown one. More pebbles skipping off window followed by more giggling. Is somebody shushing out my name from outside? What the heck??? I'm supposed to be a curious cat after all. Got up and peeked out through the blind. Lo and behold! The Mormon missionary ladies were downstairs, all bent over waving and giggling in the dark!

Sisters Sanftmütig and Begeistert are the names I had bestowed upon the merry twosome without their consent (though I suspect that they would be much less thrilled if their real names were used instead). Neither were the original missionaries who approached me as I walked the roommate's dog nearly 2 months ago. The nimble Sister Wendig was shipped off elsewhere after just one meeting and replaced by the quietly mild-mannered Sisters Sanftmütig. I'm afraid Wendig is not quite a right name for her. I ran into her at the Mormon Battalion on the 1st of October and now think that Nächstenliebe would be a more fitting moniker for the good lass.

After a few weeks steady Sister Stetig also got moved to another part of town. In her place now is the exceedingly enthusiastic Sister Begeistert. As much as I liked Sister Stetig, I must say that Sister Begeistert is quite more fascinating and easier a person to hang out with -- especially for her rather strange habit talking to me in dreams. And so, for the past month or so it has been the pairing of Sisters Sanftmütig and Begeistert who drop in to see me once a week, twice if we have church date. (Mormon missionaries always travel in pair. Their rules dictate that they never let their Siamese twin companion out of sight except when either is using the restroom, in which case the other is expected to stand guard at the restroom door).

The LDS Mission seems to break up the missionary pairs every 2 months or so, so I guess I'm expecting Sister Sanftmütig to be replaced soon. That would be quite sad... I really like the lass. For a theatrical artist that she is in real life, she has been so restrained and respectable as a missionary. Not that artists aren't respectable, of course, but they don't usually voluntarily confine themselves into set rules and convention either. From what I've seen and inferred so far, the Mormon church is nothing if not rules-fanatic. The detailed rules may vary a bit in various LDS (Latter-Day Saints) missions, but the general ones seem the same.

('Mission call' is another of the many curious Mormon mislabeling of things. They talk about being 'called to serve a mission', but the fact is that they themselves had to send in a mission application asking to serve. So in reality it is they that called themselves and not the church. This is the same sort of thing as the notion that Brigham Young's god connection protected the Mormon Battalion from having to fight the Mexican-American War when in fact it was the battalion's lateness that made them miss all the fighting).

Even though I'm not a Mormon, having hung out with them for a few months has made it clear to me that obeying rules and commandments is a big part of the Mormon lifestyle in general. With the missionaries, though, they go the extra marathon with it.

An excerpt from Elder Don R Clarke's recent speech about missionaries at the LDS Church News.
Many of the missionary rules seem sensible enough (including safety-oriented ones like obeying the laws or tactful ones like respecting other religions), but many more are confoundingly tedious to the point where they betray explicit mistrust of the missionaries' judgment. So the LDS church trusts these young men and women to know the 'gospel' and be able to accurately communicate it to others, but it doesn't trust them to be able to maintain their devotion and church commitment without being nearly completely cut off from all non-church-based communication (no tv, radio, newspaper or any non church reading material, no call home except for Christmas and Mother's Day, can only write to immediate family once a week and nobody else, etc), or to know what to eat and when to go to bed? That is a strange message to send to investigators...

Anyhow! I had forgotten that the sisters said they would come back to see me after their evening appointments to give me the answer to a question I had asked earlier. It was well after 8PM, though, so I sprinted right downstairs to see them because I knew that they were supposed to be back at their living quarters by 9PM at night. It could be considered almost rebellious that these gals stopped by to see a gentile (what the Mormons call all non-Mormons, even if they are Christians) so late in the day with their curfew looming in less than 25 minutes. I told them they had better scoot and not get in trouble on my account, but they replied that they would only be in trouble with themselves if they break the curfew... So it seems many of the rules are self-enforced. Discipline is a good quality to me, as long as it is voluntarily self-imposed and not a cultural imposition upon individuality. I was very glad to hear that the sisters still retain enough spiritual independence to not follow rules just for the sake of following them.

