Monday, April 30, 2012

a mainstream trip memory

I was outside this morning with Greta, enjoying an April day. It's getting hotter and hotter around here, and there are very few days left that can be said to be enjoyed strictly on virtue of their pleasant atmosphere. We were running around. She contrives to make me run more than I would like to, but it's awfully fun.

I chanced to smell my hand. I started sniffing the back of it, and my forearm, and the other hand and forearm. The smell took me back immediately to church mission trips.

I then realized why. It's because there've been so few times in my life that I've been awake and outside in the morning sweating. I associate that dewy smell on me in the morning with the only compactly predictable times I've smelled it: church mission trips. That I actually woke up and went outside and did manual labor, year after year, is a testament to the power of the Spirit.

Friday, April 27, 2012


I've just been running across a number of references to character flaws and virtues that describe my trajectory pretty well. It's funny, reading someone's blog and suddenly turning into Charleton Heston's Moses receiving the law on the mountain — all the principles of life are spoken with plenty of reverb and etched on fake rock, and then one zooms right at you. Pow!

The fact is that, though I'm still not an incredibly admirable person in a lot of ways, I'm way better off than I used to be. I look back at my 18- and 20-year-old self, and cringe. I even look back at my 6- and 8-year-old self and cringe. I never would have thought of myself as a bully back then, but, as Tolkien and Wagner remind us, all power is the Ring of power, corrupting whether you like it or not. I didn't physically tower over my peers, so I didn't bully them. I didn't bully them physically, that is. What I now realize is that I did often tower over them in other ways, and I often used that power for petty ends. There's really nothing worse you can do for a kid than to make him really smart and witty. Fortunately, though, that kid has the chance to grow up.

At a very young age, I embraced a spiritual narrative that said that I, though fatally flawed, was nonetheless loved and redeemed; and furthermore Loved and Redeemed. Why did it take so long to sink in that I was also charged with the joyous lowercase task of loving and redeeming? Why did I skip over so many stark admonitions about how we are to treat each other? Not quite right: why did I read those admonitions in such a way that they didn't apply where I needed them most?

Maybe this is what Solomon means when he says that a child trained in righteousness won't depart from it when he is old. Maybe for some folks it simply takes that long. How grateful I am to have lived this long! May I live a bit longer, please?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

cool and the collar

I was at the playground with Greta. The sun was hot.

Folks, that little girl is giving me Farmer Tan. She wants to go outside all the time — something that gives me joy to see, given that so many kids stay inside so much that (this is really happening) they're getting short-sighted — but, much as I enjoy romping around the neighborhood and the back yard and the playground and the park with her, all this sun is making my forearms and neck certified brown.

So, on this particular sunny day, midday, I wanted to protect my neck. Just give it a bit of a break. I was wearing a knit-collar shirt, whose collar flips up nicely to protect the neck. But just then I saw a couple bring their kid nearby, and I flipped it down.

Yes, I actually turned my collar down in an attempt to look more cool. A world-historic first.

Don't judge me. I didn't want them to think I was That Guy.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

loquats, kumquats, and markets

It's loquat season in our part of San Antonio. These peachy-peary orange-yellow fruits are busting out all over, and I've been thinking about them.

First, a word on kumquats and loquats. For some reason, we all get confused between them, perhaps because of of the -quat. That's like getting confused between a booger and a jogger. Man, those suffixes get you every time! A kumquat is a citrus fruit. If you open it to find that it's in sections and tastes like citrus, you've got a kumquat, whereas if it has more peachlike flesh and big beautiful deep-brown seeds, then it's a loquat.

Several houses in our neighborhood have them. We've availed ourselves quite a bit in the last few days, comparing the various flavors (Neighbor A's are tart; Neighbor B's are juicier and sweeter). All this has gotten me wondering why on earth we don't see them in stores. They're only in neighbors' yards. In fact, I can't think of another common fruit that you can't get in the average supermarket; maybe it's available at some supermarket somewhere, but I've never seen it happen. Who knows why this is so. But I must say that beyond the sheer sensual pleasure of biting into one and tasting the sweet-tart flavor I so associate with my childhood, when Bart Morgan and I used to eat them by the dozen on the walk home from school, there's the poetic joy I find in the fact that such a pleasure is completely uncommodified. You can't buy them; you can't sell them; you can only find them and enjoy them. That's an important experience.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

all night long

I just got back from hearing the San Antonio Symphony rehearse its first Brake arrangement. I'm already mentally editing, chalking up what ended up sounding good in real life and what didn't. (As an evocation of what was originally an electronic texture, my cool muted-multi-trumpet trill sounded great, just for the record.)

The song is "All Night Long," Lionel Richie's huge Caribbean-flavored hit from 1983. I remember when it came out. The first thing that struck me was that, for a song about partying, it starts calm. What a great idea. And Richie sells it so well. In the video, he looks terrific: not soap-commercial-studly but casually slick, and handsome — handsome in a way, importantly, that owed little to Anglo conventions of beauty. I always imagined that if I were an African-American kid I'd have looked to him as someone I could aspire to.

