Sunday, March 30, 2008

Western Style Weekend

My weekend started off at about 4 pm Friday in some intense traffic (not unlike a 2,000 sq. mile parking lot) caused by a consistent heavy rain. It wasn't until after it stopped raining did I find out this rain was artificially produced by the government. I had to pee for an hour and a half in that stupid car. Thanks for that, government. Anyway, our (me, host mom, host mom's horse-head fiddle teacher) destination was the Gala Concert for the Celebration of the Founding of Association of Spouses of Diplomats at the Chateau Glory Summit Club. From the get-go, about 80% of the words are too formal for me as a mere exchange student, but in any case, there I was at this function incredibly under-dressed and out of place. My host mom's used her guanxi to get her teacher this gig. The other performances included an Italian Pianists specifically flown in from Belgium, China's number one countertenor opera singer, and the first Chinese person (trumpet player) to receive a full scholarship from the British government at some fancy pants conservatory in London. It was a fairly exclusive concert (partly because half the people were late from traffic, and partly because there are only so many diplomats in Beijing) that only lasted about half an hour. Then we ate a nine course meal that included lobster tail, duck, beef tenderloin etc. By "we" at this point I mean me, the Italian pianist, and a Dutch classical music producer who seemed to be the Italian guy's agent or something. My host mom was sitting at the opposite side of the table with, which I only found out today, four very famous people that are regularly seen on TV. I also talked extensively with the president of some television station. I really should have worn a suit. Oh, and I forgot to mention, the piano was purchased for a cool US$950,000. The pianist told me he felt bad playing on the it because he could see the gold wearing off of the keyboard. He thought it belonged in a museum. Anyway, all in all it was a fun night. The traffic at 11 was still awful. Good thing I went to bathroom before we left!

On Saturday morning my host mom and I went on our weekly trip to Grandma's Kitchen, a quaint little American home-style cooking restaurant. I had a delicious Mexican omelet. Then I went to a huge arcade with some friends and proceeded to get my butt kicked by really weird Asian video games. I returned home for some pot-stickers and then listened to the horse-head fiddler play some tunes in the living room for a long two hours. He eventually left and we went to a chill jazz club for about two hours. It wasn't the best jazz ever, but it was good enough.

I slept in this morning until about 10, and then talked to some CMU friends on Skype for a while before going to TGI Friday's with host mom. I had a nice American style steak and a Sprite. Delicious. We had a quick rest back at home before leaving for the Temple of Heaven. We spent about an hour and half there strolling about before going to Pete's Tex-Mex Grill where I had some nachos and enchiladas. Again, quite tasty. Host mom commented that I can eat a lot more Western food than I can Chinese food, which I suppose is correct; I've never really noticed. She also said I smile a lot and I'm excited about everything, which is good cause I think that makes her happier to take me places. On the way home we stopped at a western food grocery store so I could pick up my bi-weekly supply of Doritos, Gold Fish, and Planter's peanuts.

Back home now, about to learn tomorrow's 90 new words and study for one of my four mid-terms this week. It was a super good weekend. Stay tuned for next weekend!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

"Happy Classical"

Oftentimes at parties/social gatherings down here, a friend of mine's iPod is often the main source of music, so I've become familiar with her taste in music, at least insofar as it applies to "party mixes." One of the songs on said party mix is John Adams's Short Ride in a Fast Machine, which generally provokes some small amount of conversation, as everyone in our smallish social circle eventually asks "what's this?" Answering this question often falls to me, as Jen isn't necessarily always available to answer for all the songs on her iPod (though she generally is) and I am the resident used-to-be-like-a-musician-or-something. In answering the question, I oftentimes just tell them what it is, pause, and then agree that, "Yip. Pretty great."

Of course, this is somewhat disingenuous of me, as readers of this blog may recognize, since I am the one of the four of us sibbloggerings that doesn't particularly care for Adams's music (beyond the usual exceptions (which does not include Naive and Sentimental Music)). Why? The answer to that question isn't worth blogging about (let's just agree to disagree (John Adams was educated stupid and evil)).

At any rate, since I am the resident UTBLAMOS in the program, and in talking to Jen about her tastes in music, I wound up burning her a CD (could've been (and may end up being) several CDs, but it's left at one for the time-being) of some "classical" music. My friend's taste in music is self-described as being limited to "happy" music, so below is the playlist of what I burned her as an initial offering of "happy classical" music (with the implicit message that there is (much) better music out there than early John Adams):

1. Thomas Adès: Chamber Symphony
2. Louis Andriessen: De Materie, Part 3 "De Stijl"
3. John Cage: Suite for Toy Piano
4. György Ligeti: Musica Ricercata, No. VII
5. Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 5

Friday, March 28, 2008

Beijing Photo Fun II

Also found deep within the hundreds of photos of Mike on Facebook...

Grimes Ahoy

[The entire university network went down around 2 this afternoon without any estimate of when it'll be back up, so I'm home early.--ed.]

Monday night I ducked down into NYC for the final performance of Peter Grimes at the Met. Holy everything, is that ever a good opera. I bought a standing-room ticket, for the very back of the orchestra section. Unfortunately, the orchestra sound was a bit distant, and moreover, the balcony overhang meant that you couldn't see the top 1/3 of John Doyle's vertically oriented stage design. (Doyle was the brain behind the recent Sweeney Todd and Company revivals on Broadway.) The staging involves a large wall with windows at various heights; see here for photo.

If the Met's architecture worked against me there, it made up for it after the first act, if indirectly. See, the back rooms of the Met are so poorly ventilated that frequent performers there suffer allergies from them. This put comp tickets in the hands of at least one particular allergist with operatic patients; I didn't meet the allergist, but I met the allergist's friend, a kind 50ish woman who plucked me at random out of the standing room during the 1st intermission and asked if I wanted to sit, since the allergist evidently goes to sleep early and never watches more than one act of a comp-ticket opera. So I saw Act II and Act III from the center of the orchestra section, Row T, which is basically as good a seat for opera as you're going to find without flying to Europe. God, is the sound ever good from center orchestra.

