Thursday, April 29, 2010

Schumann, bless his heart

Before I became a Mendelssohnophile, I was a Schumannophile. At some point, after I turned into more of an organist than a pianist, I transferred my affections. I needed a break. Schumann may have written some of the most stunningly beautiful phrases of all time, but Mendelssohn's music just seems so, well, sane, in contrast: mature, confident, reliable, and able to form complete paragraphs, rather than moody, petulant, fragmented, and ravishingly, achingly, hopelessly Romantic.

2009 marked Mendelssohn's 200th birthday, so I celebrated by learning a few of Mendelssohn's organ sonatas. 2010 is the Schumann bicentennial year, so now I'm learning some of Schumann's organ music--specifically the fugues on BACH. (In German, the letters B-A-C-H are the names for the pitches B-A-C-B, a nifty little chromatic motive that even Johann Sebastian himself had fun with.) Schumann didn't leave much music for organists to choose from, actually; he wasn't an organist.

What I've learned so far is that, indeed, Schumann was no organist. When he wants a crescendo, for example, he pretends the organ is a piano: instead of telling the organist to pull out a few more stops, he tells the organist to grab a few more notes; instead of adding in a 16-foot stop to some 8-foot stops (one of the resourceful things you can do on an organ that you can't do on a piano), he has the left hand double everything the right hand is doing, an octave lower.

Even if you can't read music, you might still be able to see this happening in the middle two systems below. The top stave of each system is the right hand, the middle stave is the left hand, and the bottom stave is the pedals. He does it in the pedals too--see that octave doubling in the third system?

If my knowledge of organ repertoire were broader, I might know of other composers who do this sort of quirky, unidiomatic thing. But for now, it's just Schumann, all the more endearing for plugging resourcefully onward on an unfamiliar instrument, a passionate fish out of water ("bless his heart," as we say in the South).


Not much to report of late, as we've all been sharing colds. S gave a talk in Chicago earlier this week, so E and I decided to bond in his absence over an evening DVD. We rented Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World, about assorted human and animal activities in desolate Antarctica. We started the DVD, and I thought, gee, this looks oddly familiar. Turns out S and I had rented it before, and I had missed most of it because I had fallen asleep. I fell asleep again this time, but this time I'll remember not to rent it again.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Before and after

We finally ran the kiln's "first firing" sequence, beginning at 7:30am Sunday morning and finishing at 1:30am Monday morning. Our porch's 121-year-old wood siding and 100-year-old wood flooring were protected from the heat by cement board, but because of all the scary warnings in the kiln manual, we had a fire extinguisher on hand and carefully monitored the temperatures around the kiln every hour or so with our new cool geek toy infrared laser thermometer. Because we are nerds, when we were done, we made a nifty little graph plotting interior and peak exterior kiln temperatures over time.

Below are "before" and "after" photos of our porch. As you can see, it did not ignite. All in all, the experience was similar to watching a rock warm up in the sun over 18 hours, but more thrilling because it was our rock. And because our rock reached an internal temperature of 2167oF before its computer shut it down. It's not your average rock.

Because the first firing tempers the kiln elements, the only things I could put in the kiln were the stilts and shelves. The shelves had a coat of kiln wash on them that has now cured; they'll get two more coats. Next time, I'll actually put some pots in.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


In 1578, the botanist, antiquarian, and translator Henry Lyte introduced the English-speaking world to Dodoens' Niewe herball* or historie of plantes. The original tome was written by Flemish physician and botanist Rembert Dodoens. Lyte's edition--so the Oxford English Dictionary tells us--presents the first known use of the English word "catkin," derived from the Dutch katteken, diminutive for katte, meaning little cat. Dodoens apparently saw a resemblance between kittens and those dangly, scruffy, pollen-bearing attempts at flowers that fall out of certain trees in the springtime and accumulate into giant pollen tumbleweeds.

Even when they are not traveling in gangs, catkins do not strike me as particularly kitten-like; consider the photo above, for example, in which a catkin insinuates itself upon a hot pink azalea blossom. A kitten might have enhanced the image; the catkin does not. The etymology thus makes me think Dodoens did not care for cats.

And in fact, cats historically have had a pretty rough time of things in Belgium. Nothing illustrates this better than a festival that has been held every few years over the past few centuries in Ieper (the modern, Flemish name for Ypres). Wikipedia calls the Kattenstoet "a parade devoted to the cat." Although Kattenstoet may be Dutch for "cat parade," I say the word looks suspiciously like Katzentot--German for "cats' death."** Indeed, the Kattenstoet celebrates the medieval tradition of hurling cats out of the marketplace tower belfry onto the town square below. Oh dear. It is some consolation that the last time revelers hurled live cats was in 1817.

