Saturday, December 5, 2009

Thalassophilia



“The sea is calm tonight”, Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” begins, with the ocean setting the background for an impassioned plea: “Let us be true to one another.”

The ocean is the background for many Coastsiders besides the fishermen, the surfers and the beachcombers. We are so used to its sound, its constant presence, that sometimes we hardly notice it unless it rushes under the front door at Nick’s Restaurant in Pacifica, throws foam on the highway, or produces monster waves like the ones the Maverick’s people are expecting next week.

I have been a Thalassophile, an ocean lover, since I first saw the sea when I was fifteen. Born in Tennessee, I knew about lakes and rivers, but I was stunned speechless when I first saw the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean from the Carolina coast.

Since then, I have crossed the Atlantic by ship and plane any number of times, have been swimming in the Mediterranean, the Aegean and the Ionian seas, but I have settled at last where the first and last sights of daylight are the waves hitting the foot of Montara Mountain. The sound of the surf lulls me to sleep every night.

“Another summer at sea?” my husband remarked mildly last June as I began my fourth trip through Patrick O’Brian’s 21 seafaring Aubrey-Maturin books.

Now I am reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick for the first time and wondering why this big novel always seemed so daunting, gathering dust on the bookshelf all these years.

I am editing Susan Bradfield’s book The Reluctant Sailor, using Google Docs, since she is living on the yacht Apple II in Baja after some truly harrowing adventures in the Pacific. (Her first book, Any Time, Any Place: Meditation for Your Earthwalk, is now available on Kindle.)

My neighbor Richard is a true Thalassophile. He can see the Pacific from almost every room in his house. He fishes, walks his dogs on the beach, calls our ocean “Mother Pacific.” When he and Dolores were married at home, I took my portable keyboard and played Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Wave”. We ate crab and drank champagne, just them and the minister and me.

Everything rusts, silver will discolor overnight; we have fog and mildew and bone-chilling summers, but I don’t think I’d ever want to live out of sight and sound of our Pacific.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Extraordinary Women (Number One)


She lived in a Sufi commune and in a wilderness house she designed herself and which she surrounded with a fence of roses. She was in the Peace Corps in Turkey. She did a study, playing music to patients believed to be in a persistent vegetative state, and some of the folks, amazingly, responded.

Soft spoken most of the time, she is actually a lion in gazelle’s clothing. She has had various jobs having to do with improving the lives of old people. I have seen her at work. She can be terrifying when it comes to defending the old folks. She will not back down. She once bundled up a crowd of hospital patients and took them to the state capital to protest funding cuts.

She raised her son pretty much by herself and did a good job of it. She lives alone, but she hardly ever complains of feeling lonely.

You might see her as shy, but she is the one who will get out and rally her neighbors to join Friends of the Urban Forest and to plant street trees. You should see her present garden: Fountains, hedges, trees, herbs, a regular English garden in a 50-foot urban lot.

She is ecumenical in her religious leanings, attending Presbyterian, Quaker, Sufi and Jewish services. She can say the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic. We were yoga students together at the Himalayan Institute in San Francisco.

She writes regularly for professional publications, has written a novel, and is presently writing a book about medical insurance coverage and health care.

We have been friends for more than 40 years. We got our ears pierced together in the kitchen by a doctor who used a darning needle, a cork and an ice cube, which I guess makes us pierce sisters.

I know her about as well as I know anybody, but she can still surprise me. And of course she has a shadow side, as we all do. She second-guesses herself a lot. She frets about things. Strangely, she is not terribly confident, though you’d never know it from her decisive day-to-day activities. She worries about money. She has driven the same Volvo for twenty years. It is always clean and shiny, whereas my VW always has a layer of cypress needles and road dust. She is tall and willowy and looks great in clothes, but does lots of her shopping in thrift stores.

I wonder if she would recognize herself from this description.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Primitive Kitchen


I wonder if they still make Universal food grinders and Foley food mills. Does anybody still make their own butter and chicken stock? The primitive kitchen has always appealed to me: the broth on the back burner, the soap perfuming the room as it cures, the blackberry wine bubbling in a gallon jar.

Some of this atavistic enjoyment certainly is due to my learning to cook as a bride on a farm in northern Greece, where things were pretty basic. I balked at the charcoal burner and the north window which were offered me as a kitchen range and refrigerator in our new apartment at the American Farm School outside Thessaloniki.

When I bought a little Swedish kitchen range, it caused havoc among the community women, who up to that point had been content to have their baking done at a public oven seven miles away. My nearest neighbor calculated to the penny what she had to pay the bakery plus bus fare there and back and presented her husband with proof that a cook stove at home would save him money.

The Farm School handymen found a kerosene refrigerator for me. The north window was fine for keeping things cool during the winter with its Vardar winds, but summers were warm and we didn't have electricity at night unless the school was incubating chicks. I don't know how it worked, but as long as you kept it in kerosene and fresh wicks, that machine would even make ice cream.

I learned to whip egg whites with two forks and to make butter by shaking cream in a mayonnaise jar until it separated. I canned tomato sauce in sterilized wine bottles with corks tied down with string and coated with paraffin. I cracked walnuts with a mortar and pestle, sometimes using the pestle to hammer a nail. I picked wild dandelion greens.

Nowadays, I use an electric mixer and buy butter at the store, but I still like to grind meat in the old Universal and make purees with the Foley food mill. I use my grandmother’s rolling pin. I still pick wild greens, make soap once in a while, make bread, and boil up the chicken skin and bones for stock.

The primitive kitchen is the ultimate in Slow Food.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Trekophilia



So many ideas which were science fiction in the late 1960s have become reality that I’m surprised Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, isn’t considered a modern-day Nostradamus.

The most obvious in the life-imitating-art department is the cell phone which is almost identical to classic Star Trek hand-held communicators. This morning’s New York Times had a story about an adaptation which can turn a cell phone into a microscope, making it ever closer to Dr. McCoy’s medical scanner.

Full-body scans are a reality. We don't have phasers, but we have tasers (hopefully set on "stun"). "Warp speed" has entered our vocabulary. Chiropractors are using lasers to stimulate cell repair. The Smithsonian has a Star Trek display.

We watched the original Trek series on our old black and white Zenith television, phoning fellow Trekker and bosom buddy Dick to debate antimatter or race or whatever (then) radical idea Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock were dealing with. When actual astronauts landed on the moon, the kids, wearing their Trek tees, were unimpressed because the astronauts didn’t even beam down.

We have seen all the Star Trek television series which followed the original, balking only at Deep Space Nine and the kiddie cartoons. We have tried to read the books. We have seen all the movies. At the most recent movie, we had to explain to grandchildren why certain aspects of the story line were so avant-garde and outrageous in their day. The grandchildren were a little bewildered. Trek technology failed to impress them.

Now we even have a president who is somewhat Spock-like. I wouldn’t be surprised if he instituted the Prime Directive or tried a Vulcan mind-meld on certain inscrutable foreign leaders.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Reading in the Closet

My mother kept books she thought were inappropriate for children in the coat closet, which had a single light bulb and smelled vaguely of mothballs. You might guess that this was my favorite place to read. I think the forbidden books included things like Forever Amber, Tobacco Road, and a book called Green Dolphin Street, which had a hair-raising earthquake sequence.

There was a nun in Green Dolphin Street who had given away all her possessions when she took her vows, all except a small box of things she could not take with her but couldn't bear to part with.

