Binge on Opera for Free

Das Reingold

Early in the pandemic, Kelly had to leave town for an extended period to look after a relative. This left me alone in the house under lockdown with plenty of chores do during the day, such as install a floor and ceiling in her office shed, but not much to do at night. The first thing I did was to fill those evening hours with an intemperate binge viewing of Tiger King that left me confused and depressed. Then friend of the blog Lee tipped me off to the Metropolitan Opera’s free nightly streams. I thought that instead of binge watching Netflix shows I’d watch opera, even operas I’m not thrilled with, if just to see what pre-20th century folks binge viewed.

The way the Met’s free streams work is that they release a new one to watch at 3pm each day. You have 23 hours to watch before it goes away and a new one appears. Each opera streams from 7:30 p.m. EDT until 6:30 p.m. the following day. The streams are available through the Met Opera on Demand apps for Apple, Amazon, and Roku devices and Samsung Smart TV. To access them, without being a paid subscriber, you click “Browse and Preview” in the apps for connected TV, and “Explore the App” on tablets and mobile devices.

Speaking of binge viewing, this week the Met is streaming all (count ’em!) seventeen hours of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle along with Tristan und Isolda, Parsifal and few other Wagner’s hits. Does the story of a magical ring that holds terrible powers and needs to be returned to nature sound like a familiar plot?

Parsifal

Wagner’s Parsifal streams on Sunday the 11th in a striking production the Met did in 2013. Towards the end of the first act is my favorite part, the ringing of the eerie bells of the grail castle, a sound effect for which Wagner constructed a special instrument. And the music that accompanies the appearance of the grail is some of the most beautiful ever written.

If Wagner isn’t to your taste there’s plenty more opera to watch in the Met’s future streaming schedule. Let me just note that this week you may want to catch Götterdämmerung as it’s, shall we say, timely.

Yes on 15! Vote for Nithya Raman for CD 4!

For our own mental health Kelly and I went on a bit of a news fast for the past week only to have that break rudely interrupted by a text late last night alerting us to a certain ‘rona infection going around a big white house on the east coast.

While Kelly was on a hard absolutely-no-news-in-the-interest-of-recovering-from-open-heart-surgery fast, I was on a lighter avoidance of the day to day news while (pretentiously, I admit) allowing myself to read the hard copies of the Jacobin and the Baffller that I subscribe to. I’ve found both of these sources to be thoughtful, nuanced and interesting.

But while the drama goes on with Dear Leader in that far distant city, I want to alert a few of our California readers to some important issues right here at home.

Prop 15
This week I phone banked in support of Proposition 15, which would close a loophole that allows large companies and land owners to avoid their fare share of property taxes. This loophole is a kind of the Trojan horse hidden in Prop 13, passed in the 1970s, that left us with a situation in which wealthy land owners are paying taxes based on outdated values. For instance, Walt Disney Studios in Burbank pays taxes on an assessed value from 1975 allowing them to dodge around $3.5 million in taxes every year.

Prop 13 was sold as a way to keep older people on fixed income from being taxed out of their houses. This is partly true, but the real impulse behind Prop 13 was to shift the tax burden away from the wealthy. I was in junior high in a public school when Prop 13 passed and watched my education get flushed down the toilet along with a lot of other public services.

Prop 15 would raise upwards of 12 billion dollars a year to pay for schools, parks and make a dent in the terrible mental health and homeless crisis we have here in this state. It would be a game changer.

The deep pocketed real estate interests opposing 15 have spread a lot of outright lies. Prop 15 does not apply to any residential property either the house you live in or any rental property. It does not apply to farms. It only taxes commercial real estate over $3 million in value.

Don’t believe the lies. Vote yes on 15 for better schools, parks and public services. The commons has been stolen away from us by large corporations. Let’s get it back.

Nithya Raman for Council District 4
The Los Angeles City Council is a cesspool of corruption and incompetence. We have a historic opportunity to elect someone who will make a difference. I’ve met Nithya Raman and she’s the perfect person to begin the long work of making our city more functional and bring real democracy to our city. For the love of God vote for her! If you know anyone who lives in sprawling District 4, which encompasses Koreatown, Los Feliz, the Hollywood Hills, Sherman Oaks and parts of North Hollywood, cajole them into voting for Nithya. David Ryu, the incumbent she’s running against ran as an outsider four years ago and has since decided to take campaign contributions from just about any large corporation that will dole them out. Ryu has also shamelessly stolen most of Nithya’s platform. Don’t fall for it. If he’s reelected he will fall back into his previous pattern of incompetence and corruption. He also was accused though not convicted of attempted rape of an unconscious person back in 2002. We need to show Ryu, and the rest of his colleagues, the way to the opulent exit door at city hall.

