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November 28, 2005 - November 21, 2005

Monday, November 28, 2005


Sublime

A Lipizzaner stallion of the Spanish Riding School

PSAYINGS.5A.9. It was a fluke, really. One brief ad on television. If it ran again, I didn't see it. But it gave the dates for two performances in Philadelphia by the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. The rest was fore-ordained -- run to the computer, sign on to Ticketmaster, buy some seats for a prince's ransom, and journey to Philadelphia for two hours with the legendary Lipizzaner stallions.

For those who haven't heard of them, the Lipizzaners are a 400-year-old lineage of equine royalty, bred and trained to perform ancient feats of precision and beauty that transcend horsemanship to become a kind of liturgy. The riders are the best you'll ever see, but you hardly see them at all because they appear to be motionless adornments of  the horses, which are a wonder of the world:

Th(eir) movements range from the exact performance of walk and canter to the piaffe, a sophisticated “trotting on the spot,” and the passage, or Spanish step... describe(d) thus: “The horse throws the diagonal pair of feet upward with the greatest of energy and pauses a moment longer than when trotting. This awakens the impression that he sways free of all earthly weight.”

The feats also include pirouettes and half pirouettes, the mincing cross-steps of the plié, the intricate weaving and shuttling of the quadrille and pas de trois--and much more. Most dramatic, of course, is the “work [airs] above the ground”--the courbette, levade, and capriole.

Stylized these various exercises certainly are. Yet, paradoxically, they are all based upon the spontaneous action of the horse in nature, a formalization of the leaps and kicks, curvetting and prancing that can be observed in any pasture. Nothing artificial or grotesque enters the curriculum of the school--none of the three-legged gallops, the backward canters, the waltz steps of the circus and the trick-riding ring. Each movement simply develops to its ultimate refinement a natural pace or position.

Natural, yes, but also disciplined, intricate, and deeply imbued with human history and civilization. The horses and riders are exclusively male because the ancestry of the movements they execute is war. The famous "airs above the ground," in which the Lipizzaners stand and even leap forward on their hind legs, were originally conceived -- in the time of the ancient Greeks -- to protect the rider from enemy swords in combat.


The "courbette"

Yet the overall impression is not martial. Many compare the group interactions of the Lipizzaners to ballet, and it is true that the performances are accompanied by Austrian waltzes and symphonic works (including Mozart's Jupiter), but the spectacle would be just as dramatic with no music other than the faint clinks of harness, the steady muffled footfalls of the horses and their occasional soft snorts. For there is, despite the beauty and grace of it all, an underlying sense of seriousness, of work being done, a ritual of practice for a moment when all the discipline will be not a show but a requirement. That moment will probably never come, but the horses are nevertheless ready. They know what they are doing. They look focused, solemn, and proud. Having seen them in person (at ring level, so close that horses frequently passed less than ten feet away), I was not surprised by the following account:

In the closing days of World War II, as the guns of the Red army were thundering at the gates of Vienna, Colonel Podhajsky [head of the Spanish Riding School] confronted a desperate situation. He had managed unobtrusively to smuggle many of his stallions out of the city to a refuge at St. Martin in Innkreis in Upper Austria. But the Nazis balked at dissolving the school altogether; the people, they argued, would take it as a sign that the jig was up.

The colonel was left, then, with ten horses and two riders to survive the approaching cataclysm as best he might. Bombs probed at the vitals of the capital with fingers of fire; buildings to right and left of the riding hall flowered suddenly into flame and collapsed in smoking rubble.  

“The horses--they behaved like veterans,” the colonel told me. “Magnificent! The air-raid signal would sound, and, without even being called, they would calmly file out of their stalls, ready to take shelter in the passageway alongside the riding hall. A bomb would come down --crash!--in the Michaelerplatz, the glass would fall around us like hail, and the Lipizzaners would crouch down, down, down, like this”--and he held his palm out flat--”until the attack was over, and then they would just get up. They shivered. But they never panicked.”

