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Posts Tagged 'michael uslan'

Some last-minute gift ideas…

Obviously it’s Thursday, and Christmas is Sunday, so this isn’t even last-minute but last-second. Last-millisecond, even. Nonetheless, here are some suggestions for those of you foolish enough to think that my taste might be the slightest bit relevant:

Consider giving a gift to International Orthodox Christian Charities. Their mission: “IOCC, in the spirit of Christ’s love, offers emergency relief and development programs to those in need worldwide, without discrimination, and strengthens the capacity of the Orthodox Church to so respond.” They do a lot of wonderful work throughout the world like Palestine, Syria, Romania, Ethiopia, and more — including the United States.
A Tom Bihn Checkpoint Flyer. My Samsonite leather satchel fell apart on me over the summer, and I contemplated whether or not I could swing a Saddleback classic briefcase (my godson Lucas has one and it is a thing of beauty), but then Larry Anderson suggested I check out the options from Tom Bihn. I got a great traveling laptop briefcase for about a third of what the Saddleback bag I was considering would have cost, it’s got a lifetime guarantee, and it’s been perfect for when I’ve needed to travel with my 15″ MacBook Pro. Of course, the day after the bag arrived I bought an iPad 2 (yeah, yeah, earlier than I said I would, but no regrets, let me tell you), so I have tended to need to transport the laptop less (short version: to the extent that laptops have become desktop replacements, iPads are laptop replacements), but it’s stil been exactly right for what I need. It’s very elegantly designed, and it’s very good at making sure there is a place for everything. The one caveat I might add is that while the bag is plenty sturdy, the stretchy shoulder strap may feel like it’s more stressed than it actually is if you overload it. Not an issue if you don’t, well, overload it, and the bounce the shoulder stap provides makes the bag a lot easier to carry once you get used to it (it basically seems to function as a shock absorber).

Cappella Romana’s new disc Mt. Sinai: Frontier of Byzantium. A full review of this is forthcoming, but for right now suffice it to say that it’s a beautifully-sung account of medieval Byzantine chant manuscripts from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. Repertoire includes material for Vespers of the Feast of St. Catherine, as well as from the Service of the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace, which used to be served on the Sunday before Nativity. Some of this has been recorded before by Lycourgos Angelopoulos and the Greek Byzantine Choir for a disc called “Byzantine Hymns” (and one can find the audio on YouTube but I can’t find out anything about the disc, so if anybody knows anything about it, please let me know), but Cappella Romana is a very different ensemble from GBC in a number of ways, and their rendering of the material is very much worth hearing. Like I said, full review coming, but this is a great stocking stuffer. For that matter, so is the reissue of the Epiphany disc under their own label. And, of course, their recording of Richard Toensing’s Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ is a must-have. One can also make a gift to Cappella Romana, either to their general operating fund or to support one of their several in-the-works recordings.

If you’re an iPad user who thinks that the soft-tipped styli that you’re likely to find at Best Buy don’t really do what you need them to do, I highly recommend the Jot-Pro. It makes handwriting and drawing much easier.

For another music suggestion, Marcel Peres/Ensemble Organum’s recording of Christmas music from the Old Roman Chant repertory, Chant de l’Eglise de Rome: VIe-XIIIe Siècles, is a fascinating and beautiful reconstruction of a time when East and West had a lot more in common, culturally and spiritually, than we’re used to now. “Reconstruction” is often a euphemism in early music circles for “making nonsense up”, but as I’ve noted before, I think Peres (collaborating with Lycourgos Angelopoulos) makes a pretty compelling case.

If you’re a Mac user and a writer who needs to manage a decent amount of research, notes, ideas, dates, etc., Scrivener and Tinderbox are a pretty powerful one-two punch. If you’re already a Scrivener user, there’s also deal on Tinderbox. I’m new to Tinderbox myself, but I’ve been using Scrivener for several years now, and I find it to be fantastically helpful in terms of its set of writing tools. I’ve written (and am still revising) a children’s book and several academic papers with it. The only thing I wish it had was cleaner EndNote integration, and I also have to make sure I remember to not send compiled *.rtf documents as finished drafts (must save as a Word doc or a *.pdf), lest the person on the other end simply open it in a text editor by default and think I’ve made the rookie mistake of not including any footnotes. (Yes, this has happened. Recently.)

