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DisMember 1997

Phantom of the Opera

I try to write something for this Page every couple of months, though I never see it online myself. Maybe when they make it possible to access the Internet without a modem, and I can simply press Alt-Shift-Control-I and be there without hassle, for a penny a minute, and never get any spam - I mean, I'm a vegetarian - well, we'll see. However, my mind is on the Internet now, because I'm writing Xanth #23 Xone of Contention, wherein Edsel and Pia (Dug's friend and ex-girlfriend from Demons Don't Dream) discover the O-Xone interface with Xanth and manage to visit it, while Nimby and Chlorine (from Yon Ill Wind) visit Mundania in an exchange of bodies. I'll have all manner of Net and Web parodies, which is tricky for one with no hands-on experience, but don't be concerned; I have secret agents known as readers in that realm who are advising me. However, if any from the Xanth Xone wish to proffer any advice, now's the time, because that's where I got the Xone part of the title. I may have it written by year's end, depending on how it moves and what other calls on my time there are; I'm about half through now. When Nimby gets in trouble in Mundania, being deprived of his magic, he will need to contact Xone folk for help. I assume they'll be willing to give it. No, it's not limited to Xone folk, but they'll be more prominent because of the title. In quality novels, the title derives from the content; in Xanth the content derives from the title.

Meanwhile I live in drear Mundania, so naturally my life is occupied with irritations and frustrations and legal complications. For example I read about a program called SmartBoard that makes the Windows paste buffer - I know, I know, MacroHard (to borrow from a Xone parody) calls it something else, but it's really a paste buffer; I wish they'd stop pointlessly renaming things - able to handle multiple entries. That promised to alleviate some of my frustrations with the limit of paste and the user-unfriendly nature of the Spike, so I sent for it. And it doesn't work. Says it needs a file my current Win95 lacks, but that I can get it by loading Explorer 3. How, when I'm not online? Why can't programs come ready to work as described, on the platform described, instead of finding pretexts to renege? So I'm out a bit of money and time, hardly for the first time. I'm a slow learner. This particular dodge isn't as user-unfriendly as some - I remember when I started with CP/M, and used its PIP mechanism to back up my file, naming first the file and then the place to send it, in normally intuitive manner - and PIP not only didn't do it, it trashed my file. Because the genius who made CP/M decreed that thou shalt name the place first and the file last. No error message, no warning, it just trashed the original, so I had no file left. That's user-unfriendly. Still, the computer software industry has a distance to go before it's truly user friendly. I'm using MS Access for my accounts now, and it makes a big table type file, so it needs to be condensed to fit on a backup disk. My wife and I struggled to remember how to do that, and finally she weaseled it out of a manual. The compacting routine is not in the regular listing; you have to close all files first, and then the sub-menu changes invisibly, and you can reach things that were not listed before, including that feature. Then there are other tricks to figure out before it gets halfway feasible. It's like a puzzle, as if they think we want game-type challenges. But it can be done. When we got it, I wrote out my own instructions so that we would never again have to wrestle with their useless Help feature or the manual. I think programmers should be required to actually use their programs a few weeks, or get input from those who do, and - but what's the use? Have I mentioned my imagined dialogue with Bill Gates, should I ever find myself sitting next to him on a flight somewhere? ME: "What makes you think Windows is user-friendly?" HIM: (turning on me a look of sheer scorn) "What makes you think I care?" But I admit he has a pretty fancy hundred million dollar house to live in; US NEWS diagrammed it. At least I know where my money goes.

I've had several ongoing semi-legal confrontations. Two years ago I was sued, and by the time that was done, the other party had to pay me, as it had never had any basis. But more cases materialized. One of them has now been settled: BAEN BOOKS paid me about $45,000. My expenses in pursuing the case were about $20,000, so I came out ahead and did make my point, as I usually do. So that matter is done, and I have no current quarrel there. Another is the Cauliflower Franchise Tax Board, which thinks I live in that state and owe state income tax. I've been a resident of Flowerda for nigh 39 years, but because my literary agent lives in Cauliflower, and my money goes through him, they think I'm there. I have done my best to clarify the situation, but this is a bureaucracy that just doesn't listen. Its response to my evidence that I do live in the state that looks like Xanth was to levy a tax lien against me for over $36,000. So now I am on public record as a tax deadbeat. This is beginning to annoy the ogre, and like the Empire, I may in due course strike back. Stay tuned.