It was General George Patton who rescued the endangered Lipizzaners, in defiance of his orders, and the general's grandson Benjamin Patton was the guest of honor at the performance I saw in Philadelphia. He got a standing ovation from the crowd. It was a moment of American pride, but the larger emotion was one of human pride, pride that the worst of man, war, could give rise to this sacred joining of two species into a kind of prayer of motion and devotion to perfection. Such a joining is not easily accomplished, and no part of it is a trick. Both the horses and the riders spend upwards of 10 years learning to work seamlessly with one another. Some of the stallions who perform are 25 years old. They can execute their routines with or without a rider, and the riders must aspire selflessly to invisibility:

Here, indeed, we come near the heart of the haute école. For the objective of this demanding discipline is not so much the hackneyed goal of “making the man and his mount seem like one,” as it is that of causing the man himself virtually to disappear. So serene must be the rider in his seat, so disguised or invisible his guidance by the pressure of thigh or heel, rein or body weight, that the audience’s attention slips away from him altogether and becomes focused wholly on the fluid movements of his horse.

And thus the human role in the relationship is both exalted and humble. The uniforms and the long switches that stand in for swords also disappear, and one is left with a sense of awe for a creation that includes both man and beast manifesting the spirit in the flesh.

But words will not do to capture the Lipizzaners. The only two remaining venues are in Atlanta and Houston. If you live anywhere near these cities, go to the Spanish Riding School website and get tickets. It's almost a quarter century since they last performed in the U.S., and they probably won't return here anytime soon. Go to the website. There is also a video at the site featuring brief performance segments. It, too, is insufficient, but still worth viewing by those who won't get to see them in person.

For additional information about Lipizzaner history and the current tour, go here, here and here.

A last look:







Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Sacred Places

A view of the James River from Berkeley Plantation

YANKS. You are looking at the place where the first Thanksgiving celebration occurred -- and the place where "Taps" was written and played for the first time. These events occurred about 170 years apart and though both may seem like the dusty past to us, they are part of the vast American tapestry which also includes us. This is a year in which it's especially fitting for each of us to ask how well we are living up to the courage and sacrifice of our forefathers, whom we should thank in the same prayers we offer up to the Almighty. There are sacred places where great and noble things occur, joyous, sad, and meaningful. We Americans happen to live in one of those places. This Thanksgiving, turn your gaze toward the James River and listen, just for a moment. The joy and the sorrow know each other, and they hold the power to make us one.


The Berkeley Plantation house, home of two presidents.

Enjoy your holiday weekend. We'll be back Monday.





Tuesday, November 22, 2005


CNN Blames 5th Dimension

It happens all the time. Some parallel universe is just trying to help us out.

XOFF NEWS FLASH. In response to accusations by Matt Drudge that CNN inserted a subliminal 'X' over the face of Dick Cheney during the network's broadcast of his speech yesterday, CNN CEO Jonathan Klein held a press conference early today to deny any CNN complicity in what he termed "an intrusion from a parallel dimension or universe or something that clearly wishes us well."


CNN's Klein speaking to the press

Klein said, "It may seem like a disturbing phenomenon that some intelligence beyond our control is interceding so directly in our affairs, but I think we should all take heart from the fact that they are obviously much more intelligent and trustworthy than the policymakers in the current administration."

Asked if the incident was indicative of an anti-Bush or anti-conservative bias at CNN, Klein was adamant in his denials. "No CNN employee had anything to do with this. We believe strongly in our responsibility as journalists to report the news with total objectivity, so that every person in our audience can make up his or her own mind about just how corrupt, incompetent, and dishonest this administration really is."

Meanwhile, the Bush administration announced that it had asked the justice department to look into the circumstances of the CNN broadcast. A spokesman for the Justice Department's Media Affairs Division declined to comment on next steps.


Justice Department Media Affairs Director Rod Piper

We'll report further on this story as it develops.






Monday, November 21, 2005


College Football


PSAYINGS.5S.9-11.  This is a week in which some of the great old rivalries of college football are played. Ohio State vs. Michigan. Yale vs. Harvard. South Carolina vs. Clemson. Pitt vs. West Virginia. These are the games that transcend national polls, conference standings, and season won-loss records. An otherwise terrible year can be redeemed with a victory in a single contest. Last Saturday, the rivalries lived up to their grand traditions and history. Ohio State came from behind in the closing seconds to overtake Michigan 25-21. Harvard trailed 21-10 in the fourth quarter but stormed back to beat Yale 30-24 in triple overtime. Clemson weathered a disappointing early season to defeat a high-riding South Carolina team 13-9. Pitt won't take the field against West Virginia till Thursday night, but we don't have to wait for the outcome of that game to pick the finest of this year's great games. It took place Saturday at Notre Dame, where the Fighting Irish outscored Navy for the 42nd straight time.

