Saturday, November 17, 2007

No Privacy Zone

The fight over exactly how to regulate an out of control technology is only going to get uglier, if this report I found on Drudge is any indication.

The tragedy, of course, is that this sort of thing was so very preventable. A young 13 year old girl makes a virtual "friend" and develops an emotional relationship. A month later she is told that this virtual friend wants nothing to do with her, and is accused of being (among other things) fat, a slut, and finally a bad person that the world would be better off without. This last message has not been retrieved by police.

Worse yet, "Josh" was created by a woman who lived down the street and was typed by the woman, her daughter, and "another person." The woman wanted to "gain Megan's confidence" to see what, exactly, Megan was saying about her own child.

Thus the internet becomes less a social networking device, and more a legalized form of psychological warfare that, in this case, utterly destroyed the targeted family. The girl is now dead, and her parents have separated. Legal actions are threatened and the community is moving to institute child endangerment and harrassment protection for internet related problems.

As a long-time user of the internet and its wealth of knowledge and information, I have seen both sides of the "social networking" aspects of this extremely public arena. Mrs. Woody and I found each other online after separating from my first wife, but that's not the whole story. Mrs. Woody and I had known each other as teenagers (waaaaay before the internet was even a twinkle in Al Gore's eye). We had gone our separate ways since graduation, and it certainly wasn't the internet that convinced me that Mrs. Woody was the only woman for me. I knew who she was as a teenager, and she had always been someone I would have considered for eternal companionship even in my addled teenage years. No, in this case the internet merely expedited something that might have happened anyway.

But the internet definitely helped dissolve my first marriage. My ex and I discovered the addictive nature of "social networking" and the problems it can cause. Granted it was only one aspect of our divorce, but a significant one. The dark side of the internet.

Since Mrs. Woody and I have both had online experience and seen the seamier effects of this technology in the lives of others, we have declared the internet a "No Privacy Zone" in our home. In other words, for as long as the girls are living in this house, and young enough to be considered under our "control," (a term any parent knows to be ephemeral at best) they will not have the luxury of having entirely private relationships on the internet. Even the ones they do develop will be subject to the same rules of safety and etiquette that we would expect from any relationships they may form in the physical world. In other words, if any friendship — real or virtual — leads to any clandestine behaviors, there will be consequences.

Being homeschoolers, we have a couple of advantages. Firstly, we know what our kids are up to at school. There is no guess-work involved; the girls have wonderful friends through Church and our homeschool group, and we know the families of these friends. When they get together with these friends, we have confidence that they are reasonably safe. We give them more leeway as they prove their trustworthiness, and reel them back in whenever trust becomes an issue.

The second advantage is our ability to detect changes in personality. When Jelly started becoming just a bit moodier, we were able to determine that she's beginning to feel the effects of those wonderful hormones that all kids will experience. Since her life is an open book to us, we were able to see that change and determine how best to deal with it. (Mostly I sit on my bed in a fetal position and whimper a lot. Mrs. Woody handles it better.)

The hardest part of Megan's story is that her Mom and Dad were actually aware of this virtual friend. They had even counselled her on some of the meaner things that were said. Megan, however, appears to have had some emotional issues, and a depressed person can easily make the jump from reasonable to extreme with only minor provocations. Her access to the virtual world needed more controls, although it is easy to second-guess someone else's decisions.

I am not one to try to find a legal solution for every problem. Especially when, as a parent, I have the ability to shape and mold my children. This is not the responsibility of the world or even my local community. That responsibility is solely my own and Mrs. Woody's. We cannot and do not abdicate that responsibility to anyone else. Not the church. Not a public school. They can assist me, but it is not their responsibility. I don't let my girls do things just because "everyone else is doing it." If millions of kids are into social networking without parental control, that becomes the poorest of reasons to let my children do it.

Criminal, one might say.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

"Leonard Bernstein Conducts 'West Side Story'"

This is an album I really, really want to like. I always have high expectations when composers conduct their own work. Copland conducts anything by Copland is always a winner. I enjoy understanding how the composer feels about a piece, especially if I have favorite recordings by other conductors, or have perhaps performed the piece myself. I always wonder how something like "A German Requiem" would have sounded on a recording by Brahms himself. So when Leonard Bernstein finally decided to conduct more than just an excerpt or two from his monumental "West Side Story" score, I was thrilled.

With all due respect to the gracious lady who posted a review in Amazon, I have serious problems with this recording.

Not orchestrally, of course. Bernstein's interpretation of his own score is nothing short of brilliant, and he brings the full weight of the score to bear in this recording. I bought the cassette version when it came out twenty years ago, and the only technical flaw it had was some uneven mixing that meant a goodly portion of the "Rumble" section sounded like it was being fought behind closed doors. Otherwise, Bernstein does his usual sterling job of putting his studio musicians through their paces.

The serious problems I have with the recording are the voices Bernstein employed to portray the principles. Understanding the long-standing relationships Bernstein had formed over the years with many vocal luminaries, it wasn't terribly surprising that he would pick A-listers like José Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa to portray Tony and Maria. Riff is voiced by Kurt Ollman, an able baritone with a rich voice but completely wooden acting skills in the incidental dialogues. The only vocal bright spots on this recording are the other Jets, and Anita. Anita is voiced by Metropolitan Opera mezzo Tatiana Troyanos. Troyanos tragically died of liver cancer several years after this recording, but she gives Anita the full passion and fire that the role requires.