But enough about pollen and kitten abuse. Below are a few catkin-less images of the season. The azaleas and stars-of-Bethlehem exploded this week. Especially attractive is the demure pink blush on the white azaleas. Spring also ushers in YMCA soccer, making this a good time to pore over German soccer trading cards with friends.

*I keep misreading herball as "hairball" rather than "herbal," but I think there's some justice in that.
**Katzentot is one of those remarkable theoretical German words that exists in practice only because someone (in this case, me) thought to smush a few real words together.

Monday, April 12, 2010

How to enjoy the beach

I am not a beach person. Beaches come with dry, dusty sand that gets on your legs, in your shoes, and all over your feet. The sand gets under your toenails, where it feels like the synaesthetic equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard. On the North Carolina coast, beaches also often come with endless rows of ugly pastel-colored three-story houses on stilts.

But you don't have to be a beach person to enjoy the unadulterated, undeveloped outer banks of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. Hop on a ferry in scenic, stiltless Beaufort (third oldest town in North Carolina), and fifteen minutes later you're on Shackleford Banks. There is no need to sit or (shudder) lie on the sand, when you can walk as far as nine miles along the richly shell-covered beach. Visit off season, and you're likely to see more horses under the Carolina blue sky than tourists or sand flies. A herd of ~130 wild horses roams the grassy knolls between sound and ocean, their ancestors likely having crossed the Atlantic hundreds of years ago on Spanish galleons that foundered on the shoals.

While most of your party frolics giddily in the frigid salt water, you can embark with a few friends on a hunt for huge, unbroken whelk shells. Perhaps you will also find a small dead shark on the beach. (Because birds have been snacking on one of its eyes, you might want to admire it from the unpecked side, appreciating that you can view it up close without getting bitten).

Later, when everyone else snoozes, wind-blown and exhausted, on the sand, you can stand with your jeans rolled up and your feet in the water, watching pelicans while the breaking waves keep your toes comfortably undusty and undry. Close your eyes and deeply inhale the fresh salt air, and you might even be able to imagine yourself as a beach person after all.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Spring has sprung, take 2

Of course, the oak trees are getting some help in the pollen production department.

Pollen on steroids

Three days ago, in symbolic harmony with Easter, every tree in Durham burst forth with tiny, radiant, light green leaves. By evening, not a branch was bare. Then the wild, hedonistic gametophyte orgy began.

Pollen season in Durham is always impressive, but this year is outpacing the past ten combined. The wind blows, and pfft, a billow of yellow dust explodes from every tree. The clouds hover momentarily, then waft slowly down the street. Profligacy compensates for lack of discernment. Rocks, fire hydrants, asphalt, mammals: anything's fair game when an oak tree feels the urge to fertilize.

The entire population of Durham is wandering around in a blinking daze, eyes raw and red not because of microscopic allergens but because of the scratchy, millimeter-scale particles that are bombarding everything. I took a walk around the block yesterday to snap some photos of pollen-covered cars, and by the time I came home, my camera was dusted as well.

The season is unfolding in fast-motion. What was yesterday an innocent-looking clump of pollen bunnies hanging on a tree is today a pollen tumbleweed, running amok in the street, building up size and strength.

Truck Days

I wrote the story below back in 2002, when I was pining for a way to quit an assistant professorship I loathed, without having to actually take the initiative to do so. (I'm bad at quitting jobs, but I did quit that one, finally, in 2004.) I'm publishing the story on my blog eight years later for my friend C, who doesn't need to quit her gig, but who has been having some serious truck days of late. Unfortunately, the gods got it all wrong this week and sent her four-year-old son an immunization-resistant form of chicken pox. Not right. Not right at all.

Just to be perfectly clear, I was Beth and I was Lola. Lola was actually a music theorist with a minor in linguistics, but I changed her degree program, professional affiliations, and age to make the connection less obvious. Peter was totally fictitious, but my husband S still bears a striking resemblance to Jack. (Fortunately, S didn't actually take the job, and for better or worse, he's oblivious to pain.)