I wonder if all of us don't have a few things which wouldn't mean anything to anybody but us. I have a Girl Scout tree-finder's badge, a class ring from college which I never wear, and even a small vial of earth from Thessaloniki. They aren't worth anything, and I don't think I've ever shown them to even my nearest and dearest, but if I were going away to become a nun, this is the sort of thing which would be hardest to leave behind.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Newspaper Mystery

I am in the throes of writing a mystery novel set at a large metropolitan newspaper in the 1950s. Being in the throes means that I have about twenty files on the computer as well as a large binder filled with notes, maps, and scribbles on envelopes and napkins.

The work brings up all sorts of memories of my first job, working for what I am calling the Knoxville Times: Sounds, feelings, even the names of people I haven't thought of in years.

And since we are far removed in time and space from those days, I might as well confess: I am the one who misspelled either "Seize" or "Siege" in a banner headline on the front page. It was some years after I started at the paper and I was on the rim of the copy desk, where we edited copy and wrote headlines.

The headline was passed to the copy chief, who sat in the middle of the U-shaped desk. He put the half-sheet of paper in the pneumatic tube which went to the composing room, where it was set in print, locked into a lead page, cast into a cardboard mat, recast as a cylinder in lead, put on the presses and printed.

The news editor swore very loudly when he saw the paper. The presses were stopped. The page was remade, the earlier copies of the newspaper scrapped, and all this was on overtime at regular union wages. And then the hunt began for who was at fault. Meanwhile, the man who sat next to me on the copy desk had found the original paper with the headline and had buried it in his desk drawer.

Heads would have rolled, of course, except that nobody seemed to know anything about who was really responsible for the misspelled headline. There were five or six of us on the copy desk; the news editor and the managing editor had seen the proofs and had not noticed the mistake.

I confess: Not only did I write that headline, but just now I had to look up the spelling of "Seize" because "I before E except after C" is still stuck in my head.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Making a Diamond


When Nic was about twelve years old, he saw a movie about diamonds and decided he would make a diamond himself.

He took an old water heater, an air compressor, carbon from an old dry cell battery, assorted jars, hoses and funnels, went to the store and bought carbide, which one could do in those days.

He bought a gas mask, heavy gloves and a roll of asbestos stuff which he intended to wrap around his legs.

Before actually beginning to make the diamond, however, he thought he would do a trial run. He started the water dripping on the carbide and ran around to the water heater to strike a match (he was not wearing his protective gear.) Nothing happened. He lit another match and nothing happened. He lit a third match, there was a huge explosion, he screamed and went running home.

His mother immediately called the doctor, who made a house call (they did this in those days) and found that, apart from lots of rust, Nic was not seriously harmed.

I love this story because it tells so much about my husband: His willingness to take a risk, his sometimes caution, and his idea that many difficult things may be accomplished by ingenuity and sheer persistence.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Zoo

One of the many reasons I liked Biology classes in college was the fact that almost everything (starting with the word Biology--study of life) had a Greek name. Taxonomy was no problem if you knew a little Greek; Ovid's Metamorphoses and Bulfinch's Mythology were surprisingly useful.

Here a bare 20 minutes from a major city, we have more animal visitors than you'd think, and the zoa and phyta (animals and plants) are a constant reminder of our cultural heritage as well as of the natural state of the land before we humans intruded.

From the bird kingdom, phoebes (for Phoebus Apollo) show up at dawn, competing with the robins (Erithacus) for the earthworms (Oligochaeta or hairless animals). The ravens (Corvus or korax, croaking) rule the roost, all black-feathered since Apollo took umbrage at one of their messages. At night, however, Athene's owl calls from the cypress trees. The trees themselves are named for Kyparissos, who accidentally killed his pet deer and was fated to weep throughout eternity.

Down in the corner, two Daphne trees, named for the maid fleeing some ancient god's advances, recall the oracle of Delphi, who reputedly chewed laurel leaves in order to enter a transcendent state. Many of the plants have descriptive names in Greek: Chrysanthe(mum) is Golden Flower; Pyrocanthus is Fire Thorn.

Though we have a renegade deer or fawn which comes in the night and eats the rosebuds, we haven't seen much of the raccoons and skunks since we stopped putting out the garbage at night. The opossums have stopped coming around, too, and it has been years since I saw a garter snake.

The spiders (Arachnids, for the master weaver who challenged Hera, the wife of Zeus) are still on duty, of course, and gophers, slugs and snails (from the family of Mixozoa, slime animals) make gardening a challenge.

Two wild visitors this week stared at me through the window: A hummingbird hovered on the other side of the glass, a foot from where I was munching my sandwich. And a grey squirrel who had a long, fearless drink from the basin I keep out front, then hopped on a log and looked at me long and hard. I felt exactly as if I were on the other side of the bars at the zoo.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Social Security Tango, Part Two


I have never really fit in very well, so it is no surprise that I've had trouble thinking of myself as a senior citizen. There's a stereotype of the Golden Ager (one of dozens of euphemisms for old people) which involves hobbies, cookies and gardening. My garden is neglected, I don't knit very well, and I only brag a little about my grandchildren.
So it was a bit of a stretch for me to go to the health screening at the senior center, though I liked the convenience of having several routine tests done at one place. I was dismayed to arrive fasting and with no coffee to find what looked like more than a hundred old people with a ten o'clock appointment at the center.

For a moment I thought I'd just go home and have the tests done the usual way at the hospital lab, but then one woman announced loudly that she had her own doctor and that she was leaving to have her lab work done privately. That was enough to ally me with the shuffling masses because I didn't want to be that woman. Secretly, I felt that I should be on the giving end rather than the receiving end of this service. I felt that I wasn't old enough or poor enough to take the place of someone who maybe couldn't afford to pay.

Unexpectedly, the line moved very efficiently, and within a half hour I had been weighed, measured, tested for cholesterol and glucose, and given a brief health advisory by a very nice nurse (Keep an eye on your blood pressure. Everything else is fine.)

Nobody asked me for proof of age, citizenship or anything else. Nobody asked for money.
I drove home feeling that some things are worth praising in this world.

Social Security Tango, Part One


When life has turned your cry of pleasure
into a wail
And you try to cut the mustard but you
sometimes fail;
When you can't believe the mirror 'cause you
still feel pretty young,
Here's a charming melody just waiting
to be sung.
It's the Social Security Tango.
Don't you anticipate it breathlessly?
The Social Security Tango
Shows how the government takes care
of you and me.
Just keep on working and salting
those credits away
And you'll be getting a big check one day
And do the Social Security Tango,
A rose between our teeth, a smile on our face.
We'll get senior citizen discounts
And eat at famous franchised fast food places,
And they will say how well preserved we are,
So agile and so spry
And though we'd rather just be sexy,
Ours is not to reason why,
And we will join the double A-R-P
and try to just get by
And do the Social Security Tango.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Cane Guy and Push Guy

Beating, spanking and whipping in the classroom is frowned upon these days.

The era of "spare the rod and spoil the child" is so far past that tenured teachers who repeatedly strike students may be sent to a district Temporary Reassignment Center or Rubber Room while their cases are being heard. They must clock in and stay from 8:15 to 3:15. They get paid for the time they spend in the Rubber Room, an average of three years, with summers off.

Last week's New Yorker had a long article about one such room in New York. Someone I know had a close-up view of a different Rubber Room, and he told me about Cane Guy and Push Guy. Cane Guy, who came from an educational background where classroom discipline often involved beating, had been removed from school after repeatedly striking students with his cane. He spent his days at the reassignment center watching videos, waiting for his case to be decided.