Horrified as I am by the K-Cup craze, I’m going to suggest the paleocafephile route (I think I just invented a word) — the briki/ibrik, with which one makes Greek/Turkish/Arabic coffee. You don’t have little plastic containers that keep you from ever handling grounds; nonononono. Heh. No. Instead, you grind the beans to powder, boil the grounds directly (no filter), pour it into a cup, add sugar (and maybe cardamom if you’re Cypriot), and then you deal with the sludge at the bottom of the cup. It’s the only way to fly in a word that wants to make your coffee experience as safe and plastic and single-serving-sized as possible.

Michael Uslan is, without doubt, the comic book geek made good to end all comic book geeks made good. His memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batman, is tremendously inspiring, and is a must-read for anybody, whether they’ve read a comic book or not, who has ever been told, “Kid, you can’t get there from here.”

All right — may the last few days of the fast treat everybody well!

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Unlikely realities

Something that occasionally can seem like lazy historiography to me is when scholars call something “unlikely” to explain why they think it probably didn’t happen. It’s a way to argue with something that may show up in a primary source without necessarily having to reason your way through the disagreement; oh, well, such-and-such gives X account of this event but that’s “unlikely”, so we’ll assume it didn’t happen.

Here’s the thing. At the risk of getting all Dr. Manhattan on both of my regular readers, “unlikely” things happen all the time. I am an extraordinarily unlikely occurrence, given who my parents are, their personalities, their respective stations in life when they met, etc. It’s highly unlikely that my randomly going to a party one night while nearing emotional rock bottom should result, six years later, in me getting married to a person I met there (principally as somebody another friend of mine had a crush on). It’s highly unlikely that a college choir director deciding she was going plan a European tour should start a chain of events that would result in a conversion to Orthodox Christianity nine years later. And yet, these things defiantly happen nonetheless with callous disregard to whether or not a historian will later believe that they did.

A couple of other fairly unlikely things have happened to me in the last two or three weeks: for example, Megan and I, along with our godchildren Matt and Erin and our dear friend Anna, attended Lyric Opera of Chicago’s recent production of Tales of Hoffman. Not necessarily unlikely in and of itself (but since the last time we went to the Lyric was 9 years ago for Bryn Terfel’s Sweeney Todd, certainly not a regular occurrence), but consider the following: Hoffman was supposed to be produced at my first undergraduate institution, Western Washington University, my freshman year. WWU had put on a production of La Boheme a couple of years previous that had received national attention, was developing something of a reputation for being a good undergrad program for people who wanted to do opera, and Hoffman was going to be the big followup that would prove that Boheme wasn’t a fluke. Well — as the story was told to me in dribs and drabs from a few different people — political, economic, and practical concerns meant that this didn’t happen. Hoffman was nonetheless on my radar for the first time, and in short order the 1989 recording with Placido Domingo was the very first opera recording I ever owned. That disc featured people I’d never heard of before like Edita Gruberova and James Morris, and I played it over and over again.

Somebody who was in my freshman class was a soprano and cellist named Erin Wall. She was in 8am Music Theory with me the very first day of classes, we were in the same voice studio, and she was one of a group of Canadian students who were in Western’s music department for voice. She had a nice, full voice at a time when there were a lot of soubrettes hanging around; the last time I heard her during my time there was when she was one of the Flower Girls in The Marriage of Figaro in 1996, but after I dropped out I believe she got to do the title role in Susannah. Over the years I found out she was having quite the meteoric rise; she was a finalist for Canada in the Cardiff Singer of the World, she was part of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s young artist program, and then she started to get really busy.

A few months after leaving Western in ’97 I went to work for a Major Software Company and, shall we say, did a reasonable impersonation of a tester for a few years while trying to get to the next step as a singer. One of the things I tested had to do with web browsing, and one day I happened upon a student website for a soprano at Rice University named Anna Christy. There wasn’t anything particularly distinctive about the website, but I always remembered that I had hit it, particularly when I started seeing her name in Opera News a few years later as somebody who would be singing at Wolf Trap and so on.

Fall of 2003, after just starting at IU, I was flown back to Seattle to sing as the tenor soloist for a concert of Bach cantatas with the Seattle Symphony, John Harbison conducting. It was the biggest professional thing I ever got to do, and except for the check, it was a real waste for me and for the Seattle Symphony people. I was cast in a role at IU that I was removed from over this; the Seattle contract had been signed months ago, and I was to be gone the second to last week before opening. I didn’t even know I was up for anything in this particular show, and I explained my situation as soon as I found out I was cast. “Take it up with the stage director when staging rehearsals start,” I was told. Well, as soon as the stage manager said at the first staging rehearsal, “We’re not excusing anybody for any reason from any rehearsals,” I knew I had a problem, and sure enough, I was kicked out. (This was, of course, considered to be my fault from the standpoint of the opera administration, but never mind that now.) Not only that, but as soon as I got off the plane in Seattle, I came down with probably the worst sore throat I’ve ever had in my life, and my ability to phonate, still reasonable at the first rehearsal, was in tatters by the concerts. It was the first (well, only) time I’d ever been on a gig like this, I had no idea whom to talk to or what to do, and while I managed to sort of scrape by in the concerts — well, funny thing, the Seattle Symphony folks never called me again. (My voice teacher in Seattle, who had sent Seattle Symphony my way in the first place, said that from what he had heard it wasn’t exactly a “He’ll never sing in this town again” kind of thing, but that I was remembered as somebody who had problems, and he’d have to specifically arrange an audition for me down the road when the time came. Needless to say, the time never came, and thank God.)

