Saturday, May 6, 2017


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

“He was physically restless, quick-witted, sociable, flirtatious, and obscene,” New Yorker music critic Alex Ross wrote of Mozart. “But he often gave the impression of not being entirely present, as if his mind was caught up in an invisible event.”

Donald Jay Grout’s ponderous History of Western Music echoes the impression: “Mozart lived his real life in the inner world of his music, to which his everyday existence often seems only a troubled and shadowy parallel. There is a touch of the miraculous, something both childlike and godlike, about this.”
Separating the myth of Mozart from the facts is difficult when so much—including a great deal of fiction--has been written about him. Some impressions of the composer are based on Milos Forman’s 1984 film “Amadeus”, an award-winning cinematic treatment of a play by Peter Shaffer which the playwright himself called a “fantasia on the theme of Mozart and Salieri.” Alexander Pushkin wrote a play about Mozart and his contemporary Antonio Salieri in 1830, and even Rimsky-Korsakov was drawn to the subject, writing a seldom-performed opera.

Mozart was the son of a respected Salzburg musician and teacher, Leopold, who early on dropped all other activities to educate and promote the boy. Has there ever been such a prodigy? By the time he was six years old, he was a virtuoso on the clavier, and he soon became a good organist and violinist as well, though the viola was always his chosen instrument to play. He wrote his first symphony before his ninth birthday, his first oratorio at eleven, and his first opera at twelve.

Biographies write of Constanze Weber, the giddy girl Mozart married—after months of pleading for his father’s permission-- in August of 1782. Less well known is the fact that the couple had six children, four boys and two girls, in their nine years of marriage, and that only two of these survived infancy. By most accounts, Mozart and Constanze were happy despite their profligate spending, which led to their being constantly short of money. They moved 12 times in their nine years together.

Certainly Antonio Salieri—despite the implication of the stage plays and film-- had nothing whatsoever to do with Mozart’s death and was hardly even considered a serious rival. Both Constanze and Wolfgang were frequently in ill health, hers complicated by constant pregnancies and his by overwork. What does seem to be true is Mozart’s premonition about the commissioned Requiem on which he was working when he died. He said that he had the curious sensation that he was writing his own funeral mass.

Mozart was buried in an anonymous communal grave in Vienna. For those who would mourn his early passing or celebrate his singular life, he left the deathless memorial of his perfect music.

Thursday, March 16, 2017


                         Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book Future Shock spoke of     
                           “too much change in too short a period of time"
                             and coined the term “information overload.”

            “I need new underwear,” he said. He was rebinding an old philosophy book, but he put down his tools and pulled at the waist of his trousers.
            “What’s wrong with your old underwear?” she asked.
            “It’s too tight around the middle,” he said. “I need a bigger size.”
            “I’ll order you some from Amazon,” she said. “Large instead of medium.” She was not very skilled with modern technology, but she did know how to send e-mail and ask Google questions and order things from Amazon.
            Amazon, it turned out, had thousands of types of men’s underwear. She looked at page after page, trying to find something like what he usually wore. He didn’t want boxer shorts or white Y-fronts, so that left something called briefs. Some of the offerings were suggestive and others were downright naughty. She was fascinated (and a little scandalized) by the offerings. Finally she found something that seemed like what he was used to wearing and ordered four pairs in Large.
            When the package arrived, two days, Amazon Prime, he opened them, liked the colors, and held up one pair to his waist. Then he looked at it more carefully.
            “It doesn’t have a, well, you know.” The briefs were designed with a decisive curve in the front seam, but no front opening.
            “Well, how are you supposed to go to the bathroom?” she asked.
            “It looks like they’re more interested in showing off the little man than accommodating him,” he said. “Could you maybe sew an opening or something?”
            She raised her eyebrows. “That would be pretty complicated. I mean, you can’t just cut a hole in them. You have to have more fabric and stuff.” After a moment, she asked again “What do you suppose people do? Is this some new thing?”
            She went to her computer to Google it.
            How do men use the bathroom when their drawers don’t have a fly? She typed, not really expecting an answer. But there were lots of answers. She read posts on one thread, explaining various techniques for men urinating while wearing briefs with no front opening. Undo belt or don’t undo belt. Right hand hooks around the elastic while the left takes aim. Sit down. There were many arguments for and against various types of men’s underwear and many helpful technical hints, one even using the word micturition. She was torn between surprise and hilarity.
            “I can’t believe what I’m reading,” she said.
            “Maybe they don’t make the regular kind any more,” he said, sadly, in a voice that had lamented the gradual demise of many different regular kinds of things: Woolen dressing gowns, trans-Atlantic ocean liners, dial telephones.
            She repacked the underwear and took it to UPS. He went to a nearby Ross store and found some drawers that had the proper front opening. They were enormous, however, so he used his bookbinding cord and needles to take some tucks in the waistband.
            “Well, you are nothing if not resourceful,” she said. “You might have used staples.”
            “Staples would rust,” he said.

Saturday, February 11, 2017


            There was a sign on the front of the house saying we were quarantined. Nobody but the family was allowed inside because I had scarlet fever.
            Scarlet fever, a strep throat with a rash, is rare now, but there were no antibiotics back then, and the disease was contagious. There must have been a public health nurse around somewhere to make sure we were observing the quarantine, and it must have been she who said my books had to be burned.
            I had learned to read the year before, sitting in Miss Ella’s lap at Miss Ella’s kindergarten, and I must have loved my books, though I don’t remember feeling sad as my parents and I fed them into the big old coal stove that heated the house in Leitchfield, Kentucky.
            1942 was an eventful year. At school, we collected scrap metal for the war drive. Since I could read, the teacher took me out of first grade and put me in second, where I was utterly bewildered. There was a tornado that pulled up the fence in the back yard. Big Jo, an orphaned relative only a few years younger than my mother, came to live with us. My little brother was bitten on the face by a neighbor’s dog. He and I got measles, whooping cough, and then the scarlet fever.
            In retrospect, it could have been a real plague year. It must have been tough, supporting five people on a teacher’s salary. But Daddy went fishing sometimes, and once he brought home frog’s legs which Mother fried, screaming when they jumped in the pan. There was a cherry tree in the back yard. Daddy built whatever we needed, and Mother made most of our clothes. We must have had a garden for vegetables.       
            So many years later, knowing how it all turned out, it would be easy to read emotions into all those events. But in actuality, a child’s view of reality did not (and does not) contain many innate judgments. The books were burned; I can remember how the flames in the old stove ate up the pages, brown, black, orange fire, ash.

            I imagine some kind of serene detachment, backed up by promises of new books to come. But in reality, the day they burned my books was just like any other day, filled with wonder, never quite long enough.