Friday, March 31

The 5th Boston Turkish Film and Music Festival

Last night K, Joe and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts to see Istanbul Tales (Anlat Istanbul, 2005), which opened The 5th Boston Turkish Film and Music Festival. I likened the film to a Turkish Pulp Fiction, in which the world of organized crime and mob violence were prominent themes and in which seemingly disconnected stories were woven together. In telling the different stories, Anlat Istanbul, which was set amidst the backdrop of Istanbul, combines uniquely Turkish elements with elements and a narrative structure that were borrowed, at least in part, from well-known children’s fairytales. The film is not a retelling of these stories. Rather, each of the film’s five stories is a dark and shadowy reflection of the original tale it mirrors.

The film’s Snow White is the daughter of a mob kingpin who is gunned down by a close associate working at the behest of the mobster’s ruthless and conniving second wife, who then sets out to eliminate her step-daughter because she knows too much. In the story of an abused M to F transsexual prostitute who falls in love with a local shopkeeper, we see elements of the Cinderella story, including an aging and effeminate former drag queen as the fairy godmother. A Kurd from eastern Turkey looking for work in Istanbul stumbles upon a Sleeping Beauty in the form of the sister in a sibling pair who constitute the sole survivors of a once great Istanbul dynasty. Living alone in an aging mansion on the Bosphorus, the young and attractive woman, who we are led to believe is a schizophrenic, believes that the Kurd, who has broken into her home in search of food, is the ghost of her great-grandfather. In what is perhaps the most poignant of the five stories, a young woman is released from prison where she spent several years for smuggling after taking the fall for her gangster husband, who was using her as a mule. Once free, she nearly falls prey to a member of her husband’s thugs who offers to protect her, but is really out to insure that she doesn’t squeal. In the end, this Little Red Riding Hood leaves Istanbul behind and boards a plane for Germany, where she will join her parents.

The film begins and ends with the Pied Piper: a clarinet player who, after catching his young wife in bed with the handsome owner of a nearby photography store, takes to the streets with his clarinet and leads a group of misfits—all characters from the other stories—to a bridge crossing Istanbul’s Golden Horn (Halıç). In the closing sequence, the bridge itself is still under construction and, as a result, ends abruptly, its open end projecting outward over the body of water separating the two sides of Istanbul’s European shore. In this way, the bridge perhaps is meant to serve as a metaphor for life, which, for some of these characters at least, is a bridge that goes nowhere.

Tuesday, March 28

An Army of Lovers

How the ancient Greeks would cringe if they could hear the μαλακίες (nonsense) being spouted by the Greek armed forces, which recently issued a statement proclaiming gays unfit for military service. A presidential decree issued in 2002 excludes from military service all persons “suffering from psycho-sexual or sexual identity disorders,” a category that includes homosexuals. Tuesday’s statement came in response to a complaint filed against the Greek defense and transport ministries by EOK (Ελληνική Ομοφυλοφιλική Κοινότητα), Greece’s GLBT rights organization.

Such discrimination is appalling under any circumstances, but especially troubling in Greece, which is the last nation on earth that should have such a ban. It seems that Greece has truly rejected its classical past and the collective wisdom of the ancients, who understood that same-sex love and bravery in battle are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, the ancient Greeks had seen how love between men and military prowess reinforced one another. Simply put, to the ancient Greeks an army of lovers made the best fighters.

Nothing illustrates this belief on the part of the ancients better than Plato’s Symposium:

“And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonor, and emulating one another in honor; and when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world. For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger? The veriest coward would become an inspired hero, equal to the bravest, at such a time; Love would inspire him. That courage which, as Homer says, the god breathes into the souls of some heroes, Love of his own nature infuses into the lover.”

Similarly, Plutarch’s Life of Pelopidas, describes “The Sacred Band of Thebes,” an elite Greek battalion consisting of 150 pairs of lovers under the command of the Theban general Gorgidas:

“[T]he lovers, ashamed to be base in sight of their beloved, and the beloved before their lovers, willingly rush into danger for the relief of one another. Nor can that be wondered at since they have more regard for their absent lovers than for others present; as in the instance of the man who, when his enemy was going to kill him, earnestly requested him to run him through the breast, that his lover might not blush to see him wounded in the back. It is a tradition likewise that Iolaus, who assisted Hercules in his labors and fought at his side, was beloved of him; and Aristotle observes that, even in his time, lovers plighted their faith at Iolaus’s tomb. It is likely, therefore, that this band was called sacred on this account; as Plato calls a lover a divine friend. It is stated that it was never beaten till the battle at Chaeronea: and when Philip, after the fight, took a view of the slain, and came to the place where the three hundred that fought his phalanx lay dead together, he wondered, and understanding that it was the band of lovers, he shed tears and said, ‘Perish any man who suspects that these men either did or suffered anything that was base.’”

The Sacred Band was defeated in 338 BCE by Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great at the Battle of Chaeronea. When the rest of the Theban army retreated in the face of Philip’s superior forces, the Sacred Band held their ground and fought valiantly to the bitter end. Philip later dedicated a monument to the Sacred Band to honor their sacrifice and bravery in the face of death.

Sadly, today’s Greece and her army appear to have forgotten all about Plato’s words and the Sacred Band of Thebes. As a result, Greece’s policy barring gay men from serving in the military dishonors the memory of those who rank among her bravest and most noble forbears.

The image is of a Greek warrior arming (575 – 525 BCE, Black-Figure Hydria, Musée du Louvre, Paris).

Recommended Reading:
Gay Warriors: A Documentary History from the Ancient World to the Present, edited by R.R. Burg.

The Joys of Site Meter

I love it. Someone at the Massachusetts Republican State Committee was obviously doing an internet search for blog posts related to Kerry Healey and came upon my recent post entitled “A Glaring Omission,” in which I pointed out the inherent hypocrisy in her remarks about how the State Legislature has the “wrong priorities.”

I hope they forwarded it to her.

Monday, March 27

Random Stuff

My friend I sent me this. It’s childish, I know, but pretty fucking funny nonetheless.

On a completely unrelated note, I received a letter today from GAIAM, a company specializing in organic and eco-friendly products. The letter was to inform me that they no longer carry Seventh Generation Chlorine-Free Bleach. I had ordered a case from them a week or so ago. There was no explanation as to the reason why they have stopped carrying it. It was out-of-stock at a couple of other places too, so I’m wondering what’s up with this particular product.

Anyway, if anyone else is having a difficult time locating a source for chlorine-free bleach, I just ordered a case from Kokopelli’s Green Market in Vermont. It’s manufactured by a European company called Ecover. Sorry, Seventh Generation. I tried. Of course, I suppose I could have gone to Whole Foods or some such place, but I don’t know that they carry chlorine-free bleach, and in any event there isn’t a Whole Foods nearby—I live in a very unfashionable neighborhood. I’m sure I’m not the only person out there who doesn’t live near a Whole Foods, but who is interested in a more eco-friendly way to wash their their t-shirts, shorts, and peştemals.


You gotta love it. An SUV was swallowed by a sinkhole at the intersection of 73rd Street and 4th Avenue in Brooklyn this morning following a water main break. Fortunately, nobody was injured.

I don’t mean to be mean-spirited or anything, but c’mon, people! An SUV falling into a sinkhole!! How funny is that? It’s like the earth just said, “No more!” and opened up to swallow the thing whole. Fucking priceless.

Weekend Wrap-up

Had a wonderfully carefree weekend. Admittedly, it started rather late, seeing that I didn’t haul my ass out of bed until almost noon on Saturday. I had a really, really late night on Friday. Outiboy, Mike the drummer and I played at Café Apollonia. The place wasn’t packed, but there was a decent crowd for a Friday night, and we got many compliments on the music. Outiboy accidentally (!) left his guitar at home so he accompanied me on oud during my set. My parents came with a cousin of mine and his wife. After our gig, Mike joined us back at our place. He had stopped earlier that day at a wine and cheese shop near where he works and he graciously shared some of his purchases with us—a nice pinot and a lovely hunk of cheddar. I’m not much of a red wine drinker, so I had some pear brandy—four shots of it. My belly was full though, so I was nicely buzzed, but not sick like last weekend.

Once I was sufficiently awake on Saturday, I drove over to the halal butcher in Roslindale to order a spring lamb for Easter—a whole lamb, which I’ll roast in the yard on a spit, like the old-time Greeks used to do. I’m old fashioned, I know. I also picked up a couple of sandwiches at Fornax, which is arguably Boston’s best bakery.

