Sunday, April 28, 2013

The experiment begins

This is how The Scarlet Letter begins:

It is a little remarkable, that—though disinclined to talk overmuch of myself and my affairs at the fireside, and to my personal friends—an autobiographical impulse should twice in my life have taken possession of me, in addressing the public.

Later in the paragraph, the narrator expands on the allure of his alien writerly impulse:

...[A]s thoughts are frozen and utterance benumbed, unless the speaker stand in some true relation with his audience, it may be pardonable to imagine that a friend, a kind and apprehensive, though not the closest friend, is listening to our talk; and then, a native reserve being thawed by this genial consciousness, we may prate of the circumstances that lie around us, and even of ourself, but still keep the inmost Me behind its veil.

When I read the opening paragraph yesterday, I thought: had he lived today, perhaps the narrator would have been a blogger--an introvert who, speaking to the ether through pixels rather than the printed page, imagines connecting to some reader who, out there in that vastness, actually understands him. A computer screen makes a great veil.

Encouraged to have found something to relate to in the very first paragraph, I boldly plowed through the second. Alas, I burst out laughing when I reached the first sentence of the third.

When I teach science writing workshops to engineers, we talk about how science writing differs from other genres of writing. I emphasize the importance, in science writing, of putting verbs near the beginnings of sentences, or at least near the beginnings of main clauses, since readers of English get antsy if they have to wait too long for verbs. I'm not suggesting Romantic novelists like Hawthorne shouldn't have put verbs wherever they wanted to. Popular authors and their publishers presumably knew what they were doing, and obviously The Scarlet Letter isn't a scientific journal article. But golly, putting the verb six words from the end of a 139-word sentence strikes me as a little late. The suspense in the first 133 words is palpable; with every parenthetical aside, with every interjection, the reader wonders: what will the exciting action-climax be?

I thought: A clue! Perhaps sentences like this turned me off when I was 13! Thankfully, I now have sufficient life experience and analytical skills that sentences like this only make me laugh out loud.

Here's the sentence (for the full effect, read it attentively; do not skim!):

In my native town of Salem, at the head of what, half a century ago, in the days of old King Derby, was a bustling wharf—but which is now burdened with decayed wooden warehouses, and exhibits few or no symptoms of commercial life; except, perhaps, a bark or brig, half-way down its melancholy length, discharging hides; or, nearer at hand, a Nova Scotia schooner, pitching out her cargo of firewood—at the head, I say, of this dilapidated wharf, which the tide often overflows, and along which, at the base and in the rear of the row of buildings, the track of many languid years is seen in a border of unthrifty grass—here, with a view from its front windows adown this not very enlivening prospect, and thence across the harbour, stands a spacious edifice of brick.

A big brick building stands in Salem! What more excitement could a 13-year-old want?

Friday, April 26, 2013

Cultural literacy, take 2

A confession: I have never much enjoyed reading. As a graduate student, I once found some early elementary school report cards that my parents had saved. My teachers praised my interest in writing, and my general congeniality; they had no complaints about my math skills and were impressed by the maturity with which I used clinical terms in sex ed (it was the 1970s, after all, and my mom worked for Planned Parenthood); but they sure wished I would show more interest in reading.

Part of the problem, as I recall, was that I was supposed to have been smart, so I always ended up in school reading groups for which the books were consistently 6-12 months beyond my developmental ability to grasp. In 4th grade, for example, I was in the "advanced" reading group that was going to read Ramona. I was dismayed to discover that instead of reading Beverly Cleary's Ramona, we were reading a different Ramona. I could relate to Ramona Quimby--remember the time when she wanted to make sure that all the apples in the bushel basket in the basement were OK, so she took a bite out of every single one?--but I couldn't relate to the other Ramona, the "mixed-race Scots-Native American orphan girl, who suffers racial discrimination and hardship in Southern California after the Mexican-American War" (to quote Wikipedia).