But his appearance in the video goes beyond that. The way the thing is staged, and the way he performs within it, have stuck with me all these years. A youtube viewing simply confirmed my 16-year-old impressions. As various lithe dancers and partiers, all bearing witness to the explosion of inventive (and often human-form-flattering) fashion in the early Eighties, enter and prepare to party in the streets, Richie moves simultaneously among and Above, giving his blessing to each of them, gesturing them into inspiration, the musician as life-giver. Look at the way he moves: it's as if everyone else is dancing and he's the one setting them in motion, like the shocking figure of God dancing out the creation in Michelangelo's less-famous but most inspired Sistine panel, The Separation of Light from Darkness.

Of course, music is mainly music, and his composition doesn't disappoint either. Pure pop perfection, but hardly formulaic. Rather than the tried-and-true concision of the A-A-B-A-B-B or A-B-A-B-B-C-B of most pop songs since the 60s, he has the audacity to write a song that (by my count) goes A-B-C-D-E-F-C. And it never flags or feels weird. I can't think of another top ten song that does that. Even Cole Porter's famously long forms relied on slight variation and repetition rather than a string of unrelated themes. Richie makes it work.

This weekend, the Symphony will be kicking off Fiesta with pops concerts on Friday and Saturday, and the opener is my arrangement of "All Night Long," with Tejano star Patsy Torres singing. (I stuck a couple of quotes from some of my favorite Torres hits in there, just for fun. Will anyone notice?) Today, I strolled into the rehearsal hall to check it out. They sound just great, and Torres is terrific. (I also got a sneak preview of Troy Peters's shimmering arrangement of "On Broadway.")

Well, my friends, the time has come. Great way to begin Fiesta.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

second fiddle

Melody goes on top; accompaniment goes below. That's just the rule. (Except in barbershop, where the top guy does falsetto harmony.) It's a matter of consternation, frustration, jokes, pity, tears, and ridicule among musicians: altos famously get very boring parts while the soprano soars in song. (My niece Hannah sings a hilarious song about this. Check it out, not only for the clever song but also for her superb delivery.)

Players of viola, the violin's larger and deeper sibling, share this frustration. More jokes are from the lead players' point of view (How do you keep your violin from getting stolen? Put it in a viola case. What's the difference between a viola and a coffin? The coffin has the dead person on the inside. Why do violists leave their instrument cases on the dashboards of their cars? So they can park in handicapped parking places; and if someone mistakes them for mafia, they might get some respect. Was sind die drei Lagen auf der Bratsche? Erste Lage, Notlage, und Niederlage. Höhöhö!!) than from the violists' (Which is smaller, a violin or a viola? They are actually the same size, but a violinist's head is so much bigger.).

As a composer and arranger, I always like to give every player something satisfying: give the basses a few interesting licks, give the poor harpist something more than glissandos. For a recent commercial, I borrowed some string players from the symphony. Since it wasn't a jingle but rather a positive-vibe background for voiceover, most of it was whole notes. But I wrote a nice lilting melody for solo viola. I figured that the rich sound of a well-miked viola was just the thing for this particular spot: warm and inviting.

During the session, the violist (the superb Marisa Bushman) asked, "Are you a violist or something?" Because who else, right? Nope; just a composer who wanted to [a] give an underutilized instrument a chance to sing a bit, and [b] give the world a heartwarming melody.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

a musical joke

This is from a classical piano suite I wrote recently.

Get it?

Monday, April 9, 2012

one, two, three, many

Societies are known to sociologists by, among other things, their counting systems. In some societies the counting system is "one/two/many," which means that there's a word for one, and there's a word for two, but then there's no word for any number higher than that but a word that means "several" or "many." Then there's "one/two/three/many," for folks who have one and two and three, but then nothing higher than that aside from generalities.

In advanced societies, of course, we have more. We can conceive of seven of something, or 16, or 200. We have a sense of how much seventy thousand dollars is, and how much two hundred thousand is.

But there's evidence that those are just compound ideas in our brains. We've been trained to stretch and stretch toward ever greater numbers, but we may have a neurological limit of about 3. There's evidence of that even in advanced societies. Take a look at Chinese numerals:

Interesting, right? A single line, then two lines, then three lines, then ... a symbol.

How about Roman numerals:

A single line, then two lines, then three lines, then ... a symbol.

Now Hindi:

A single line, then two lines, then three lines, then ... a symbol.

Now Arabic:

A single line, then a cursive way of doing two lines, then a cursive three lines, then ... a symbol.

Four advanced civilizations, developed separately all over the globe, and over and over the human race easily spots one thing, two things, three things ... and that's it. After that, higher numbers become an abstract concept.

I've noticed this in the past in Greta. Several weeks ago she caught the concept of two of something. One fine day she saw a truck go by and said, "Truck!," as she never fails to do. Then another truck went by and she said, "Two trucks!" I was thrilled that she could get the concept and articulate it. She kept saying things like that, and now often goes plural whenever she can. "Two cheerios!" "Two beans!" "Two pillows!"