On my way home, I stopped over at Serino’s to pick up a menu for next Saturday (Joe’s birthday). I used to order food for parties at a place called Mario’s (said to be Menino’s favorite restaurant), but they recently closed their doors, to the disappointment of many locals.

We ate our sandwiches quickly because we were supposed to meet K, M and F, and our housemate G at the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum at 3pm to see the “Gentile Bellini and the East” exhibit, which was in its final day after already being extended by a week. K joked that I would be spending Greek Independence Day by looking at art that was created to celebrate the life and accomplishments of Mehmet II (1432 – 1481), otherwise known as “Mehmet the Conqueror,” the Ottoman sultan who conquered the Greek city of Constantinople in 1453 and the rest of the Greek-speaking world (minus Crete and Cyprus, which remained in under Venetian rule for a while longer) within less than a decade. Anyway, I’m sure my lineage includes some Turkish ancestors.

The exhibit was impressive. I saw many great works of art, like Bellini’s Portrait of Mehmet II (1480, oil on canvas, The National Gallery, London) and Pisanello’s medallion of John VIII Paleologus (1390 – 1448), which I had previously seen only in books. There were also several beautiful Byzantine icons from Crete and some lovely Ottoman-style silver vessels that were produced for the European market. Gentile Bellini (1429 – 1507) was one of Venice’s most prestigious painters. In 1479, he was sent to the court of Sultan Mehmet II in Constantinople to serve as both an artist and also a kind of cultural ambassador. In this respect, Bellini was one of the first Orientalist artists.

His brother Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430 – 1516) was also a renowned artist in his own right, and personally I prefer his work. The Gardner Museum has in its possession Bellini’s portrait of Christ carrying his cross, arguably the most strikingly beautiful Christ ever painted. If Christ really looked like that, and he were to come to me in an apparition of some kind, I’d surely get an erection. I’ll be posting an image of it soon (Bellini’s Christ, not my erection).

Later on, Joe and I ended up at K’s place for tea. We chatted a bit about various things going on in our lives at the moment, and I thumbed through a coffee table book on Istanbul and the Orientalist tradition that K had purchased during her recent trip to Turkey. Soon we were off again, this time to a dance recital at the Riverside Theater Works in Hyde Park. A co-worker of mine was doing a short contemporary dance piece that he had choreographed himself. I don’t often see dance performances, so I find that I lack the vocabulary to describe what I’m seeing, but I’ll try.

The movements were both fluid and jarring. The mood of the piece was contemplative and tense. I found that it conveyed both distress and, towards the end, longing. Only the latter half was accompanied by music. Overall, it was quite beautiful. More beautiful was the young ballet dancer that performed as the sole male with several women in a piece choreographed to Mozart. A stunning lad he was: lean, pretty, and a head full of curly, auburn hair. He made me forget all about Bellini’s Jesus.

We left at intermission—it was getting late and we were all pretty hungry—and after some discussion, settled upon Meze in Charlestown. When we arrived, it was a total mob scene. It’s a big place too. They told us it would be a 30-minute wait, so Joe called over to Olives (right around the corner), and they said they could accommodate us right away, so off we went. I have to say, we had one of the best meals I think I have ever had at a restaurant. Joe and K had a grilled octopus-squid appetizer and pasta for their entrees. I had a beef carpaccio appetizer followed by rabbit saltimbocca, which everyone agreed, was almost better than sex. It was amazing. I was practically licking the plate clean. We split a tiramisu for dessert. They assemble it at the table, which was interesting. A fantastic meal overall.

We ended up and P and L’s at around 11:30pm for a nightcap. Joe and L had a smoke out on their balcony. We played with their adorable cat and took turns testing our blood pressure with a home-testing kit that L picked up some months ago. He and I had the highest blood pressure out of everyone—no surprise there—while Joe and P were at the lower end, with K in the middle. K told L that he should try yoga for relaxation and de-stressing. I’ve been meaning to try it myself.

We also talked about my blog for a bit and blogging in general. K, P and L are all semi-regular readers. K has her own blog, which I’m constantly on her case to update. I keep telling L to start his own, since he has many opinions about lots of things.

Sunday, March 26

Mr. Science

Last summer our friend K dug out an old super 8 movie camera to bring to the beach for a Labor Day outing at Plum Island with a bunch of our friends. I picked up a roll of super 8 film at Ferranti-Dege in Harvard Square. Super 8 film is not easy to find and it’s rather expensive! I was surprised, moreover, to learn that each roll is good for a mere 3 minutes of filming and I’d bought only one roll. It meant we had to be judicious in our cinematographic decisions. K, Joe and I took turns capturing the antics that day.

We agreed that we’d show the film this winter when we were all longing for the summer and beach weather. Finding someone to develop super 8 film is even harder than finding super 8 film in the first place, and it’s not cheap to develop. But K managed to find a place in New York (or was it LA?) and got the developed reel in the mail a couple of weeks ago. Now all we needed was a film projector.

K’s parents have two in their basement, neither of which work. I’ve been on Joe’s case for weeks to see if we have a projector in our basement, and it turns out that we have two from his dad’s house in Newark, but neither of them was in working condition. So between us there were four super 8 projectors, all broken.

That’s where Mr. Science comes in. I won’t go into the full details of how he got one of them working (mostly because I don’t understand what he did). I know that some of belts and plastic parts had deteriorated over time, so in MacGyver-like fashion, he jury-rigged a system using improvised parts, which included several rubber bands. Even then, he couldn’t get the spindles to turn in the same direction. One of them seemed to be stuck on rewind. After several hours, he finally managed to get it working properly. Fortunately, the bulb was still good, because that might be difficult to replace. The projector is easily thirty years old, if not older.

So it looks like we’re all set to screen “Plum Island Bingo” next Saturday night for Joe’s birthday. As a test run, Mr. Science and I watched several of the unlabeled reels that were in the same box as the projector. It turned out to be some footage of him as a wee lad. He hasn’t really changed much.

Saturday, March 25

Χαίρε, Ώ Χαίρε, Ελευθεριά

That’s “Freedom, I greet you,” the last line of the first verse of the Greek national anthem, penned by the great modern Greek poet Dionysios Solomos (1798-1857). Anyone who’s ever watched an Olympic opening ceremony has heard the Greek national anthem, though I suspect few would recognize it.

Σέ γνορίζω από τήν κόψη
του σπαθιού τήν τρομερή,

σέ γνορίζω από τήν όψη
πού μέ βία μετράει τή γή.

Απ’ τά κόκκαλα βγαλμένη
τών Ελλήνων τά ιερά,

καί σάν πρώτα ανδρειωμένη
χαίρε, ώ χαίρε, Ελευθεριά!

I know you by the fierce edge of your sword;
I know you by the look that measures the earth.

Freedom, who sprang forth from the sacred bones of the Greeks,
brave as in the past, I greet you, I greet you.

Who is this stranger, freedom, whom Solomos and the Greeks rushed to greet? Do I know her? Allow me to be a bit jaded this Greek Independence Day. Freedom is a word so overused by the Bush administration, that it scarcely retains any meaning at all. Does such a word mean anything in a culture that has distorted it to the point of rendering it virtually meaningless?

I guess what I’ll celebrate this Greek Independence Day is resistance. On March 25, 1821 a group of Greek cheiftains gathered in the Church of the Holy Flame at Kalavryta in the northern Peloponnese and took their sacred oath to sacrifice their lives for the sake of a free Greece, or so the legend goes. The struggle for liberation that began in 1821 eventually brought an end to Ottoman rule in the provinces of Attica, Roumeli, the Morea, and the Cycladic islands, and modern Greece was born.

The lesson for us is clear and perhaps one that has been obscured in our own 4th of July celebration, so familiar to us as it is and associated with barbecues and fireworks more than anything else. This is the lesson of March 25: No empire—or administration—however mighty, can hope to hold on to the reigns of power when the people’s hunger for freedom replaces their willingness to be governed by a corrupt and brutal regime.

The above painting, The Greek Singer (1893, oil on panel) by the Orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), shows a klepht (κλέφτης in Greek), which translates as “brigand.” During the 19th century, the klephts were roaving bands of Greek guerilla fighters who lived in the mountains and conducted raids on Ottoman caravans and garrisons. Living on the margins of society, these romantic outlaws were bound together not only by their desire to liberate Greece, but also by their intense loyalty to one another. Despite their fierceness in battle and untamed virility, these swashbucklers had a reputation for showing kindness to strangers and respecting the virtue of female prisoners. They were passionate men, whose love of feasting, drinking, singing, and dancing was as renowned as their strength and bravery. And, yes, they wore kilts.

Ζήτω η Ελλάς! Ζήτω η 25th Μαρτίου! Ζήτω η Ελευθεριά!