The earliest of Beverly Cleary's Ramona books was about 12 years old when I was born. Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona was 83. When I read the latter in 4th grade, it was 92. Even Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House Books (my essential resource for understanding what it was really, truly like to be caught out on the prairie in a horse-drawn buggy with your suitor and his handsome horses when the weather turned wacky and funnel clouds appeared on the horizon)--even those books were far newer, with Little House in the Big Woods published a mere 36 years before my birth.

OK, so maybe I enjoyed reading some books as a kid. I don't read much fiction as an adult at all, maybe one to three novels a year, and I tend to favor children's and young adult literature (loved Harry Potter, loved Holes)--easy reads, I suppose. Given how little I enjoy reading, I'm amazed I managed to get a PhD.

So where did my reading go awry?

A few years ago, leading some writing tutoring outreach in one of Durham's public high schools, I learned that kids were reading--and disliking--many of the same novels that I had read and disliked in high school 25 years earlier. I was a too-young white female small-town/midwest-university-town reader at an academically privileged high school when I first encountered Lord of the Flies, a 1954 novel (25-29 years old when I read it) about a bunch of kids from a British boys' school trapped in circumstances that revealed the innate barbarism of humanity (yeah, middle schoolers are mean, so what else is new?). I had a hard enough time relating to the book; I could understand how, 25 years later, inner-city Durham kids might also have a hard time relating. And The Odyssey--which, as a too-young reader, I found to be quite the slog--was still part of the canon--but then, what's another 25 years for a story that's ~2.8K years old?

Maybe, I thought, I hadn't always disliked reading; maybe I learned to dislike reading thanks to a school system that, in its interest in keeping me challenged, ignored my immaturity.

Yeah. So last week, I was driving somewhere in my car, listening to the classical music radio station, when on came one of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. This immediately triggered memories of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Around the time I read the book in high school, I was in the habit of getting to know my parents' LP collection, and I would put records on the record player to help make reading more pleasurable. When an LP reached the end of the first side, instead of turning the record over, I'd simply lift the needle up and move it back to the beginning. I memorized a lot of great music this way (to this day, I can mimic much of the Four Seasons on the piano, without needing to look at a score), but I also indelibly printed The Scarlet Letter onto Autumn and Winter.

Listening to the radio last week, I wondered: what if I were to read The Scarlet Letter now, as a 46-year-old with some significant life experience behind me? Would I like the book any better than when I was a naive, too-young high schooler?

(I keep writing "too young"; I really was too young for much of what I read. I started elementary school early, and I was 11 when I started 7th grade. My secondary school was a 5-year high school that combined 7th and 8th grade into one year, so everyone there was younger than students in equivalent grades at other schools, but I was younger than most going back to Kindergarten. I graduated when I was 16, and started college when I was 16, and it really was way too young--not academically but emotionally--and I wouldn't recommend that sort of path to others.)

Anyway, listening to Vivaldi on the radio, I hatched a plan: I would choose 3-4 books I didn't enjoy the first time around, and reread them, to find out whether they might be more enjoyable 30 years later. Doesn't that sound like a fun experiment?

Knowing how slowly I read, I decided library copies weren't the best option, but I didn't want to invest a lot of money in books I'm not necessarily expecting to enjoy. Imagine my delight, then, when ordering some cheapo music scores from Dover, I discovered that Dover publishes super duper cheap reprints of The Canonical Classics--$2.00-$3.50 each!

Arriving soon at my door will be:
The Scarlet Letter (eek);
The Odyssey (a 1921 translation rather than the fabulous new translation recommended by a friend, the better to reproduce high school conditions);
A Tale of Two Cities (which, OK, I didn't read in high school: I read it in 6th grade, when I was 10. Way too young.).

Lord of the Flies isn't available through Dover, but guess what I found instead--Siddhartha! Friends tell me this is a good book. I totally didn't understand its point in high school, although I remember the vocabulary word ascetic being significant. When I found the title in Dover's listings, my gut reaction was "dang." I guess that means this experiment will be good for me in some way or another.

