Friday, January 30, 2009


Though he was tall and gangly,
one shoulder up and the other down,
all angles at the piano or
bowing his battered viola,
he didn't take up much space in the world.
He lived for years in the same small place,
collecting sheet music and jokes
to copy at the library and mail to his friends.
Old Eagle Eye, some of them called him,
because he never seemed to practice
but hardly ever missed a note.

That bright awareness lived in a dim apartment,
frugal, thrifty, never wasting anything,
not even his body, much repaired, which he
left to science. He eschewed all custom of dying
and had neither funeral nor obituary.
We learned about his leaving
when our card to him came back,
unopened, with the news. Toward the end,
he said there was a time when his eyes
nearly burned the notes off the page,
but that now the eyes wanted to look away.
He left hardly a trace, not wife nor lover,
not child nor cat nor potted palm.

Anatomy students sometimes admire
the qualities of cadavers, finding
excellence in the vessels, or evidence
of courage in the body's efforts
to heal itself. Of course, they cannot know--
there is no way for them to know--
the lovely music which flowed
from those living fingertips.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Editing One's Life

The concert mistress of the local orchestra asked me to submit a bio and photograph for the upcoming concert. I always read musicians' biographical statements with a jaundiced eye because of course they are always written to create a certain perception. Why should you want to hear this person play? Because he or she graduated from an important school, won this or that competition, performed in other instances without incurring too much shame.

What I might have written is: MB is playing the solo in the Mozart Piano Concerto because the orchestra was not able, given its budget, to get a better soloist. She is probably doing the best she can, but during the fast movements, perhaps you would do better to read the program notes or converse quietly with your neighbor. She made her own dress and bought that stunning necklace on e-Bay. If she gets into serious trouble during the concerto (knocks the book off the rack, has to sneeze, loses her place), please try to create a distraction. If she makes it all the way to the end and plays the last two notes correctly, please clap very loudly with relief. She has had a lot of piano lessons, but she is very nervous.

I picked out the only flattering photograph ever made of me (attached), but my husband pointed out that the picture is fly-specked, creased, and fifteen years old. We substituted a candid shot in which I look tired.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


When I heard that the Ukraine gas line affects Greece, I wrote my friend to make sure she is not freezing. Athens, like San Francisco, can be viciously cold in the winter. She replied: "We can still use wood to warm up. Do not forget we are ascetic. We find ways to resolve such kind of problems. We are Greeks."

Saturday, January 10, 2009


I was glad to hear that a few copies of Living Poor With Style, published in the 1970s and long out of print, are still available here and there on line. With all the talk about the terrible economy, etc., etc., I have to believe that most of us do not really know what poverty is, and that even those who are truly poor do not know how to cope with any grace or cheer. On the BBC news, there are videos from various parts of the world where people are really poor. Many of them are beyond caring, but others still find ways to keep clean, to make the most of what they have, to wear scraps of bright color.

Poverty itself has lessons, something monastic orders have known for centuries. Some kinds of privation simply force one to think of higher things. If you do not have a place to live or anything to eat, if you are in danger from war and afraid for your children, then you are truly poor. But most people in this country who think they are poor are not dodging bombs. They have running water, even hot running water, a car, access to meals and social services.

Some of us are really fortunate and have the luxury of family, friends, peace, sound roofs, good plumbing, a small steady income, reasonably good health and a measure of self-sufficiency. Maybe we all need to think of a survival baseline and be extremely grateful for whatever we have above and beyond that point.