The show was a knockout; Anthony Dean Griffey sang the title role commandingly, and the surrounding cast inhabited its seaside-villager roles with uncanny personality. The chorus and orchestra were both phenomenal. The staging has gotten mixed reviews, but I liked it a lot: subtly claustrophobic, snappily up-to-date yet evocative of the 19th-century seaside setting, and emotionally cool enough to let the music & drama resonate in it.

I don't have a lot of unobvious things to say about Peter Grimes itself, but it's easily the most dramatically effective opera I know (pitched with realistic emotion; legitimately psychologically ambiguous; paced impeccably) and musically it hits that 20th-century sweet spot where lyrical expressivity and disjointed abstraction meet. I've never been a huge opera fan, and experiencing one that feels emotionally authentic is a rare thing for me. Grimes's final mad scene and the following choral epilogue (which, tidelike, pulls the first Sea Interlude & chorus music back in) are devastating.

I love the orchestral passacaglia towards the end, where the undergirding theme (from the townspeople's gossip: "Grimes is at his exercise") goes metrically out of sync with the increasingly impassioned music layered above it in longer, more urgent phrases. It's like a shard of something with flames licking off of it, blown into a larger fire: social judgment kindled into tragedy, the whole theme of the opera transformed into wordless music. (I love how this subverts the baroque form, too: the bass line, though unchanging, is no stable element here.) The Sea Interludes, which are frequently performed as a stand-alone set by orchestras, were as gripping as ever, even if opera-goers tend not to be shy about coughing when no one is singing.

In the Lincoln Center subway stop after the show, someone (maybe a Juilliard kid?) was playing flute licks from the first Sea Interlude. I was feeling haunted enough to get on the uptown 1 train by mistake without noticing for a couple of stops.

There's a nice long chapter on Britten and Peter Grimes in Alex Ross's book, which you should read if you're at all interested in classical music.

Shopping List Redux

While I'm still talking about grocery stores, it turns out that there may, in fact, be grocery stores out there that are worse to work for then the one I did. Unless Trader Joe's did, in fact, "ke[ep] track of the most banal and intimate details of [Pete's] life" (the company is owned by Germans, after all (though I haven't read anything bad about their German stores)).

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Beijing Baseball Photo Fun

I'm assisting Mike here and pulling a couple of his Beijing photos down off the Face Book to post on the blog. All right! Now they're accessible to more than just the 580 people who Mike is somehow "friends" with.

So: Major League Baseball in China, which Mike just wrote about.

Meanwhile, I gather this is the sandstorm Mike referred to. Or at least I hope it is -- otherwise it's some particularly nasty pollution:

I don't have the faintest clue where this next picture is from. Is anyone even keeping track of where the kid's going any more?

He appears to have garnered some respect from the locals, however.

All right, I'm done. Mike, you're invited at any time to email me with photos (and captions) and I'll post them here.

I'll hopefully have some pictures of my own to post next month after I go visit the kid there.

Shopping List

Part of having worked for nearly three years at a grocery store is that it's hard to go to a grocery store without occasionally making notes to oneself about how the grocery store where one is a customer is similar or different from the grocery store of one's previous employ. Eventually, then, these small points of comparing/contrasting accumulate in one's brain until they seem to have the bulk that, in this day and age of blogging and all that, become blogworthy (and then, having blogged these few notes, one realizes that one's brain is easily clogged, and there were, in fact, a very small number of grocery store notes to actually make):

* I have been, for many years now, a fan of Kashi brand "seven grain pilaf," the super-bland hot version of their proprietary blend of whole grains and sesame seeds. Once upon a time, back when Dad refused to eat anything with fat or salt in it, he served it to some portion of the family (I think maybe the post-twin nucleus), who roundly rejected it as a foodstuff (except for me, who made a mental note of its deliciousness (and later, in my Malden year, perfected my preferred cooking method (1 cup water, 1 cup apple cider, 2 tablespoons (or so) habanero-based hot sauce))). Eventually, the Stop & Shop (pronounced in an annoying Boston accent) in Malden stopped selling it, though, and it dropped from my diet around the beginning of 2005. Thank the gods (or, specifically, the God of Pilaf (Pilaferus)), though, that the Publix (the first grocery store chain to vie with Giant Eagle in my internally-waged battle for worst grocery store ever encountered (it may just be that between shopping at Giant Eagle and Publix, I spent most of that time working for Trader Joe's (which I also hate, for a whole slew of reasons (despite still finding many of TJ's products to be wonderful and indispensable)), and, in fact, hate all grocery stores everywhere (much of that claim, though, can be explained away by my retrospective hatred of the job I worked during the only soul-crushing year of my short existence))) in my neighborhood (neighborhood is probably the wrong word) sold Kashi Pilaf, so it had regained it's place as one of the pillars of my cook-and-eat everything from the same small red pot way of cooking/eating. About a week ago, now, though, the Kashi Pilaf disappeared from the shelves - and it didn't just get bought out, all the tags or signs that it was ever there on the shelf are gone (Pilaferus, what have I done to deserve this already-familiar punishment?). Every time I go to the store now, I still check and see if it's back (it hasn't been). Yesterday, when I was looking for it, I happened upon a shopping cart filled to the brim with broken-down cardboard boxes, and I said to myself "I used to fill shopping carts with broken-down boxes."

* I bought some necatarines the other day. I like nectarines more then peaches, plums, apricots, pluots, or apriums. Always have. They were only $1.99/pound (I'm not actually sure if that's a good price or not) so I bought a few. Eating the first of the four yesterday, I noticed that the sticker on it said "Flown ripe nectarines." Well crap. The idea that these nectarines were flown to me really makes me feel like a dumb/evil American consumer. What the hell kind of carbon footprint is on the sweet fruit of the gods (well, not THE fruit of the gods (cantaloupe is the fruit of the gods (GO!)), but the fruit of a god (Nectarinius (the god, not the late-era Roman emperor)))? I would have never bought these back in my days of working at a grocery store (especially in Portland where I did occasionally try to knock the green-yuppies off their high horses (or, rather, knock them from their bio-diesel Subarus) and actually maintained a buy-local (for the most part) policy myself). I'm slipping, which, despite the moral problem of being an evil consumer, is probably a good thing.