Those confusing initiatives:
Here’s my recommendations based on the suggestions of the local chapter of the DSA that I belong to:

Prop 14 NO
Prop 15 YES
Prop 16 YES
Prop 17 YES
Prop 18 YES
Prop 19 NO
Prop 20 NO
Prop 21 YES
Prop 22 NO
Prop 23 YES
Prop 24 No recommendation
Prop 25 NO

Staying sane under lockdown in the midst of the most unstable period of US history during my lifetime has been difficult. Phone and text banking for causes that I believe in, from the comfort of our home, has given me some sense that I’m helping, at least a little bit. So if you get a text for some cause that might just be me behind it. And, yes you can reply to those texts and have a conversation.

For other offices and local initiatives see DSA-LA’s handy voter’s guide. And join me in the DSA and let’s make this world a better place for future generations!

Pumpkin Spice Pandemic

I owe the title of this post to Alissa Walker of the always informative LA Podcast. Alissa was stating what we all know: we’re heading into the fall with the prospect of cancelled holidays, disappointed grandparents and worse: evictions and unemployment. Rather than the usual roundup of links that I post on Saturday I thought I’d put up just a few, three serious and one a lark. They all need a brief introduction.

This first link is an interview with two Harvard epidemiologists Katherine Yih and Martin Kulldorf, “We Need a Radically Different Approach to the Pandemic and Our Economy as a Whole.” If you’d like to dig deeper in this particular pandemic hot take there’s another interview with Sunetra Gupta, a theoretical epidemiologist at Oxford University. Not being an epidemiologist I’m not in a good position to evaluate what these folks are saying but I they are worth listening to. It’s unfortunate that dialog about the pandemic in this country has devolved to the point where we all can’t seem to sit down and figure out what’s best. Or maybe it’s just as Hegel said, “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.”

Another contrarian piece, also in the Jacobin, is a review of the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, “No, Social Media Isn’t Destroying Civilization.” I can 100% endorse this hot take. I intend to blog more about the media diet Kelly and I are on right now that’s informed by both the Netflix documentary and this review.

Not to leave you all in a heavy mood I thought I’d link to George Hahn’s pandemic lament “I Can’t With The Sweatpants.” Unfortunately, I can with the stained sweatpants. I promise to break this habit once the vaccine kick in.

In Praise of Beaters

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: all cars are the same. The same handful of people design them. They’re made in the same factory. They have the same engines. All that’s different is the ads and, maybe, the plastic on the glove compartment.

You see, years ago, I discovered the secret car companies don’t want you to know. 2020 BMW 8 series? No better than a 2002 Pontiac Aztek. 2020 Land Rover? No different than any Kia. They’re all just a hunk of plastic and metal with an inside full of rubber tubes, greasy metal parts and other thingies that I don’t know what they do. Zero to 60 in 6.8 seconds? Who cares. There’s so many other idiots driving around in hunks of metal and plastic that you can’t go fast anyways, especially in trashy old Los Angeles.

The difference is just in the surface details. How do I know this? I’ve been lucky enough to be a passenger in a few fancy pants cars over the years. I’ve mooched rides in Teslas, BMWs, and even a few Mercedes. I discovered that these “luxury” cars are to real luxury what the flooring and wall treatments of the breakfast bar at the Marriott Suites are to the Palace of Versailles. It’s all just plastic.

Here’s the other big secret: since all cars are the same so you might as well own a crappy beater. Allow me to break down the economics of this. Buy and drive a beater until its last gasp and you can take the savings, walk it to the bank and by the time you’re 60 the interest alone will be about a bazillion dollars. Take just the issue of unnecessary body work. With a beater you want dents. You should, in fact, drive your beater in circles at a Whole Foods to purposefully acquire dents. The more dents you have the less you care. This is what’s called “beater detailing.” With a lifetime of money not spent on auto body work you’ll be soon be kicking back on a beater yacht in the Cayman Islands.

There’s another benefit to driving a beater especially in this town. LA’s the kind of place where a lot of people measure status with the brand and upkeep of your car. These are exactly the sort of people you don’t want to hang out with. Your beater will act as a kind of filter for vain idiots.