Anyway, the bass in the solo quartet was one Christian Van Horn, who had just won the Met auditions. I doubt he would have any memory of who I am, and if he did remember me I doubt he’d remember me well, given the circumstances, but he was a tough guy to forget — physically and vocally imposing, to say the least.

My second year at IU, a mezzo-soprano named Jamie Barton started her Masters. She distinguished herself quickly in operas like La Cenerentola, but she was also a frequent guest at Chez Barrett, back in the day when I used to host large gatherings of IU voice people over nachos on a weekly basis. (Hey, that’s how I made friends when I first moved here — I fed people.) She won the Mets a few years ago, and since then, she’s been one popular mezzo.

So Chicago’s Hoffman featured James Morris (from that first recording) as the four villains, Erin Wall as Antonia, Anna Christy as Olympia, Christian Van Horn as Crespel, and Jamie Barton as Antonia’s Mother. (As well as Matthew Polenzani as Hoffman, whom I had last heard ten years ago in Seattle as Almaviva in Barber of Seville.) And with me in the audience — what an unlikely confluence of people and circumstances! If I took a time machine back to that first day of freshman year in September of 1994 and told the 19 year old Erin what would be happening in seventeen years, she’d laugh in my face, I’m sure. (The set looking like it was reproduced from a Chris Van Allsburg book was also pretty unlikely. Fascinating looking at times, but unlikely.)

The second unlikely thing to occur was a week ago today. I’ve written here and there about my lifelong fascination with Batman; well, as I had known for some time, Michael Uslan, the Executive Producer of the Batman films starting with the 1989 Tim Burton effort — and really the guy without whom a modern Batman on screen doesn’t happen — was an IU alumnus. He’s spoken on campus a few times since I’ve been here, but I’d never been able to go, so when I heard that there would be a screening of The Dark Knight in the new IU Cinema facility with Michael Uslan introducing the film, I made it a point to clear my calendar for the day and to order a copy of his memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batmanin time for the screening. As it happened, he gave a lecture in the afternoon in addition to the screening, and I was able to go to both. There is a brief account of the day here (hmmm — “RRB”, familiar initials, aren’t they?) so I’ll just say that the guy is one hell of an inspirational speaker, to say nothing of one hell of a self-promoter; he’s basically a comic book geek who has figured out how to make being so respectable, lucrative, and attractive. He was incredibly generous with his time at both the lecture and the screening; he kept answering questions until he was hooked off the stage, and during the book signing he talked to everybody.

So, chain of events — I find a book called Collecting Comic Books by Marcia Leiter at the Redmond Library in 1985, and my life is forever changed. Four years later on 23 June 1989, Batman introduces me to a way of thinking about movies that cares who’s in them, who directs them, who writes them, who designs the sets, who writes the music, and so on. I had been a Star Wars kid and then some, but I couldn’t have told you who George Lucas was. After the summer of 1989, though, damn skippy I cared who Tim Burton was and what else he had done and was going to do, who Danny Elfman was and what kind of music he did (followed by an obsession with Oingo Boingo for awhile), who Sam Hamm was and why it seemed he never wrote another movie anybody cared about, who Jon Peters was and why a former hairstylist was suddenly one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood, etc. At the very least, without Danny Elfman’s score, my interest in classical music probably doesn’t happen. (And then there’s something about a girl in high school that gets me starting to take voice lessons, but that’s somewhat beside the point at present.) Anyway, I then go to Indiana University in 2003 for music, which just happens to be Uslan’s beloved alma mater, leading to last week’s events. Again — how incredibly unlikely!

No historian will ever care about any of these things, I’m certain. If one were to ever to try to reconstruct these chains of events and concurrences of people and places and things, surely it would strain credibility. This doesn’t mean we have to interpret all of these things teleologically, necessarily, but it also means that just dismissing them is not really reflecting on how life works and how things play out.


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