Push Guy, whose offense was that he repeatedly pushed desks into students, spent his days on the telephone.

Push Guy complained that Cane Guy's videos made it hard to hear his phone conversations. Cane Guy turned up the volume. Push Guy pushed a desk into Cane Guy. Cane Guy hit Push Guy with his cane.

Violence is, of course, no laughing matter, but there was a certain Zen silliness about this story, especially since both Push Guy and Cane Guy had been removed from contact with children. The story shows that teachers' unions have some kind of clout, because teachers cannot be dismissed without due process. The teachers have to show up to get paid, even if they don't do any work, and therefore somebody can keep an eye on them.

And since they are not allowed contact with students, teachers like Push Guy and Cane Guy have only each other to pick on.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

How To Write

“I wish I could write.” I hear this all the time. “I wish I could play the piano.” And I say (or think) “Well, why don’t you?”

Everybody has a story. Telling this story in words, paint, dance, music is a good thing in many ways. It breaks through the isolation so many people feel; it may teach; it may inspire. It doesn’t matter that other people have told the same story, because each person has his or her own point of view.

But how do you do it?

In newswriting, it’s a matter of telling something: Who, what, when, where, how.

But in fiction-writing, journaling, poetry (not to mention painting, sculpture and music) it is much more a matter of showing.

As an exercise, take an object, say a coin dug up while hoeing the garden, and write twenty thoughts about it.

1. It is a metal coin.

2. It seems to come from another country.

3. It is probably silver. It is not gold.

4. It seems to be English or Australian.

5. It is small.

6. There is a picture of Queen Elizabeth on the coin.

7. The date on the coin is 1973.

Now you see the difficulty in coming up with twenty thoughts. Already we are in the area of speculation: Did someone deliberately bury this coin? Who? Why? Was the coin lost? Who by? All sound proceeds from silence, and much good writing proceeds from mystery.

A trilogy by the great Canadian writer Robertson Davies begins with a snowball which has a rock inside.

Looking closely at something, almost anything, primes the pump for creative activity. It is just as simple as can be. It's even simpler if you have something you really want to say. Then it is more a matter of paring away the nonessential.

You notice that I have not mentioned spelling or grammar. This is craft, and I have been talking about art. Bad spelling, bad grammar and punctuation tell things about their user which that user would rather not have known. And if the writer has any hopes of success in a college essay, a job interview, or published work, there simply isn’t any way around writing the best you can in your native language. Many manuscripts have been rejected the first time an editor came across a possessive its with an apostrophe.

I have been writing, either as a job or for simple pleasure, for quite a long time. I love to tell a story, and I love to hear other people tell theirs. What's yours?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Little Girl On a Rope Swing


The drooping leaves of the eucalyptus

were moss-green, not grey

as in the photograph, and the towering branches

would have been tinged with copper.

Black and white, she clings

to the sharp diagonal of the swing

at the farthest reach of its arc.

Whoever gave the swing a push

and took the picture is not shown,

not even in shadow. The child’s

shirt would have been blue, with stripes;

the jeans, well-worn, the color of

forget-me-nots. The girl on the swing

has her back to the camera.

She is looking up ahead

and you can see the edge of her face

lifting—she may be laughing—

but her shoulders are tensed

against the unknown.

Her feet, tightly together, look big

in their sneakers. She is

slight of hip but pudgy of waist.

Crowning this moment

was her riotous halo of

uncombed golden curls.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Playing for Church



Playing for church is a more exciting job than you might think.

I first played for church 60 years ago in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for the Methodist church which met in an elementary school near our house. My mother made me do it. The church paid for my piano lessons.

On the Coastside, I have probably played for every church which has a piano or organ. I am well acquainted with their instruments, especially those of Community United Methodist Church, where for about 35 years I have played as a substitute, for services, weddings, funerals and choral performances. For years, I played for Coastside Lutheran on a tiny organ at the Odd Fellows’ Hall, facing the wall so that I couldn’t see what was going on.

I have a recurring church dream: I can’t find the church, I’m going to be late, I have forgotten my books (or clothing), and when finally I get there, nobody knows what’s going on. All these things except the clothing have actually happened.

There was a time I forgot my slippery flat organ shoes and my high heel got stuck in the pedal board. Or the time I got mixed up about daylight savings time and arrived to find the pastor’s wife in my place at the organ. It was pretty exciting when the old tube organ at the new Lutheran church began strobing and sounding like a mandolin. My favorite church music adventure was when the musician who was supposed to play for a wedding got stuck in traffic on Highway 92 and the dismayed wedding coordinator found me, in jeans, practicing in the choir room. I put on a choir robe and was trying to remember the chord changes for the processional while playing something else as the relatives and guests walked in. The bride was waiting at the chapel door when the regular pianist ran in, out of breath, and took over.

Or there was the sunrise service at the beach where I played the organ on a truck bed and the generator was louder than the organ. I think I wore gloves, it was so cold.

As an outsider (because I belong to a church in San Francisco which never asks me to play) I often daydream out during the announcements. However, many of the sermons and almost all the pianos and organs are memorable, most of them in better shape than that old tube organ—which has since been replaced with a modern instrument.

Even so, at the Lutheran church (for many years now in its own building on the Cabrillo Highway), you have to take vise grips to hold the music rack up on the otherwise very nice piano. At the Episcopal church, some of the organ’s pedal keys don’t work and you must avoid them. The Episcopal church once had a small piano with the names Princess Elizabeth and Margaret Rose embossed on it.

At the Catholic church, you have to make sure the transposer has not been turned on before you work with a singer. The Kawai at the LDS church has a killer stiff action and a pedal you need muscles to use. The Baptist church has a nice little grand piano which is kept in tune.

I have read and heard that there is a shortage of church musicians. The reasons may be that fewer people have put in the minimum twelve years of music instruction that it would take to play most written-out church music, or that many salaries are low and the time required too high, including evenings, holidays and weekends. Some of my church music friends simply don’t want to play the kind of music many churches prefer these days.

It is an odd kind of discipline, playing for church. You must expect the unexpected: Someone faints or begins to cry. At the last minute, they ask you to play something you’ve never heard, and they don’t have the sheet music. The power goes off and the electric organ dies and the church goes dark. Everyone is looking at you and you don’t know what they expect you to play. Someone doesn’t show up. Too many soloists show up, confusing the date. You play too many verses, or too few, and the people laugh. You and the congregation are widely at variance on the tempo of the hymns.

Although this won’t happen in most cases, you may step out the back door of the church into thin air. Community United Methodist Church in Half Moon Bay, founded in 1867, actually moved its chapel so that the front door faced Johnston Street instead of Miramontes Street, and they moved the church hall out to the south end of town. The back door for a time faced nothing at all (now it has steps.) Nobody told me about this the first time I played at the turned-around building, since all the church members, of course, knew about it.

The requirements for being a church musician are that you are dependable and prompt, that you always have your bookmarks in order, that you know most of the hymns and the popular vocal solos, that you always show up, that you demonstrate flexibility and an ability to lead the singing with your instrument, that you read music really well, that you know how to select voluntaries or solos which are appropriate to the occasion. It is a plus if you can look reasonably pleasant while dealing with all the surprises.

I have hundreds of books and a big binder full of music for church. The title of the binder collection is Winging It.