Friday, March 24

Ο Μυστικός Σποριάς

Villagers in Lympia are angry. They are angry that someone has desecrated the local cemetery by planting wheat at its edge. Lympia is located about 12 miles south of Nicosia in the Greek part of Cyprus. The wheat was planted about 50 meters away from the gravesites, which were not disturbed.

“He must be from around here, and we need to find him at all costs because it’s disrespectful to the dead,” declared Mihalakis Christodoulou, the head of the local council. “I personally will not let it drop,” he continued. “Sooner or later we’ll discover who he is.”

Personally, I don’t really understand why the locals are so upset. First of all, does planting wheat really constitute vandalism or desecration? Dare I say that Lympia’s mystery sower has created what could easily be considered public art? Moreover, I find the wheat to be wonderfully symbolic. It makes a powerful theological statement.

To early Christian communities, wheat symbolized resurrection. The author of the Gospel of John has Jesus saying,

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12:24).

Similarly, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul uses wheat to illustrate the resurrection body:

And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain (1 Corinthians 15:37).

Even if they’ve never read the Bible, the people of Lympia should be familiar with the use of wheat as a symbol of resurrection. For centuries, Greeks have prepared a dish called κόλυβα (kolyva), which consists of boiled wheat mixed with pomegranate seeds and is eaten after both a funeral and the 40-day memorial or μνημόσυνο (mnimosyno). Like the wheat, the pomegranate seeds serve as a culinary metaphor for the impotence of death in Greek cosmology by evoking the story of Persephone, who, even though she had eaten four of the seeds during her stay in the underworld after being abducted by Hades, was resurrected and returned to her grief-stricken mother, Demeter.

I think it would be nice if every cemetery were surrounded by a field of wheat.

The title of this post, Ο Μυστικός Σποριάς (O Mystikos Sporias) means “The Secret Sower,” though it is from the Greek word μυστικός meaning “secret” that the word “mystical” derives, so this post might also be called “The Mystical Sower.”

The image is Wheat Field Under Threatening Skies (1890, oil on canvas, Vincent van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) painted by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) the year he died.

Ducks love that dirty water.

I don’t always carry a digital camera with me. I had one today because I was scheduled to appeal a parking violation tomorrow morning at Boston City Hall and I needed to photograph the parking meter on Boylston Street where I was parked a couple of months ago when I received a ticket at 7:34pm even though you don’t have to feed the meters after 6:00pm, except that when I went to photograph the meters today, I discovered that the hours listed were 8:00am to 8:00pm, which means that either I misread the meter initially or they have since changed the meters, which is unlikely. For weeks I’ve been looking forward to going into my hearing and telling them all to kiss my ass for giving me a ticket an hour and a half past when the meters get turned off. Of course, I waited until the very last minute to photograph the meter. Anyway, tonight I mailed a check for $25 to the parking clerk.

So on my way back to work I passed through the public garden and saw that even they had drained the pond, there were still a bunch of ducks hanging in out in the muddy puddles, and I thought to myself, “Jeez, those ducks sure love that dirty water.”

Tuesday, March 21

Cameroon’s Witch Hunt

For those of us in the United States who (prior to Lawrence v. Texas) had for decades grown accustomed to living with existing sodomy laws that in many cases remained a dead letter, I think that witnessing the aggressive investigation and active prosecution of people suspected of being homosexuals in Cameroon leaves us unnerved, angry, and fearful. There is some consolation in the fact that the U.S. Department of State’s “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” issued on March 8 cited Cameroon’s “discrimination against homosexuals.” The report also briefly mentioned the recent assaults on transgender people by police in Nepal and the November arrest of more than two dozen allegedly homosexual men by police in the United Arab Emirates city of Abu Dhabi.

The arrest and torture of men suspected of having sex with one another in Cameroon and now the expulsion from colleges and universities of students (mostly women) believed to be gay should not come as a surprise to anyone, shocking though it may be. This is the logical product of the criminalization of same-sex intercourse and extreme intolerance on the part of the governing authorities. Even when such laws aren’t actively enforced, we know that criminalization leads to marginalization. Cameroon has made it clear that it intends to enforce its laws criminalizing homosexual behavior.

However, Cameroon has clearly gone beyond the merely passive enforcement of its laws. What we are witnessing in Cameroon, moreover, is on the same continuum, albeit in a different form, as the kinds of activities we have seen in the United States attempting to bar homosexuals from public life. Those who wish to render homosexuals invisible have many tools at their disposal, ranging from verbal assaults on the media for attempting to normalize and legitimize same-sex love to legislation preventing homosexuals from marrying, becoming adoptive parents, serving in the military, and teaching in public schools.

In some cases, the desire to eliminate homosexuals from public life merges with a desire to eliminate homosexuals altogether. In its more virulent forms, this desire can manifest itself as intimidation, physical attacks, imprisonment, and mass extermination. History has seen all of these at one time or another.

Up to now, Cameroon’s antigay crusade has occurred on a relatively small scale. However, in spite of the limited scope of the government’s program of arrest and intimidation thus far, it appears to have entered a new and more aggressive phase. I don’t know where Cameroon is headed, but I do know that one thing is certain: a society’s criminalization of homosexuality and rabid intolerance on the part of the governing authorities form a dangerous and often lethal combination.

Monday, March 20

Weekend Wrap-up

Note to self: When eating out, stop at one gin and tonic. It’s strange because the last time we threw a party at our place, I drank more than I ever have in my life I think and I felt fine. Loose, yes. Uninhibited, yes. Affectionate, yes. Sick, no. I don’t know what happened Saturday night, but I had a second gin and tonic, and it really did me in.

Joe and I went to dinner at Ruth’s Chris with P and L for L’s birthday. I don’t think I’d ever been inside Old City Hall before. It’s quite lovely. The meal was great, as one might expect. But I knew as soon as I took two sips of my second gin and tonic that I was in trouble. Actually, I was fine, albeit a bit goofy, through the rest of the dinner. Our plan post-dinner was to attend a party in Cambridge. As soon as I got in the car—no, I wasn’t driving—I began to feel ill.

I think the problem is that when I’m at a restaurant or bar—though I seldom find myself at a bar these days—I tend to drink my first cocktail rather quickly and move on to my second sans hiatus. This is probably not wise, especially on an empty stomach. On Saturday, my first drink was accompanied only by a bowl of lobster bisque, which I split with Joe. I’m sure there are some who will say it’s déclassé to split a bowl of soup at a fancy establishment, but I do not fall into that group.

Anyway, the point is that I had finished my first drink before my entrée had even arrived at the table. When I’m at a party, I tend to nurse my drinks because there are lots of people around, I move around a lot, I might put my drink down and go tend to something—this is especially true when I’m hosting. At a restaurant, sitting at a table, on the other hand, with the glass right in front of me, what else is there to do but drink it down? I guess I have a problem with self-restraint. L will love that one.

I recall that last week before our gig, I had a shot of vodka and a shot of plum brandy, but a) I had two helpings of a very hearty Indian meal beforehand and b) the shots were separated by more than an hour. The effect was that I was relaxed and loose, but not sick.

By the time we got to the party on Saturday, all I wanted to do was go to bed—and not in the good way. The result of my feeling so ill was that I ended up being very anti-social. It takes a real effort for me to mingle in a situation where I don’t know that many people. I’m painfully shy in most situations. I do much better in smaller, more intimate settings where I know people. In fact, in those settings, I’m not shy at all. I’m sure people who know me who might be reading this are saying, “Shy? Sandouri Dean Bey? Are you kidding?” Perhaps they’ve never seen me in a crowd, especially when that crowd consists of gay men I don’t know. I tend to become very intimidated and self-conscious (see number 32 on my list of 69 things about me) On Saturday, I knew very few of the guests. Add to that my very real fear that I might become physically ill, and the result was that I sat on the sofa without saying a word for the short duration of our stay. I felt like a real loser. The hosts are wonderful guys too, and they give nice parties.

Anyway, on Sunday our friend F brought over zeppole for la festa di San Giuseppe, or Saint Joseph’s Day. I always forget Joe’s nameday, but F always seems to remember. Zeppole are a wonderfully rich Italian cream-filled pastry and are the traditional confection associated with Saint Joseph’s Day. F bought them at Modern Pastry in the North End, rather than the more famous Mike’s, because, well, Modern is better and there are no tourists to deal with.

That afternoon, we went to see the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, which my cousin recently joined. I had never been inside the Cutler Majestic Theater at Emerson. The restoration is impressive. It reminded me that I still haven’t seen the Opera House since its restoration not too long ago. Anyway, the show was nice. Metamorphosis, which filled the second half of the performance, was impressive. I especially enjoyed the dance piece.