Taken from what is written on and between the line? Why must intelligence be guided by 'faith'? (It makes as much sense to me as to say that the hen coop must be watched over by a fox).
When meetings started back in September the sisters would show up with a preplanned 'lesson'. I don't know if those first few lessons were anomalies or if they were the standard operational model for them, but if they were they were quite thrown off track by my many unorthodox questions. I suppose they would have been quite well prepared to defend their dogma against the usual problems that Christians have against their religion (all the while maintaining that their religions were the same, but with improvement, so to speak). But I was asking them to define what they meant when they referred to a 'god', and why such a god would have need of using certain humans as 'prophets' instead of communicating directly to everyone. Invariably their answers would be 'God is our Heavenly Father, and he loves all of us including you,' and that 'the prophets are tools for God to communicate church-wide messages that aren't meant for individuals.'

It doesn't matter if it is Sister Stetig or Wendig or Sanftmütig or Begeistert or even Sister Garten (the Elina Garanca-look-alike sister trainer who accompanies the usual pair of sisters once a month or so) I asked the questions to, they always answer the same way, in near verbatim, every time.  :-? thinking

I should say, though, that I really like my current pair of missionary sisters. Both being artistic in real life, they are quite more tolerant of my rules-lessness than some others. After a couple of meetings with these two our 'discussions' have become decidedly informal. Not only do they insist on helping me wash the dishes after our lunch, a few weeks ago they actually cooked the lunch for me when they turned up on time for our appointment for the first time ever (I had taken it for granted by then that the Mormon missionary clock perpetually runs 20-30 minutes late except for church services). Sister Sanftmütig took command of the stove and churned out her first ever oriental lunch, a beautiful wok of fried rice, while Sister Begeistert helped with the garnish and most of the after lunch clean up.

If you are expecting a pair of Mormon missionaries for lunch or dinner, there are a few dietary requirements they feel they have to comply to. They won't drink coffee, tea, alcohol, or any other beverage that has caffeine in it. Surprisingly hot cocoa is allowed -- I suspect because they don't realize that the theobromine in cocoa beans is a close relative of caffeine and has similar though milder stimulative effects (narcotics and tobacco are also banned by the LDS church). When the sisters visit with me they drink mostly water or lemonade or clear caffeine-free lemony soda.

At any rate, both sisters are in their early to mid 20's and very idealistic. Sister Begeistert told me she was born into Mormonism, though 'didn't really have a testimony' (she had doubts about the Mormon faith) until she decided to serve a mission after spending some time doing volunteer works in a remote part of Africa. I really love it when she talks about her experience there. I've had fascinations about British East Africa ever since I read Beryl Markham's West With the Night (it is one of my all time favorite books), and would love to visit the place one day myself. Like the other sisters when they are about to talk their way out of their dogma, though, her sense of theological rationalization would kick in and she would try to tie whatever she is saying into something testimony/faith-strengthening. In this particular case, she blurted out that helping teaching English to the African kids made her realize that she should serve a mission because 'teaching them the gospel is the best thing I can do to help them, better than teaching them how to read or write, even.'

Naturally I was alarmed by the sentiment. I greatly admire her selfless goodwill toward others, but teaching the kids how to read and write would enable them to read for themselves the Book of Mormon, along with other mind-stimulating books which would free them from having to always take other people's words for things.

I should also mention, though, that even though both sisters are in the midst of a very unnaturally church-oriented period of their lives, I find it remarkable that they remain receptive of the concept of following their conscience above all else. They have not tried to pressure me into making more commitment or to say any prayer with them ever since I made my protest on ground of personal integrity. They respect my sense of spiritual integrity even though I'm reasonably sure that their trainer/mission senior wouldn't be thrilled with that sort of courtesy.

In the constant atmosphere of passive-aggressive social pressure to toe-the-prophet/church-leaders'-line that definitely exists in their church (certain things are more easily perceived when viewed from the outside), I hope that they would be able to keep exercising their 'free agency' (Mormonese for 'free will') even when pushed to do or say things that don't sit well with their conscience.

If you would like to know how the Mormon missionaries think, don't take my words for it. Many active missionaries actually keep blogs! Proselytizing missionaries (the young pairs that go out trying to teach people their gospel rather than the older ones who man the Mormon churches and historical sites) work six days a week. The one free day (they call it 'prep-day' or 'p-day' for preparation) they have each week is reserved for cleaning, shopping, and writing to their immediate family (they aren't allowed to write any other aside from their mission seniors. And they are only allowed to use their church email and can only access church sites). A few of these guys and gals email their family, who then post the missive on their blog for them.

My missionary sisters wouldn't approve, but I've had much fun reading through many missionary blogs -- the ones serving in the area and others serving elsewhere. Like it or not, the thoughts they dispatch home help me to better understand where they are coming from (along with the strategies they are apt to use, of course)... along with driving home for me what Karl Marx must have thought of when he wrote that 'religion is opium for the people' (Die Religion ... ist das Opium des Volkes).