Please understand that this says nothing against the performers themselves. This is a critique of the decision to use these particular voices in a recording that deals with street-tough kids in 50's New York. Try as he might, Ollman just can't do the tough routine well enough to bring Riff to life. Te Kanawa, with her full-throated mezzo, can't keep it light enough to give the mind the impression of a young 16 or 17 year old Puerto Rican girl who finds her first real love. Carreras, a wonderful lyric tenor, is out of his element as tough-kid-with-good-heart Tony. He does a pretty admirable job of applying American diction to the role, but the jazzier syncopations of "Who Knows?," for example, elude him. There's no denying the power of his upper register in the duets with Te Kanawa, but the effect is one of an operatic reading of what is essentially a gritty stage musical.

(There is a video of the making of this recording. It aired, I think, on PBS. Probably during pledge drives. In it, you can see the trouble that Carreras had with the timing of the music. I had similar experiences trying to teach a young Tony we were working with in a church production that I had the privilege of conducting. Bernstein's music is tough on the inexperienced. One thing stands out in my memory, though. Bernstein himself had the principles over to his apartment to discuss the project, and he made a statement to the effect that after more than thirty years, the music was "still fresh." Granted, this was the composer saying this, but he himself hadn't really looked at the music since the show ran on stage. He was right, too. Musically, "West Side Story" is still just as fresh and powerful as it was back in the day.)

There are likeable things about this effort. "Officer Krupke" is solid, primarily because he used theatrical voices for the Jets. Troyanos worked as Anita because she was able to use her skills successfully and abandon the somewhat stiffer rules of operatic singing to give Anita her passion. "America" has Troyanos at her best, with a good backup crew of young theatrical voices assisting. In spite of my misgivings about their casting, Carreras and Te Kanawa do a beautiful job in the pivotal "One Heart, One Hand" duet. It's not good theater, but it's beautiful to hear.

All of this carping is probably because I'm a theater guy. I know (and respect) the differences between opera and musicals. I did a turn as Papageno in a junior college production of "The Magic Flute," and I probably did no real justice to that baritone role; I'm a second tenor, not a baritone ("Dammit, Jim!"), and probably wouldn't have captured the role at all if not for my comic instincts. I can say with a total lack of modesty that I shine in musical comedies. That's where I belong. I would never lend my voice to a recording of, say, Die Fledermaus, because I don't have the chops for it.

It's the same when performing in a foreign language. Listening to Carreras' American diction is probably what Europeans experience when Americans talk or sing in French or Italian. We can do a credible job, but it probably sounds just a little funny to them. That's more forgiveable in opera, where technique and timbre are king. If you have a solid high "C," then you're the bomb. Pretenders are roundly booed out of the theater.

I guess this was really a case of reality not meeting expectation. With all the talented Broadway voices in New York, I can't imagine that Lenny couldn't have found just the right mix of characterizations for this historical recording. Perhaps that was the point, after all. Perhaps he really just wanted to have a recording of his own music with voices that he knew and loved. If that's the case, then he certainly accomplished that.

I want to enjoy this recording, but it's not good theater.

Monday, November 05, 2007

News That Won't Affect This Family

Hollywood writers have gone on strike. Shows that rely on topical writing to handle current events are shuttering up for the duration and going into reruns.

This, to me, is a little like Pakistan using lawyers for aggression training. Whom do I support?

I'm not a huge fan of strikes. I'll grant that they may be necessary on occasion, but both sides always come off sounding like whiney, petulant kids who can't ever discuss their disagreements in any sort of rational way. As an observer of union/management negotiations over the years, I can tell you that both sides always — repeat: always — come to the table with huge chips on their shoulders. They're really just begging the other guy to knock that chip off so they can run to the media and cry foul. This always ratchets the rhetoric up another notch, and the "S" word begins to surface almost immediately.

If political campaigns are guilty of mud-slinging, contract negotiations look like Normandy on June 7.

For the most part, I usually can take one side or the other in a contract dispute. If a union is getting hammered with layoffs, oppressive cost increases in benefits, or lousy working conditions, then more power to 'em. If the union is just being a strike-happy pool of pond scum, then all power to the CEO, dude.

But this is Hollywood. Writers are striking so they can get bigger cuts of increasingly obscene profits from an industry that has shown itself capable of single-handedly ripping apart the moral fabric of the nation. So, I repeat: whom do I support?

Reruns aren't likely to hold viewers' attentions for very long. Even my vaunted CSI-type programs get old if I've seen them once too often. I never watch late-night programming anymore; I grew up several years ago and I can live quite nicely without, thank you. Daytime programming has always been a mockery of American intelligence. Unless you belong to the "I Heart Oprah" club, you're looking for reruns on TVLand if you're tuning in before 5:00 in the afternoon.

So what's a poor, average schlub like me to do in response to this slap in my consumer face? Turn off the TV in protest, probably.

I wonder who these people in my house are?