After dinner, Outiboy and I played some music together, just the two of us, which we haven’t done in a while. It was nice. We’re trying to do more sandouri-oud duets. In the past, I’ve always wanted Joe to accompany me on the guitar. No, I’m not a diva. But I am a bit of a purist, and the guitar is the traditional accompaniment for sandouri. Lately, we’ve begun to work on arrangements for sandouri-oud-percussion for our threesome—er, trio—with Mike the drummer. There are a couple of Arabic and Turkish classical pieces that we’ll do. I think I’ll want to move away from the folkier stuff for the oud-sandouri duets, because the more danceable the piece, the more I want guitar.

I also find that I’m having an easier time with taxim/improvisation these days. Don’t get me wrong. I still have a long way to go. But I feel as if I’ve crossed a threshold, reached a new place. I think it’s all about learning the vocabulary of taxim—that is, the makams, motifs and licks that form the basis of taxim. As I become more familiar with those elements, I find myself using them with greater ease and confidence.

Friday, March 17

Romney and Rome

Catholics and Mormons make strange bedfellows. Still, that hasn’t stopped our Mormon Governor from kissing the vestment-covered asses of Massachusetts’ Catholic bishops. He recently filed a bill in support of a religious freedom exemption for Catholic Charities that would allow them to deny adoptions to same-sex couples and next week he’ll travel to Rome for O’Malley’s elevation to cardinal. Gag.

I better get used to it, because with a presidential run on the horizon, we’re sure to see much more of this symbiosis between Romney and Rome. I myself am not sure that America’s Catholics (or its evangelicals for that matter) are quite ready for a Mormon president. Then again, “better a Mormon than a liberal” might just win the day. We’ll see.

In the meantime, Romney can cosy up to O’Malley, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and even the Vatican as much as he likes. At a Saint Patrick’s Day breakfast in New Hampshire, he boasted, “I don’t know that there’s ever been a Mormon guy that’s been to the Vatican for a Mass held by the Pope, so it’s a personal honor.”

Is that so, Mitt? Well, don’t let it go to your nicely coiffed head. Let’s not forget how, in a 2001 statement written by Ratzinger himself, the Vatican made its position on Romney’s religion quite clear:

on the validity of baptism conferred by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, called Mormons

Question: Whether the baptism conferred by the community The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, called Mormons in the vernacular, is valid.

Response: Negative

The Supreme Pontiff John Paul II, in the Audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect, approved the present Response, decided in the Sessione Ordinaria of this Congregation, and ordered it published.

From the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 5 June 2001.

+ Joseph Cardinal RATZINGER

+ Tarcisio BERTONE, S.D.B.
Archbishop emeritus of Vercelli

Yeah, that’s right, Mitt. Mormon baptisms are invalid. Know what that means? In Ratzinger and O’Malley’s eyes, you might as well be gay.

Makam Minutiae

I know that everybody hates these arcane discussions of Eastern music theory. I don’t know why I post them really. I think it’s because it helps me sort through my own difficulties with the theory behind the music I play. I’m not a trained musician. I’ve never studied Western music theory. I don’t read music. I’m a folk musician in the truest sense. I learn everything by ear.

However, theory is important even for folk musicians. In order to improvise—to play a taxim, in other words—one need have internalized the makams. This is especially true if one’s goal is to produce a taxim spontaneously, and there’s really no reason to play the sandouri if one can’t play a good taxim.

I was going to save this for a future Rembetiko of the Month, but with all this talk about taxim, I thought it would be helpful to include a sound clip, in case it’s not clear what I’m referring to. The song is Μεμέτης (Memetis) and was recorded by Dimitris Kallinikos (Arapakis) in Athens in 1931. It begins with a dazzling taxim by Yiannis Leivaditis on tsembalo (çimbalom), which is the larger version of the sandouri that was often featured in Rembetika. The makam, by the way, is Piraeotikos, which is like makam Hijaz, except that it has a raised fourth and a raised seventh. That raised fourth gives it a really bluesy sound.

Click here to listen.

Anyway, the point of this post was to talk about an argument I had with Outiboy the other night. It wasn’t really an argument; just a really intense discussion. Outiboy and I don’t fight all that much. We used to argue about what color to paint such and such a room or what to serve at dinner parties. Stupid, I know. I guess it’s not possible for a Greek and an Italian to have a normal conversation without raising their voices.

These days, what we argue about most frequently is makam (maqam in Arabic). The issue is this: Unlike the twelve-note Western tempered scale, makam is a system of music theory that includes microtones in the form of quarter and eighth tones in addition to the tones and semitones that make up the Western scale. Imagine, in other words, keys in between the black and white keys on a piano. They take some getting used to, but once your ear adjusts, a whole new world opens up.

The makam system consists of classical Arabic, Persian, and Turkish elements, some of which were borrowed from Byzantine music and possibly even ancient Greek music theory. It’s not the origins of makam that Outiboy and I argue about. The problem is that as Greek music became more and more westernized and began to accommodate certain instruments like the sandouri and accordion, which are not capable of producing microtones, the makams themselves were altered. For example, early versions of the bouzouki had movable frets that allowed Rembetiko musicians to produce microtones, but as the bouzouki evolved and Rembetiko became more Western-sounding, the frets became fixed, which meant that microtones were no longer possible.

In most cases, Greeks don’t play the true versions of the makams. We are playing slightly bastardized versions that leave out the microtones. What’s more, the Greeks screwed around with the names of the makams for reasons that are not always obvious. This makes for very animated discussions between Outiboy and me, especially when I argue that the Greek system of makam represents a perfectly valid and legitimate evolution of the makam system. Playing on the sandouri, I’m not really interested in the true makams (since I can’t play microtones), while Outiboy, because he plays the oud, is very interested in the true makams and has invested much time in understanding them.

I learned basic makam theory from my teachers in Greece. In most cases, I try to stick to the versions they taught me along with the names by which they referred to those versions. This often conflicts with what Outiboy has learned by studying classical makam theory.

Hence our argument the other night. He was teaching me a piece in Nihavent makam (nahawand in Arabic). I learned Nihavent this way:

Outiboy learned it this way:

The difference, if you’re not a musician (and you’ve even made it this far), is the seventh and whether or not it is raised. Outiboy says it is raised; I say it isn’t, because that’s how I learned it, though I have seen Greeks define Nihavent the way Outiboy learned it. There really is no consensus on this stuff. In reality, there are two versions of Nihavent: what Outiboy learned is called Nihavent-Hijaz, while what I learned is called Nihavent-Kurdi.

So I guess in a way we’re both correct.

File Lodge

Just wanted to announce that I’ve uploaded all the song files associated with previous posts (Rembetiko of the Month et al) to File Lodge. Sometimes, when you click on the link, it takes a while for the song to load. Also, they don’t always load perfectly on the first try. I’ve have to stop and restart a couple of times. Overall, they seem to work fine though.

Go ahead and listen.

Thursday, March 16

The Reason I Talk about Smyrna

You will notice to the right a new button with the message, “Help Now: Genocide in Sudan,” which links to I decided to put this button on my blog after listening to last night’s broadcast of On Point, which featured a discussion of the killing that is taking place in the Darfur region of Sudan, killing that has now spread into neighboring Chad.

If you’ve been to this blog before, you’ve probably noticed that I make frequent references to the atrocities that took place in the Near East at the end of the First World War. There is a reason I talk about the destruction of Smyrna in 1922, the mass killings that took place there, and the subsequent expulsion of 1.5 million Anatolian Greeks. It’s not simply that I’m Greek or because I play music from that part of the world.

The reason I talk about Smyrna is because it was a humanitarian catastrophe of staggering proportions that has been largely forgotten. Even as the horrific events of September 1922 unfolded, the United States and the other Great Powers sat idly by while tens of thousands of innocent civilians were slaughtered, raped, and forcibly expelled from their homes, just like what is happening in Darfur today. The United States could have intervened in 1922 and saved lives, but chose to look the other way, just like we are doing today in Darfur.

During last night’s On Point, the Darfur genocide was compared to the Armenian genocide, which was part of a decade-long orgy of killing that culminated in the burning of Smyrna. I have spoken face to face with survivors of the Armenian genocide. I have met survivors of the Holocaust. I can never forget their stories. That history would repeat itself is almost unimaginable. And yet history is repeating itself. Some 400,000 have been killed in Darfur. More than 1.5 million are living as refugees after being forced to flee from their villages. How is it possible that the global community still tolerates genocide? Have we learned nothing?

