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Seattle Ringer
Fourth of a completely inconsequential six-part series about my trip to Seattle this past August to see Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" performed by Seattle Opera.

(Dec. 30, 2009)

          The morning before “Siegfried,” the third of the Ring Operas, we went out to do tai-chi under the Space Needle. Might it prove some lightning rod for karma? A mysterious locus of chi that we might incorporate into our tai-chi set?
          Eyeing the Needle, we picked a spot in a lush, pastoral corner of the grounds below, surrounded on three sides by hedges of unknown flowers and fat, waxy, dark green leaves. The grass was a deep, soft cushion into which our feet sunk half out of sight. The air was cool, the sky genial, the sun spoke in sane sentences. Unlike L.A., where it shrieks and drools and demands your Social Security number.
          I really needed this. Aside from an ongoing case of losangelitis neuroticus, I hadn’t slept much the night before. Too much acid. As in GERD, not LSD. The sulphuric digestive soup of my gut, you see, sometimes creeps up into my esophagus and tells my throat to slam the door, which would be no problem except that this can prevent, uh. . .breathing.
          So I sat up much of the night, switching around endlessly on the flat-screen Demoral on the motel wall. The only thing I remember was a hunting program in which “sportsmen” took a teenaged boy out for his “first kill.” This consisted of four or five fat guys---why are hunters always fat guys?---in full military camouflage, sneaking ever so stealthily within about 100 yards of some poor goddamn buck, then shooting it through the heart with a high-powered rifle.
          Some sport!
          The “hunters” then smeared the creature’s blood all over the kid’s forehead, and said what a fine young man he was going to be, apparently because he had murdered an unsuspecting, harmless animal. Sure. Nothing like slaughtering an innocent, dumb beast with 21st century weaponry to build character.
          To quote Monty Python, I fart in their general direction.
          I sat there in the TV flicker, in the late night motelness, thinking vaguely of Fafnir the dragon, and Siegfried using a .308 Winchester to slay the beast instead of Nothung, the sword. Perhaps some "visionary" director will one day employ such a trick, and have Siggy as a middle-aged fatass white guy in full military camouflage. . .
          You can imagine how happy I was to see the sun come up, and how much I was looking forward to emptying my rattled brain, and resetting my body clock, there in a arboreal dell under the once-futuristic Needle, in benign Seattle. My body clock? Har. Which has no hands left, grinds instead of ticks, and chimes like an elephant seal in mating season. At the wrong times.
          Now, when I do tai-chi in glorious Cloverfield Park in Santa Monica, I can absolutely count on being regularly interrupted by Oprah’s private jet (and jet fuel fumes), gardeners driving massive $100,000 machines designed to bite off the tips of chemically treated, fiendish, evil grass blades (and spew enough exhaust to gum up the parts of your lungs untouched by jet fuel), hordes of futbol players yelling “puto!” and “chingao!”---overlaid with the decorative scent of baking dog crap. Not the stuff that might have inspired Thoreau, or Beethoven, but about as close as you can get to it on the West Side.
          So I could scarcely believe the beatific nature of my current surroundings. This was Eden, for all intents and purposes. Annie and I went through our usual tai chi warm-up exercises, stretching, bending, and at last began the 30-40-minute set. Twisting, turning, rooting our way to detoxification, sanity, calm. Immediately, I felt the benefits rush in---as if I was settling into a sort of full body massage by the four elements of nature. Tai chi sets, you see, can be stable, and smooth, and meditative, or they can be train wrecks of imbalance and monkey-mindedness. This one, it seemed, was going to be good. Like slipping on a perfectly fitting silk suit, or what I imagine slipping on a perfectly fitting silk suit must feel like.
          Memories of the Night From Acid Hell, and the doofus hunters and the poor kid with the blood-stained forehead disappeared. I was moving easily, unthinkingly, at a steady slow pace, breathing deeply, naturally, my sleep-deprived physiognomy declaring a breathless, “Thank you!” I could almost feel the cells stretching, yawning, rejuvenating.
          But I forgot. Rense luck.
          If a rhinoceros had walked by on its hind legs, singing "By a Waterfall,” I’d have been slightly less amazed. It was a garbage truck. A diesel-spewing, big-as-a-house garbage truck, lumbering and roaring along on a “service road,” as fearsome as Fafnir the dragon. But less lyrical. Thirty feet away, there in the grassy sea of tranquility.
          This turned out to only be the warm-up act.
          Now came a parade of backhoes, fronthoes, and well, you could only ho ho. Roughly every two minutes, “roooarrrrrrrrrrrr/clunk/squeak/squeal/hydraulic wheeze/crash!” emanated forth. Great gushes of nice diesel particulate matter were generously donated, in order that I might take them deeply into the lungs with every therapeutic, oxygenating tai chi breath. What were they doing? No idea. But I'm sure it was something very important. Sweeping up old ticket stubs, perhaps.
          I flipped out. I grumbled. I glared. I swore in several languages and stormed off, shaking my head, and then my fist.
          Except I didn’t.
          Funny thing was---no, astonishing thing was---none of this bothered my set! That’s how tied into chi I was. Annie’s set was apparently compromised, if not ruined, but I was in a groove. You could have picked me up and carried me, and I would have continued doing “carry tiger to mountain," etc. Maybe it was the Space Needle channeling mysterious ethereal powers, after all. . .