Huh? What's so great about that? Well, read the column about the game that appeared in the Notre Dame student newspaper (h/t Hugh Hewitt). Here are a couple of key excerpts:

We all know the routine; these two teams face each other, Notre Dame wins, Navy loses, dance a jig, yadda yadda yadda. It's been that way for 42 years now, and Saturday's game was no different. Save a 7-7 tie in the beginning of the game, the Irish had their way with Navy, to the tune of a 42-21 final score...

However, the most impressive event in that stadium was when 80,795 people did no cheering at all. No yelling, no talking, not even an odd sneeze. Dead silence. That's what the Navy band received at the end of the game while they played their alma mater.

Well, it wasn't entirely silent where I was standing for the game. Just a few rows behind me, a couple Knievelesque Navy fans had made it into the student section with the help of some erroneous ticket booklets and a Notre Dame senior. And while Navy played their alma mater, one of their fans sang along. An opposing student, singing his alma mater in our student section. Surely he must have a death wish. But on this day, no jeers, insults, or contentious voices were heard; thousands of opposing fans simply listened as a solitary voice in a crowd of thousands rang out and sang for the Navy Blue and Gold. That silence, that voice and the goose bumps on my arm after it was all said and done is what makes this rivalry special.

And this:

Remember when we were looking for a football coach, seemingly eons ago? One of the things that is always listed in the job requirements is a guy who gets Notre Dame. He has to get "it." Notre Dame may not be able to describe in words what "it" is, but the coach has got to have "it." If people weren't convinced yet, the end of Saturday's game proved Charlie Weis has "it" coming out of his ears. After convincingly crushing the opponent, Charlie led the team over to Navy's corner of the field to sing their alma mater. Just minutes before, these two teams walked on that grass as dire enemies, but now they walked across as one.

There's a history behind these courteous displays, and it's worth reading in full. Congratulations to Notre Dame and, of course, to Navy.

NOTE TO TIGERHAWK. You see? You made them overconfident. Small consolation, I know, but thanks anyway.


UPDATE. We've had some emails inquiring about the source of the wartime relationship -- alluded to in the newspaper story -- between Notre Dame and the U.S. Naval Academy. In the context of today's highly publicized hostility between prestigious universities and the military, the history of Notre Dame during World War II is striking. Here's part of the larger story told here:

The modern military era at Notre Dame was the product of World War II. On campus it was to become known the "occupation." In September of 1941, three months prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Naval Reserve Officers' Training Corps became the University's first ROTC detachment. The Army declined President Hugh O'Donnell's offer of facilities. The Navy expanded its presence with the Midshipmen's School and the V-12 Program, which began in 1943 and included the United States Marines. By mid-war, civilian undergraduates totaled only about 250 students who were housed in Sorin and St. Edward's Halls; the remainder of the campus was given over to the training of naval officers.

Thomas J. Schlereth, historian and professor of American Studies at Notre Dame, has written, "The war years inextricably changed Notre Dame. Contracts came from government research. A speedup cafeteria system in the South Dining Hall replaced the form of family-style dining, feeding twice as many men in half the time, with much less than half the former intimacy and civility. The public 'caf' overflowed with military brass, WAVES, and recruits whose campus stay often extended only months rather than the usual four years. Vacation periods were abbreviated, classes accelerated, semesters shortened, and one year there was no Christmas holiday. Women appeared all over the previously all-male, semi-cloistered campus, replacing undergraduates who formerly had done part-time jobs in offices, dining halls, laboratories, and the library. Sentries patrolled the campus perimeters at night; long blue, white and khaki lines tramped the quadrangles by day."

An estimated 12,000 officers completed their training at Notre Dame between 1942 and 1946. Many of them undoubtedly became casualties of war, as did 333 students and alumni. Each day during the war, Mass was offered on campus for the growing list of University connected casualties. At the same time, in installations and battlefields around the world, 25 Holy Cross priests serving as chaplains were administering the sacraments.

Hard to imagine? Well, try.




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