For more information on the genocide taking place in Darfur, please visit Human Rights Watch. To do something about it, please visit:

Darfur: A Genocide We Can Stop
Save Darfur
Stop Genocide Now

Wednesday, March 15

Technical Update

I know that some visitors to my blog have had problems listening to the music files I’ve uploaded to Putfile. I’ve been investigating other options, and for the time being, I’ve decided on Filelodge. In the next few days I’ll be re-uploading the song files associated with my previous Rembetiko of the Month posts, so if you’ve been just dying to listen, but have been thwarted by Putfile, stay tuned.

My Grandparents at the Baths

I talked to my parents on the phone this past Sunday. They wanted to know how Balkan Night had gone since they weren’t able to make it. An 11:30 pm set is a bit on the late side for them at their age. I mentioned to them that Joe and I are supposed to play a set at Café Apollonia in Roslindale on March 24 and suggested that they come, since the food is quite good. They said that they’d already been talking about coming to hear us play at Apollonia with my dad’s nephew and his wife, who were also interested in hearing us.

My mom reminded me that this cousin of mine and his wife are going to Greece with their son and daughter-in-law in a few weeks. They’re going on one of those Aegean cruises that all seem to follow more or less the same basic itinerary: Piraeus, Mykonos, Santorini, Crete, Rhodes, Kuşadası (Turkey), Patmos, and sometimes Istanbul. In their case, they are planning on going all the way to Istanbul. I’m not sure how much free time they’ll have there, but I told my mom that she should definitely encourage them to visit the hamam, since it really is an unforgettable experience. Actually, I referred to it as “the Turkish bath,” because I wasn’t sure she’d know what a hamam is.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned to my mother that Joe and I visited the hamams during our trips to Turkey. She never had much to say in response (perhaps the thought of us in the hamam made her uncomfortable), but when I brought up the hamam this time, almost immediately she said, “Oh, your grandparents raved about the Turkish baths.” I have to admit, this one threw me for a bit of a loop.

Back in their day there were several functioning hamams on their native Lesbos, but it’s doubtful that my grandparents ever had a chance to visit them. They certainly wouldn’t have gone together, because they didn’t know each other before coming to America (not to mention the fact that it would have been terribly improper). I’m certain, moreover, that they never visited Turkey. In fact, they took only one trip to Greece together, back in the summer of 1958 right after my mother finished high school. They wanted her to go with them. She refused, even though it would have afforded her an opportunity to see Greece for the first time.

The reason she refused is that she understood there was one reason and one reason only that they wanted to bring her along: so they could find her a husband. It’s not that my mother was unattractive. She had refused many dates in high school with boys who asked her out, not because she wasn’t interested, but because the boys weren’t Greek, and my grandparents had made it clear that she wasn’t allowed to date non-Greek boys. A Greek boy had asked her to her senior prom, but she didn’t like him so she declined his offer.

When my grandparents were getting ready to depart for Greece on the Queen Frederika (yes, they went by steamship), the entire family went aboard to see them off. My mother loves to tell the story of how the mayor of some town on Lesbos was traveling on the same ship, and he and my grandfather had arranged for my mother to meet the mayor’s son, who was also on board to see his parents off. My mother caught wind of the plan from one of her sisters who had tipped her off. My mother made herself scarce that afternoon. “Που επήγε η Μαριό?” (Where’s Mary?) her father kept asking. She just wandered around the deck, giving my grandfather the slip when he went looking for her.

My grandparents were beside themselves that their youngest daughter had gone off unaccompanied; but they were also irritated because they suspected that she was being deliberately evasive. When the announcement came for all non-passengers to disembark, my mother reemerged from her hiding place to say goodbye to her visibly frustrated parents. They could tell from her subtle smirk that she had bested them, thwarted their plan to fix her up. I suppose it was her way of getting back at them for making her refuse all those dates with non-Greek boys.

When my mother first recounted this story to me, I asked her why she risked upsetting her parents on the day of their departure, knowing that she wouldn’t see them for eight weeks. She never really gave me a straight answer. She said simply, “I didn’t want to get fixed up.” My mother was only eighteen at the time, but she could be very stubborn when she wanted to be. It would be another four decades before she finally made it to Greece.

My grandparents’ trip to Greece in 1958 was the first time they had gone back since coming to America before the First World War. I figured if they had visited a hamam as my mother said, it must have been during that trip, since it was the first and only time they visited Greece together. It turned out to be a trip that was frought with difficulty for them both. Some of my grandfather’s relatives proved less than hospitable. Worse still, my grandmother came down with dysentery and almost died, and they were forced to return to America ahead of schedule. Moreover, I imagine that seeing Lesbos for the first time in more than four decades must have been an emotional experience in its own right. Doubtless, it had undergone significant change since the Balkan Wars when it was wrested from Ottoman control and joined to Greece. It might have been traumatic for them to see the homeland that they had longed for all those years, only to barely recognize it when they finally returned.

I would like to think that my grandparents’ visit(s) to the hamam afforded them a relaxing respite from what was an emotionally and physically exhausting trip for them. I assume from my mother’s recollections that my grandparents had visited one (or more) of Lesbos’ thermal baths, the most famous of which are located at Polychnitos, at Eftalou, and at Thermi (which means “thermal bath”). Each of the natural hot springs is housed in an old Ottoman-era hamam. They are still operational and are a popular destination among those seeking relief from a variety of ailments. When I mentioned to my mother that I thought her parents must have been referring to the island’s hot springs, she recalled right away that they had spoken of the curative properties of the waters. My grandparents were already advanced in years in 1958, and the soothing mineral springs would have been wonderfully therapeutic for them both.

Whether or not visiting the thermal baths was a new experience for my grandparents, it clearly was a memorable one for them. It’s easy to lose oneself in the hamam. For them, it may have helped take their mind off the many ways in which their much anticipated trip to Greece had failed to meet what were probably their own very unrealistic expectations. And it may have made them forget, if only for a short while, about their stubborn daughter back home whom they still needed to marry off.

Click here to listen to the Θερμιότικο συρτό (Thermiotiko syrto or “Dance from Thermi”) recorded by the great Rembetiko violinist Ogdontakis (Yiannis Dragatsis) in the 1930s. This was a melody that my grandparents knew well, and they probably had this recording on 78 rpm.

The photograph is of my grandparents and six of their eight children (my mother, her four sisters, and their brother; their other two brothers are not shown) along with two of their grandsons. It was taken on the day my grandparents departed for Greece and it later appeared in Boston’s Greek-American newspaper under the caption, “Departing for Native Mytilene.” Mytilene is the more colloquial name for Lesbos. My mother is in the back row, second one from the left.

Tuesday, March 14

Billboard, Part Two

As promised…

Wouldn’t you just love it to be driving along only to look up and see this?

or, better yet, this?

Monday, March 13

Jamie Bell is So Cute

Tonight Joe and I watched The Chumscrubber (2005) with Jamie Bell (aka Billy Elliot), Ralph Fiennes, Rita Wilson, and Glenn Close. We hardly ever watch movies at home, especially during the week, but Joe’s been sick so we decided to take it easy tonight.

I absolutely adore independent films, and I highly recommend this one. It was a classic dark comedy. It parodied the human condition in a way that was both humorous and poignant. One of the film’s central ironies is misery amidst abundance. And in this film, nothing numbs misery like narcotics. The kids are all either high or medicated or both.

The setting for the film is the suburban sprawl of southern California. I wouldn’t want to reduce the film to a simplistic formula of McMansions and sprawl = insanity; rather, the film uses these things as powerful symbols for the emotional distance and isolation experienced by those living in a consumer culture.

It made me wonder whether it’s possible to raise a sane child in America. I hope Joe and I can figure out a way.

Look out, Madison Avenue!

My own take on the Exodus International billboard parody that has ricocheted its way through guyberspace recently. Justin Watt over at Justinsomnia offered the original brilliant jab at Exodus, and Jason at followed with his own humorous version of the billboard soon after.

I’ve got some others that I’ll be posting later too. And, yes, they are rather offensive and not terribly politically correct. But, O’Malley and Romney, you’ve got it coming to you.

Weekend Wrap-up

Aside from the fact that Joe has been suffering with a bad head cold, we didn’t have a bad weekend. The highlight was our band’s set at Balkan Night, the annual Balkan music and dance festival held in Concord, MA. For us, it was a debut of sorts. We’ve played Balkan Night twice before, but with a different group of musicians. As I mentioned in a previous post, we’ve had some turnover.

