Sunday, September 28, 2008


Nicodemus is his confirmation name. He chose it because there is a Nicodemus in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. There is something very monk-like about the man, though for most of his adult life he has dealt with the very secular world of public schools and musical groups.

He can spend hours on end doing repetitive tasks, carving, sanding, scraping, painting, sawing, varnishing, not to mention daily practice on his instrument and on what he calls his "stuff", which involves sitting quietly. He is also very good at just sitting in a chair, especially if the chair is in a sunny place. You would not know he was the same person as the little boy who fired stink bombs at the neighbors and almost blew himself up, trying to make a diamond.

I thought he would love the monastery at the thousand-year-old community in northern Greece. It took many documents and late-night telephone calls to set up the visit. Then it was a ten-hour flight to London, another four hours to Athens, four hours on the train to Thessaloniki, an hour and a half by bus to Ouranopolis, a 20-minute boat ride on the rapide to the Chalkidhiki peninsula, and finally about an hour in an old van over dirt roads to Vatopedi monastery. I only accompanied him on the first half of the trip. Women, beardless boys and even female animals--except for hens--are not allowed on Mount Athos.

Food and lodging are free at the open monasteries, once you have done all the paperwork and received what amounts to a passport, since the mountain, like the Vatican, is autonomous. Nicodemus found the welcome warm, the bed soft, the food good, the monks friendly. The whole place had a wonderful sweet smell, he said.

His roommate, who had been there before, urged Nicodemus to have a nap as soon as he arrived and to turn in soon after dinner. The monks, employees and guests sat at long tables and were served fish, rice, bread, and a glass of wine. Scripture was read throughout the meal, and everyone had to finish in exactly 12 minutes.

At three in the morning, a monk woke everyone for church, beating on a big block of wood. Church lasted six hours, during which everyone but the feeblest and most ancient monks stood and knelt. There was a brief break before the next service was to begin. Nicodemus went back to his room, gathered up his things, and headed for town. It was more church than he had reckoned on.

"A successful prayer lasts about as long as a song. Four minutes," he said. "What do you do for the rest of the time?" Still, he thinks it was a life-changing experience, going to Mount Athos. He has done paintings of the monastery. He might go again.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Jon Carroll

Jon Carroll, whose daily column in the San Francisco Chronicle often seems like a sane voice crying in the wilderness, has just won the Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

Jon Carroll is a singular writer, but I think he's probably a singular human being as well, one you would like to know in person. His political essays cut so close to the bone that you wish he were a presidential advisor. Other times, he waxes as poetic as Robert Burns with his wee mousies and wee lousies, except that with Jon it is more likely to be kitten follies or household ironies. I think Jon Carroll has a high regard for Truth, a slippery commodity, one which is harder than you'd think to pin down in words.

There are good writers you wouldn't want to know. One famous critic and novelist deals so much with suburban east-coast hanky-panky that I wonder if he has any other interests. Some writers show themselves to be such tornados that it would be difficult to be in the same room with them. Would you really want to meet Steve Martin or Woody Allen ? They both write for the New Yorker, in case you've only seen them on the screen. Other writers reveal themselves as just nasty or egocentric or reclusive or crazy. Sometimes you know that the best part of the person is his or her writing; there wouldn't be much left for social acquaintance.

But the person you sense behind Jon Carroll's writing is decent, funny, right-minded, a husband and grandfather, a person whose eyes are always open and whose intelligence is an open system.  Anybody would want to know someone like that. He also answers his e-mail.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Updating the Resume

I just applied for a job at the Athens News. That's right, Athens, Greece. The newspaper, which has a weekly on-line edition, advertised for a freelance reporter or writer with a native knowledge of English. Yeah, yeah, that's me.

I'm sure they have in mind someone who lives in that city, but I am tired of practicing and washing dishes and, besides, the Athens News owes me, since the only time I ever got fired, it was they who fired me. It was unfair, and the reason they gave would be grounds for serious complaints today. In those days, however, nobody thought much about it. I got another job, teaching English, and kept it for as long as I lived in Athens.

The Athens News fired me from my part-time job when they found out I was pregnant (which tells you how long ago it was, since my son turned 50 in July). They said the print shop where I worked was in a bad part of town and only had one toilet, and I was the only woman there, and pregnant women went to the bathroom all the time and they couldn't be responsible for a pregnant woman. (I never did see the inside of that bathroom.) (Maybe just as well.)

It was, while it lasted, one of the most interesting jobs I ever had. I was a copy editor/proofreader, dealing mostly with news agency copy in French, Greek and English. There were only two of us. Since both my French and my Greek were pretty rudimentary at the time, I mostly edited wire copy. I indicated  punctuation, paragraphs and capitalization; the stories came over the teletype in capital letters. The other fellow dealt with headlines and layout.