Interestingly, I noticed that she'd say "Two trucks!" even when there was only one truck. But then I realized that she was possibly at a one/many stage, in which her word for "many" was "two." She was seeing (not just trucks but) all the cars on the road, and calling them all trucks. "Two trucks" then may mean "Look at all those cars!"

Just a couple of days ago, we were playing in the back yard, when she picked up a few straws that had spilled out of the car. She came up and exclaimed, "Three straws!"

Rising toward earth's noonward height!

Friday, April 6, 2012

fiscal responsibility and fiscal responsibilities

As we continue a political season in which dire predictions abound, let us all remember that just over a decade ago, after Republican and Democratic Presidents and Congresses prudently raised taxes while prudently cutting spending, we had a balanced budget, and even a trillion-dollar surplus.

A trillion-dollar surplus!! We've done it before — without cutting Social Security or Medicare — and we can do it again. Certainly we need to scrutinize our spending and spend less; certainly we need to raise taxes in some way, if only to pay for the trillion-dollar military effort that came right after the huge tax cut. But a strong social safety net does not lead inexorably to economic collapse.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

after dinner

In April of 1997, I was sitting around with Julie Ingram and Jeff Walker in Julie's Upper East Seventies apartment, and happened across the website, which is now defunct. It was a collection of literaryish, bloggy essays by various contributors, curated by Alexis Massie, a writer and confessionalist I read for years after. I was so struck by the first essay that I read, written by Adam Rakunas, that I saved it.

Now you might think that bothering to save something in the age of the internet is a strange thing to do. After all, everything's in the cloud, right? Nope: the other day I got a hankering to read it again, and an exhaustive Google search did no good at all. I just don't think this essay is anywhere to be found on the web. So I'm doing my civic duty and resubmitting it to the world. Adam Rakunas, if you're out there and don't want this here, just let me know. Meanwhile, you (and everyone else) can enjoy a really nice rhapsody on food and fellowship, and I can finally thank you for words that still pierce my heart.

When I was in sixth grade, I did something really stupid. Mom was serving dinner — burritos, I remember — and I didn't like them. I took a bite, made a face, and told Mom it sucked.
She put down her burrito, leaned across the table, and gave me that look that mothers have perfected over the ages. "You don't like it? Next time, you make it."

Little did I know, but my snide comments would change my life.

I started out with burritos. When I graduated from that, I learned pasta. Then chicken stir-fry. Then when I was in high school Mom got me The Frugal Gourmet on Our Immigrant Ancestors for Christmas, and it all went downhill from there. I became addicted to cooking and started throwing dinner parties for my friends.

We're not talking about a li'l ol' barbecue with Ball Park franks and Doritos. I mean homemade pizzas an inch-and-a-half thick with a crust loaded with basil and rosemary sitting underneath pesto sauce and peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, and sausage and two or three cheeses. Enchiladas full of lime-marinated, mesquite-grilled chicken and smothered with a green sauce made of tomatillos, onions, garlic, and fire-roasted chilies that was made in an old cast iron skillet. Multi-course Chinese meals of rice and noodles and dim sum that I rolled and stuffed until my hands smelled of ginger and shrimp paste and cha siu sauce. Indian feasts with curries, lentils, flat nan bread and spices that permeated my kitchen for weeks.

Put me in a kitchen and I can make food that will make your taste buds sing. Put me in a kitchen and I can give you joy on a plate with a side of hummus. Put me in a kitchen and I can kick Martha Stewart's ass.

See, somewhere along the line, cooking went from sustaining the body to sustaining the spirit. I lived to make food and get my hands covered in bread dough and serve up banquets for my friends who subsisted on Top Ramen and dorm food. We would all eat and eat and eat until our bellies and our souls were filled to capacity. We did this so many times in school, slowly filling my old apartment with people and warmth, then grabbing plates and silverware and whatever I'd cooked and mmming our delight.

I've since moved out of that place, and we are all scattered across the world. But I can still make phone calls and send emails and have my home fill up and warm up and I can watch it happen again. And something wondrous hits me.

There is a feeling I get at a certain point in the evening. It comes right after we've cleaned our plates and we're draining what's left in our goblets. We all sit around the dining room table or drift into the living room or spill out into the cold night air of the porch. We are all almost comatose from eating too much, but we are also so happy to be with each other again and telling stories we've all heard a dozen times but will never grow tired of. There is a feeling that arrives between us putting down our forks and me realizing how much of a disaster area my kitchen is, and I love it very much. I still can't give it a name.
It is so wonderful. It is so joyous.

When I was in grade school, the nuns in CCD used to tell us that Heaven is an eternal banquet where we feast on the bounty of God. I think that that's close, but they missed something important. If there is a Heaven, I hope that there is a banquet, but only if we sit at the table right after we arrive. What I hope is eternal and everlasting is that part after the feast, where we can sit around with the ones we love and smile and enjoy each other's company and tell stories that we've heard for millennia but still haven't grown tired of. An eternal after dinner.

That, and someone else to do the dishes for me.

Adam Rakunas

Sunday, April 1, 2012

fools and palms

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil's walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

      G.K. Chesterton