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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

diary: Tsfat

Flying on El Al is perfectly safe because they put people like me through the fucking ringer. I enjoy these interrogations because I have absolutely nothing to hide and because it’s so fun to watch these sexy young Israelis drill down rapid-fire trying to catch me in a lie or inconsistency. Sometimes they pursue details with such relish that they forget what they’d originally asked me; I oblige them with a gentle reminder. It’s like playing a high-stakes, highly caffeinated game of Chinese ping-pong knowing I’ll win despite any skill but frankness. Even after I’d passed this game of 20,000 questions, I was treated like a celebrity criminal, with a personal escort everywhere from security to the toilet to the front of the long line of passengers waiting to get on the plane.

I was seated directly behind a woman with two children and a screaming infant, and next to her father. I figured this would be like boot-camp preparation for my week with my sister and her five kids, but in fact it was mostly pleasant. Call me shallow but this little girl was so beautiful I couldn't resent her even when she was kicking and clawing at me. Pharmaceutical aides didn’t hurt.

The journey from shiny new Ben Gurion to Tsfat was a little confusing and didn't go according to plan and wound up costing me about $45 more than it should have, but I got here in one piece and found the place and as soon as I saw Tsofia's glorious smiling face greeting me in their courtyard all the irritation became a distant memory. We had a wonderful first day--they're all angels. Angels! Mamma arrived in a bit of a dark cloud, irritated that Chava and Yoseph hadn’t arranged a car for her at the airport, guilt-tripping me about wanting to go to the desert a week from now. In addition to being a harmonium pack-mule and a jungle gym for the kids that first day, I was a Merry Maid--I washed dishes and cleaned the stove for about 90 minutes, until sweat was dripping from my brow. I had to break every so often to apply Skintastic—I would say that without the slightest exaggeration there were about 25 million mosquitoes in my sister’s house. My first order of business when I arrived was putting up my mosquito nettinng and my first order of business when Mom arrived was putting up hers. Israeli mosquitoes are far too smart for such devices—they find their way right in. If I leave Israel without malaria and West Nile, I will praise G-d.

I love Tsfat, because it is one of the few places I know (San Francisco is another) that is equally charming and spectacular. The cobblestone streets and white stone archways and passageways through which stroll Black Hats and shawls here, and there, past the cemetery where important Kabbalists lie (and where, it occurred to me as I walked through it, my sister will one day lie) and across the valley, the imposing monument of the Meron mountains. Also, because it is so high, Tsfat is comparatively cool in the summer—you’d never know you were in a Middle East summer. What I love most about Tsfat are my five nieces and nephews, growing up without television or Internet, speaking accented English at home and Hebrew at school, wandering around their charming stone hilltop town in a state of rare innocence with that odd blot on it, that a year ago they all fled to Jerusalem as shells blew out their windows and demolished half of the house across the street.

Rockets landed some miles north of us on Sunday, causing some damage but seriously injuring nobody in Kiryat Shemona. Hezbollah disclaimed responsibility and Israel didn’t retaliate. I’ve dreamed of nuclear bombs going off on the other side of the mountain, of little boys throwing rockets that lodge in the dirt before me. Here at the resort on the other side of the lake from Tiberias, we heard explosions booming over the water and my sister spent a day in PTSD hell, but it turned out to be IDF exercises. A convoy of Jeeps pulled up in front of the resort and for a horrible moment my guts went cold as I imagined militiamen jumping out and massacring my family. But instead it was dozens of middle-aged Orthodox women with their suitcases and strollers and turbans. There are more turbans per square foot in this resort than a meeting of OPEC ministers.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The last day in Tsfat was the weirdest. I woke up the previous day at 4 a.m. with mosquitoes in my netting and walked to the cemetery, following its paths all the way down the hill to the floor of the valley. I got back to the house in time to walk the girls to their bus stop for school, then spent the day with the boys and the baby and Mom and Chava. I did some shopping in the afternoon, then got lost in the artist quarter and found the utterly enchanted narrow pedestrian streets and archways and tunnels that I remembered from my first visit here. When I got back to the house, Tirtza had prepared an elaborate guilt trip for my having been away for so long, but the kids were soon too distracted by their presents for her to pursue it.