* I shop a lot, since I only have a bicycle and a backpack (which often has books etc. in it), so finally, after shopping there maybe 4 days a week since August, a couple of the check-out clerks at Publix will finally admit that they recognize me and say "Hi!" back when I greet them at their register. I consider that to be a major breakthrough.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Beijing Spring

This is a week old, but better late than never?

It’s spring in Beijing. Most trees have sprouted and the daytime temperatures are getting up to the mid-60s, which is a welcome change from the bitterly cold and dry winter. It’s nice to chill outside after classes and the half hour walk to school every morning is also getting more bearable, although the eight lane road and elevated expressway I walk next to tends to take any pleasantness away from the journey. Springtime also means sandstorms, which I experienced for the first time yesterday morning. It was a small one, but the sky was still a harsh grayish-orange with visibility around one kilometer. It blew away fairly quickly and today is back to the normal gray haze. The Dodgers and Padres played two exhibition games in Beijing on Saturday and Sunday. I went on Sunday with a bunch of friends for about $10. We sat in the leftfield bleachers of China’s only baseball stadium, which seated around 12,000, so it had the feel of a minor league game. It was an absolute blast. Not only was it great to watch baseball again, but it was fun to see China trying to copy American culture with weird hotdogs and funny tasting peanuts. The vendors would come up to you and politely ask “Excuse me, would like some beer?” rather than the standard “BEER HERE!” The Chinese fans were really into it too. They would cheer at everything no matter what team or circumstance. Once the ball came off the bat it was time to clap and cheer! It was pretty awesome.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Somewhere In There Is the Reason I Never Leave the House

Fear is a topic that has fascinated mankind since at least 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt told the U.S. in his inaugural address that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Well, as usual, FDR must have been too busy building up a tax-fueled liberal nanny state to do his research, because people have always been irrationally terrified of all kinds of crazy stuff, and the proof is everywhere. Refer, for example, to this online list of phobias, the link to which was helpfully emailed to me by a coworker, in a spirit of lively intellectual exchange, around 3:30 on a recent Monday afternoon.

Now, by way of a disclaimer, I think a couple of the phobias are identified incorrectly. To take an obvious example, "dinophobia" should not be labeled the fear of whirlpools, but rather the far awesomer fear of dinosaurs. (Which is a far more justifiable phobia as well: How many people throughout history have been hunted down and messily devoured by whirlpools? Right, I thought so.) And I don't have time to look this up, but I'm pretty sure that what they've called the fear of the color purple, "porphyrophobia," is actually the fear of being strangled with your own hair. But generally the list appears to be legit.

And taken as truth, this catalog might cast an icy light upon the secret terrors of your soul. For one, there is apparently a fear of the Walloons called "Walloonphobia." You might want to brace your nerves, take a deep look inside yourself, and ask if this is the reason you haven't been to southern Belgium recently.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Spring Break Recap 2K8

Not to be outdone by my esteemed older brother, I thought that I, as well, would recap my last week. Especially since it was Spring Break in South Florida, so therefore should have been quite eventful.

Monday: Spring Break is great. When one is only a grad student, having a week off is a call-back to one's finest times of unemployment and lazing about. I finally had a chance to start reading a book by Christopher Norris about some of the problems that having been plaguing postmodern thought for the last couple decades, which has been great reading (it being well known that I am something of an anti-postmodernist (at least American neo-pragmatist (cultural relativist (everything is rhetoric (and rhetoric is only performative persuasion within always-already pre-existing consensus values (etc.)))))). Finally found, in Norris (who introduced me to Bhaskar), proponents of a combination of scientific realism and the best parts of deconstructionism and Frankfurt school Marxism that is exactly (more or less (and more in-depth)) what I've been advocating myself for a few years now. This, is, admittedly, uninteresting to everyone else that I know, but it is also well known that I like to feel like I'm right about stuff, and this type of reading certainly helps that. I will, as I have been since the blog's inception, despite this brief foray into the topics, return now to avoiding writing about any of these sorts of things that interest me in a general way on the blog (do, mostly, to their boring-ness).

Tuesday: It being Spring Break, I didn't really bother going to bed 'til something like 7 in the morning. Amazing how quickly time passes, though, when you're not really doing anything (actually, I was busy beating 3 in Three, finally, after all these years of thinking I was dumb because I wasn't very good at that game when I was 9 and Nate was 11 (the game does involve hours of game play, even though I am definitely way more puzzle-smart now than I was back in the early 90s (hurray!))).

Wednesday: I joined one of those internet movie rental gambits about a month ago, so have been back on a kick of watching a decent number of movies. I didn't watch all of them on Wednesday, but highlights have been: Weekend, Dead or Alive, and Interiors. Finally watched the Simpsons movie too, which wasn't terrible, but far from great.

Thursday: Hung out with the winner and the other runner-up of my programs AAP Poetry Prize, in an exclusive winner's gathering. Ate Chinese food, drank cava and beer, watched Howl's Moving Castle, and spend several hours just talking about poetry, without having to worry about recognizing other people's opinions that poetry is not, in fact, the best thing ever, as it were. Lot's of fun to just sit around and talk shop though.

Friday: Did I mention how lame my Spring Break was? I never really did anything for it back in college either (though I did go to San Francisco back during my Senior year (though I was mostly alone, and there for an audition)), so I guess, like so many other things, Spring Break, as well, is just not my thing. Meanwhile, I didn't know it was Easter weekend until a friend mentioned it off-hand to me. Seems kind of early for Easter this year (when is Passover?).

