Sunday, November 29, 2009

Eye candy

I'm madly in love with Pennsylvania. It's 300 miles of mountains, steady and true and inexhaustibly surprising, from the Delaware river to the Ohio border. Not even Colorado can claim that. Around every bend in the highway a hillside that could have been sculpted, mutely expressive as the hand on Michelangelo's David. Beyond every hill a gleaming valley, barns and silos and cattle nestled in like a cat curled up in the warmest corner of the house. Even from the interstate the scenery is breathtaking; from a two-lane the views are so pretty my stomach knots up sometimes, the way it does when I surprise a deer, or watch live opera. The two-lanes themselves are stunning, skinny black ribbons plunging down hillsides and zipping around creeks, trees combing each other's tops across them. And always there's the indescribable thrill of encountering an Amish buggy, emissaries from a world we wish we hadn't forgotten. Last year around this time, as a light slush had just finished falling, I saw one "parked" at a hardware store, the horse jacketed and steaming, bookended by cars.

When I taught ESL (now "ESOL" or "ELL" if you want to get fussy) the perpetual struggle was to get students talking, to which end I worked on a list of questions which would force anyone to take a side and defend it with some emotion and elaboration: "Are you a cat person or a dog person?" or "Do you prefer coffee or tea?"

A good one would be "How do you feel about driving across Pennsylvania?"

There are those who hate it as much as I love it, but I've yet to encounter anyone who felt lukewarm. (The "haters" worry me, much like those who claim to have no ear for classical music, or the woman I once dated who told me she didn't like peaches. I didn't think such things were negotiable.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

aesthetic projection

I've got myself started on music now, and I may not be able to stop.

Being a fan of classical music is a lonely business, at least in my generation. I rarely admit to my enthusiasm, almost as if it's alcoholism, or some deviant sexual behavior, because when I do own up people usually react as if I've just admitted to alcoholism, or some deviant sexual behavior. You can see the physical revulsion even if they don't actually say, "Oh, I see. You're one of those people."

The most popular alternative is "Really?! You listen to classical music? Good for you!"

It's not oatmeal; I don't do it for the vitamins.

I've spent most of my life reminding myself that many, if not most, people don't like classical music, but I've never quite become convinced.

I was bantering with a friend once about the minutiae of Bill Evans vs. Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday vs. Ella Fitzgerald, Miles vs. Coltrane, etc., and he waxed so cartoonishly enthusiastic, I was forced to say, "You know, Geoff, there are people who don't like jazz," to which he replied, eyes twinkling,

"I've heard that, but I don't believe it."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

"Record" review

My buddy over at Banjo52 is always offering movie and CD reviews, so I thought I'd take a page from that book by divulging that I recently surrendered my Ebay virginity in order to buy the Glenn Gould Complete Original Jacket Collection (read about it here:, an 80 CD audio orgy to the late Canadian pianist (out of print for about a year now, hence the need for Ebay).

I started off listening to the Mozart sonatas, b/c many critics consider those recordings to be Gould at his worst--Gould himself missed no opportunity to express his disdain for Mozart--and I've been struggling to play them myself.

Sure, there are some moments where I'd like to slap Gould upside the head, or just chuckle in disbelief at the ludicrous tempos and almost willfully quirky phrasing and articulation. But there are many more moments where I sit enraptured and stunned--at his incredibly subtle touch and virtuosic technique, yes, but more so at the ways in which he turns these brilliant but played-to-death pieces into brand-new wonders. At first you think he's playing them all "wrong," but after a few minutes you begin to wonder if everyone else is playing them "wrong." For there are scores of other interpretations out there (Richter being the best I've heard, even though he also disliked Mozart), but after hearing Gould's all the rest sort of blur--not that they're not good, and distinct in their own ways, but that his version is SOOOO different, all the rest start to seem the same by comparison. Every other pianist has his own planet, but Gould comes from a whole different galaxy.

There's no middle ground on Gould. I thought I'd found one, in loving his Bach and steering clear of nearly all his other recordings, but now I realize I'm in for the duration, head over heels, up the creek of musical enthrallment without a paddle.