After the kids were in bed and night had fallen, my sister commenced the screening she'd long planned of my movie, in the courtyard. Two people came in addition to Mom and Yosef, which made it a fuller house than at the second Denmark screening, at least. The guests were Daniel, the other gay guy in Tsfat, and his pregnant sister. I absented myself from the screening after I had a reality check with myself about how little I cared to sit there monitoring how each clip played with this particular audience, and took someone else’s novel to a tiny square at the hairpin turn of my sister's street. I sat on a bench under a street lamp and tried to read, but was soon approached by a young religious guy making anodyne inquiries and then asking if I were Jewish. I was as polite as one can be in monosyllables and as dishonest, because he was only there to proselytize, and about three minutes after he left a nasty old man came over spitting incoherent English and--this was so abrupt and shocking I'm not exactly sure how to phrase it--laid both hands on me and basically scooped me up off the bench. He was so repulsive, Ancient Mariner as late-stage syphilitic, that I moved as quickly as I could away from him and walked down the street and sat on a step to read, but the incident lingered with me and I had a not insubstantial dispute with myself over what the confrontation meant and how I should have handled it. When I put the two encounters together and became convinced I'd been evicted from a town square for having claimed to be gentile--something I've never done in my life--I felt that I should have stood my ground, which probably would have meant shoving the old man into the street. How is it that I could be so pliant about being physically removed from a park bench? Then I reflected that what the region needs is probably not more violence, and further that the violence endemic to this place is somewhat less mysterious to me after the encounter just described.

When I got back to the house, the movie was just finishing. Q&A was brief and surprisingly technical--how did you light it?--and I found myself refreshingly disengaged from the question of whether or not people had liked the movie and was content to let the conversation die a quick and natural death. When I get to that point with the novel, I'll know I'm ready to send it out into the world.

diary: New York wrap-up

I write from Israel, where I’ve spent the last week with my sister, her husband and their five kids, ages seven months to eight years. I’ve been far too busy with life to blog about it, but this morning backslid into my jetlag, waking at six in the morning and so I have a quiet hour in the resort lobby before the next horde of yarmulked Mexican boys or turbaned Sephardic women is disgorged from a tour bus or, more distractingly, my nieces and nephews awaken. Because an hour is a short period of time, and because I am lazy, this blog will consist mostly of excerpts from email I’ve sent to James and other loved ones over the past ten days, redacted here and elaborated there.

I spent much of my time in New York at the 5th Avenue Apple Store, having acquired the following technology problems:

1. my optical drive failed
2. paulfesta.com was hacked by a porn site I don't even like to look at
3. my new Pumas with the suede and rubber mace-textured toes got big gashes on both feet by my pinkie toes

Apple Geniuses failed to solve any of these problems, but I left comforted. They could call it the Psychotherapist Bar with greater accuracy.

Two days before my Wednesday afternoon departure I went to see Mano’s workshop production of “I Just Stopped By To See the Man,” an English play imagining, as exploitative English musical interloper, African-American intellectual activist murder accomplice on the lam, and her foundationally important blues musician father, analogues of Eric Clapton, Angela Davis and a foundationally important blues musician I’d never heard of whose name escapes me. Mano had performed this play in San Diego and wants to produce it in New York, so he organized this staged reading, in a black-box theater in the 54th Street building where all the fancy violin shops are, in order to attract other producers. I enjoyed the play, and not just because it starred Mano and Eisa, but because it also starred the guy (name also irretrievable at the moment) who won a Tony for his role in Caroline or Change, who sings and plays harmonica well enough to carry off the role of a foundationally important blues musician. And Mano, of course, sings and plays guitar better than Eric Clapton. My only reservation is that Eisa didn’t get to sing or play anything but her part.

The less said about the rest of the trip, the better.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

diary: New York stopover

When you fly to Israel from San Francisco, they typically make you cool your heels at JFK for five hours. This makes no sense. Stay a week! So I did, and used the same argument to justify ten days in Paris on the way home. I'm getting three cities for barely more than the carbon emissions of one. The paradox of unemployment is that you have the time for this sort of scheduling, but not the money. Bewilderingly, I'm still considered housebroken by a handful of gullible New Yorkers so I don't have to pay for lodgings.