I couldn’t have asked for a better performance. It wasn’t perfect, mind you. I had my share of flubs. In an ensemble setting, however, they’re much less noticeable than when I play solo. We were scheduled to go on at 11:30 pm in the smaller upstairs “kefana” venue. Although there’s not as much room or fanfare as in the main hall downstairs, the upstairs venue is “unplugged,” which works much better for us. We’ve had problems with amplification in the past, especially at gigs like Balkan Night where there are numerous bands each playing 30-minute sets, and each band has only 5 minutes to set up and get sound-checked when it’s their turn to play.

We got there at about 9:30, which gave us plenty of time to chill out, retune, and rehearse a bit more. I myself was anxious to run through some things, because I felt that our pre-gig rehearsal at Mike’s place was a bit rocky. We did have a lovely dinner, however, that our accordion player’s wife prepared for us.

I said a few words to introduce the band and the musicians, which I haven’t always done in the past because of nerves. In my introduction, I forgot to mention that we like for people to get up and dance, which doesn’t always happen in the smaller upstairs venue. About 30 seconds into our first number, however, a group got up to dance a graceful syrtos to our rendition of Συλιβριανός (Sylivrianos), a tune named for the town of Silivri, which lies west of Istanbul on the Sea of Marmara and was once home to a large Greek community.

Almost immediately I could tell that we were going to have a good performance. For one thing, I was significantly less nervous than I normally am. I think there were two reasons for that. At Mike’s I had a shot of vodka after dinner. Once we arrived in Concord, the clarinet player’s wife had brought her own party in the form of some plum brandy, which she offered me in the basement where we were tuning up. I must say, the liquor helped immensely, you know, to take the edge off. Of course, the other reason I was more relaxed is because I felt much more confident based on our weekly rehearsals, something Skordalia hasn’t always been so good about doing. We’ve been rehearsing weekly with the new guys since January. It paid off.

Our set consisted primarily of instrumental dance tunes from Lesbos and Asia Minor. We also threw in two δημοτικά (dimotika), which are folk songs from mainland Greece. One of them was a tsamiko dance, which is a heavy and slow, yet graceful line dance in 6/8. The tsamiko we played was called Πουλάκι Ξένο (Poulaki Xeno, or “foreign bird”), which Joe transcribed from an old 78 rpm recorded by Yiorgos Papasideris (not the Olympic athlete) back in the 30s. Papasideris was known primarily as a singer of dimotika, but I recently learned that after the influx of Anatolian Greek refugees in the 1920s, he also began to record Smyrneïka. Πουλάκι Ξένο was done in the dimotika tradition. We played it as our fourth number, and one of the dancers had earlier requested a tsamiko, so it was great that we had included one in our set. By that time, the room was really packed, with some more dancers having come in after our first number. The enthusiasm and energy in the room was palpable. It’s exactly what we like to see and feel. It’s why we play music.

Three-quarters of the way through Πουλάκι Ξένο, I played what’s called a taxim (ταξίμι) on the sandouri. A taxim is a free-rhythm improvisation that comes either at the beginning of a song or during the melody itself, in which case it needs to fit the rhythm of the song. A taxim can explore a particular makam, or mode, or it can modulate between makams. In the case of Πουλάκι Ξένο, my taxim was in B Hijaz, which is what the song is in. Hijaz (shown here in D) is a major scale in which the first and second notes are separated by a half step, the second and third by a step-and-a-half, and the third and fourth by another half step. The very eastern sounding tetrachord (progression of four notes) that results is very common in Greek and Middle Eastern music. I also played a taxim during our second number, which was a syrtos dance from Asia Minor. My taxims are not improvised per se. That is, I work them out in advance. I am not nearly skilled enough as a musician, nor do I have a good enough knowledge of makam, to produce a spontaneous taxim on the spot. I’m working on that.

B, the clarinet player, also performed a taxim during our final number, a syrtos dance from Lesbos called Γεραγότικος (Geragotikos), also in Hijaz. He was worried that his taxim wouldn’t sound Greek enough, since he’s a klezmer clarinetist. During his wonderful taxim, at which point there were so many dancers that they were beginning to knock over our music stands as they circled by us, I shouted out “Γειά σου, κλεζμεράκι μου!” which loosely translated means, “Bravo, my little klezmer!” It’s very common for Greek musicians to shout things out to each other during taxim. As soon as I said it, one of the musicians, obviously a Greek, responded by shouting out “Γειά σου, σαντουριέρη!” which means “Bravo, sandouri-player!” I looked up, but the line had already swept past me, so I’m not sure who it was, but I was happy to hear it.

This was the first time in a while that I didn’t finish a set feeling like I wanted to kill myself. In the past, we’ve always received positive feedback, even when I felt like we sucked. This time around, we sounded much better to my ear than Skordalia has sounded in the past, which meant that the accolades we received on Saturday meant much more to me than in the past when I've felt we played poorly. I know that the regular rehearsals made a huge difference in both the overall quality of our playing and in our level of confidence as well. There’s nothing worse than going into a gig feeling under-rehearsed. A year ago I was talking to a band member from a group called Rakiya, and he told me that they rehearse every week. I decided then that a weekly rehearsal would be our goal.

We’re scheduled to meet this Wednesday. Joe and I are already beginning to plot out new songs for us to learn, new directions, new arrangements. I’ve got a great accordion-sandouri duet from old Stamboul that K and I will start working on. Meanwhile, Joe has been busy transcribing Τσακιτζής (çakici in Turkish), a Smyrneïc tune known in both Greek and Turkish circles. I also spent part of yesterday learning some new melodies that I hope to work on in with the ensemble in the not-too-distant future. I’m very excited about the direction we’re moving in as a band, and we couldn’t have found a nicer group of guys to be moving with.

Friday, March 10

Be Fair to the Poor and to Orphans

Under pressure from Massachusetts’ four Catholic bishops, Boston’s Catholic Charities announced today that it will eliminate its adoption program as of July 1 rather than comply with the state’s non-discrimination policy, which allows gay and lesbian families to adopt. The 42-member board had voted unanimously in December to continue considering gay households for adoptions. Eight members of Catholic Charities board have stepped down in protest of the bishop’s stance. Read the full story here.

Governor Romney, who backed the bishop’s request for an exemption from Massachusetts’ anti-discrimination law, had the following to say: “This is a sad day for neglected and abandoned children,” he declared in an address the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. “It’s a mistake for our laws to put the rights of adults over the needs of children. While I respect the board’s decision to stay true to their principles, I find the current state of the law deeply disturbing and a threat to religious freedom.” Romney is correct in one respect. It is a sad day for neglected and abandoned children. But he’s wrong to name the state’s anti-discrimination policy as the culprit. The real villain here, as usual, is bigotry.

The Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco is considering a similar move.

Martin Luther recognized half a millennium ago that the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t really read the Bible. That Massachusetts’ Catholic bishops would rather eliminate their adoption program than place children in stable loving homes with gay and lesbian families demonstrates with absolute clarity their ignorance of basic Biblical teachings.

Therefore, in the spirit of enlightenment, I would like to share with the Catholic bishops some key passages from the Bible that speak directly to their decision to discontinue their adoption program:

For the LORD your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe. He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
-Deuteronomy 10:17-19

Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow. And all the people shall say, “Amen.”
-Deuteronomy 27:19

Be fair to the poor and to orphans. Defend the helpless and everyone in need.
-Psalm 82:3

Learn to do good;
seek justice;
rebuke the ruthless;
defend the orphan;
plead for the widow.
-Isaiah 1:17

Their houses are full of deceit;
therefore they have become great and rich.
They are fat, they are sleek;
they also excel in deeds of wickedness;
they do not plead the cause of the orphan;
and they do not defend the rights of the poor.
-Jeremiah 5:28

Do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.
-Zechariah 7:10

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
-James 1:27

The images are from a 16th-century series of woodcuts called Passions of Christ and Antichrist, which juxtaposed Christ’s meekness with papal wealth and arrogance. The artist was Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553).

Migliore un frocio che una putana.

Alessandra Mussolini, Benito Mussolini’s homophobic neo-fascist granddaughter who once posed topless for Playboy, has been busy shooting off her mouth. Read the full story here.

On Thursday, in response to a transgender MP’s criticism of her fascist pedigree, Mussolini responded by saying “better a fascist than a faggot.”

Better a faggot than a whore, I always say.

If you need to tell people that you’re straight, you probably aren’t.

I found these on the website for the “Mr. Hetero” contest, which was held in Worcester back in February and drew protests from gay activists. I only recently learned of this absurd blend of evangelical Christianity and macho bullshit. Thanks to Proceed At Your Own Risk for bringing this tidbit of news from the nuthouse to our attention. Had I known about it in advance, I would have gone to Worcester to participate in the “Kiss-In” that was staged by a group reminiscent of Queer Nation. What fun!