Saturday: Started watching Firefly on the internet (all 14 episodes can be watched for free at... okay I'm getting bored with this post. I almost made it, too. I guess I didn't blog anything because nothing of even mild interest happened. Geez.

Sunday: I had forgotten already it was Easter. All the grocery stores were closed. Mumbled swears to myself to and from the BP, where I bought some French Onion Sun Chips and Purple Vitamin Water for Easter Dinner.)

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Holy Week Recap 2K8

I'm celebrating Easter night by kicking back in the living room with a decaf tea and Mahler 2 on the DVD player, decompressing after a lengthy session of cleaning day-old Dutch pancake batter off most of my modest collection of cooking supplies. Thought I'd recap the week, largely since I haven't blogged for a while, since my laptop was in the shop. By "in the shop" I mean with the guy who puts posters all over East Rock advertising his laptop repair service. He turned out to live in the apartment building I lived in between the summers of '06 and '07, kind of a not-really-sketchy but still not-really-that-clean and generally drugged-out-looking guy I would only very occasionally see in the staircase, and with minimal eye contact. He did successfully replace my power jack, charging a price that looks to be universally standard for the operation based on a brief Google search: that'll satisfice. And he was friendly, as his posters advertise, and when he asked about my desktop background photo I got to enthuse to him about the Hell Gate bridge in Astoria Park, so that's all good.

Mostly I just like to write this stuff down so I don't forget about it forever.

Monday I went to work and then to the weekly happy hour held by that internet social Meetup group (the one that organized the softball team I played on last year); I've been going to a couple more of these happy hours recently, after generally avoiding them, since I know some of the people better now & I can catch up with them there. (I still don't get a lot of kicks out of mingling at these.)

Enough time passed for me to nurse a totally satisfying $3 margarita, and then Stu picked me up & we went to see jazz guitarist Pat Metheny play the Shubert Theater downtown. Stu had comp tickets for this, having done some freelance audio work on Metheny's podcast the week before. Completely amazing show; I wasn't really familiar with Pat Metheny outside of Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint, and the little I'd heard sounded kind of Weather Channel-ish ("yeah," confirmed Stu when I expressed this, "they play him a lot on the Weather Channel"), but this was good, good stuff. One particular solo Metheny played on a MIDI guitar (with a synthy trumpetish inflection) built up all this ectastically unreleased tension for something like 3 or 4 minutes. Extremely talented drummer & bassist, too (Antonio Sanchez, Christian McBride). There's a CD release attached to the tour, though I haven't checked it out yet. Hooray for top-shelf live jazz, anyway.

Tuesday I went to work, and then nothing of interest happened, since I was completely exhausted. This actually doesn't happen all that often, I'm happy to report.

Wednesday I went to work and then footed it in the rain down to the Metro North, heading then to Stratford for wind band practice. I'm getting somewhat less enthusiastic about this, continuing to sense that the band doesn't really "rehearse" so much as read through more music than it can play well. This is a shame, since there are a fair number of really decent players there, at least for a community wind band. I sat in the band's concert a couple of weeks ago; I liked playing it; we outnumbered the audience by about 2 dozen people; the music came off more or less OK. The group on the whole doesn't strike me as remarkably sociable, either, and this is what is going to tip the scales one way or the other.

Thursday I went to work and then to a nearby coffee shop to chat with a workfriend (Elise, who also came to the jazz show Friday; see below), and then a bit later to my biweekly guitar lesson, which went pretty well (I've been managing to practice with some consistency), although "pretty well" at this stage doesn't include results that I'd be able to show off in public. It's fun being on the steep end of the learning curve again. Myron, the teacher, is an interesting guy, soft-spoken and probably 55ish, who provides a fine attention to technical detail at the right times for it and also has the genial personality that makes it possible to totally butcher, say, "Skip to My Lou" in front of him without worrying about feeling bad about it.

And yes, I still intend to find actual music to play on the guitar at some point, "Skip to My Lou" and D-major "When the Saints Go Marching In" not going to cut it aesthetically forever. I find in the meantime that I can happily (and secularly) putter around with hymns, since they have easy chords and I know a lot of the tunes, and some of them have happy associations with Charles Ives pieces. (The protestant-hymnal version of Finlandia is pretty accessible, at least if I can learn to get my fingers to b minor on the first shot; I need to find the Finnish lyrics Sibelius attached to the song, though, since the hymnal lyrics are pretty cloying.) I figure if I play hymns in the apartment, only God and I can hear them, and no bad can come of it. I don't think I can ever bust these out at a party, though, unless by "party" you mean "Christian summer camp," which you don't.

Friday I didn't go to work, since we had the day off for Good Friday. I turned 28. In the morning I went to the mall to buy a 10-inch cast iron skillet and an oven thermometer, and also some new pairs of jeans, to replace the extraordinarily comfortable but unfortunately disintegrating jeans that have graced my wardrobe since probably 2005. In the evening I went to the local jazz performance space Firehouse 12 with, essentially, the 4 people I know fairly well who hadn't left town for Easter, to hear the startlingly short (like, under 45 minutes!) first set from an all-female trio who were a good bit more classical-styled and avant-garde than I expected. (Susie Ibarra, drums; Jennifer Choi, violin; someone else whose name I didn't really note, piano.) I don't think any of my friends got into it that much, and I felt mostly cool towards it, but the parts I liked I really liked. The last couple selections finally had a nice swing and sweetness to them, straightforward sentimental charts fizzed up a bit with light melodic dissonances. Out then till fairly late for drinks at a relatively quiet bar.

Saturday I slept in, went to the gym, taught myself how to make an oven-baked Dutch pancake (with sauteed apples in it) off of an internet recipe, made then a second, better Dutch pancake, and carried off said pancake (10-inch cast iron skillet and all) to an ethnic-themed potluck my friend Michelle (who'd come to the jazz show on Friday) was having a couple blocks away. Pancake turned out OK; the other potluck food was incredible. Best I've eaten in calendar year 2008, so far. Good times. I left a bit early (conversation drifted dull; I faded) but went out after to a State Street bar for beer & complimentary peanuts with another recent friend (she'd also come to the jazz show Friday) as a kind of spontaneous proto-date, which, believe me, is a welcome phenomenon.