(ESP 2002)

Some days are truck days: days when you sure could stand to get hit by a truck. Not killed, mind you, or permanently maimed, but taken out of commission just long enough. Maybe you could break a leg--your left one, since you need your right one to depress the accelerator in the car (so much for stick shift). Or perhaps break an arm, though you would have to be careful about the extent of the break because it could have a longer term impact on your ability to type once you got out of the hospital, and it would probably best be your left arm, since you're right handed, but what would that do to your guitar chops? In either case, leg or arm, you need a hospital stay, though it could be brief--say 24 hours or so. If they simply put a cast on you and sent you home, you might be expected to resume work right away, which would defeat the purpose of getting hit by the truck in the first place.

You imagine how it will feel. The damage should be localized and preferably not too painful. How well would sneakers protect your foot if the truck rolled over it slowly and with precision? (You wouldn’t want the bumper to bang your shin--that could really hurt.) And best to avoid anything with the knee, given how long it took for that biking injury to heal, but how do you break a thigh or shin bone without knocking the knee out of whack? No matter what, you have to be the one who gets hit by the truck: no fair wishing to be called away for a "family emergency," since it would be unkind to wish a broken limb on any of your loved ones, or even someone you detest.

Just long enough. Just long enough to have an excuse not to finish the 20-page financial report due next Tuesday. (Make a note to yourself to get hit long enough in advance that you could have finished the project, but for the terrible misfortune.) Just long enough to get out of giving that conference presentation--in which case you can get hit as late as the night before, since your colleagues have all at one point or another written a paper at the last minute in their hotel rooms.

Friends will cluck their tongues--"poor dear"--and will bring you flowers in the hospital, admiring how noble your wan, perspiring face looks against the sterile white sheets.

The only problem with the plan, of course, is that the wish comes true when you least want it to. And inevitably it's metaphorical. The truck bowls you over figuratively, not literally, taking you out of commission when you need to be present, when you want to be present. Like when Beth had to go back to the hospital after having her baby. Pregnancy, labor, and delivery were all fine and dandy, she said, and then boom, hemorrhaging, anemia, and mastitis, and they didn’t even find the haematoma until a week after she finally got out. She never did bond with the boy; it’s no wonder he’s having such a rotten adolescence. Consider: all she wanted was a little extra time off before going back to work and instead she got hit by a triple whammy truck.

At least Beth had the good sense to limit the chaos to her own immediate family. Peter, on the other hand, really blew it. His personal truck arrived precisely five minutes before he was to give an as yet unwritten presentation on as yet uncollected data to the team of underwriters who had flown in all the way from Paris and without whose continued funding his entire department at the Research Park would be forced to fold, leaving him thoroughly humiliated and his colleagues back on the job market. When the epicenter of the earthquake began its rumble less than five blocks from his hotel room, his final thought was "…but it was supposed to be a truck."

Jack had a different approach. Afraid of bodily harm (yet remarkably prone to self-inflicted cuts and burns due to perpetual tinkering with the "valves" of small household machinery), he hoped for unavoidable delays rather than injury. So desperate was he for a late flight once that he manufactured one himself by arriving at the airport a day late. When the company offered him the job anyway, he felt compelled to take it, shipped himself off to the boonies, and hasn’t been heard from since.

But then there’s Lola, my hero Lola. To her peers, Lola seemed to breeze through graduate school, obtaining a Ph.D. in literary theory by the time she was 26. The year she finished her dissertation, she had fifteen interviews at the Modern Language Association conference, a dozen on-campus interviews, and six job offers. She took the job at Yale, her proud parents’ alma mater, and settled into a brilliantly productive academic life.

On the eve of her thirtieth birthday, already tenured, Lola had an epiphany: that what drove her remarkable productivity was an overwhelming number of fantasies about salvation through eleventh-hour trucks. "How sad, how unhealthy," she declared. The next day, she marched into the post office and applied for the job she had dreamed of in her youth: mail carrier.

"The United States Postal System is the most efficient mail-delivery system in the world," she explained to stunned friends and family. "I'll get to work outside, I'll have time to think, and when my workday is done, my time will be my own. People will be happy to see me coming. And it's a way to be patriotic and wear a uniform without going overseas to kill people."

She got the job, and immediately gave her department chair notice. She could not remember ever having been happier.

Her loyalty to her new employer would have wavered had she realized some of the parcel delivery service was being farmed out to FedEx. Fortunately, she never saw that business move coming, just as she never saw the big white FedEx truck turning the corner on her first day of work. It struck her from behind, killing her instantly.