Finally, I decided to give myself a bit of a break with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I read in high school but actually understood and enjoyed (so it only half qualifies).

E will likely encounter some of these texts at school himself in the next few years. Perhaps we can re-live one of the joys of his earlier youth by reading together out loud. Doesn't The Scarlet Letter sound like the perfect material for such mother-son bonding?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Goofus and Gallant join the youth choir

A few months ago, I became the very lucky inheritor of two big boxes of organ music when a friend helped her mom (a retired organist) downsize. I've enjoyed using many of the scores since then, but it wasn't until this morning that I got around to looking through a file folder of loose-leaf materials. I'm positively giddy about a wonderful find therein: four Goofus and Gallant-style illustrations, dating from about 1963, that use trite, pedantic musical snippets to instruct pimply, reluctant teens in in the proper decorum for Church Youth Choir. The pictures are numbered 1, 2, 4, and 8, so I'm clearly missing at least numbers 3, 5, 6, and 7, which, as we shall see, is a shame.

We begin with pedagogical illustration #1:

For those of you who do not read music, the hand-written tune at the top uses the same melody as "Here we go 'round the mulberry bush." All together now, children: "Which is the way to start the year?" Certainly not like poor Goofus on the left. He has a ripped shirt, and patched trousers that are too long for him and thus rolled up too much at the ankles. That's no way to dress for choir! Also, he can't read his music because he left his folder on the floor at the end of choir season last spring. His attitude problem is evidenced by a frown (although if we want to give him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he's justifiably ticked off that the illustrator has put a downward stem on the wrong side of the C in the second measure of the annoying song). Young Gallant, in contrast, is smiling and enthusiastic. He is holding his music slightly off to the side, so he can read the score and simultaneously watch the well-prepared cheerful choir director. His pants fit (and what a fine, ironed crease they have!) as does his clean button-down shirt with the pocket protector. His belt is cinched tightly, helping him hang onto his youthful soprano tessitura just long enough to sing the solo opening verse of "Once In Royal David's City" one last Christmas Eve.

Here's pedagogical sketch #2:

Everyone together now: "Which is the way to learn our songs?" On the bright side, both Goofus and Gallant have become crew-cut blonds, increasing their trustworthiness, but oh dear!--now Goofus is slouching. His cuffs are still too big, he's ignoring the choir director, and he's frowning sullenly at his music (although perhaps that pouty lower lip expresses consternation that the pedantic illustrator forgot to include the correct key signature in the cutesy ditty). He's also going to tip his chair over backward in a minute. (Because the rest of the choir is filled with Gallants, that calamity will be met with polite but awkward silence, rather than loud guffaws). Brown-nosing Gallant, meanwhile, sits at attention in his uncomfortable folding chair. He looks anxious because he is working so diligently to sightread well, lest he disappoint his kind and musically meticulous choir director.

Pedagogical picture #4:

What is in Goofus's mouth? Is that a hymnal? Goofus is going to lose some of his teeth doing that, but even damaged teeth won't get him out of choir. "Which is the way to be on time?," we attempt to sing in unison. Goofus probably would have been on time had the illustrator not trashed the meter in the first measure: 7-8 time is OK for Bernstein, but has no place in 1963 Youth Choir! Gallant, meanwhile, remains blissfully oblivious, not even noticing the key signature is wrong. What key signature has just an A flat? None of the standard Western keys, that's for sure. What kind of music is this choir singing?

Last but not least, pedagogical ditty #8:

"Which one is making the director mad?" Things have gone downhill fast (what did we miss in pictures 5 through 7?). Both Goofus and Gallant are shocked--shocked!--that they have to fit ten syllables into eight notes, and that whoever set the text put an unstressed syllable on a downbeat. For Heaven's sake, it's di-REC-tor, not DI-rec-tor. Goofus, in his disbelief, has let his score fall to his side, and even Gallant (who has let his hair return to its natural dark brown) is covering his book with his arm and refusing to sing.

