Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Who knew I looked so much like Felipe Gonzalez?

Have you see the thing where they tell you what celebrities you look like?

I have to say, I don't really see the Faith Hill thing.


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Why I spend most of my disposable income on music.

Twice recently, I have, through music, found myself facing a confrontation between a younger me and the present me.

The first happened at a recent performance here by the National Symphony Orchestra, who were just completing a residency in South Carolina, which included concerts here and in several other cities in the Upstate. Among other pieces on their program was Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Had you been there for my childhood, you would know that this was a piece I loved, listening to it over and over again, studying descriptions of the paintings on which it was based, learning to place many parts of the original piano score, incorporating parts of it into the "soundtrack" for a slideshow, about Lucien Stryk's poem "Crow," that I made as a school project in middle school. My favorites were always the big bossy parts and the minor-key spooky parts--the little gnome, the big peasant cart, the section about Baba Yaga. My family had an LP recording of the orchestral version and at some point I bought an LP of the piano version.

(Apparently I was less interested in Mussorgsky by the time I was buying CDs, because I realized after the concert that I had neither version.)

As far as I can recall, this was the first time I have ever watched a performance of this piece, and I have little training in orchestral music. The result was that I knew what the piece was supposed to sound like, but I had not ever considered what instruments were making those sounds, which left me wholly unprepared for the giant bell during the Great Gates at Kiev--which the percussionist had to climb a stepladder to even reach.

More than anything, though, I was unprepared for the emotional encounter I would have with the piece, because there, sitting next to me in the balcony, or perhaps in my lap, was a much younger me, whose enthusiasm for this over the top intensity had not been tempered by years of sarcasm and irony. Instead, this person still delighted in the music--still remembering the progressions of the piece just before they happened, reveling in the wobbly rhythms of the ballet of the little unhatched chicks, feeling chills in her scalp when the percussion section went to work in final section.

When I was in high school, I fell in love with Shostakovich's 5th Sympony, and especially its enormous final movement. Or maybe just as much, with the anticipation in the third movement of what is to come in that final movement. So much of music is about time passing and time to come, and for music that you know well, the pleasure of anticipation is as powerful as the pleasure of the sounds themselves. In a symphonic performance, this anticipation can be even greater, as you watch the middle strings ready their bows, or the tuba player place the world's biggest mute in the bell of his horn, or you watch a percussionist raise the big clapper.

But I digress from my digression: One time during my first year of college I was riding with a classmate to an off-campus gathering. His car was convertible, it was a beautiful day, and he was blasting Shostakovich from his super-duper stereo. "I absolutely love this piece!" I said, thinking to myself how different college was from high school and how here there were people who thought like me. "I know," he said, "It is such magnificent kitsch!"

I was crest-fallen. I knew what kitsch was from reading the novels of Milan Kundera, who associated kitsch with everything that was aesthetically, intellectually, and ethically wrong with Soviet Russia. How could something that I loved so much, that I took so seriously, be kitsch?

The person who sat in my lap during the NSO concert had never heard of kitsch, and if this piece was on the program because it was so well known as to be unoffensive, well, that had never occurred to her either. And what an unadulterated thrill it was to hear that music through her ears!

The second such confrontation happened last night, when I went to see U2 3D. Had you lived in my house when I was in high school, you would remember that numerous large photographs of the members of this band adorned my walls, that I had all their albums (well, technically, their tapes...), and that, well, maybe I will not today confess to my fierce crush on Bono. That was about 20 years ago (oy), but did you know that even after 20 years' time, those feelings do not go away either?

Rock music is unbelievable that way, because there I was in the Hollywood 20 last night, wearing my 3D-glasses, reduced to the powerful feelings of a teenager. But not exactly: because I was still partly my present self, but also that earlier self, as I imagined myself in what seemed to be the world's largest soccer arena, watching this band that can still kick some serious ass with all the power that they did back in the day. Granted, Bono wasn't talking about the Troubles directly (and I wonder if most of the folks in the crowd in Buenos Aires, like my students, have no memory of that), or about Apartheid, but the songs were still there, now applicable to other horrors, and he still performs an unabashed disgust at these recent incarnations. The Edge and Adam Clayton and the only drummer I can think of who uses the appelation ", Jr." as a part of his name were still unbelievably excellent to watch. It took me back to the Hampton Coliseum and the Joshua Tree tour, when I was having my eardrums blasted away and straining to get as close to a band as a person could from the upper ring of seating. It reminded me of playing Rattle and Hum over and over and over, listening to a tape of it in the car with a friend who could never get the lyrics to "Desire" right. And of listening to "Hallelujah, Here She Comes" on my walkman as I walked to the music building in college.

So today I went out and bought a new CD recording of Pictures at an Exhibition, and the remastered Joshua Tree, and Zooropa, all of which I used to have, in some non-digital format. I am thrilled to hear them again, even though I know that in playing them again and again now, I am inadvertently exorcising the spirits that inhabit them.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

One sock down.

I finished my first sock on Sunday:

Seriously, despite everything you may have heard, kitchener stitch--the way you graft the toe together seamlessly--is not that hard, and it is amazingly cool.