          The net result: despite extreme sleep-deprivation, I stayed awake with no trouble for the five hours(!) of “Siegfried” that night, which had not been the case with “Walkure" the night before, much as I loved the performance (the mind was willing, but not the body.) Yes, I watched with wide-eyed intent as Siggy forged “Nothung,” marveled at the colossal, bat-winged dragon, got goose bumps during the titanic, soaring love duet between Siggy and Brunhilde, winningly realized by Janice Baird and Stig Andersen, and left the opera house, walking on air that felt like the cushion of grass where I had done tai chi.
          What a smashing Ring Cycle this was turning out to be. Sure, it had its nitpicky points here and there---they all do---but as our friend and Ring-going compadre, Keith Snider, said right after “Siegfried:”
          “I’ve been to a lot of ‘Rings,’ and I can honestly say that I’ve never enjoyed one as much as this! I absolutely believe that these characters are who they say they are. I totally buy the events and actions being played out before me. There is a narrative line and tension here that I’ve never---never---encountered in a ‘Ring’ before.”
          Keith’s words should carry some clout, seeing as he has attended every single Seattle “Ring” production since they began in 1975 (!), as well as a few in San Francisco. Not to mention that he is a veteran stage designer. (Whoops, guess I just did.)
          How I first met the guy is another tale of sleep-deprivation and Seattle. It had happened four years earlier, somewhere past Portland, around 1:30 a.m.. My wife and I had headed up to see our first Seattle Opera “Ring” via Amtrak, but the train had been delayed by, not necessarily in this order: a dismembered body on the tracks (three pieces), innumerable oncoming freight trains asserting right-of-way, a failed engine that had to be replaced in the middle of the night high in the mountains of Oregon, a stalled car on the tracks, and finally, an unscheduled stop in the middle of nowhere, not far from somewhere, just north of where-are-we, because the engineer and assistants were barred by their union from working more than x-number of hours. Really. So a new crew had to be driven out. Yes, that’s correct. Around 2 a.m., the train simply stopped to wait for a new driver, never mind that the next major stop was about twenty minutes away.
           Did I grumble? Did I complain? Did I gnash my teeth and mutter words that Amtrak could not use in an ad campaign? Did I generate enough stomach acid to burn holes in concrete? Ah, how well you know me!
          Still, I willed myself to take a seat in the observation car, where I valiantly tried to read. This was akin to trying to play baseball with a lobster in your pants. When some railroad genius eventually cut the lights, I muttered profanities openly, as I am sometimes known to do.
          A friendly baritone voice startled me in the darkness.
          “Oh, well, there goes your reading.”
          I turned around and noticed for the first time that there was another insomniac in the car, a tall fellow with gray hair. Yeah, just what I felt like: casual conversation with someone I didn't know.
          “I don’t mind losing the reading light,” I said reluctantly. “I just wish they’d get the goddamn train moving. I’m supposed to be in Seattle for an opera tomorrow--- “
          “Oh? So are we.”
          “Oh, you’re heading up for the Ring?”
          “Yes, but I wouldn’t worry. I heard them talking, and they’re bringing in a new engineer. That’s why we’re stopped. Evidently they are barred by union regulations from working more than a certain number of hours. I’m sure we’ll make it in time.”
          I wasn’t sure, a message that this fellow cannily seemed to pick up. Next thing I knew, he was engaging me in engrossing conversation about Wagner and opera---two things about which he was well qualified to speak. This was Keith, of course, and it turned out that he had been a production designer all his life, working on plays, musicals, operas in and around the San Francisco Bay Area.
          It was very good of him, a stranger, to try and take my mind off the delays, and after about an hour, the poor old remains of the Great American Choo-Choo shook off its union constraints and began chugging again. True, I arrived in Seattle bleary-eyed and rumpled, and dozed off repeatedly during the first opera, “Das Rheingold” (part of the reason I returned for the cycle in 2009!), but I didn’t forget Keith’s act of kindness, and kept an eye out for him at intermission each night.
          “I’d like to thank that guy, and buy him a drink,” I said to Annie.
          "That's nice of you."
          "No, it's not nice. It would just make me feel better."
          “Well, you should do it."
          Anything that puts me at ease is okay with Annie, you see.
          It was on the night of “Siegfried,” as I recall, that I finally spotted Keith, and we picked up our conversation right where it had left off on the train.
          Next thing we knew, Keith had introduced us to his partner of nearly 40 years, Jerry Olson. Next thing we knew, we were all spending a day together in Seattle. Next next thing we knew, we were friends, and have since gone to operas in San Francisco ---after splendid dinners prepared by Keith in the fabulous wonderland of Americana antiques that he shares with Jerry. They have turned out to be two of the most gracious and interesting human beings Annie and I have encountered.
          So there we all were again, four years later, me still battling sleeplessness in order to stay awake for dragons and leitmotivs.
          Hojotoho. (Yawn.)
next week: Yoko Ono, a giant mouse, and the Pigmobile

SEATTLE RINGER PART THREE: Der Rense des Nibelungen

Seattle Opera Revives its "Green" Ring Cycle

Seattle Ring's Triumphant Finale
Seattle Humanizes Wagner's Ring

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