I am liking the Mormons a lot, but the more I look into it, the more Mormonism repulses me. Even these nice and obviously well-meaning missionaries are showing signs of a serious case of mis-prioritization when the well-being and/or spiritual integrity of the people they are trying to convert runs up against church practice. Have a look at Sister Christensen's description of a baptism she recently witnessed. (Sister missionaries aren't holder of the Mormon priesthood, and though they were the ones who successfully converted you, they have to step aside to let the boys do the actual rituals like baptism as they watch).
"she was baptized. to say the least, it was one of the most uncomfortable baptisms i've ever had to watch, and i was reeeeeeeally nervous she was going to back out because she just COULDN'T GET ALL THE WAY UNDER.. but she didn't. she finally got all the way down. ................... huge sigh of relief from EVERYONE present. but seriously. (she's way afraid of water... and to add to that she can't lean back because of a surgery she had... so she was literally ON HER KNEES and president was literally trying to push her under the water and she was blowing bubbles and almost crying...oh my gosh. BUT!!!! SHE DID IT!!!! hahha. and afterwards she shared her testimony (i did'nt think she'd do that either!) and it was more like a prayer, but it was so sweet! and she said that she just felt sooo different and so happy and she couldn't stop crying." (christensen missionaries blog
The end justifies the means? The lady has hydrophobia and a seriously bad back, and yet these people were so bent on baptizing her with water that they nearly ended up waterboarding the gal... I'm sure the good sister and her colleagues present justified the act to themselves with the thought that water baptism is absolutely necessary in 'saving' someone's soul. But what would that really say about a religion that values literal application of rituals over someone's inner spirituality? I can get baptized 10 times tomorrow, but if I still don't believe, then what of it all??? It's the same deal as when I was pushed to say prayers in order for the praying habit to somehow grow into faith. If a doctrine is not worth believing in, then there is no virtue in trying to force a square idea into a round reality!
"Martha and Jacob dropped us. =( We were both kind of crying. She did it over phone so we made one final appointment and went in with our guns blazing. We told her exactly what we're offering, and she knows it. She said she would go to church one more time, and that she likes the Book of Mormon. The reason she dropped us was her husband and his anti-Mormon family. It’s not over yet, we're not going to give up on her, just give her some time to see her life without the Gospel." 
And yet another's:
"Sister Panga came out of her house holding the Book of Mormon and the restoration pamphlet. She explained that she and her husband had been fighting and that she wanted to work it out with him. She explained that he did not approve of her listening anymore. Our hearts just dropped. Our last visit she had been asking questions and told us she had talked to her husband. He had met us on a pjeepney before and said it was okay for us to visit. I just thought what had changed in those few short days. She wanted to give back the Book of Mormon. We testified. No change she insisted that we take the book back, because her husband told her to. She was kind about it and asked us to respect her decision. Sister Canoneo told her she could hide the Book of Mormon. Sister Panga was afraid if she kept the book that her husband would find it and be angry. We testified that one day her husband's heart would change and if ever that happened not to be shy to give us a call. Sister Panga did this in a very dignified manner and we were not annoyed or mad that she gave us back the Book of Mormon, but rather saddened and our hearts hurt. Walking away we just sang at the same time "magpadayon ta!" (we will continue) and laughed. The storms of the mission can either get you down or lift you up. I'ts a choice and we decided to count our blessings rather look at the disappointments."
(Apologies for the length of the quotes, but I wanted to make sure you can read them in their original context).

These aren't isolated incidents but illustrate a recurring theme which I hope sufficiently explains my perception of a relatively subtle strain of snobbiness amongst many Mormons (and Christians and other religious zealots, for that matter). They regard themselves as people who know 'the truth', and gentiles as those who remain ignorant of it. Therefore they know better, and a gentile's decision to reject their dogma will not be received as credible. The church must be prioritized over everything, family included (note how one of the missionaries even tried to get the investigator (Sister Panga) to sneak the religious book into the house to read on the sly behind her husband's back. Suggestions like this makes it hard for me to dismiss the many stories I've heard from reading posts and articles by ex-Mormons who complain of the church's interferences in their family life.

When the missionaries say that they gave a 'testimony' or 'testified', that means that they made more assertions about them knowing the BoM and Joseph Smith and the LDS Church to be true. It is one of the most annoying things that they all do when they are trying to convert you and have ran out of any logically coherent thing to say. They will repeat the testimonies to you over and over as if their ability to be exceedingly repetitive constitutes positive and unquestionable empirical evidence of their religion's truthfulness.