Sunday I heated up part of Saturday's rehearsal pancake for breakfast (with the good syrup, too: for bachelor-grade Sunday breakfast, the pancake more than hit the spot), then hopped on a bus to the Unitarian church in Hamden I checked out last week. The 11:15 service didn't have too many youngish people in it (last week the 9:15 certainly didn't), but I did run into someone from last summer's softball team (who had also basically come for Easter); she introduced me to one of her friends, who does go to the church often and says that there's not much of a youngish crowd there, but who is interested in trying to go to services together, which is good news for me in terms of cautiously trying out a church without feeling awkward about being there. (This may have to wait until after April, since I've got 3 weekends tied up with going to Beijing, and the weekend before that in Boston.) Two other youngish people offered to drive me home, which was great, since the return bus schedule doesn't fit so well & I was going to walk it. (I was walking it, in fact, when the two other youngish people drove past & turned around & offered to drive me back to New Haven. Church people = nice. What really needs to happen, though, is me finally buying a new bike.) Anyway, I consider this in the realm of really good outcomes for church attendance attempts.

Later, to the Yale Center for British Art with Michelle & another friend, Andrea (who also had come to the jazz show on Friday; hooray, having people around you can hang out with a whole lot in one weekend) to look over, primarily, an exhibit of 16th- and 17th-century European world maps, which we all found endlessly fascinating, and then to the adjacent cafe/bookstore for an early Easter dinner: black bean soup, eggplant panini. Works for me!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Aw, Man, I Totally Missed Nate's Birthday

. . . well, not exactly, but my gift to him is definitely going to be pretty late. And, unfortunately highlighting this lateness, Nate's gift to me arrived from Amazon today. Nate, I will definitely enjoy the collection of the great short works of Herman Melville and the DVD of Bill Morrison's nonnarrative art film Decasia. (Decasia was definitely performed with a live orchestra at least twice while I was living in New York, but I missed it.) My gift to Nate might be a little dorky in comparison to this, but whatever: it's not like this has stopped either of us before.

Somehow Nate's birthday manages to sneak up on me every year. In '09, I resolve, the gift will arrive on time.

Choose and Die!

I've been meaning to post about this for just over a month now, but for whatever reason it has consistently slipped my mind. This actually came up when our cousin Max was here in Miami, visiting, back in mid-February. His first night here, Max and I were hanging out on my balcony with several of my friends from the program, and Max announced one of the single best party-conversation-questions I've ever heard (by party-conversation-question, in case it's unclear, I mean the kind of question that one asks at a social gathering (be it a party, a gettogether, a hang, or even just a sitting-a-spell-at-a-local-watering-hole) in order to stimulate lively and entertaining conversation on a theretofore (is 'theretofore' correct usage?) unexpected topic). I will propose the question here shortly, but refrain from answering it immediately (as hopeful as I ever might be that the comments section might be particularly useful), as to not prematurely effect your own answer. Max's question was:

Which would you rather face: Zombie Apocalypse or Alien Apocalypse?

Saturday, March 15, 2008


Tuesday evening Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra were at Carnegie Hall, with Beethoven 3 on their agenda along with Gil Shaham playing William Schuman's Violin Concerto. I'd been looking forward to this one for a while: I got hooked on the Schuman concerto on CD a couple years back, and the piece doesn't get around that much.

It turns out the Concerto works really well in concert, which I'm glad to know (you can never quite take this for granted when you've heard a piece on CD). It's a rigorously well-crafted work: you can hear everything, the soloist is balanced excellently with the orchestra, and musically the piece is drawn taut, with nothing wasted either expressively or thematically. Shaham was, unsurprisingly, a powerful advocate for the solo part, which is composed in rugged lines well matched to his impossibly sturdy-yet-sensitive tone.

The SFSO clearly played their guts out for the piece, too, which demands constant razor-sharp precision. This is one of those modern concertos that uses the orchestra as an equal participant in the drama, rather than a foil to the soloist. (Think Stravinsky and Shostakovich, in particular.) There was obviously a lot of orchestral preparation and attention that went into the performance, and it absolutely paid off. It's an unglamorous work, flinty and chromatic and without a lot of easily-come-by luster; hearing something in this expressive mode executed so well (not to mention performed in the first place!) is a rare pleasure.

I find the Schuman Violin Concerto to be extremely moving, in an unobvious and kind of hard-to-pin-down way. Schuman wrote it in 1947 and revised it in the late 1950s, and I hear it as a letter from early Cold War America: here's your national strength and vigor, the celebration of victory and of industry flexing its muscle, but with a pessimistic undertow that can't be shaken off. The violin, here, strings nervous melodies over the landscape like high-tension wires over hills and valleys; there, steps aside to sing in a melancholy voice of reason. Even in its virtuosic moments, the violin is more poetic than propulsive. The second movement begins with a slow brutalist brass fanfare, soon melted down into quiet under emphatic but glum timpani thumps. Later the brass sculpt a dissonant militarized climax that might imaginably celebrate a parade of missile-bearing trucks; at the very conclusion an attempted sunrise never quite resolves, optimistic oratory corroded by slashes of strings and a battery of percussion; chimes and cymbals sounding a note of alarm in the midst of affirmation. This is "Be Glad Then, America" with a sardonic shake of the head; the parade ground in a cold drizzle; the superpower paving highways and digging bomb shelters, the heartland pumping out leaded gasoline.

I strongly doubt this is what William Schuman was getting at, but it touches a nerve for me. There's something honest in this concerto, and you don't hear quite the same thing in other American orchestral music.