On Wednesday we landed around 4:30 in the afternoon, we being me and the harmonium my sister is having me bring to Israel. This musical instrument is just petite enough to fit in the overhead bins and though I can't play it, I am never unaware of its charisma. Some of my favorite chamber music from the 19th century are the five bagatelles Dvorak wrote for harmonium, two violins and cello (this recording is the one I know and love) and I heard them in my head the entire fifteen minutes I was conscious on the plane.

By the time I got my checked luggage and got the witchy little eastern european organ to Martin's place on the fourth Brooklyn L train stop and then took the 2 up to 135th St. and Malcolm X Blvd, it was precisely eight o'clock, which was when the memorial for Janet McDonald was scheduled to end. Dinner afterward allowed me to catch up with friends and be seated at a table of powerdykes in publishing whose gossip about Hillary and Condi was spicier than the Louisiana hot sauce that stained our deep-fried catfish.

Several of us piled into a gypsy cab to head downtown and in the East Village I met Stephen Pelton and his lover Ben. The bar was fronted by a wall of corrugated obscured glass and inside homosexuals were drinking rosé. Good to catch up with Stephen especially since he has cancelled his plans to be in Paris when I'm there. Of course I'm taking it personally. After we left the bar a pungent odor, like that of a burning weed, made its presence known on 1st Avenue and shortly thereafter Stephen and Ben called it a night. I walked downtown to The Cock, and was moments away from arriving there when Kevin Hoskins, a.k.a. Downey, and Apparition of the Eternal Church contributor Ned Stresen-Reuter came out of the bar. I fell in with them and with their charming friend Tyler, who's destined for a PhD program in architecture at the New College, so clearly our paths will cross again. We went to a succession of bars and Kevin entranced me with his brilliance and his idea for a Rudy Giuliani fundraiser: "9/11 in July." Tyler gave me a ride back to Brooklyn and let me kiss him despite turning down my invitation for a 4 a.m. beer. Excuse me, I thought it was beer o'clock. It occurred to me as I fell asleep on Martin's airbed that since arriving in New York that late afternoon I had caught up with three circles of friends. At home in San Francisco I'm not even sure I have three circles of friends.

Thursday Stephen Pelton and Jim Roe and I met at Lincoln Center after Jim's rehearsal at the State Theater, where he's playing in the ballet pit a lot these days. Gone are his Broadway pit days, when he played the whole of Elton John's Aida, six times a week, from muscle memory with plugs in his ears and the Atlantic Monthly on his music stand. We got sandwiches on Broadway and took them under a tree in the Sheep Meadow, where children roughly the age of my Israeli nieces and nephews were trying to pull a fat low bough down on us. I wanted Jim and Stephen to meet because they remind me so much of one another, particularly in their goofy staccato cackle. But you know how those expectations can sabotage an introduction, and the full lunch hour elapsed without a single instance of cackling.

Jim and I went back to the State Theater after lunch and he let me see the theater from the pit, a first. I love that theater! It's glitzy and romantic and I saw Moses & Aron and Busoni's Faust there. Good times, good times, and how often do you say that about Schoenberg? I was awestruck, an aged Eve Harrington looking up at the theater from the pit, but Jim should not worry--his oboe is safe from me. The most thrilling part of my afternoon in and near Lincoln Center was seeing the Juilliard School with its face ripped off. I mean no disrespect to my alma mater. Like everybody else who went there I had a love-hate relationship with the school, and much of the hate was directed at the spectacularly oppressive brutality of its architecture. A little glass, a realignment with Broadway, and a better attitude should improve the situation dramatically.

Jim and I hung out at Albert's place for a while. Albert had gone to Newark that morning, en route to celebrate Hugues Cuenod's one hundred and fifth birthday in Switzerland, but had returned to West 67th Street when he realized he had left his briefcase (tickets, passport) at home. We decided it was for the best because it meant he was free to have dinner with me, so after falling asleep in the Ramble in Central Park for an hour I returned to Albert's bar to watch the news at 6 and then spend the next five hours lighting Albert's various cigarettes and talking various blue streaks. Jim was getting a Helicon Foundation mailing out so he wasn't able to join us until we were finishing dinner at Nick & Tony's down the street.

After wheeling Albert home I walked to Hell's Kitchen where I met up with Julian DeLeon, whom I met in San Francisco as he was on his way to New York to dance with Stephen Petronio. He and I had expensive cocktails at an overly designed bar and then repaired to his tenement, where I have spent much of the last few days marvelling at its doorways, which are all deeply skewed parallelograms.