My choir, of course, is filled with normal human beings rather than archetypes. When I showed them these treasures this morning, they didn't quite understand why I found them so uproariously funny, but I will post them on the music room door anyway for everyone's edification.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

R.I.P. Leo and Beamer

On March 28, we lost Leo H. Rasbora. By the time we noticed he was gone, he had been mostly consumed by his tank mates. Born into a schooling breed, he became a loner following the Great Fish Tank Catastrophe of 2010. He never took to the four perky harlequin rasboras we added to the tank this past winter. Maybe they're the ones who ate him.

S usually tries to ease the transition from life to death for our aquatic pets. When he notices a clearly dying fish in the tank, he prepares a small container of tank water, gently transfers the fish, and then puts it in the freezer. This is an "old school" method. There's heated debate online regarding whether freezing is humane compared to other methods of euthanasia, but it does seem kinder than being eaten by your cohabitants.

As sometimes happens with couples that have spent their lives together, Beamer followed Leo out of this earthly realm last Sunday. She was 11, and had spent her last year in a frenzied procreative love affair with her unnamed mate, who in his time of loss appears to be less morose than hungry. It's hard to read the emotional state of a fish.

S froze Beamer. She was floating on her side by the time he got to her, quite likely already dead, but he wanted to ease her along just in case. This morning, I opened the freezer door and saw what I thought was a container of shiny silver toothpicks--another one of E's experiments, perhaps. But no, it was Beamer's dorsal fin, which hadn't quite fit into the plastic casket (a clean Chobani yogurt container, pineapple flavor). It was shocking to see her so undignifiedly frozen into a funerary chunk of ice.

Pondering these weighty thoughts, I googled "fish death," hoping to find something meaningful to say about fish and ice cubes. Thus I discovered a Wikihow article on How to Get over a Fish's Death: 7 Steps, for which someone was surely underpaid. My favorite suggestion is #5: "If you have things that remind you of your fish, put them in a scrapbook," although the photo of the toilet for #1 ("Give your fish a burial") comes in a close second. Don't miss the link at the bottom, How to Tell If Your Fish Is Dead: 9 Steps.

R.I.P. Leo H. Rasbora
In the staring contest with death, you emerged victorious

Good night sweet Beamer
And schools of Angel Fish swim thee to thy rest

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Training on the ATT

C and I are gearing up for our first 10-mile race this coming Saturday. For this week only, "gearing up" means tapering back. We ran eight miles last Friday, three miles on Sunday and Monday, and we'll run another three tomorrow; that'll be all until we magically manage to run 10 miles--farther than we've ever run before--on Saturday. More experienced runners tell us that race adrenaline will pull us along.

At the beginning of last summer, I couldn't run hilly 5Ks without taking walk breaks, so it's a pretty big deal for me to run eight miles straight through. It helps to run with a friend who has a comparable pace; we hold each other accountable.

I've been doing all of this in the minimalist light blue Merrells I bought a year and a half ago. They're covered with yellow pollen and dirt, but they're holding up better than any shoes I've ever run in before, with several hundred accumulated miles. I'm now a minimalist shoe proselytizer. Talk to me about running and I will talk to you about how great these shoes are. I modified them a bit by inserting a pair of floppy soft insoles salvaged from a discarded pair of over-engineered, over-cushioned, over-controlling, over-realigning, over-trademarked running shoes, providing just enough of a barrier that I don't bruise my heels anymore when I step on sharp rocks.

For last Friday's run, C and I sampled a there-and-back stretch of the American Tobacco Trail that runs from southern Durham County (Fayetteville Road) into northern Chatham County (Pittard Sears Road). Thunderstorms the night before had tamped down the ubiquitous clouds of yellow pollen that are this season's curse. Everything was fresh and beautiful: clouds, bridges, trees, rivers, new leaves in dozens of different shades of green, blossoming redwoods and dogwoods, dancing yellow swallowtails, and a family of seven deer. At our turnaround point, we pined for a sip of water, and what should magically appear but this:

The trail extends for another nine miles or so further south; we clearly have more exploring to do.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Claycophony of Instruments

Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye--
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages--
Thanne longen bloggers their blogges to update.