Allan Kozinn in the NY Times asks why you don't hear this piece as often as Barber, Shostakovich, or Prokofiev. Usually "unsentimentalized borderline atonality" is going to be your winning bet. I agree with the idea behind the question, though.

Beethoven's Third Symphony was really quite good. The funeral-march second movement sounded like something out of Mahler, sprawling and significant. It's really amazing what the man could freight a classical symphony with. I heard a few more tones of desolated Americana in the piece, but I might have still been thinking about the Schuman concerto.

* * * * *

There's an excellent out-of-print recording of the Schuman concerto with violinist Paul Zukofsky, MTT, and the Boston Symphony, and also a very decent Naxos recording featuring Phillipe Quint on violin, with Jose Serebrier and the Bournemouth Symphony. The Naxos disc is your ideal budget-priced introduction to Schuman, really, since it also includes a fine rendition of his New England Triptych, omnipresent among college wind ensemble libraries in its band orchestration. (The slow movement, "When Jesus Wept," is one of the lesser-known treasures of American classical music.) I haven't heard this other out-of-print recording of the concerto, with Robert McDuffie and Leonard Slatkin with the Saint Louis SO, though that lineup sure sounds promising.

While I'm on the subject, Schuman's Fourth Symphony is a surprisingly good piece, too. Good luck hearing that performed live, though.

* * * * *

Thursday night I went to the New Haven Symphony Orchestra with Charlie, who'd fortuitously snagged a couple of comp tickets from a friend in the viola section. I'd heard good things about William Boughton, who started as the NHSO's music director this season, and I'd say they're backed up. Boughton's English, and he started the concert with a real miniature English masterpiece, George Butterworth's Rhapsody on "A Shropshire Lad" -- this is a ravishing yet gently muted pastoral, made more poignant by the composer's early death in World War I. I hadn't heard of him before; this is a legitimate gem, though. Boughton's take on Dvorak's New World Symphony was invigorating and successful, especially the perfectly timed conclusion of the finale. (He took the finale quite fast, trading off some subtlety for energy. This is a more favorable exchange than classical people often realize.) A number of schoolkids were in the audience, which provided more rustling than usual but also applause after every movement, which I always like.

Ross Edwards's 1988 Violin Concerto came before intermission, with Ani Kavafian soloing. The piece has sprightliness and good nature to spare, but it didn't sound too gracious for the orchestra, which sounded a bit shaggy and tended to bury much of what Kavafian played in the lower register. This is also an obscure piece, and I love hearing obscure pieces, but it's a shame when they don't quite come off completely.

Friday, March 14, 2008


I feel geekily compelled to point out that today is Pi Day, this being 3/14 and 3.14 being the commonly used decimal approximation of pi. I suppose one could also use the common fractional approximation, 22/7. So depending on your locale that could either mean July 22nd or require you to pad out the Gregorian calendar with fake months until you get up to twenty-two of them, and then celebrate on the 7th of Imaginuary or whatever you call it. I'm not sure how Pi Day would be acknowledged within other calendar systems but I'd rather not work it out.

As an aside about other calendar systems I'm reminded of how our Little League baseball tryouts used to be scheduled according to Julian birthday (kids with odd Julian birthdays went one day, and even numbers the next). In a better world that would have been when I learned how the Julian calendar works. As it is that's just when I learned that I have no idea what a Julian birthday is. But then I was pretty bad at Little League stuff generally.

Back at the alma mater one tended to notice Pi Day because a number of students -- presumably not the arts and humanitites one -- would write the decimal approximation of the number out to some great precision in chalk in a long, snaking pattern across the campus' sidewalks.

One of the only other things I think of when I think of pi is that (EARLY 1990S COMPUTER GAME SPOILER ALERT) pi turned out to be the villain in 3 in Three.

Anyway, I wish you infinitely many happy, nonrepeating returns of the day.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Still Idly Librarying

Back in college -- around the time of the glancing, sophomore-level exposure to critical theory required for my tacked-on English major -- I decided that a fun alternative to a needlepoint Home Is Where The Heart Is sign would be a needlepoint Home Is Where The "Home Is Where The Heart Is" Sign Is sign.

I note this as a setup to saying that I moved into an apartment yesterday, near the western edge of the Hawthorne District*. It's a modest but attractive single-bedroom unit within a one-story complex. It should be homier than my last place; from the outside and inside it looks to me like a tiny house. I mentioned this to Jack and he was reminded of one of the funnier Geico commercials of late that wasn't turned into an unpromising sitcom. I expect it won't feel that cramped on the inside even once it's fully furnished. Right now it feels positively spacious, given that I have approximately 1.00 HCc's** of material possessions to fill it with. The lack of home-like stuff probably explains why it doesn't feel like home yet more than the lack of any "Home Is Where The Heart Is"-derived signage. I suppose more accurate needlepoint would read Home Is Where The Mattress Is, Which Is To Say Nowhere In Particular Until the Delivery Guys From Sears Show Up Next Week.

...This all seems convoluted now that I read it. The upshot is that I have an apartment but not a bed yet, so I will probably continue to bounce between Portland and McMinnville until work starts next week.

I'm still unemployed enough to meander about while picking away at the edges of the chunk of stuff I have left to do. This morning I did a dry run of the bus ride from my home to the office (23 minutes; hooray) and then got some coffee while I waited for the Central Library to open. I do have to say that the Multnomah County Libraries, though they seem to provide good services, don't keep super convenient hours -- 10 AM to 6 PM being typical for a weekday. So, shortly before ten a small crowd of patrons was expectantly lurking outside the gated library doors. It occurred to me that the scene would be a good subject for a potentially moody art photograph -- the people denied their government's services for another five minutes, etc. The average facial expression hovered someplace between "I want to use a computer" and "I have to go to the bathroom".

Their wireless signal seems patchy today too (maybe it's stronger someplace other than the second floor?) so I'll see if I get to post this right away...