(Drawing is a wainscoting detail at Community United Methodist Church in Half Moon Bay.)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pied Beauty

By Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

Glory be to God for dappled things--
For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pierced--fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Frugal Craft




"No, she never threw anything away," my mother said, speaking of Nannie, my grandmother, who had pieced the quilt squares. Mother, who herself never threw anything away before she moved into her small apartment at Heritage Pointe, found the squares in a box which had escaped the general clean-out because nobody knew what to do with them.

Nannie herself probably didn't know what to do with them. They didn't match each other, and each one had a flaw. A piece was frayed or too small or, in one case, nibbled. I looked at them for quite a while before I decided to continue the tradition of frugal craft.

In 1915 or so, when I figure my grandmother made the squares, one did not go out and buy fabric to make a quilt. The whole idea was to use what you had, odd pieces, unworn pieces of worn-out garments, tail-ends and odd bits. Tiny pieces were stitched with tiny stitches into elaborate geometric patterns, and something useful was created from leftovers.

The Bear Claw used a pink fabric so sheer that it needed a backing, and the frayed edges of the blue had to be patched. The clever brown butterfly was missing a corner --do you see the mend?--and had to be darned in two places. There was nothing wrong with the Star of Bethlehem except that it was tiny, or so I thought until I washed it and the color bled.

I thought a lot about my grandmother as I made the squares into pillowcases and quilted them, trying to match her small stitches. Her world was the garden, the kitchen, the family. She raised chickens and a cow and columbines and apple trees. She canned and preserved. When times were hard, she sold milk and eggs. Her recipes for boiled custard, heavenly hash and fried pies have been passed on to a fourth generation.

She had five children. Four of them became teachers and another became a noted researcher. These children had 13 children of their own, four of them adopted. There are 13 great-grandchildren and quite a few great-greats.

"Lady Mary", they called my grandmother, from Demarius, her middle name. I have her side-saddle, her Wedgewood milk pitcher, her camel-back trunk and several of the quilts she actually completed. I also have her emerald ring. She came to my mother in a dream and reminded her to give it to me.

I like to can, to quilt, to putter about in the garden. I am probably more like my grandmother than anyone else.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Boy


She got pregnant. The father was married. She was living with Somebody Else. Partly because she was nursing, her breast cancer went undiagnosed until it was too late. They removed one breast. When they wanted to remove the other, she balked. “I don’t mind dying,” she said, “but I mind being cut up into little pieces.”

She was beautiful, and men always tried to approach her. One of them said “Oh, you’re in the arts? I almost went into the arts.” Her withering response was “Close call for the arts.”

She wanted the baby to be born at home, but after laboring all afternoon and all night (we played a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations over and over), she finally consented to go to a hospital to have a late-stage vacuum procedure. She came right back and limped up the steps, holding the baby. Somebody Else, who hadn’t slept for 24 hours, was right behind her. “Is he all right?” she asked, showing me the little face.

When the baby was a year old, we got three tee shirts. Mine said “I am the boy’s godmother.” Somebody Else’s said “I am the boy’s godfather”. The baby’s shirt said “I am the boy.”

Shortly after that, in June, 1983, She died, leaving the godfather a baby who wailed night and day. Social Services learned that there was an orphan child living with an unrelated adult. Things could not go on as they were.

Her mother, brothers and sister did not want the baby, but they hoped he would be adopted out near them, on the other coast, so they could see how he did. Trying to buy time, our male friends said they could each claim to be father of the boy (which is what we called him, the boy.) Meanwhile, the baby lived in the house where he was nearly born, with the man who had assisted in his delivery.

She had picked a new mother and a new family and had given the new mother a valuable ringas a token of the promise. The family asked for the ring back. They produced a will which would benefit the baby, but only when he turned forty years of age.

Then the baby’s father came forth, scraping together the money to fly from the east coast. “Why weren’t you here before this?” we asked, hugging the baby closer. “How could you let her go through all this without you?”

The baby held out his hands to the father. The father cried. They looked like each other. The father stated his case to each friend who was helping to tend the baby. “I always told her I would take care of him,” the father said. The baby held out his hands to the father again, and the father cried again.

Finally the father said the magic words. “My wife knows about this. We couldn’t afford to fly her out, but she has always wanted a baby boy. She wants the baby.”

Since the father had been named on the birth certificate, there really was nothing preventing him from taking the baby away, but still he wanted our permission. Finally there was nothing to do but grant it. The youngest and most cheerful of us accompanied the father and the baby to the airport. Somebody Else provided an Owners’ Manual.

From a distance, we followed the boy’s progress. He overcame a minor speech impediment. He went to school. His maternal grandmother actually saw him once in a while and tried to give him piano lessons. He learned to slaughter a hog. He played football.

When he graduated from high school, they gave him a plane ticket to come out and see where he was born.

As a baby, the boy had what I have to call winning ways. He had a disarming smile; he was charming. We were glad, because we knew he would need to be charming in his new life. We all wanted to see what kind of person he had become. He still had winning ways, but he was very different from the person he probably would have become if his mother had lived to raise him. He would have been sophisticated and well-educated and articulate. “I am really a simple person,” his mother used to say. But she wasn’t, not at all.

The boy had grown into a beautiful sweet graceful youth, but he hadn’t gotten very good grades at school, didn’t want to go to college, had no particular career in mind. We took him to the museum, but after a short time, he said “That’s about enough art for me.” All he really wanted to do was to marry his high school sweetheart, and so he did, almost as soon as he got home.

Yesterday we received invitations to a baby shower for the boy and his wife. They waited several years. They were in a hurry to get married, but they didn’t want to start a family right away. I wondered what his mother would think if she could look down and see how the boy turned out. I think she would have said that he was just fine. I wished she could have lived to see her grandchild.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Nora Ephron

People who are trying to write should not read Nora Ephron, because they will love the way she writes so much that they want to write like that. I'm serious.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Bow Fever

It may have been a mistake to show Nicodemus the cello bows on eBay. But bows of pernambuco, a rain forest wood, are getting hard to come by, even if you make your own. A blank piece of wood can cost several hundred dollars. Only pernambuco or Brazil wood can endure the necessary bending and then resume its shape. A good wood bow can run more than fifteen hundred dollars, with old bows by famous makers running into the high thousands. Which is why some string players are resorting to carbon fiber bows these days.

Victor Fetique a Paris, the eBay ad said. Starting at one dollar. A strange light came into Nicodemus' eyes, and before it was all over, he had won the Victor Fetique for $76, plus handling, shipping and insurance. "The fittings alone are worth more than that," he said.

When the bow arrived in the mail, we held our breath for a moment. It didn't really look like much, but there were no obvious cracks or flaws. "Here is a repair," N said. "This part is original." He weighed the bow and checked its balance point, still reserving judgment. "I think it might be a useful bow," he said.

We researched it a bit after the fact and found that the archetier or bowmaker Victor Fetique was known during his lifetime more for quantity than quality, that his bows were stamped Vtor, not Victor, that there were German copies around, that the real thing was going for $10,000 or more. (Our bow was stamped "Victor".)

N took the bow apart and looked at its innards. All was well. Better than well, in fact. "This bow was used in a pit orchestra," he said. "They would put the bow behind the strings, and you could see the marks of the strings on the frog (the black part where you hold the bow)."

"When a bow has been used to applaud someone by banging it on the music stand, you can see the little nicks in the wood."

So finally he began playing the cello with the new bow. "This is pretty good," he said. And he played some more, and then some more. After an hour or so, he said "This is fantastic. This bow is too good to be a fake."