What kind of mixed message are you sending by wearing a “100% Hetero” T-shirt in light pink?? Something tells me that if you need to wear a T-shirt proclaiming yourself to be “100% Hetero,” then you probably aren’t.

Oh, and for the truly insecure, they sell “100% Hetero” coffee mugs too.

Wednesday, March 8

A piano should fall on his head.

I think I’m going to start a new monthly series called the “A Piano Should Fall on His/Her Head Award.” This month’s prize goes to Don Dwyer, a Republican lawmaker from Maryland.

Just as there were calls by conservative loonies to remove Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Margaret Marshall and the three other “rogue judges” following their decision in November 2003 recognizing the right of same-sex couples to marry in Massachusetts, Dwyer has introduced a resolution to impeach Baltimore Circuit Judge M. Brooke Murdock for ruling in January that a Maryland law banning same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

Dwyer claims that Murdock should be removed on the basis of “misbehavior in office, willful neglect of duty, and incompetency.” Someone needs to explain to Dwyer that a judge is not incompetent or guilty of a crime just because s/he makes a ruling with which he disagrees. Not surprisingly, the Maryland Bar Association has made it clear that there is no basis for impeachment here. Of course, Dwyer already knows that. But like all homophobic bigots, he’s pulling out all the stops and using every slick maneuver in his nasty little bag of tricks in an attempt to impose his narrow-minded, mean-spirited, and hate-filled agenda on the people of Maryland. It’s a sickness really. It’s a sickness—a kind of mental illness, I think—that prevents people like Dwyer from being embarrassed by such shameless displays of bigotry.

As for wishing that a piano fall on someone’s head, blame it on all the Wile E. Coyote & Road Runner cartoons I watched when I was a kid. And they say cartoon violence is harmless.

Tuesday, March 7

Göz Lokum

Above is Academia del natural (1887, oil on linen, Valencia, Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia en su Historia) by Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863 – 1923), a Spanish painter often erroneously grouped with the Impressionists.

There is something undeniably erotic about this work. It’s not simply the leanness of the subject’s physique and the beauty of his exposed limbs. His passivity and his vulnerability are arousing. His posture suggests that he is bound, though there are no visible restraints. Is he a prisoner? Is he a slave? Has he been violated in some fashion? Is he awaiting some imminent dishonor? His semi-nude state adds to his vulnerability, the improvised nature of his garment suggesting that he has been stripped. His feet are dirty; yet he is otherwise unmarked, though there is what might be a bloodstain on his garment.

Perhaps what he has experienced then is not physical abuse, but disgrace of some kind. In 19th-century Spain, nothing would disgrace a man more than playing the passive role in a sexual encounter with another man. Being fucked, in other words. Is that what is being suggested here? That’s not to say that Sorolla was issuing any kind of moral judgment about homosexuality. Rather, he might have known that portraying a semi-nude male in such an abject position would evoke a tabooed homoeroticism and a forbidden act. Whether or not this was the artist’s intention is irrelevant in the end. The powerful image of shame combined with the subject’s lack of clothing easily ushers the viewer into the realm of the sexual.

Perhaps the painting is meant to inspire pity. I find that it also inspires desire. I wonder if Sorolla was cognizant of this possibility. This does not seem to be fundamentally different than asking whether or not those who painted Saint Sebastian or the Sacrifice of Isaac were aware of the erotic quality of their works. Perhaps the potent eroticism of those works is more acceptable because, for the most part, the subjects appear to be passionless—to a great extent, they transcend the suffering that is being portrayed. The figure in Academia del natural, on the other hand, conveys not passionlessness, but great pathos. Although his face is largely hidden from view, the subject appears very much present in his vulnerability. Perhaps it is his slumped shoulders or his downcast look. Whatever it is, his is an uneasy eroticism.

To me, this work seems to be more than a mere figure study. At the very least, for a figure study, it possesses an element bordering on the fetishistic and kinky. The combination of all of the features working together—his youthful beauty, his posture, his garment, his vulnerability—all hint at the possibility of the subject’s status as a sexual object. While all nudes, to some extent, turn the viewer into a voyeur, Academia del natural, despite the fact that its subject is not nude, goes further by suggesting taboos and possible exploitation, which leave the viewer feeling guilty and uncomfortable, yet unmistakably titillated.

Keeping Me Waiting

I don’t know why, but one of my most salient memories of Tim’s Tavern on Columbus Avenue in the South End is sitting in front of a plate of tender ribs and piping hot fries, waiting for the ketchup to come out of the bottle. Maybe that’s because their steak fries were some of the best anywhere. Lord knows, their ribs were to die for. At least once a month, Joe and I would meet P and L and other friends of ours at Tim’s on a Friday night after a long week and begin the weekend with ribs and margaritas.

I’m reminded of Carly Simon’s Anticipation. It seems like forever that Tim’s has been closed. It was over a year ago that the kitchen was shut down in response to some violations. The kitchen was subsequently renovated, but inspectors ordered additional changes. Now an issue has emerged around what is apparently non-payment of rent, and on Tuesday the whole place was locked up until further notice. Perhaps I’m being cynical, but I can’t help but think that something else is going on here.

Tim’s was a dive; there’s no getting around that. But that’s what made it so cool. It was a vestige—one of only a handful—of the old South End. The pre-gentrified South End. The South End before it was shi-shi. Throw great food into its warm, relaxed, and unpretentious atmosphere, and you’ve got a recipe for a fabulously fun Friday night. The place just beckoned you to unwind. And unwind we did.

It’s not clear when, or even if, it will reopen. I’ll take some solace from the fact that back in 1994, the current iteration of Tim’s was born out of an earlier crisis involving an outstanding tax bill of a quarter of a million dollars. I know that many long-time residents of the South End are with me in hoping that the current issues can be resolved quickly so that Tim’s can once again open its doors to the wonderfully diverse clientele that was, perhaps even more than its ribs and margaritas, its most distinctive feature and the true hallmark of its existence. Until then, I’ll echo Carly Simon:

And tomorrow we might not be together;
I’m no prophet, I don’t know natures way;
So I’ll try to see into your eyes right now
And stay right here, ‘cause these are the good old days.

Monday, March 6

Aman Yala

Less than a week to go until Balkan Night. I’m a bit nervous because it will be the debut of our new and improved ensemble. We’ve had a bit of turnover in the last year. Three of the five members of our band are new: Mike the drummer, B the clarinet player, and K the accordion player. We haven’t had as much time to learn the music as I would have liked, and I think we’re still a tiny bit green. Overall, however, we’ve managed to create a pretty authentic sound. Authentic in this case means an ouzo-soaked bash a lá Lesbos. Νά ζήσει η Μυτιλήνη μάς!

The only problem is that because of geography, we weren’t able to rehearse with our guitarist (my cousin), so he won’t be sitting in with us for this gig. As a result, Joe will be playing guitar instead of oud, which isn’t as much fun for him. We’re kind of desperate to find a guitarist who lives close enough to rehearse weekly. So if anyone reading this blog is interested in playing guitar for a Greek folk ensemble and lives in the Boston area, or knows of some such person, please let me know.

Ελάτε νά χορέψετε!

Weekend Wrap-up

Not a bad weekend, though Joe had to work part of Sunday. We went to see Good Night, and Good Luck on Friday after work with our friends M, L, and I. We had dinner at Atasca, which was nice, though a bit heavy. Joe had the bacalhau, which I thought was a bit rubbery. However, their chouriço pâté was yummy.

I had my heart set on seeing Garçon Stupide, which had been playing at the Kendall the week before for what was apparently a one-week engagement. I’ve added it to my Netflix list, though it’s not currently available on DVD.

Then I thought we’d go see Transamerica, but I was outvoted, which was fine, because I really wanted to see Good Night, and Good Luck as well. It was OK. I don’t know that I was overly impressed. I think that George Clooney was much better in Syriana, and I’m glad he took home the Oscar for his supporting role.

What else… On Saturday we rehearsed a bit with Mike the drummer. Later, we went to the screening of a short film called Bachelors Cottage with our friends J and G at Harvard. Afterwards, we trekked up Mass Ave hoping to find a spot on the bar side of Chez Henri, because J said they make the best cubanos around. Naturally, they were jam packed, so we went around the corner to the West Side Lounge. M (the director) and I had cosmopolitans. G had a ginger martini. Joe and J had two mojitos apiece. Joe and I split a burger.