And I feel amazingly cool for having finished one sock.

Sadly, my other foot feels amazingly chilly with no sock to wear.

So I started on the second one before we headed off for our Superbowl party. I knit about 4 inches of it during the game (and got many looks from people wondering why in the world a person would knit socks), but then the work week came, and now I am stalled again. But it will come.

In the words of many a sock-knitter, faced with an impending Dook game, GO HEELS.

On Having Been X-ing for a Long Time.

Do you ever wonder what it would be like to have been doing something for a long time? Of course, this questions presumes that perhaps there is something that you have started recently--whether it be a new hobby, a new job, a new sport, a new baby, etc. Perhaps as you read this, you can insert your own new thing in lieu of my obsession with knitting.

I read blogs or books by (in my case) knitters who have been knitting for a long time with a combined sense of wonder and desire. Perhaps the person makes reference to a book published in the '70s that now has a tattered cover, many dog-eared pages, and is full of scribbles. Or perhaps the person talks about the many many sweaters that they have made, the many techniques learned, the many pairs of socks worn through. In all these cases, I wonder, what would it feel like to have that knowledge, that memory? Then, soon afterwards, I want very much to have that knowledge, that memory--partly to understand what it would feel like, and partly because I have come to love knitting so much.

For me, this experience is radically different from, say, reading something written about swimming. Many of those posts I read with the thought, "well, yeah, I know what that is like," or "man, he had it worse than I did," or "I wonder what it was like to be that serious about your sport." Sure, even with swimming, I can think ahead of what it might be like to be a masters swimmer in her 60s, to have had that much more experience with the thing, but still: I have put in my yardage, and I know something about what swimming is.

When I read writings of long-time knitters, though, I cannot really imagine what it might feel like to be so experienced. What is it like to have designed many things (and had them come out well)? What is it like to have made sweaters back in the 1980s when we as a culture were making very poor choices about colors and fibers? What is it like to look back on a book that you have consulted so many times that it has become a part of your soul?

Perhaps it is something about these cycles of wonder and desire that lead us to try new things, to spend time with them.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Dual citizenship.

Over at "The Seated View," Lene Andersen, responded today to a description of a book as containing stories about people dealing with chronic illnesses. She quoted from that description and responded to it:

And I quote from the Book Descriptions: "In 2003 Cohen published Blindsided, a bestselling memoir of illness. The outpouring of support revealed to him that not only does the public want to hear from people who overcome the challenges of illness, but that in the isolated world of illness, there are people who want their voices to be heard. Strong at the Broken Places was born of the desire of many to share their stories in the hope that the sick and those who love them will see that they are not alone each” (emphasis mine). And I got a little stroppy.

She goes on to explain "the stroppy":

Which brings me to the reason for the stroppy: that line about the overcoming (which isn’t written by the author, so I’m not dissing him). I looked it up and to overcome: to defeat, to prevail over, to surmount, to conquer. And that's the tricky bit, because traditionally, yes, the public only wants to hear from people who "overcome" the challenges of illness. They don't want to hear about the daily struggle unless it culminates in an achievement, unless you're the plucky kind, preferably pretty enough to qualify for poster child status, the one who can smile through the hardship, remind the great unwashed of how lucky they are to be healthy. And you know what? There is no overcoming of disability.
(Even though I have quoted a lot from her piece, you should read the whole thing.)

I am ready to confess that I have not (yet?) experienced living with a chronic condition like MS, or ALS, or arthritis, or Crohn's. But I am going to try to learn what I can from over a year of pain and a couple of spikes.

One thing I have noticed so much recently--and that Lene's piece made me think about--is how ready people are for me to be finished with my recovery. I have received any number of e-mails from friends saying, "I trust by now that your shoulder is back to normal..." or well-wishing comments from colleagues, making it clear that what they are ready for is good news. These comments are hard to hear, because, frankly, I am ready for it, too: who isn't, really. But after I smile at them and tell them how much better everything is, I feel like a big fibber, because I am also extremely aware of how far I have to go, of what is still wrong, and also of my fear (understanding?) that this recovery process will probably continue until something else goes downhill.

In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry writes about the inability of a person in physical pain and a person not in pain to communicate about it:
For the person whose pain it is, it is 'effortlessly' grasped (that is, even with the most heroic effort it cannot not be grasped); while for the person outside the sufferer's body, what is 'effortless' is not grasping it (it is easy to remain wholly unaware of its existence; even with effort, one may remain in doubt about its existence or may retain the astonishing freedom of denying its existence; and finally, if with the best effort of sustained attention one successfully apprehends it, the aversiveness of the 'it' one apprehends will only be a shadowy fraction of the actual 'it'). So, for the person in pain, so incontestably and unnegotiably present is it that 'having pain' may come to be thought of as the most vibrant example of what it is to 'have certainty,' while for the other person it is so elusive that 'hearing about pain' may exist as the primary model of what it is 'to have doubt.'
When the pain from my infection was coming on (I did not then know what the problem was), I called my then-orthopaedist's office for help. The nurse told me to take some Advil. I told her the pain was very severe. She said she would talk to the doctor and call back later. "Later" means two different things when you have a schedule to uphold and when (it turns out) you have a colony of organisms outgrowing and devouring your joint. Yet, I see upon reflection, this nurse probably gets many complaints of pain: it is easier and more natural (and probably even necessary) to doubt.