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Hope


The Chilean blueberry tree, Luma apiculata, was a beautiful ten-year-old tree, but it had some kind of slow-moving disease which killed it off a little bit at a time. Despite extra water and fertilizer and quite a bit of regret, it languished, dropped its few remaining leaves, grew moss and fungus, and gave up the ghost. We took it down and used it for compost and firewood.

Then, lo! The dead stump began putting up hopeful little shoots.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Stop the Presses!


We actually stopped the presses three times when I was working at the News-Sentinel: Once when Pope Pius died, once when President Kennedy was assassinated, and once when a banner headline contained a spelling error. This would have been a firing offense except that the headline written by a young copy editor had been read and passed by both the copy chief and the news editor (the original typed headline mysteriously disappeared.)

It was a matter of "I" before "E". The headline contained the words "Seize" and "Siege" ("I" before "E", and I still look both those words up in the dictionary before I write them.)

Stopping the presses in those days was expensive. The front page (it was usually the front page and the final edition which went for street sales) had to be recomposed, lead type and zinc photoplates changed or adjusted, then made once again into a cardboard mat into which metal curved to fit the presses would be poured to form a plate. Copies of the newspaper which were being replaced were discarded and printing began again, often with all the union printers on overtime.

I actually shouted "Stop the presses" myself at the Spokane Spokesman-Review when I was the only person left in the editorial room one Saturday afternoon and the first copy of the Sunday Women's Section hit my desk...with an engagement announcement for the publisher's daughter in which her name contained a typo.

The pressroom chief and I decided to blur the typo with a red-hot iron rod instead of trying to remake the page. Nothing was ever said about the tiny smear which appeared in the newspaper.

This morning's San Francisco Chronicle is the first edition to be jobbed out for printing instead of being printed at the Chronicle's own presses. The paper is five columns wide, about a half-inch narrower, with puzzles and comics now so small it is difficult to read some of the type. There are no wrinkles in the paper and the color pictures are perfectly registered.

Two hundred pressmen at the Chronicle have lost their jobs. "Well, where are they printing it?" Nicodemus asked. "Fremont?"

He thought he was kidding. The San Francisco Chronicle is now printed in Fremont.

(Engraving, Johannes Gutenberg, 1398-1468, inventor of the mechanical printing press.)

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Treacherous Beauty


When we hear the helicopters and sirens on the weekend, we know that someone has ignored the signs on the cliffs which say NO HIKING OR CLIMBING. We can usually tell whether the sirens are headed for Devil's Slide, where someone has driven too fast, or to Three Bells, where the old folks sometimes pass away, or to the ocean where no local would dare to swim.

Yesterday the helicopters were flying low and the sirens were in the beach area. Since it was a weekday, we thought maybe they were having a rescue practice. But when the evening news came on, we learned that a mother and her five-year-old daughter had been caught in the rip tide at the beach and drowned.

I vividly remembered arguing with my grandson, who wanted to walk too far out into the water a few years ago. He did not believe in rip tides and sleeper waves. I remembered getting caught by a sleeper wave in one of the shallow caves on the south part of the beach. Fortunately, the children with me and I only got wet and were able to scramble out over the rocks as soon as the water receded.

The ocean is beautiful and mysterious, but here on the northern California coast, you cannot trust it to be pacific.

(Watercolor of Montara Beach by CEC)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Midsummer Fires


Sir James Frazer's book, The Golden Bough, will tell you more about midsummer fires than you really wanted to know. Lit anywhere from the summer solstice to St. John's Day, today, the fires of midsummer in all parts of Europe were documented for centuries, associated with all sorts of things ranging from successful harvests to painless childbirth.

In Greece, where I saw my first midsummer fires, the old folks would only say that the fires should be made from the dried-out May wreath and that they were good for getting rid of fleas and for bringing good luck.

Last summer in Athens, I asked a friend if people still lit midsummer fires and she said that she never heard of such a thing and was quite sure it wasn't done, probably never had been done. However, the English-language Kathemerini, which comes with the International Herald Tribune, had a little article under "Fifty Years Ago Today" titled "The Fires of Ai-Yannis". And the terrible fires which destroyed acres of orchard and farmland in Greece last year began around the time of midsummer.

The article in the Herald Tribune said:

"Tonight, on the eve of the feast of Aghios Ioannis Prodromos (St. John Forerunner), the custom of lighting fires in front of houses using reeds or old palm leaves will once again be revived and children will be competing as to who can jump over the biggest fire. The shouts accompanying the leaps, exorcising 'bed bugs and fleas', bear witness to the fact that both young and old hope to cast into the flames the enemies of a good night's sleep...

"There is also the belief that on that particular day, the sun 'shakes and is blinding'.

"The fire-leaping customs of June 24 are not restricted to Greece but are found among all the peoples of Europe, from Scandinavia and Ireland to Russia. Similarities lie in the tiniest of details, which can only be explained by the fact that the custom dates from our common Indo-European origins."

The sun was not shaking and blinding here on the Coast, which is wrapped in a deep blanket of fog. However, I did take the dried May wreath and burn it. As usual, I'll put the ashes back into the garden. It's not that I'm superstitious; it's just that I think some rituals from the ancient past are worth preserving.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hot Lyric Imagination


Hot Lyric Imagination is what one colorful translator attributed to the modern Greek poet Varnalis. I was looking for an English translation for a friend who wanted to know the subtleties of "The Fated Ones", a Varnalis poem set to music by the composer Mikis Theodorakis.

The poem itself is a kind of "Aman" or "Alas" lyric, as highly favored by Greek musicians as by American bluegrass singers (imagine George Clooney lip-syncing "I am a man of constant sorrow" in the film "Oh Brother Where Art Thou).

One of my favorite Greek songs in the old days went
"I was born to pain and tyranny.
I curse the burden I have suffered": Very satisfying to sing when you're washing dishes. (My mother used to sing something called the Prisoner's Song when she was washing dishes: "If I had the wings of an angel, Over these prison walls I would fly.")

The comment on the Varnalis poem was a poem in itself: "His work is written in the demotic and has well taken care of form and plasticity in the expression. It is characterized by hot lyric imagination and satirical disposal with interest for the modern person. His poetry, particularly, is characterized from intense playful disposal and deep musical feeling that is combined excellently with the satyr."

I didn't find any satyr in Varnalis' lyrics, but I did find a wonderful kind of description which almost transcends language. With a rudimentary grasp of demotic Greek, one can visualize the setting and the intent of "The Fated Ones". It is guys in a bar, but there is a hurdy-gurdy churning out strange tinny music which accompanies a kind of Greek chorus. It might be one of the great dramatic tragedies from centuries ago, or it might be a smoky scene from modern times.

Not many poems manage to evoke a scene this vividly. Robert Bly spoke about "leaping poetry", poetry whose imagery could leap off the page and take the reader on a journey. Bly was particularly good at doing this, especially in his collection "Loving a Woman in Two Worlds".
Or in a tiny poem which I must paraphrase because I heard him speak it but have never found it written down:

Lord, have pity on me,
Thy ocean so immense,
My boat so small.

"The River-Merchant's Wife", a poem by Li Po, must one of the most perfect poems ever written in this regard. There are no opinions or conclusions. The speaker does nothing but describe, but the images are almost beyond time.

"At sixteen you departed...
You dragged your feet when you went out...

If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you."

The speaker doesn't have to say how much they love and miss each other. You know it from the paired butterflies which hurt her, from the leaves falling early, from the monkeys which make sorrowful noises.