I'm thinking of Chaucer because yesterday, I was on a jog with my friend C, and something she said made me think of The Squire's Tale, in which the narrator claims he will not speak of something and then goes on for a while speaking of it. C said there's a name for that rhetorical flourish, and I've tracked it down on Wikipedia: Apophasis (more specifically, Paralipsis and Proslepsis).

Says the Squire:

This Cambinskan, of whom I have you told,
High in the palace, mounted on his throne
With crown and royal vestments sat alone,
And held his feast, so splendid and so rich
That in this world its like was not, of which,
If I should tell you all of the array,
Then would it occupy a summer's day.
Besides, it needs not here that I apprise
Of every course the order of service.
I will not tell you of their each strange sauce,
Nor of their swans, nor of their heronshaws.
Moreover, in that land, as tell knights old,
There are some foods which they for dainties hold.
Of which in this land the esteem is small;
There is no man that can report them all.
I will not so delay you, for it's prime,
And all the fruit of this were loss of time...

At the point in my education when I read The Canterbury Tales, it seemed that the narrator went on for pages and pages like this. As an adult, I see he didn't (maybe there are longer examples elsewhere in the text), but my memory of him inspires my blog today.

Thus, I will not tell you of the past year of running with C, training first for a 10K and now for a 10 mile race; of the weekly interwebs running assignments she signed up for and from which I mooched; nor will I tell you of our increasing endurance, nor how 5K, once strenuous, now feels brief.

Moreover, I will not so delay you by reporting on my renewed love affair with Robert Schumann, of my exploration of his Six Canonical Etudes (with which I was previously acquainted through Debussy's arrangement for two pianos), nor of their beauty on the organ, nor of my continued good but largely unrealized intentions to record and here upload my organ demos at Duke Chapel, so that I might learn from the listening thereof. Moreover, I will not mention the comment left by a YouTube listener regarding someone else's too-fast but otherwise accomplished performance of Bach's "Kyrie, Gott heiliger Geist," BWV 671 (a piece about which I erstwhile wrote)--no, I will not mention the five words that cut to the quick, dissuading me from ever being so bold as to post anything but cute cat videos on YouTube; nay, I will not here type the patronizing punch: "This is a laudable start."

Instead, I will get to my primary point of the day (about which I will actually say little; there's probably a rhetorical term for that too): musical instruments made out of clay. I've blogged before about making clay flutes and, of course, chickarinas. Thanks to a request by a student at Claymakers, this past session I taught a class entirely devoted to making clay instruments ("Bells and Whistles: A Claycophony of Instruments"). We made ocarinas, flutes, penny whistles, rain sticks, drums, horns, vuvuzelas, and tooters, with some bells and bowls on the side (not surprisingly, pretty much anything you whap will produce a tone).

Barry Hall's fabulous book From Mud to Music served as our inspiration. Barry Hall's even more fabulous CD Terra Cotta made me and E drop everything one evening after dinner and rush out to Home Depot to buy PVC parts for a didgeridoo. The student who requested the instruments class ended up building an impressive didgeridoo-horn hybrid that is way cooler than PVC tubing can ever be.

This was a great class to teach, since it involved problem solving and engineering, music theory and physics, and rawhide (sorry cows) and roofing nails and holes and a willingness to make noise on the way to making music. (Did you notice all the conjunctions in that last sentence? The rhetorical term for that is Polysyndeton.)

Naturally, we ended the class with a potluck and jam session. Alas, I did not have time to bake jam bars, but one student did bring caramel Bugles.

Note: video has been edited to protect the embarrassed; you know who you are. Also, S insists the flute lick is "House of the Rising Sun," but that would mean I actually absorbed something other than classical music during my early youth, which is unlikely.