All I remember about the other fellow was that he once remade a front page because a late-breaking news story came in which had to do with the balance of power. Then as now, the balance of power overruled everything else in importance.

We worked at night, later than the buses ran. Nobody had a car, so I had to take a taxi home to Philothei, a suburb of Athens. Fortunately, taxis were cheap. One night the neighbors near the print shop complained about the noise of the presses, and the printers had to load the locked leaden pages onto barrows and push them to another press with more tolerant neighbors. Apparently this happened every once in a while, because they knew right where to steer their barrows. I stood at the hazy window and watched the printers wheel away into the night.

I guess it was a pretty small operation. The Athens News is bigger now, and up to date. I read things in the Athens News which don't even make it to the BBC for a week or two. I hope they answer my letter. Maybe they'll hire me, just to even things out. Allow me this one delusion, and I'll cheerfully go back to Mozart and the dishes.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Bread and Music

I learned to make bread before I learned to boil water. It is my primary cooking skill, built on the experience of many failures. I made mud pies as a child, and as a bride of 19, I baked my first loaf of tsoureki, the Greek Easter bread, which looked like a big brown clover leaf with a red egg in the middle. The recipe failed to mention that you were supposed to roll out and braid the three sections of dough.

Bread-making is satisfying on many levels, especially the part where you knead the dough. I whale the dickens out of the raw dough, because the more you beat it, the better it is. There are all sorts of bread rituals such as "proving" the yeast, though I have yet to find any supermarket yeast which does not foam up in warm water with a bit of sugar in it. 

The Tassajara bakers advocate making a paste before adding most of the flour, and this does seem to strengthen the leavening power of the yeast, but I doubt that the folk traditions of punching the dough down exactly three times or putting a man's garment on top of the towel covering the dough make much difference.

My piano teacher, Robert Sheldon, and I wrote quite a few songs together. He would take my lyric and make it into music. The main difference between lyrics and poetry is that the words must be subject to the music, rather than containing the music within themselves. 

The Kneading Chant below was one of Ten Pastoral Songs. Sheldon's music actually sounded like the rhythmic kneading of bread, and at the end of the song, the harmony sat down, like the words of the lyric. I still don't understand how he worked this bit of magic.

Kneading Chant

Green is the wheat
when it springs from the field.
Green goes to brown in the sun of the summer.
Brown goes to white in the press of the millstone.
Flour, draw the water;
leaven, draw air.
I beat the dough just as fierce as I'm able
and we all eat the bread
at my grandmother's table.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Mozart Effect

There was a time when everyone seemed to be trying to prove that Mozart made you smarter. Tests were done, books were published, newborns were sent home from the hospital (or so I heard) with recordings of Mozart.

Mozart and I are daily companions right now. I am scheduled to pay his piano concerto in C, Köchel 467, with our small local orchestra in three months. It's about 55 pages of music, much of it solo, as concerti are.

Let me say here that I am no virtuosa. However, the orchestra raises money for music scholarships and we can't afford to pay a soloist. I am a regular member of the orchestra, but so far the only concerto I have played was one written for toy piano, at a children's concert. I am dependable, however, and fairly competent. It's not going to be Arthur Rubenstein or Alfred Brendel, but hopefully it will be something more than mere notes or Notes-art, as my teacher used to call it.

There is also the tricky problem of the missing cadenzas, the show-off parts of concerti which may be written by the composer or someone else. "Whose cadenzas are you using?" people ask. Mozart wrote three concerti in 1785 and performed K. 457 without a single rehearsal, the copyist's ink barely dry on the manuscript. He improvised the cadenzas and never bothered to write them down. There are two places in the concerto for cadenzas and at least two others known as re-entry fermatas where the pianist must come up with something worth listening to on his or her own.

Brendel, famous for his Mozart playing, says "I think (the player) will be more deserving if he makes a rigorous selection of versions (of cadenzas) he has improvised at home, rather than risking everything on the platform by trying to play Mozart as though he were Mozart." So, in addition to practicing, I am listening to various players' cadenzas and working out which ones I might be able to use.

Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart was born in Salzburg on Jan. 27, 1756. He was Wolfie to his friends and Amadeus or God-love to playwrights and movie makers who came up with fictional works which at once enchanted and misinformed viewers. The first time I saw the film "Amadeus", people sobbed audibly through the credits, which were accompanied by the "Lacrimosa" (tears) of Mozart's unfinished Requiem. Even though the film was not biographically accurate, the music--of course--was transcendent.

Mozart was not just a goofy genius with a fright wig and a silly guffaw. He may have been the greatest artistic genius ever born. He was a son, a brother, a husband, a father. By all accounts, he was generous, kindly, not egotistical, though certainly he was aware of the magnitude of his own gifts. He died in 1791, some say of typhoid, others say of kidney disease or an undiagnosed skull fracture. He left behind a staggering amount of music, up to 500 major works, and bits and scraps of Mozart are still turning up.