Solomon's Song has Hot Lyric Imagination. So does Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach". And I have heard hot lyric imagination in words composed by Dolly Parton.


(Lyre, National Museum, Athens)

Friday, June 12, 2009

Three Wishes, No, Four, No, Twelve



            I have a magic lamp experience once in a while, where anything I wish for seems to plop down right in front of me. Usually this happens around the beginning of June, when at least a dozen friends and relatives share a birthday week with me.

            This year, the magic wishes didn’t start out well, with a summer cold which caused me to miss the party and to accompany the Chorale concert the next day with bleary eye and stuffy nose. But things began gathering momentum Monday morning when two phoebe birds, long absent, alit on the chicken coop and the telephone began to ring.

            The best presents sometimes just appear, like the rose-breasted phoebes.

    The mail brought quilt pieces made by my grandmother nearly a hundred years ago, and the gift was seeing her frugal craft, tiny scraps pieced together, the smallest of stitches. In the course of the day, poetry in Greek and English appeared, and flowers, music and tomato plants. The afternoon students all played nicely, Debussy and Bach and Mozart.

            At about 4 P.M., Carlos, the instrument maker, called and said he was bringing back the little violin I wrote about last month. The 14-year-old owner of the restored violin was just finishing her piano lesson. Her expression, when Carlos handed her the violin, was indescribable.

            There had been no way to know how the violin would sound before the work was done and the fiddle had strings.

            Another gift: June Morrall e-mailed me, asking if I would do a story, so I wrote about the violin a few hours after we heard its voice for the first time. The grand finale of the garage sale Curatoli violin appears on June’s site, www.halfmoonbaymemories.com.

            The most important wish was granted Tuesday when the doctors declared that Nicodemus was free of the hated disease. That would have been enough for many birthday wishes, but the wonderful intangibles continued.

            By Thursday, I was ready to be done with wishes for a while (we hadn’t even found time go out to a birthday dinner), but then Arl appeared with roses from her garden and eclairs and some new writing.  And my favorite San Francisco Chronicle columnist wrote and said he was going to include an anecdote I sent him in his next Monday’s column.

            Two neighbors called and asked if we wanted their tickets to Tosca. We gobbled leftovers, threw on clothes, drove to the city and found a free parking place a half-block from the opera house...only to find adorable Camille Offenbach (decolletage, cowboy boots) and her gentlemanly husband sitting in our row.

            “I lived for art and love,” Tosca sang, and we blew our noses and wiped our eyes, though of course you can’t watch the end of Tosca without thinking of when Beverly Sills jumped off the set’s painted cliff onto a too-springy hidden mattress and bounced right back up again in full view of the audience.

            Tosca was marvelous. High up in the San Francisco Opera House, the seats are so steeply banked that you get dizzy when you look down, but there are two large screens which unfurl nearby, giving you better closeups of the orchestra and the singers than you could get with front-row seats.  Puccini's villain, Scarpia, reminded me of a former United States Vice President. 

    So that was the birthday week: The week was dizzying, and we still haven’t had time to drink the champagne we bought.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Subtitles and Explanations


     Our most bizarre subtitle experience had to be watching "Rigoletto" at the open-air Herod Atticus theater in Athens. The opera was sung in Italian and had subtitles in Greek, the words running along a rail which separated the orchestra from the audience. Of course, with opera, you can pretty much tell what is happening without the captions.
     This is not the case with the BBC mysteries Nicodemus and I watch on television. There will be long monologues which are completely incomprehensible to me. N provides a running commentary, interpreting West Country and Scottish accents and Brit slang. Lately, on some shows, the BBC furnishes its own subtitles for rapid dialogue.
     Sometimes we will watch a movie just to be together without conversation, the way some people play cards, and the last two films we saw have required a different kind of commentary.
"No Country for Old Men" and "The Dark Knight" are probably the most violent movies I have almost seen.
     During the first of these, N had read the book, so he was able to explain the story to a mystified and somewhat repulsed me. During the second, an endless saga of murder and mayhem, I had to excuse myself many times for urgent errands. N would fill me in on who or what had been destroyed while I was brushing my teeth, feeding the cat, looking at tomorrow's calendar. At the end of the film, I was exhausted.
     "I'm sorry," Nicodemus said.

(Photo: Opera-goers at Herod Atticus, with the darkened Parthenon in the background.)

Monday, May 25, 2009

Moana

     At a garden party yesterday, we wore winter coats in fog and 52-degree Coastside springtime weather. Someone asked me what I had been writing lately. "Well, there's my blog," I said, "though I don't think many people read it."
    "Oh. What are you complaining about?" he asked.
     Gulp.
     There was a time at Skyline College where the voice teacher I worked with thought I groused and grumbled entirely too much. He began calling me Moana. The students thought that was my name. For a couple of years after that, students would greet me with "Hi, Moana!"

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Going Deaf


                   In 1802, Beethoven wrote to his brother Carl: "I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness; when I at times tried to forget all this, O how harshly was I repulsed by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf."
      Although Beethoven's musical genius overcame his disability, certainly he did not have a happy life. J. W. N. Sullivan in his book, Beethoven, says "His deafness and solitariness are almost symbolic of his complete retreat into his inner self."
      My friend Tedi dissolved in tears when we were studying Beethoven in Keyboard Literature at San Francisco State. "I would give all 32 sonatas," she said, "if only he could have had one happy day."
      I am concerned about noise levels and deafness. Motorcycles, chain saws, vacuum cleaners and leaf-blowers assault our ears every day, and I can no longer watch a movie without earplugs. Twice in the past few weeks, I have had to fish out the earplugs at restaurants because of shrieking and shouting which passed for normal conversation.
      In my college piano classes, the students used earphones and I monitored what they were playing and hearing. Routinely, I circled the room and turned the volume down on their keyboards. I am worried that all of us are being deafened by increasing sound levels, some of them perfectly avoidable.
      Regular exposure to sounds above 100 decibels for more than one minute can cause permanent hearing loss. Motorcycles, power saws, power mowers, and leaf blowers all produce sound at 100 decibels or more. OSHA's permissible noise level exposure for 100-decibel blasts is two hours per day, but they recommend only a half-hour per day for 110 dB (motorcycles, power saws.)
    The sound volume on iPods and other devices with receivers close to the ear or actually in the ear has not been published anywhere  that I can find, nor has the usual level of movie sound tracks. One chart said a Walkman on level 5 out of 10 produced 94 decibels. I doubt there are many Walkmen still functioning, but I also doubt that the volume on most iPods is set halfway down.
      There is an application for iPhones and iPods simply called dB which measures sound levels and I would be interested in learning where, for instance, most movies and souped-up cars rate on the volume scale.
     We know that Beethoven's hearing loss involved nerve damage, but that it came on in his adult life. It is unlikely that environmental noise contributed to Beethoven's deafness in the 18th century, but it is a prime suspect in much hearing loss in the 21st century.
     The incidence of hearing loss in classical musicians has been estimated at from four to 43 percent. At the Symphony recently, I noticed plexiglas sound baffles in front of the brass players, and my brother tells me this is common practice now, to protect the hearing of the other players. Hearing loss in rock musicians ranges from 13 to 30 per cent. Symphonic music at its peak can reach 120 to 137 decibels, but only for short periods of time. 
     Rock music heard from four to six feet can reach 120 decibels for a longer period of time and can even reach 150 dB, which is more than the loudest recommended exposure even with hearing protection.
    It's not worth it. Turn down the volume. Get rid of the leaf blower. Wear ear plugs.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Price of Literacy



            Some 40,000 people attended the University of Southern California graduation ceremonies May 15 in Los Angeles. All available seats near the speaker’s podium and the two large video screens were taken an hour before the beginning of the ceremonies, which featured a speech by California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. As the USC Triojan Band began the processional music, we sat on some concrete steps around the corner from the action. On the step in front of us, a small man holding a large pile of papers sat down gingerly.