I mentioned Xlibris.com last time, starting up as an online semi-publisher of any books anyone wants to publish, with reasonable limits. I have continued my dialogue there, and Volk will definitely be there as well as at Pulpless.com. I have also decided to invest in the company, for ideological reason. I don't like to gamble, and this is a gamble; I figure chances are 50-50 I'll lose my money. But I want so much for there to be a viable alternative to Parnassus that I'm doing it by putting my money where my mouth is. If it works, not only will hopeful writers everywhere have a chance to put their novels into print, I'll make money in the process. So it's a lose-lose vs. win-win situation. Which one will prevail is yet to be seen.

I had a routine eye check. I use glasses for closework; in fact I can't read ordinary print without them. But my distance vision has always been all right. But they told me that it is now 20/25 or 20/30, meaning I see at 20 feet what I should see an 25 or 30. Sigh; I'm getting old. It probably didn't help that I asked the doctor whether when he came to work feeling bad, and someone asked him how he was doing, he'd reply "20/600." I also asked whether if a person cried a lot, she'd get cataracts. You know, like the cataracts of the Nile? Because of all that water? Oh, forget it.

Folk ask why I don't mention Jenny Elf much anymore. It's because her situation isn't changing much. She's still mostly paralyzed. I still write to her every week, in thousand word missives, always advising her not to do something she's not about to do anyway. Like kissing a mirror a fish has farted on. But in this period someone crashed into her special van, totaling it. No, Jenny wasn't in it at the time. Still, it's an inconvenience. Sometimes I wonder whether drunk or reckless drivers are try to finish the job they started on her.

Last time I mentioned my series of faster morning jogs, when I managed to make the tenth one after scraping my knee. Well, that series continues, and at this writing stands at 45. I keep expecting it to end, and it keeps staying a few seconds under the wire. But it's bound to end some time. And yes, my scraped knee has healed, though I still feel that such things are not supposed to happen to old men. Last time I also mentioned putting in a geothermal air conditioning system; it's in now, and it's nice the way it heats our water too. It's too early to tell how much it saves on our power bills, but it's bound to be more environmentally friendly.

I seldom go out to movies or shows, and in fact have gone to only two movies this year: Men in Black and Anastasia. But in between we attended a musical, Phantom of the Opera. It wowed me, so I wrote a report, and will post that elsewhere on this Page. Apart from such events, my life is dull.



Phantom of the Opera

On Sunday, October 12, 1997, we went to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center to experience the matinee performance of the musical The Phantom of the Opera. This seems to be a cross between opera, ballet, and play, and at $66 per ticket we expected a formidable presentation. We were not disappointed. The theater seemed to be completely filled, and our seats near the center of the rear gave us a good if slightly distant view. There were three rows of balcony seats that looked as if they could drop at any time onto the audience below. The audience was well behaved; no whistling or stomping teenagers. The lights dimmed abruptly about 2:05 and the two and a half hour show was on.