I gained all this secret knowledge during my years as the proud owner of a 1994 Nissan Senta E. How I obtained this car is worth reviewing. A coworker told me about a little secret in the new car business. I don’t know if this loophole still exists, but car dealerships used to advertise a low price for a specific car in newspaper ads. When you went in to the dealership you’d have to ask for the car mentioned in the ad (there was a reference number in the fine print). What you’d find out when you asked for this car is that it had no features at all and I mean so few features that it didn’t seem street legal. My Sentra had no radio, no air conditioning, not even a right side view mirror. One of Kelly’s relatives, a former used car salesman, told me that in the biz they refer to such cars as a “heater and keys.”

What you’ll also discover is that the dealership really does not want you to buy this car. You will spend hours while they attempt to up-sell you on features and/or switch you over to a different car. I even had to fend off multiple sales people who came to outright resent my cheap-ass presence in the dealership as the afternoon dragged on. When I insisted on paying cash they really poured on the hate. But I outlasted them and walked out of the dealership with my brand new $4,000 Nissan Sentra E. There was one problem. It had a manual transmission and I didn’t really know how to drive stick. Somehow I got the car to an empty parking lot and practiced shifting in the dark until I lurched it into 5th and hobbled on to the freeway for the long drive home.

I drove this car for years and the Sentra earned the ultimate beater status when the ceiling upholstery came lose from the roof and developed what Kelly calls an “upholstery udder.” That and years worth of fart smells in the seats meant that a ride in this car was a trip to cherish. I even had an unlicensed mechanic who rode around on a bicycle with a sticker that said, “question internal combustion,” a clever pun if you think about the context.

I still remember the sad day she just stopped working and I had to coast off the freeway into the lot of a storage facility on San Fernando Road. I fantasize about finding another 1994 Nissan Sentra as a sort of 1990s time travel machine to recall the days before pandemics and Instagram influencers. I imagine getting behind the wheel, spraying myself down with CK1, downing a Zima and shoving a Pearl Jam cassette in the car stereo. Except, of course, there’s no car stereo. Just your cheap, existential little self and the sound of the not at all empty road.

But why buy just one 1994 Nissan Sentra E retro time machine? They’re so cheap you might as well get ten, park them around town and have your own personal car share service. Why get on the bus when there’s a 1994 Nissan Sentra E waiting for you a few blocks over?

Of course there’s the car free option. I’ve spent exactly two years of my life since coming of driving age (which, in Southern California, is 9 years old–they start you out young here). During those two years I had no desire to own a car again. It was like being deprogrammed from a religious cult. I’d laugh at traffic reports, insurance bills, and repair problems. But, at the end of these two years someone would offer me another beater (sometimes they come for free) and I’d be back slouching towards Bethlehem in a dented sedan.

To contradict myself a bit there really is one car that is different: the Morgan 3 Wheeler. But that car has a bit too much of a cosplay vibe to me. No, the next car might just be a Camry. I’ll leave you with the best used car ad ever written:

Image: Wikimedia.

Kelly’s New Desk

Kelly wanted something to look forward to after her surgery. Specifically, she requested a desk for her shed office from a design in Christopher Schwartz’s The Anarchist’s Design Book. I’ve linked to Schwartz’s blog in the past and can’t say enough good things about his books. In addition to being well written they are just plain beautiful books and the projects strike a perfect balance of good design and ease of construction.

Schwartz specializes in reviving what might be thought of as the furniture of common people, not the fancy and fussy stuff usually associated with middle aged woodworking hobbyists. He draws a lot of inspiration from simple and elegant 18th century and older designs that, paradoxically, seem clean and modern.

This desk uses a common staked leg design that you’ll see on a lot of tables and chairs in the past and to this day in many places in the world. As this was the first time I’ve ever built this type of table, mistakes were made but I’m pleased with the end result.

Schwartz emphasizes hand tools which means that this desk could be made with just a few tools in a small workshop (though it does kinda call for a drill press to cut the circular holes for the legs). In my tiny garage workshop I use a mix of power and hand tools: power tools for the rough milling and hand tools to shape, finish and finesse the joinery. In the stressful weeks leading up to Kelly’s surgery it was therapeutic to spend time in the workshop shaping the four legs of this table with an inexpensive, 100 year old Stanley plane that works as well as the day it was made.

I used readily available hard maple for this project. One of my house rules is that I only use domestic hardwood because I’m worried about forestry practices in foreign countries. It’s also cheaper to get the domestic stuff.

I finished the table with a product I’ve really come to like, General Finish Arm-R-Seal, a urethane resin that has proven durable on past projects around the house and is easy to apply with a rag. The satin finish doesn’t look plasticy like so many other finishes I’ve tried on earlier projects.

Up next in the workshop is this nightstand.