Looking back now on my account of that weekend of pain, I am reminded that I do not succeed in communicating the feeling of the pain. In fact, my memory of the weekend makes it hard for me to imagine that that account describes the same experience that I remember. As Virginia Woolf says, "English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear has no words for the shiver or the headache...." I do describe the various parts around the pain, and, I am ashamed to note, I do it all in the rhetoric of see-how-much-better-I-am-now. Well.

Susan Sontag writes:

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.

Sometimes now I do feel like I was living abroad for a time, and even now I take occasional trans-oceanic flights, getting back just in time for some meeting or to teach a class. These days, my trips are less frequent than they once were, my stays abroad shorter. In fact, I can even think as the night-side kingdom as "abroad."

In my file of important documents in my desk I still have my c. 1997 readers' cards from the British Library and the National Library of Ireland, for whenever I need to go back. I expect that even if for a time I stash my night-side passport in that folder, it will never expire.

Back to the well.

I had been holding off on vertical kicking for a while, waiting for my knees to adapt to kicking again. It seems they are adapting, so I did some verticals last night--and remembered quickly that it is its own physical skill and much harder than horizontal kicking. All to say, I am still out of shape.

I did three rounds of a set where you kick hard for 10 seconds, rest for 30, kick hard for 20 seconds, rest for 30, kick hard for 30 seconds, rest for 30. Based on the sets I used to do, where it was always 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off, or else 20/30/40 on, I thought this would be a breeze. Wrong. The 30-second-on segments kicked my butt (so to speak).

But this is all part of the process. (She said, hoping this time she would believe it.)

1000 warm-up (400 kick with fins; 300 kick w/o fins; 300 alt. 25 one-arm, 25 kick)
500 kick, descend sets (no fins)
.....3x50 FR kick descend
.....4x50 BR kick descend
.....3x50 BA kick descend
100 easy kick
300 flutter kick with board: 6x50s alt. 25 flat board and 25 "tombstone"
100 easy
8 minutes vertical kick (=~400 yards)
200 cooldown
TOTAL: ~2600 yards

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Good for your soul (if not your arteries).

When I was in college, my mother and a family friend conspired to convince me that brownies from scratch are not that much more work than brownies from a box, and they taste quite a bit better. They were right, of course, and that opinion shows that their little plan worked. Now, when I think of making brownies, brownie mix never crosses my mind. (Well, apparently it does, as I have just mentioned it, but perhaps you get the idea.)

This made for an especially good result one time last fall, when the PP and I went to dinner at a neighbor's house, and we brought brownies. One of the other guests said she could never eat brownies because she was allergic to cottonseed oil, and pretty much all the mixes include it. AHA! I said, but these are not from a mix, and I listed off the ingredients. So she had one. And she loved it.

Tonight we are headed to her house for a Superbowl party, so I am making the brownies again. Besides, I have recently found myself in possession of what experts agree is a shitload of good chocolate, thanks to a friend who was looking out for me back at the time of my surgery. So brownies are the perfect thing, especially when they can involve excellent super-dark chocolate.

Furthermore, the Superbowl party in question has a bit of a Mardi Gras theme to it. Longtime readers of this blog will know that there is exactly one thing that I associate with that holiday, and that I spend pretty much every Mardi Gras mourning their lack. This is not the spirit of Mardi Gras, I know, so this year I am trying to think metaphorically. If the idea of the paczki is to make something that uses up such goodies as eggs and butter (or really, lard), then my brownies get into the Mardi Gras spirit!

The basis of my brownies comes from a recipe from Laurie Colwin, who claims that she got it from a friend who claims to have gotten it from a magazine article claiming it was Katharine Hepburn's family recipe. As Laurie says, "If there were no other reason to admire Katharine Hepburn, this pan of brownies would be enough to make you worship her."

FAT TUESDAY (and also my fat ass) BROWNIES
2 sticks butter*
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate*
2 cups sugar*
4 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 bag Ghiradelli white chocolate chips
as much additional chocolate as you can stand, chopped**

[*I substituted quite dark (70% cacao) chocolate for the unsweetened. That means I also reduced the butter by 1 1/3 teaspoon and the sugar by 4 tablespoons.]
[**By "chopped," I really mean beaten into smaller bits using the back of an ice cream scoop.]

Preheat oven to 325 and butter and flour a 13x9 pan. Melt butter and chocolate in a sizable saucepan on your stove (this saucepan will become your mixing bowl). Remove from heat and add sugar. Then add vanilla and eggs (make sure the mixture is a bit cooled first, so you don't cook the eggs). Then add flour and salt. Then add white chocolate chips and all the dark chocolate bits you think you can get away with without your guests complaining. Pour the chocolatey goodness into buttered and floured 13x9 pan and bake at 325 for 40 minutes. Don't even hope that a tester will come out clean, since there is so much additional chocolate in there.