Friday I killed some hours with Julian wandering around that liminal area between Flatiron and Union Square and the West Village and Chelsea. At the Strand I had a mild anxiety attack sitting among all the Jesus books. I became certain that I was responsible for reading all of them before I write another word of my novel, and so I didn't buy any of them. I also put down what looked like a crucially relevant book by a Nobel laureate about the physical underpinnings of memory.

Nol Simonse, who played Oren, boyfriend of my Jeb in the Stephen Pelton Dance Theater spring workshop "The Hill," met us at the Strand and we went for excellent falafel on 14th Street. I kept saying I was going to head back to Williamsburg but I never made it, just frittered away time with modern dancers until it was time to meet Manoel at the Public Theater. How thrilling to see a friend who has gotten so chubby on purpose. I wrote down the numbers somewhere but I think he went from 155 to 192 and is back down to 185. He gained the weight for a Todd Solondz flick but then Emma Thompson pulled out and now the studio has hired a trainer whom Mano had to meet in Central Park this morning at 9AM so he can resume life as the skinny heartthrob with which he gained his legions of disorderly young female fans.


Mano and I ate a tiny Japanese dinner and then saw Eisa play the mother in Passing Strange at the Public. It was my second time, Mano's third. Mano and I talked each other's ears off about the play all night, but the only salient point is that Eisa is a dazzling performer and so was every other person onstage, including Stew in his too-cool-for-school way. After the show, Eisa, Mano, the absurdly good-looking Chad Goodridge (see pic below of the Passing Strange cast minus Eisa--he's at center) and I went to Cafe Orlin and had surprisingly good food. Mano left early because he had to get up early and lose weight.



I spent the rest of the night with my dissolute modern dancers, ending up on a rooftop with beers. Two pieces of good news worth recording: Mano roped Eisa into a play he's producing and I'll be here for the preliminary performances Monday and Tuesday. And Eisa was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

About Me

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Paul Festa’s first film, Apparition of the Eternal Church (2006, 51 min), captures the responses of 31 artists to the apocalyptic music of Olivier Messiaen (with Justin Bond, John Cameron Mitchell, Harold Bloom; screenings: Grace Cathedral, Barbican Centre, Library of Congress; “Remarkable”The New Yorker; “Stunning”Chicago Sun-Times; “Sublime”Globe & Mail; numerous awards). Festa performs the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, opposite members of the San Francisco Ballet and The Cockettes, in his award-winning second film, The Glitter Emergency (2010, 20 min), a silent-film drag ballet comedy (“Enormous visual and musical inventiveness…full of pleasure and joy...Festa gives a bravura performance."—Film Threat). He produced, wrote and edited, with director Austin Forbord, and was chief archivist, for the Emmy-nominated documentary Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco (2010, 80 min: with Robin Williams, Bill Irwin, Peter Coyote; screenings: Geary Theater, KQED; “Intriguing...entertaining...a valuable record”—Variety). Performances as violinist and actor: ODC Theater, Center for Performance Research, Kunst-Stoff, TheatreFIRST, North Bay Shakespeare, Albert Fuller's Helicon Ensemble (Merkin Hall, Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall). US, Boston, NYC, SF, LA and DC (Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress on the “Betts” Stradivarius) premieres of Messiaen’s Fantaisie for violin and piano. He is the author of OH MY GOD: Messiaen in the Ear of the Unbeliever, based on Apparition of the Eternal Church, and several anthologized essays, and has written for The Daily Beast, Salon, Nerve, and The New York Times Book Review. Current projects include a novel and Tie It Into My Hand (2014, ca. 80 min), a documentary feature that has screened as a work in progress at the Cannes film market and at ODC Theater in San Francisco (with Alan Cumming, Gary Graffman, Peter Coyote, Mink Stole, Robert Pinsky; "A fascinating exploration of the artistic life, as rollickingly entertaining as it is insightful and stirring."San Francisco Bay Guardian). Education: Yale (B.A.; prizes, honors, distinction), Juilliard (Cert., Adv. Cert., scholarships). Residencies: Yaddo, MacDowell, ODC Theater, Centre des Récollets.

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