Among my various activities of the past couple of days -- call utilities companies, drink coffee, buy pillows, drink beer, sleep -- I also finished reading Alex Ross' "The Rest Is Noise", which I found invigorating, largely because it made me listen to or at least think about a lot of energizing music. The way he puts the avant garde music of the 50s and 60s into a narrative context is great fun, if you're into that sort of thing. The most peculiar data point for me was the U.S. government's peculiar, rather covert sponsorship of new music concerts in post-WWII Germany, as part of an ill-defined effort to downplay nationalistic culture. I'm mainly happy that it got me to listen through all of Olivier Messiaen's "From the Canyons to the Stars..." (at about 90 minutes, this is a fine accompaniment to washing like three days worth of dirty dishes), which has as radiant and moving an ending as anything else I've gotten to know in the past couple of years.

* I'm trying to come up with a sassy term for this area that combines the words "hipster" and "Habitrail" but my brainal gears are failing me here.

** HCc = Honda Civic capacity.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"Moderate" - "Monel"

The only dictionary that I own, often to my detriment (because, who would of guessed, but Graduate students in creative writing sometimes have to look words up), is a 1938 Webster's Student Dictionary (Upper School Levels). Now, this dictionary itself I like quite a bit - it was a gift to me from my Great Aunt Betty before she died, and she had received it as a gift from her brother Donald, who died in World War II, and if I read the inscription on the inside cover correctly, the dictionary was given to Donald by someone named Hans Englert in 1942 on Christmas Island.

In terms of having any kind of family heirloom-type objects, I enjoy having this dictionary. Between the pages that contain the words "beat" through "beget," there is a scrap of paper upon which Betty drew too small birds in pencil (in two different wing positions) and rubbed a couple other colored pencils a few times, presumably to sharpen their tips. I'm not sure why this piece of paper is in this particular page; though there are a few words that, to me, are candidates for having been looked up: "bedight" (to deck out; adorn; array), "bedizen" (to dress conspicuously, exp. with vulgar finery), "beestings" (the first milk given by a cow after calving).

Between another set of pages - "ensilage" through "ephor"- is the only scrap of paper that is obviously serving the role of bookmark. The scrap itself appears to be a corner torn from a TV Guide, Saturday, August 4, 1995, page 25/26. The words visible on page 25 are:

Live Phone-In)

Weather National

Television The la-
m New York; inno-
in compact cars;

The words visible on page 26 are:

erected in
clysm. 'G' (

33 Local F
15 John Avanz
15 Efrem Zim

The presence of a bookmark makes my interest in knowing which word was being looked up much greater than the page with the piece of paper with two small birds. On this page, as well, there are several words that are likely suspects: "entrain" (to put or go aboard a train), "eolithic" (relating to or designating the earliest stage of human culture characterized by the use of stone implements), "eosin" (a reddish dye made chemically, used in making red ink, for staining in biology, etc.), "ephor" (one of a body of five magistrates in ancient Sparta, advisers to the kings).

Sadly, I can never do more than just speculate as to what word it was that made Betty decide to bookmark that page in 1995, but in the meantime, I bring this up because the other day I was looking a word up (I don't remember what the word was - it wasn't in the dictionary), and again was frustrated by the fact that the word I didn't know wasn't deemed necessary for Upper Level Students in 1938 to know either, but did happen to see another word which I had never heard of that I thought was funny: "milksop."

milksop, n. A mollycoddle.

And I didn't know what a mollycoddle was either! This was great!

mollycoddle, n. A pampered person; an effeminate man or boy. -- v. t. To pamper.

This dictionary is great!

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Bachelor Pow!

Bachelor Chow: Crêpes Edition

I was initially planning to be making crêpes this morning, but the potluck-brunch one of my work friends was going to have got cancelled since she's sick. (Like last year this was pegged to the St. Patty's Day Parade in town.) I was even going to remember to set my clocks ahead this year, too, and not get there an hour late. Oh well.

Plan B was to go check out a Unitarian church up the road a ways (following up this approximately biennial religious impulse I get, at least towards the hamburger-hold-the-meat forms of Christianity that I can coutenance involving myself in) but on the way to the bus stop I realized that I forgot to set my clocks ahead this year, so I was an hour late. Oh well. The Unitarians, save some non-creedal rapture, will still be there next week.

(Meanwhile, I can't go to the parade later on since I'm playing in a concert with that community band this afternoon, at some middle school in Fairfield. It's a shame that I have to ignore my 3/8 Irish heritage this way, but at least I did get some drinking in last night with some people.)

So now I'm sitting in my room listening to the Slavic Variety Show on WNHU 88.7 (which alternates between ethnic hoedown music and the godawful synth-heavy folk-ballad arrangements that Eastern Europeans seem susceptible to pouring their soul into) and sharing the crêpe recipe with the blog, since it's a good recipe, and it's not too hard, and crêpes are a good bachelor food. You can keep them in the fridge for a long while and use them for any meal of the day, savory or sweet. My friend Lisa taught me how to make these last month when I was visiting her & Andy in NYC. (I'm largely copying this off what I think is a color copy of a cookbook page, so, um, fair . . . copyright . . . use . . . warning or something.)


Before starting, make sure
● Your roommate has an 8-inch omelet pan (henceforth "crêpe pan")

and set out in your kitchen
● 2/3 cup flour
● 1/4 tsp salt
● 2 tbsp sugar
● 2 eggs, lightly beaten
● 1 cup milk, with 4 tbsp water added
● 2 tbsp butter

1. Mix the flour, salt, and sugar in a medium bowl.

2. Make a little "well" in the center of the flour bowl, and pour the eggs in there. Whisk these together with the flour, gradually. (If you have an electric mixer, use that. If you don't, pull up your sleeves and get a fork and put some elbow into it, and seriously consider buying an electric mixer.) This should form an even-textured, stubbornly glutenous blob.

3. Whisk the milk into this. You need to do this extremely gradually, or else the batter will form irreconciliable bloblets. Combine just a little bit of the milk at a time, and keep the texture uniform.