I made Joe and me a nice brunch yesterday. Joe worked a bit, and I caught up on some laundry and other tasks. Towards dusk we took a nice walk through the Blue Hills Reservation. It’s quite vast and really beautiful. During our walk I asked Joe if he thought trees have consciousness. He said that he hoped they didn’t.

Sunday, March 5

Neva on a Sunday…

OK, I’ll try to explain this the way Outiboy explained it to me. In Arabic music theory, the note G is called Nawa. Except Nawa denotes less a note, than an open string on the oud. And because the Ottoman Turks tuned the oud a whole step higher than the Arabs, the open string referred to as Nawa, when plucked on a Turkish tuned oud, would have produced not G, but A. And Nawa is pronounced Neva in Turkish.

So in classical Turkish theory, Neva is the name for A. Now here is where it gets really whack. When the Ottoman Turks adopted Western musical notation, for some reason, they wrote everything a fourth higher than it really is. In other words, a song that is in the key of A is written as if it were in D. Thus, the Ottomans used a modified form of Western notation in which the notes on the staff refer not to their Western equivalents, but to a fourth lower. What we would recognize as D, they saw as A. It’s that simple.

So when Abadzi recorded Gazeli Neva Sabah, she sang in the key of D (actually D#) because it was often the key in which she sang αμανέδες. However, whoever was responsible for deciding on the label for the actual record made an error. He (or she) had most likely seen a musical score written in the key of A referred to as Neva in the title of the song. But remember, in Ottomanized Western notation, A written out looks like D. It’s not difficult to see how a Greek familiar with Western notation (but not Ottomanized Western notation) would mistake A for D (because, after all, it looks like D) and therefore assume (erroneously) that Neva refers to the key of D, because that’s what it would be if it were truly Western notation. But it’s not.

Friday, March 3

Rembetiko of the Month

Not much is known about Rita Abadzi. Originally named Iríni, she was born in Smyrna in 1903 and entered Greece as a refugee with her mother and sister after the Asia Minor catastrophe of 1922. Her father was among the thousands of missing men who had been routinely separated from the women and children before their expulsion from Asia Minor. He was either killed or sent to work in a labor battalion somewhere in the Anatolian interior, and there is no evidence that he was later reunited with his family.

When Abadzi began recording Rembetika in the 1930s, the tragedies she had experienced as a young girl and her experience as a refugee no doubt remained with her. Indeed, they can be heard and felt in her voice, particularly in the many haunting αμανέδες for which she became famous. Abadzi’s voice has been described as earthy. Indeed it is richly textured with an abundance of soul. Her voice is also considerably bluesier than the more dulcet voice of her chief rival, Roza Eskenazi.

Gazeli Neva Sabah is an example of one of Abadzi’s more chilling αμανέδες. An αμανές (pronounced “a-man-ESS”) is a vocal improvisation built around the word “aman,” which is used in both Greece and throughout the Middle East as an expression of despair and frustration and is roughly the equivalent of “alas,” though when paired with “yala” (i.e. “aman yala”), it is meant to convey a feeling of passionate exuberance.

Click here to listen.

The αμανές is typically set within a particular makam (or mode), and in this case the makam, as the name of the song suggests, is “Neva Sabah,” with Neva erroneously denoting the key of D (in which the song is set), because in reality Neva is the name for A, and, moreover, the song actually seems to be in D#.

Sabah is a strange mode. Because it has a lowered 4th, both the major 3rd and the minor 3rd are present. The resulting step-and-a-half interval between the 4th and the 5th combined with the chromatic run between the 2nd and the 4th are what gives Sabah its distinctive melancholy sound. Moreover, the lowered 8th creates an interesting tension, as though the makam is straining for a height that it can never quite reach.

Gazeli Neva Sabah was recorded in Athens in 1934. Abadzi is accompanied by Lambros Savaïdis on kanun and Dimitris Semsis (Salonikios) on violin. Its lyrics are among the most sobering of any αμανές ever recorded:

Πρέπει νά σκέφτεται κανείς την ώρα του θανάτου
ότι θα μπεί στη μαύρη γής καί σβήνει τ’όνομά του.

A person must give some thought to the hour of his death;
when he will go down into the black earth
and his name will be erased.

The concept of the μαύρη γής (MA-vri yis), or black earth, is an ancient one for the Greeks, stretching back millennia. Homer uses it, albeit in its archaic form of γαΐα μέλαινα (along with its Ionic variant, κελαινή χθών), no fewer than five times in the Iliad. In Book II, he describes the death of a captain called Protesilaus by writing:

τότε δ’ ήδη έχεν κάτα γαΐα μέλαινα.

‘ere now the black earth held him fast.

In modern Greek literature and music, μαύρη γής represents not only death, but also exile in a foreign land, such as the kind experienced by Abadzi and her family. In the case of Gazeli Neva Sabah, μαύρη γής alludes literally to physical death itself and also figuratively to the death of Greek culture in Asia Minor following the catastrophe of 1922 and the expulsion of the Greek population. Three-thousand years of Hellenism was snuffed out virtually overnight and, as the song says, σβήνει το όνομά του—its name erased.

Wednesday, March 1

Έλα, βρέ Μάρτη!

I don’t like Tsarouchis’ personification of March as much as I liked his February. And so far, I don’t like March as much as I liked February. It’s cold out there! I’m hoping that we have some of that mild winter weather that February brought us (a couple of weeks ago anyway).

In spite of the chill, I took a nice brisk walk through the Common and Public Garden today at lunch and decided to take a brief stroll up Newbury, which I never do. I stumbled upon Timeless Teas, which is my new favorite store. What a wonderful selection of teas! Downstairs, L’Aroma Café will brew you up a cup to go, so I ordered a nice peach-apricot tea for the walk back to work.

Deal or No Deal?

I don’t envy the Republicans right now. They don’t know whether to distance themselves from or rally behind the hard line stance Bush has taken in defense of the Dubai ports deal. Congressional Democrats have challenged the wisdom of the deal, which would place operations at six major United States ports in the hands of Dubai Ports World, a state-controlled United Arab Emirates company. While most Americans seem to oppose the deal, trying to invalidate it—which Dubai Ports World says is impossible—might anger moderate Muslims and alienate our allies in the War on Terror. The complexity of this dilemma has caused a little waffling among the Republicans. They have had a hard time deciding, as NBC’s new gameshow puts it, “Deal or No Deal?

It’s not an easy question. I have my own reservations about the whole thing. After all, way back in 2002, Al Qaeda sent a message to the leaders of the United Arab Emirates warning that Al Qaeda operatives had already infiltrated their government:
“You are well aware that we have infiltrated your security, censorship, and monetary agencies along with other agencies that should not be mentioned.”

The message, known to U.S. Intelligence as AFGP-2002-603856, should have caused the Dubai ports deal to raise a red flag or two. I guess nobody in the Bush administration ever caught that one. However, the possibility of infiltration by Al Qaeda is a very real one. Dubai Ports World is not a private company after all. It is a state-owned operation. Besides, how comfortable are we with six of our major ports in the hands of a government that recognized the Taliban, but boycotts Israel?

I understand, of course, that my own more cerebral concerns over the deal might not be the same as the average American’s more visceral, knee-jerk reaction, which betrays a tinge of racism. Arabs running our ports? Are you kidding? As it stands, a new survey shows that 7 out of 10 Americans oppose the deal. And recent polls put Bush’s approval rating at an abysmal 34 percent.

Ultimately, this is a political battle that will be won or lost in the minds of the average American. Moreover, at least as far as the Republicans’ prospects this fall or in 2008 are concerned, it doesn’t really matter whether or not the deal poses an actual risk to our national security. Perception is everything here. The average American clearly perceives a threat, and congressional Democrats are actively encouraging this perception. I myself honestly don’t know if the deal poses a threat to our national security or not. It might. However, if it’s one thing the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq has hammered into the head of the average American, it’s that might is as good as is.

So what happens if and when the Republicans are perceived to have lost their edge when it comes to winning the War on Terror? I suppose the only thing they’ll have left to play is the “defense of marriage” card. However, while many pundits were saying after the 2004 election that it was initiatives banning gay marriage that mobilized conservative voters and brought them to the polls in a handful of swing states, others challenged the importance of traditional morality in the 2004 election and the myth of the so-called “values voter” and the role he/she played in propelling Bush to victory. They claim that ultimately it was the War on Terror, and not the Culture Wars, that mattered most to the average American voter during the last presidential election, and it seems to me that the exit polls bore this out.

In the minds of average Americans, once the Republicans appear to have gone soft on terror, even the defense of marriage begins to lose its potency. And once that happens, the Republicans have an image problem that not even Karl Rove can fix.
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