Don't take my word for it; grab a recording of the Goldberg Variations (he made two, one in 1955, one in 1981, both superlative). I dare you to hear Bach the same way again. The 1981 recording almost singlehandedly fired my interest in classical music.

You won't be the first to be "converted" to Bach, or classical music entirely. In A Romance on Three Legs, Katie Hafner's fascinating biography of Gould through his pet Steinway (no talking pianos, just a focus on the instrument), there's a story of a truck driver (habitually hostile to classical music) who happened upon Gould's Goldberg on the radio; before he had a chance to change stations, he had to make a turn, and by the time he had his hands free, he no longer wanted to switch.

In this strange, media-saturated world in which we live, that's about as positive a review as you can get.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Accidental Artwork

On my morning walk recently, on a day shoplifted from August, I was traversing a grassy field with some boulders in its middle, half reveling in the dew making a mess of my shoes and half anxious over having just polished them. Getting closer to the rocks, I found two Starbucks cups perched there, leaning against each other, their lids kissing.

Picking one up with the intention of carrying it and its mate to the nearest trash can, I noticed that it was half full. For some reason this caused me to stop, laugh, and take a step back.

Here was a "found poem" as good as any I could remember. If only most modern art had half as much whimsy.

I wanted to take a picture, but I didn't have a camera. I wanted to use my cell phone--this is exactly why they put cameras on phones--but I didn't have that either.

Then I remembered what the guide in Kenya with the smile bigger than his waist had said: "Sometimes it is best to take a picture with your mind. That way, you can have it with you whenever you wish."

And so I did.

And off I went to the workaday world--the chattering computers, the brooding coffee-maker, the cool white walls and putty file cabinets, the conditioned air--where so many things are so stultifyingly predictable, the little incongruities so often overlooked or banished.

And I carried with me that picture as a reminder that if even Starbucks cups, even litter, can kindle laughter and exhilaration, there may be no need to shuffle off this modern coil after all.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Wild Suburbs

Walking around my "hood" yesterday afternoon, I spotted a deer among some tall grass and brush in a sort of gully at the edge of a big vacant lot. Creeping closer, I found him to be a spike buck.

No big deal to see deer in the suburbs these days, but I thought I'd see how close I could get without spooking him--no mean feat in broad daylight, on a wide-open hillside, with big crunchy leaves everywhere and a squirrel right next to me. As I got to within maybe ten yards, a much older buck (four points) revealed himself nearby. Continued creeping brought what appeared to be a fawn into view.

As I crept closer still, Senior Buck paced back and forth between the concealed "fawn" and exposed Junior Buck, stopping periodically to stare and stare at me head on, his nose quivering with alertness. When I got to within twenty feet, he began stamping his left forefoot periodically in an apparent show of defiance. Junior kept moving toward Senior, who kept turning to scold him back away. I assumed this was a coordinated defense to protect the "fawn," using Junior as a decoy.

Eventually I reached that invisible point beyond which no deer will tolerate humans, and the "fawn" rose from the brush to reveal that it was in fact a doe. She and Senior and Junior (each about ten feet from the other) all faced me as Senior stamped and nodded, making what looked for all the world like the prelude to a charge. Uncertain what the rules of engagement are when bucks feel their doe is threatened, I began to back off. I had to get back almost to the thirty yard point before the trio seemed significantly calmer.

As I continued to back away, Junior came out of the brush and strolled, in the open, past Senior and Senora. I assumed this was still part of an elaborate decoy maneuver. When he got close to Senora, Senior rushed out of the brush and faced him aggressively. When Junior held his ground, Senior made a false charge, at which point Junior dashed off into another clump of brush.

Suddenly it seemed that the unusual anxiety and agression hadn't been about me, but Junior. Senior was clearly guarding Senora against an interloper, or possibly driving off his own son.

On the way home I hiked down and back up a dry creek bed thick with deadfall and undergrowth, descending between two McMansions and coming up onto a major road. Down in there it could have been the Olympic Peninsula for all it resembled the suburbs.