Admittedly, death is far longer lasting than just long enough. But had she been able to witness her own demise, Lola would have been pleased, for this was the very best circumstance she could have imagined: a truck that enabled her final thoughts to be not of pining to avoid life, but of joyously embracing it.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Drive-thru follow-up

The whole Drive-Thru Easter thang has me wondering why Christians should have all the fun. OK, so Westwood Baptist in Cary explicitly avoided labeling their production "fun" because, after all, "it is a crucifixion," but Duke Memorial Baptist Church in Spring Hope, NC, didn't hesitate to advertise the pleasurable aspects of its similar event, inviting people to "Come out and re-live the final week of Christ! Enjoy it from the comfort of your car!"

This morning I started thinking about my own religious upbringing, and about what we Jews might do to compete with the Easter Bunny, marshmallow Peeps, and Drive-Thru Crucifixions, and suddenly it popped into my head: the vast, untapped potential of the Drive-Thru Seder, American style! ("The original Last Supper, updated to accommodate the hustle and bustle of modern life!") Would the Jews have bothered slogging between the parted waters of the Red Sea if they could have driven out of Egypt instead? And why wander in the desert for forty years, when we've got GPS and iPhones? Surely G*d understands that three hours is a long time for a meal these days.

With the Drive-Thru Seder, you can be assured that this night really will be different from all other nights, as you and your family cruise comfortably from one plague to the next: Blood! Frogs! Lice! Wild beasts! Pestilence! Boils! Hail! Locusts! Darkness! Death of the firstborn! Pull into the parking lot, roll down your windows, tilt your seats back, and enjoy a sampler plate of deep-fried Maror, Charoset, Zeroa, Karpas, Baytzah, and optional Chazeret on-a-stick, brought to you by one of our friendly car-hops. Wash it down with a few well-paced sips of grape juice (Mogen David kosher concord wine available in wet counties only), then pop the trunk for the prophet Elijah, and you're ready to roll! Your children will delight in hiding the Afikomen under the front seat amongst the loose change, candy wrappers, and Cheerios. Of course, no Seder would be complete without joyously celebrating G*d's liberation of His chosen people with a rousing chorus of Dayenu on car horns. "Next year within driving distance!"

Saturday, April 3, 2010

A gift for the Germans

When we lived in Freiburg im Breisgau, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany, last fall, I blogged regularly about our experiences, almost always from the perspective of a stranger in a strange land. There was much to priase: gun control, clean public restrooms, a functioning multi-party political system, bucolic scenery, walkability, public health care, architecture, art. There was much to feel distressed about: the shadow of the Holocaust, alienated teenagers who beat up strangers on subways, neo-Nazis. And there was much to poke fun at: pop music (good news! "Aloha He, Stern der Suedsee," by the group Die Flippers, is back on!), the bizarre and remarkable consistency of Brotzeit menus from one Bavarian restaurant to the next, regional dialects, adult men who pretend to be cowboys on their play ranch near IKEA, and people who vacuum their sidewalks in the fall and shovel snow off of them before dawn in the winter.

Today, to show my appreciation for all those quintessentially German experiences, I offer a gift in return: something quintessentially American. Indeed, it has "Made in the USA" written all over it in proud, indelible ink. Into which category--praiseworthy, distressworthy*, pokefunworthy*--will the inquiring German tourist place it?

We have before us, on this Easter eve, Westwood Baptist Church, in nearby Cary, North Carolina. Too busy shopping at Wal-Mart and Starbucks to properly contemplate how Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sins? Thanks to Westwood's Drive-Thru Easter, you can hear and see the Passion from the comfort of your very own air-conditioned SUV! Church members enact six scenes of the season, beginning with Christ's triumphant entrance into Jerusalem and ending with His Resurrection (for which, reports the Raleigh News and Observer, "Jesus' tomb is fashioned out of the church's Dumpster area, a dark sheet, and a toy pool made to look like a boulder").

Germany, of course, has the famous Oberammergau Passion Play, performed at least once a decade over the past 376 years as a way of thanking God for sparing the town from the bubonic plague in 1633. This year's cast numbers around 2,000--about half the population of Oberammergau. But the play lasts five hours, not including a three hour dinner break, and you actually have to get out of your car for it. Plus, all the stores are closed by the time it's over. So inefficient. In the U.S., it's all about convenience. At Westwood, you get to enjoy "almost an instant worship experience," and you're already in position to drive somewhere else as soon as you're done.

*Neither "distressworthy" nor "pokefunworthy" are real words in English, though I'm sure the German language can come up with legitimate one-word translations for both.