            It was easy to imagine that the man was a non-custodial father attending his daughter’s graduation. He wore a creased but dapper striped suit, a white shirt, scuffed brown loafers with tan socks, the outfit of a man used to wearing jeans and flip-flops.

During ceremonial introductions and speeches which included the conferring of a Doctor of Humane Letters degree for the governor, the Dad went through his papers, page by page, writing notes, initialing, bookmarking.

            We watched a parade of late-arriving bachelor’s degree candidates, mostly young girls in black robes, mortarboards and four-inch heels, scurry past, clutching tote bags and teddy bears. Flower sellers peddled orchid leis at $20 apiece, $30 for double-strung. A woman in her thirties, dressed as a fifties starlet, blonde, strapless taffeta, ringlets, looked for a missing companion. An African family in full tribal regalia marched together away from the ceremonies.

            Our candidate, splendidly arrayed in doctoral robes ($900), velvet tam ($150) and academic hood, sat around the corner, about a city block away, with some 4800 other graduates.

            When Governor Schwarzenegger began his speech, the Dad in front of us laid his sheaf of papers on his knees, gazed vaguely in the direction of the loudspeakers, and smiled sweetly. The Governor, whose current budget contains deep cuts to education, said “Maybe now that I’m a doctor, they’ll listen to me in Sacramento.” Schwarzenegger, whose daughter is an undergraduate at the university, gave his advice for success: Come to America. Work your butt off. Marry a Kennedy.

            Undergraduate tuition at USC was about $37,693 this year, according to the Daily Trojan, the student newspaper. The average student is said to graduate with a $23,800 debt.

            When the recessional music began, the Dad went back to his papers. We couldn’t resist peeking. At the top of each page was written Bankruptcy Court.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Orphan, Ready for Strings


This violin once belonged to the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania School District, but wound up in a garage sale, covered with red paint. The school district, contacted by telephone, said they hadn't had a string program in many years and that they didn't want the violin back. The label inside says "Antonio Curatoli" and "copy of Amati".

No Strings Attached

The world of violins is a strange obsessive place where costly instruments are borrowed, lent, given away, pondered, played and discussed. The 1742 Guarneri del Gesu violin called the "David" was donated by Jascha Heifetz to the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco, but is presently being played by the San Francisco Symphony's concert master, Alexander Barantschik. Many instruments played in orchestras across the world are borrowed instruments.

Our house as well has been full of bows and violins lately, many of them garage sale items, some of them in pieces. It all started with the resurrection of Violin Number 1, which had been painted with polyurethane, soaked in paint thinner, taken apart, and finally given to Nicodemus as a hopeless and possibly bad-luck case.

In the months-long process of stripping, sanding, scraping and revarnishing the violin, N acquired something of a reputation as an amateur luthier or instrument repairer. Two more violins with minor dings came his way with pleas for first aid. Another person gave him a violin she didn't want any more, and another passing violinist liked it, took it, and left his own old Sears fiddle in its place.

Then came the Frankenfiddle, assembled from parts by N for a young violinist who was playing on a half-size instrument and needed something larger. A second garage-sale violin found by the young violinist's father has been freed of its paint (yes, some wicked person painted over ebony and birdseye maple). Beautifully revarnished with amber, it is ready to go to the City to be restrung.

N began making cello bows for himself, since he can barely play the violins he has been repairing. The wood blanks and the fittings are costly. When the bow is finished (and it takes weeks of patient sanding, bending, and drilling), it has to go elsewhere to be haired. I estimate that these handmade bows cost $500 and upward for materials alone.

In String World, players will hand bows and instruments around without a mention of money: "Try this for a while. Tell me if you like it." Although these are not usually million-dollar instruments like the David, a good Brazil wood bow could still cost two thousand dollars or more, and a decent (as opposed to plywood, carbon fiber, or "student") violin would probably be that much and more.

I only know of one lent violin which went astray. It wound up in Mexico, painted yellow, but was retrieved by InterPol. Its maker was very disappointed that the Violin Code of Honor had been broken. He put the violin away in a closet because he didn't want to see it any more.

N was looking at the Sears fiddle the other day. "I think I'll fix that one up for Quinn (a student member of our community orchestra)" he said. It is a strange place, the world of violins: No strings attached.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Some Constellation

Surprised by a sudden squall,
she stood under the eaves of the barn,
hoisting a basketful of apples,
unsure whether to wait it out
or make a dash for the house...

when she saw him coming
out the back door,
wearing his woodsman's shirt
and baggy pants with suspenders,
holding a pink umbrella,
ready to see her dryly home.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Sirens: Poems of Irresistible Longing


"I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me."
T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

I just finished a collection of poems dealing with longing. Here are the notes and the painting by John William Waterhouse, 1891.

What song could the sirens sing which would be irresistible?

The sirens have long since left mythology and permeated every form of artistic expression. Though the sirens in art have been given many names and origins, all the stories agree that the maidens, two, three or five of them, once tempted sailors with their song, usually with fatal results.

In the Odyssey, though the witch Circe attributes dark deeds to the temptresses, Homer insists that the sirens appealed to the spirit rather than the flesh and says that once Odysseus heard their song, he sailed on, a wiser man.

Homer, Ovid, Virgil, Pliny the Elder and Leonardo wrote of the maidens. Jesuit writers of the 17th century asserted the actual existence of the Sirens. Sirens intruigued Kafka, who loved a dark story. He wrote of the temptresses in 1917, saying that the silence of the sirens was more ominous than their song.

Aglaopheme, Thelxiepeia, Thelxiope, Thelxinoe, Molpe, Aglaophonos, Aglaope, Pisinoe, Peisinoe, Parthenope, Ligeia, Leucosia, Raidna and Teles are the various names that have been given the sirens.

They may have lurked on an island called Sirenum scopuli, or on Anthemusa, Cape Pelorum, in the Sirenusian islands near Paestrum, or in Capreae. Their father may have been the river god Achelous or the Roman sea god, Phorcys; their mother is variously the muses Terpsichore or Melpomene, or Sterope or Chthon, the earth.

There is some question about whether mermaids and sirens are the same creature. In Spanish, French, Italian, Polish, Romanian and Portuguese, the words for mermaid are Sirena, Sirene, Sirana, Syrena, Sirena and Sereia. Most artists, however, seem to agree that mermaids and sirens are not the same, mermaids being not sinister but rather appealing enough to merit a ballade by Chopin, an opera by Dvorak, an iconic fairy tale, a statue in the Denmark harbor, and a Disney film which lamely gilds the lily of Hans Christian Andersen.

The idea of temptation incarnate has taken a thousand forms. In Poems of Irresistible Longing, I wanted to suggest some themes which might lure the contemporary traveler.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Kalo Pascha!