Working on the concerto, I do battle with: Laziness, Delusion ("Hey, that was pretty good!"), the temptation to fake rather than learn, the Wall of Resistance, physical limitations (sluggish reflexes and poor eyesight), mental limitations ("I yam what I yam", as Popeye said.)

So Mozart isn't necessarily making me smarter, but across the gulf of almost 250 years, he certainly is making me a better person.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Enchanted Cottage

The Enchanted Cottage, as my predecessor Howard called it, is a hundred-year-old 600 square-foot redwood house in the middle of a 5,000 square-foot lot rimmed by huge old cypress trees. Ravens live in the trees, which drop their round cones, needles and branches on the roof, sometimes with disastrous results. Howard never knew that the cottage had a name inspired by a minor 19th century composer, or that the cottage was intended for a musician or painter in what the town founder hoped would become an artist's colony.

With two adults and a cat living and working in the cottage, it is an ongoing battle to keep some kind of order. There isn't enough room for everything, especially with a grand piano in the living room. The refrigerator is outside, on the porch. There is one closet, about four feet wide. We have to move the furniture to get to the books and electric plugs. We can seat six at the table, but they can't get out until everybody else moves. The plumbing, installed in 1936, has frequent problems.

There is no garage. Instead, there is a ramshackle out-building which we call a studio because Howard, a painter, called it that. It is stuffed with everything which doesn't fit in the house, and Nicodemus practices and teaches cello out there in a clear patch with two chairs near the wood stove.

The house is a pain in the neck. Completely inconvenient, cold, inadequate, uncomfortable, with property taxes equal to a  good month's joint income. On the other hand, we can see the mountain and the ocean out the window. When the fog lifts, we can drag the telescope out and see the moons of Jupiter. We can practice as much as we like without disturbing the neighbors. We can make jam from the blackberries. We are visited by hawks, robins, phoebes, hummingbirds, squirrels, skunks, raccoons and neighborhood cats.

Yesterday, Nicodemus and I were walking around in the yard (because you can't walk around side by side in the house). "You know, we would never be able to leave this place," he said.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Ursula, who taught me to drive, became a Buddhist nun and a follower of the Dalai Lama, whom she called H. H. (for His Holiness). She went to live in Dharamsala and sent me a drawing which I copied and attached to a door. It shows a little monk at nine stages of his life. There is a Y-crossroads at the ninth stage, where he may return to the beginning, carrying his torch, or go on to the tenth state, Liberation.

In a recent interview on television, H. H. spoke of a problem which would have to be left for the next generation. "My generation is getting ready to say Bye-Bye", he said with perfect good humor, equanimity and confidence.

H. H. and I are the same age, and I have no good humor, equanimity or confidence at the prospect of saying Bye-Bye, whether to a shirt I like or, heaven forbid, to an adored pet, much less to a cherished friend or family member. Not that we have a choice in most cases.

Staggering under the weight of such musings, Nicodemus and I took a day off. We drove away from the fog, ate things which are not good for you at a pub, bought frivolous art supplies which we don't really need, picked wild pincushion flowers, and bought ourselves matching khaki caps at the army surplus store.

Just as if we had all the time in the world.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Mimi, Jubilate

Today is Mimi's tenth birthday. She was born Sept. 3, 1998 at the Sonoma animal shelter and was moved in April to the San Francisco SPCA Maddie Center, where we adopted her. She survived a perilous kittenhood, climbing on the roof despite all the barriers we put up. At one point, she was kept from a hundred-foot fall by a sponge mop held at quaking arm's length. Now, more than middle-aged and weighing 20 pounds despite her low-calorie kibble, she does well to jump on a chair. Her godfather (yes, she has a godfather), after reading "Jubilate Mimi" in Half Moon Bay Memories, wrote a piano Capriccio and Sarabande in her honor. The title of the article and the piano piece comes from Christopher Smart's transcendental poem to his cat, Jeffrey, "Jubilate Agno".

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


I have been ploughing through Fitzgerald's translation of The Odyssey, looking for the part on the Sirens, whose song was irresistible. Odysseus or Ulysses had all his sailors stop up their ears so that they could not hear the siren song, and he had himself tied to the mast of his ship so that he could hear it but not move toward it. What could the sirens sing about which would be irresistible? Fame, fortune, eternal youth, a second chance?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Talking Bridge

I am retiring the nom de plume Talking Bridge, which requires entirely too much explanation. Briefly, I always wanted to be some kind of translator, whether in words, music or teaching. For a while, our family thought we had a Cherokee ancestor, but we never could prove it. My older son has a stronger claim to his Lakota name, Plays the Earth. Ask him to tell you about it some time.