4. The batter will be very thin: this is correct. Let it sit there for 20 to 30 minutes. You can use this time to chop up the veggies or grate cheese or otherwise plot what you're going to do with the crêpes.

5. Melt the butter in a little bowl, and brush the crêpe pan with a little bit of it. Stir the rest of the butter into the batter. Put the pan on medium heat.

6. To produce each crêpe, fill a large spoon (like a sauce-mixing kind) with batter, pour it into the pan, and then tilt the pan around so that the batter covers the whole area with a thin layer. Use a second spoonful to fill it out and cover gaps if necessary. It only takes a minute for the bottom of the crêpe to brown; then you flip it over for a very short time, and slide it out into a waiting plate.

Voila! Now that's good eatin'.

I kind of want to teach myself how to make borscht next, and employ the crêpes as ersatz blini. That may just be the slavic variety show kicking in this morning.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Seeking My Dream-partment

I haven't been up to much this week other than looking for apartments, which for the past couple days has meant driving my still packed-up car north into town and tromping around looking for "For Rent" signs, plus tracking down whatever likely properties showed up on craigslist the previous day. This actually is not too strenuous. The prospect of not driving to work anymore becomes much more concrete too -- I've been looking at places about 15 minutes from downtown by bus -- which has me very excited in a sad, displaced-suburbanite way.

At any rate it shouldn't be too long before I find a satisficient place to live/ be safe, hopefully with an early enough move-in that I won't need to do any 75-minute Hell Commutes into the office from McMinnville.

At the moment I'm at a coffee place in the Hawthorne District running down the clock until I go wherever my Garmin tells me to go to tour an available studio apartment. I think I'd be happier near here (the hipper-than-you part of town) than the other close-in neighborhoods I've seen, even if my glasses obviously are not cool enough. For that matter, I'm also wearing a horizontally striped t-shirt under a plaid overshirt; living out of bags and big Tupperware bins for three weeks can have that effect.

Weather remains needlessly wonderful. I'm still not over the way the nearest, largest volcanoes (Hood, St. Helens, Adams) appear totem-like on the horizon on clear days.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Yo Jobba Jobba!

Some good job news this morning: I've just accepted a Java developer position at the downtown Portland office of a regional health insurance provider, starting on St. Patrick's Day (Monday the 17th). On Friday I was all set to say that this may be the last offer of employment I ever accept on a February 29th, but I had to wait over the weekend to work out the details.

This also puts an end to the moderate anxiety I was feeling about not having a job -- which, while moderate, was a little stronger than I expected and sort of privately embarrassing in that I'm apparently even more dependent on extreme financial stability, or maybe just daily routine, than I thought I was. But now I can kick back for a couple of weeks and enjoy the amorphous non-industriousness of having nowhere in particular to go all day. Or, possibly as a higher priority, finding a place to live.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Be Kind, Don't Pan

Saw the new Michel Gondry movie, Be Kind, Rewind, tonight with a couple of work friends. I liked watching it, and my friends liked watching it; but I want to like it a lot more than I did, and there's a lot in it that really doesn't work, even on its own terms. Peculiar movie. Gondry' s basically writing a love letter to his own idiosyncracies here, and a movie this nice at heart is hard to write off, especially when there are a few genuinely gleeful moments that pay off. Still, the tone is kind of uneven, the writing is badly paced, and there are a couple overzealous montage applications. Way, way way sillier movie than The Science of Sleep, incidentally. (Now that movie I liked a lot. I am still thinking I should get around to seeing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind eventually.)

Anyway, the point is that if you share my movie tastes you should probably wait for Be Kind, Rewind to come out on video.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Modest Musical Irons in the Fire

I'm taking beginner's guitar lessons! Mom & Dad got me an acoustic guitar for Christmas, a nice one; I'm trying to put it to good use. A couple of the other editors in my department recommended a guy named Myron who teaches at the local arts-district music school, so I've signed up for biweekly Thursday lessons with him. I'm happy with the choice so far; he obviously knows his stuff, and he's very attentive to the technique/posture/hand-position issues I wanted to make sure I learn the right way off the bat. Also a soft-spoken guy, which I like. I need to figure out what kind of acoustic guitar music I like, though. I don't listen to much of it, and the stuff I like tends to have weird chord changes in it.

I joined a concert band all of a sudden! There's one that rehearses in Stratford, right in town off the Metro North, so effectively that's not so far away. I emailed a guy from their website on Sunday and Wednesday I was sitting in on their rehearsal, and now I'm playing in their concert next weekend, largely since they've lost some clarinets recently. I'm still not sure how this'll turn out -- they're a good size and they've got probably more talent than your average community band, but they sounded really underrehearsed last week and the conductor doesn't have any kind of flair for this. (Plus, much of their repertoire is out of the bins of the high school they rehearse in. Can we have a moratorium on pieces where the tempo markings have exclamation points after them?) The important thing here, though, is that part of me really has needed to play through a Holst suite for a couple years now, and doing so is quietly but genuinely satisfying.

I'm trying to get a classical radio show! I'm slogging through the drawn-out training lectures & studio labs at the university radio station, with an eye to starting a radio show at some future date. (I'm not sure if they broadcast over the summer. Maybe it'd be the fall.) There's no reason this shouldn't work out; there's a surprising amount of empty space in their schedule, particularly in the drowsy pre-workday hours I'd actually be best positioned to take on. In anticipation of this I'm trying to get used to my radio personality again, which is just like my regular personality except that it sounds funny. Also, I try to evaluate everything I listen to in terms of potential airplay, which is a bit frustrating since much of what I listen to comes in half-hour spans of fairly unfriendly dissonant soundscaping. I guess I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.

We'll see where all this goes! In the meantime I feel like I've had a ridiculously long February, though it's been less hard on the soul than your usual February, wintry mix or no. I feel like in the last several months I've managed to build myself a legitimately comfortable foundation of day-to-day routine here, and now it's time to see what kind of interesting stuff I can stack on top of it.