The missionaries may lay off on you for a bit, but quitting on you altogether isn't quite likely... because they know 'the truth' and really want to save you regardless of what you think. This is one of the things that irritates me the most about religions -- it gives its zealots a free pass to disrespect other people's decision and space, and sometimes to do some really unholy stuff in the name of a god, a cause 'greater' than themselves. Granted the intention is good, but as a wise saying goes; 'the road to hell is often paved with good intention.'

And that brings another of my favorite quotes to mind;
"The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false face for the urge to rule it."
(H.L. Mencken)
(As a side note, there really ought to be a study done on how many of the people who 'drop' their missionaries say that they are only dropping out because their spouse wouldn't allow further contact. What a convenient excuse! And the spouse is almost never there to confirm or deny it!).

Frankly I would really love it if Sisters Begeistert and Sanftmütig (and also Sister Garten, for that matter) will remain friends with me even after they are done with their mission and even though they fail to convert me to their religion. I know that there is a constant social pressure on them and other Mormons to not socialize much with non-Mormons who aren't likely to convert and with ex-Mormons (whom they call 'apostates'). To be sure, this sort of 'only associate with others who share your own belief' mentality also exists in other religions. I had my fair share of such thing preached to me in Baptist and Evangelical Christian churches, though I never managed to follow it very well even when I was a strong believer. With the Mormons, though, it is quite much more heavily emphasized. As for me, my investigation (so to speak, since the Mormons refer to me as an 'investigator') into Mormonism ends when I relocate next month or when both of the current sisters get transferred elsewhere, whichever comes first.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Guest Announcement: Hepp(ner)ing Up Moby Dick

The San Diego Opera has just announced a cast change for next season's Moby Dick (by Jake Heggie). Canadian Heldentenor Ben Heppner will come and sing Ahab in place of Jay Hunter Morris, who will instead be singing the Götterdämmerung Siegfried with the Metropolitan Opera instead. That, my friends, is no downgrade by any stretch of imagination! 
Moby Dick stage photo by Karen Almond for the Dallas Opera & San Diego Opera
Anyhow, San Diego Opera performs at the Civic Theater in downtown, of course. All operas are sung in original language (never mind the English names used). Here's ticketing & schedule info:

The 2012 International Season
Richard Strauss' Salome: January 28, 31, February 3 and 5 (mat), 2012
Jake Heggie: Moby-Dick: February 18, 21, 24 and 26 (mat), 2012
Gaetano Donizetti's Don Pasquale: March 10, 13, 16 and 18 (mat), 2012
Renée Fleming in Concert March 24, 2012
Gioacchino Rossini's The Barber of Seville: April 21, 24, 27 and 29 (mat), 2012

Single ticket prices, through December 31, are $50, $100, $120, $130, $160, $200 and $210 (with some seats on select nights slightly higher).

Tickets to Renée Fleming in concert start at $100 and up.

Three or four-opera subscriptions for the 2012 International Season are still available. Subscriptions range from $120 - $1,100.

Tuesday Night Senior Discounts are also available for a full series four-opera subscription. Proof of age is required. Call (619) 533-7000 or online at for more information.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Just A Thought: A Bell-Ringing Quote

“If I might begin a slight rant about one of the problems I find -- even on websites like It's a good thing that people talk about [the violin]. But if you go on YouTube – especially among young people, they have this sort of competition-type attitude when they listen to violinists play.

They make comments like, "This person sucks." If one says someone plays something well, the idea that you need to trash someone else. Of course, you have your favorite. But I think it's really important for young people to open their minds to other ways of playing and other ways of appreciating music.

I find that it's sort of a novice mistake. I find it even more among complete amateurs, who are not even in music at all. They've grown up with their one recording of a piece. They'll complain to me, "Oh, I heard this opera sung by this person. And oh, it's terrible, because it should be this way." Because this is the way they view that piece.

They're not able to open up their minds and enjoy it on the terms that the person is presenting it – as a performance. I'm guilty as much as anybody. But if you can unblock yourself and try to get inside an interpretation of someone that may be eccentric, or listen to an old Mischa Elman, without saying, "Oh God, those gross slides. Listen to the tasteless stuff." If you can try to get beyond that, and really see the poetry that's underneath it -- it's a different sound. There's room for a lot of ways of playing. That's what makes it so rich and interesting in the musical world.”
                   - Joshua Bell, Interview with Laurie Nils for (August 2008)