The Prologue is an auction: disposing of old props found in an opera house, some dating more than seventy years back. Raoul, about that age, in a wheelchair with an attending nurse, speaks of these things as precious to him because they were treasured by his beloved late wife, and bids on them. Then comes Lot 666, a massive chandelier said to be the very one in the strange affair of the Phantom of the Opera, a disaster and mystery never fully explained. The auctioneer uncovers it, turning it on. The thing comes to life with about 40 glowing lamps. There is a bang and smoke wafts up. The music starts with a rush, sounding like a powerful organ, and sets the mood throughout; whenever the Phantom's foreboding theme comes, there's sure to be trouble. The chandelier rises eerily from the stage and moves out over the audience and to the top of the theater, an amazing spectacle. This reverts the stage to the time when the opera house was in its glory; the stage is suddenly crowded with the cast of Hannibal, with armed men, glittering women, and impressive statuary of the Roman era. It is a dress rehearsal. Then, as it is in full magnificent swing, with a huge model elephant for Hannibal to mount - he has some difficulty, as he is a bit fat - the manager walks onstage to introduce two new men who are taking over the production. The rehearsal comes to a confused halt, and the elephant is wheeled away, in the process revealing its other side, open with stage hands inside. The retiring manager asks the prima donna to sing for the new managers. She begins - and a backdrop crashes to the floor. The Phantom of the Opera has struck again. The prima donna, fed up, walks out. But they bring in the chorus girl Christine Daaé, who it seems has been taking lessons from a great teacher. So she, inadequately garbed for the role, sings somewhat hesitantly - and in the process is transformed to full costume and operatic vigor. She can handle the part. Young Raoul is there, and hugely impressed; he remembers her as a gawkish girl he once knew. He wants to renew their acquaintance.

Christine goes to her dressing room, followed by her friend the ballet girl Meg, who asks in awe who has tutored her to became so good. Christine confides that the Angel of Music is guiding her. Soon Raoul comes, and she tells him the same thing. Then the Phantom's voice comes, and guides her through the mirror and through an underground labyrinth, poling them along in a boat. She is affrighted by the mask he wears over half his face, yet she greatly values his ability with music, and the help he is giving her. Thus is put into place the elements of the story: A lovely young woman beloved by a handsome young man and by a talented but ugly older man. The Phantom has considerable power in the opera house, because he can make thing go awfully wrong, and indeed, he sometimes kills those who annoy him too much. The new managers have to pacify him, though they would rather catch him and dispose of him. There are several episodes, as the war between the Phantom and the management proceeds, with the phantom generally winning. He makes a dramatic appearance at a costume ball, scaring everyone. Christine is torn between her interest in Raoul and her debt to the Phantom, who is clearly a highly talented but tortured man. They sing duets, and his "The Music of the Night" is evocative, a lovely melody. In the end, the Phantom is about to kill rival Raoul, telling Christine she can save Raoul only by giving him up. But she finally stands up to the Phantom, saying "God give me courage to show you you are not alone," and kisses him long and hard. The Phantom, shaken, then frees Raoul; apparently he can't deny her, once she has made her choice; the power has become hers. Of Christine he says "You alone can make my song take flight - it's over now, the music of the night." When a mob rushes in to grab him, all they find is his mask.

The production had a live orchestra, and the music made a difference. The effects were phenomenal. They were able to change the entire stage in about five seconds of darkness. The phantom appeared in remarkable places, even on the big hanging angels-and-satyrs sculpture. (The satyrs are grabbing the angels full bare breasts.) That moving boat really looked as if it were floating. There was an amazing variety of intricate costumes. At one point they showed the stage from the rear as the cast bows to the audience and retreats behind the wings - and it works. We, the real audience, thus disappear. There is humor, as when characters in one of the presented operas muff their lines or argue with each other. Every so often there's a Note from the phantom, making demands, and when they don't obey, he strikes, making them sorry. When they don't make Christine the prima donna, the other woman's voice becomes a literal croak in mid-song. Everything is done without stint, a magnificent panoply. Unfortunately, though the songs were sung in English, they were still largely indecipherable, given the auditorium's acoustics, so the ongoing nuances of the plot were opaque. I had to figure things out later with the aid of the libretto. The $10 Program Book was a rip-off; it had nice pictures and background information, but no libretto, summary, or even a listing of the songs. Fortunately Cheryl lent me a book and CD, both of which were excellent. However, the general story did come through, because of the actions and attitudes of the characters. So was it worth it? Yes, once. I understand that there is resistance by true opera fans to the notion of making this into a movie. Maybe so, but I'm for it, as this stirring story would achieve a much wider audience.

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