Happy Easter! Here are the red eggs and the Easter bread called tsoureki. My Greek friend Yotta writes from her village near Delphi: I am at my home town with my old parents. We are roasting the lamb on the spit. The whole village is covered with smoke which went up higher and higher and made a cloud this morning.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy, Uh, Palm Sunday


We don't always celebrate Easter the same day as everyone else. This year, while many people are having Easter egg hunts and eating chocolate bunnies, we Orthodox are celebrating Palm Sunday. My sons were born in Greece and I have always tried to keep up the Greek traditions for them. You might say that when in Rome, etc., but I have been Orthodox for more than 50 years and anyway am used to being different and not fitting in.

The main reason that Greek (and Russian, Serbian, etc.) Orthodox Easter sometimes falls on a different Sunday from Western Easter is that it must come after the Jewish Passover,which began last Wednesday and lasts for seven or eight days. The rest of the calculations for Easter, involving lunar calendars and something called a golden number, are really beyond me.

Added to this complicated business is the fact that many Orthodox did not accept the Gregorian calendar when it was introduced in 1582 (there is a reason for the word Orthodox) and still use the Julian or "old" calendar, which is 13 days behind. All Orthodox churches, however, celebrate Easter on the same day.

So on Saturday, Eastern Orthodox people will go to church around midnight and wait silently for the priest to bring out the candle which represents the new light and to announce "Christos Anesti" or whatever the word is in the local language. The Russian is something like "Christos Vaskreshi". The flame passes from candle to candle until every taper is lit, and the people try to keep the flame going until they get home, when they will smoke a cross over the doorsill and light the lamp in front of their own icon stands.

Our church stands on a hill in San Francisco. When the Easter service is over, you can wait at the bottom of the hill and watch a candlelit procession as some 700 smiling, sleepy people guard their little flames on the way to their cars. Driving home, usually at about two in the morning, you can sometimes see another small flame dimly illuminating a nearby car.

(Giotto, Palm Sunday)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Bird By Bird


Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird, subtitled Instructions on Writing and Life, is one of those books which should be written with a capital B. To summarize the premise would deny a potential reader the great pleasure of reading Anne's words, but it is a thought about which I need reminding from time to time.

The Greeks have a saying (don't they always?) which goes "Fasouli, fasouli, yemis' to sakkouli". Bean by bean, the bag is filled. A friend once told me that her sister, overwhelmed by an out-of-control yard, decided on the salami method of gardening: One slice at a time. She would take care of the weeds directly in front of her and save the rest for the next time.

In my old Skyline piano class, we had a motto for learning a piece of music: Particular by particular, we approach the general.

Nicodemus has completed 38 of 40 radiation treatments for prostate cancer. We have been told that this has a good chance of eliminating the tumor. Since his diagnosis four months ago, it has been difficult and necessary to remember, as he marches off every day for treatment, that Fasouli Fasouli Gemis' To Sakkouli.

To help, every Friday we have a bottle of champagne to celebrate getting through another week. Since we are not big drinkers and there are only the two of us, it takes several days to get through the bottle, so our tasteless low-fiber no salad meals (which minimize the side effects of radiation treatments) still somehow have a festive touch to them.

Whatever works.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Cold Room Diet


I have lost 20 pounds this past year. I am healthy as far as I know and have made no changes to my diet, but it has been an unusually cold and windy year on the Coastside. Now it seems that there is a relationship between being cold and losing weight.

The New England Journal of Medicine, quoted in today's New York Times, says the answer is brown fat. Nearly every adult, the paper says, has blobs of brown fat, so called because it is filled with iron-rich mitochondria, our cells' little energy sources. PET-CT scans show that brown fat burns glucose when activated by the cold.

In other words, you can lose weight by sitting in what the paper calls a chilly room, 61 to 66 degrees (the average temperature in my historic but uninsulated redwood house).

We have insulated curtains, vinyl film on the windows, draft-stoppers on the windowsills, sheets of styrofoam glued to the walls, a thick rug on the tile floor. I have caulked everything caulkable, and still we have to wear heavy sweaters indoors. I won't even tell you what we wear to bed, but you might think of eskimos.

I suppose it is some consolation that we can keep on slathering butter on everything and still button our jeans, but it's, well, cold comfort at best.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Marauder


Although this is a residential community with the usual dogs and cats, we have a great number of other domestic animals and quite a few wild ones as well. There are a few chickens and goats, horses from the stables down the road, and even miniature donkeys which bray once in a while.

We get occasional forages by deer and rabbits and our gardens are eaten by gophers, snails and banana slugs. Ravens swoop about and call raucously; robins feast on whatever berries are growing, whether ivy, cotoneaster or blackberry. Once in a while a gray squirrel will climb the cypresses and run along the telephone wires. A mole made a neat little road of hillocks in the front yard.

At night, there are the owls, the rare possum, skunks and raccoons, lots of them. I am not a friend of the raccoons because they can open the most tightly-sealed garbage can with their dextrous little paws and will scatter the trash far and wide, looking for tidbits. If they get under the house, they will tear out insulation or styrofoam to make nests. They look cute with their little bandito masks, but they will growl and show their teeth if you cross them.

So after a small earthquake and a power outage which lasted longer than usual, we were not sympathetic to the big raccoon who was banging the crawlspace door, trying to get it open. We leaned out the window, shined the flashlight on her, and told her to get a move on. She backed off a bit and waited to see if we would go away. Her eyes were like headlights. Finally she crept away in the dark.

I try to meet the critters halfway. There is a small A-frame down by the fence, under the ivy, where they can get out of the wind, and I keep water for them in a concrete bowl out front. Beyond that, I am not feeling very hospitable when it comes to the raccoons.

"I hope she wasn't pregnant," Nicodemus said.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Growing Up In Heaven


When my daughter disappeared 36 years ago, her kindergarten class was traumatized. They refused to accept their teacher's statement that nobody knew what had happened to Anna.

"But where is she?" they asked. "Is she dead?"

"We don't know," the teacher answered. This teacher, fair-haired, dimpled, brilliant, was one of Anna's favorite people in all the world.

"I don't want to disappear," one student said. "I want to grow up."

"Anna will grow up," the teacher said. "If she doesn't grow up on earth, she will grow up in heaven."

For years, I would look at children the age Anna would have been and wonder what she would look like at that time. Once in a while I would see one of her kindergarten classmates and notice that they had lost their baby teeth, that they were getting taller.

Then about 18 years ago, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children began its program of producing age-progressed pictures of missing children. They would write and ask for family pictures. Using kindergarten pictures along with pictures of family members at various ages, they would come up with their idea of what Anna would look like at age 23, 27, 31.

I found it difficult to look at these pictures, though as forensic software became more sophisticated, the pictures began to look more like a real person. Once I gathered up courage and made pencil changes to one of the portraits to see how she might look with glasses or short hair.

Then Steve Loftin, a retired police officer and forensic artist at the National Center, produced a picture of Anna at the age of 38 and sent it to me, asking what I thought. The face thinner, I said; the forehead higher. When the picture was finished, I knew that if she had grown up in this world, that was what she would look like.

Steve also did an age-regressed picture, one which might have appeared in a high school annual, and I thought "Yes, that's what she might have looked like."

We may never know what happened to Anna, even though her case is still open and is officially considered a "probable non-family abduction". But because of an incredibly vigorous search, my idea of my daughter is no longer stuck in kindergarten. A Google search on her name brings up thousands of hits. She has a Facebook page and at least two MySpace pages which play her favorite song. She is a featured case on Websleuths, a community of 17,000 amateur detectives. The International Center for Missing and Exploited Children runs a video about her. She has a website, www.searchingforanna.com, and a book by the same name which is distributed on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

It's not exactly growing up in heaven, but at least thousands of people have become acquainted with this happy child.