Friday, November 28, 2014

Inch Thirty-Nine: Back to the Books

Last week was the annual Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) in Indianapolis. This is an event I have always enjoyed. Always.

I struggled this year.

It is not the Percussion Universe that has changed. It is I who have changed.

At 58, I am tired. A lot more tired than at 51, which is how old I was when I first attended PASIC. And trust me, by PASIC standards, 58 is not old. I saw percussionists with 20 or more years on me playing away with vigor and enthusiasm and skill. At 58, I have seven more years of myeloma under my belt, seven more years of aging family issues, seven more years, period. I spent most of the convention stumbling around in a daze, dozing off in concerts and quiet spaces.

Indianapolis was extremely cold (cold, cold, cold) and windy this time. That made walking from the parking lot to the convention center an exercise in arctic tolerance. It made walking the one block from the convention center to a nearby museum a study in pain. I lingered long in the museum as much to avoid the frigid walk back as to view the collection. The cold didn't help my condition: I couldn't comfortably go outside and walk off my lethargy.

The convention Focus Day this year was new music and new music notation. We did not arrive until the day after Focus Day, but Warren and I caught one of the last performances on that theme, seeing several ensembles perform short works. There was a lot of clattering, quiet, loud, but clattering. The endless high school debate of "what is Art?" came to mind. You remember: Is a painted tennis shoe glued to a blank canvas art? Is a painted tennis shoe glued to a blank canvas by Pablo Picasso art?

Is a collection of noises, interesting though they may be, music? Judging by the rapt audience and the intensity of the performer rubbing his hand over a bass drum head, I'd say at least a sizable portion of the audience would say it was. (It pleased me that after that particular piece, the performer tripped over a music stand on his stage exit, threw up his hands with a grin, and became engagingly human.)

Not only did I not get the new music, I also didn't get the styles of the performances. The next ensemble was equally serious and intense, without the humanizing trip and grin. After a player would strike a bell or a bar, it was as if the air would become viscous and the player would lift high his or her arm with great effort before bringing it down through the same solemn atmosphere to strike another note. After a brief interlude that required very robotic movements, one of them struck another bell and they all switched back to the languid, slow arm movements.

I sat there in my stupor and wondered about the choreography. If I didn't know better, I'd say they were a bunch of lotus-eaters. Did the performers create this? Did the ensemble director dream it up? I could not imagine the composer writing in "lift right hand slowly overhead as you strike the note," but Warren said later it likely was the composer.

Really? Really? 

In the end, the one performance that stuck with me and roused me from my daze was by a four-man ensemble, Architek Percussion, performing "Spinefold" by James O' Callaghan. They sat at a table, each with a hard-cover book before him, and played. The work was a series of synchronized sounds from the book: pages flipping, covers being slapped, books opening and shutting.

I grinned watching it.

PASIC, and by extension the Percussion Universe, is seeing an electronic proliferation, including using iPads and computers in performances.  Drums and percussion instruments are tangible objects that make sounds when shook, struck, tapped, or otherwise handled. The lure of the electronic is all the sounds that a human can't make (or can't make easily indoors or under concert conditions). I have seen some clever and imaginative pieces using iPads.

And here were four guys, sitting at a table, putting on a performance with four books (this is an earlier performance, not the PASIC concert):

Four guys, four books.

Maybe that was why the piece was so engaging for me. Books! Something I am never without, something I hold in my hand every single day. I carried two with me to PASIC, one of which I read curled up on a chair in a lounge, the other of which I got a good start on. Trust me, the percussionists flowing by me never registered that I was reading. They were too busy tapping, discussing, analyzing, playing, to notice a book.

Books, books, books. Something tangible, something old school, something that the late, sometimes great John Updike predicted would not last long into the new century. Clearly he had underestimated the visceral appeal of a book.  Clearly Updike had not anticipated "Spinefold." You can play an app or read a book on your iPad, but you can't smack it shut or thump it on the table.

In the end, as I drove home across the Indiana landscape, I carried away the sound of those books, books being played, books as music, books.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Inch Thirty-Eight: Dust of Snow

We had our first major snow of the season last night, a storm that dumped four or so inches on us. Early this afternoon, the snow tapered off, the skies cleared, and the sun beamed. I had a meeting downtown at 2:00, so I bundled up and starting walking, figuring it to be a nice day.

What I had not counted on was the wind picking up, shaking snow from the trees onto cars, sidewalks, and me. There was no way to dodge the blown snow, which ranged from a sprinkle to large clumps. I kept brushing it off, trying not to slow my stride, hoping nothing larger than a small handful fell my way.

The last gust was particularly zestful, and I found myself enveloped in a brief whirl of snow, just enough to dust me thoroughly. I found myself thinking of Robert Frost and his poem "Dust of Snow."

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

As it so happened, there was a crow in a nearby pine (maybe a hemlock), cawing at me or the wind or the snow or all three of us.

Robert Frost, who took his own pleasure in cold and dark and snow, is good and out of fashion in many circles these days. In fact, poetry as a subject is pretty much out of fashion in our schools and modern curricula. Small wonder that seven years ago, when teenagers vandalized Frost's house in New Hampshire, they had no idea who Frost was, let alone the significance of his contribution to American literature.

By the time I finished my meeting, the day had gone gray again and the temperature had dropped several degrees. My walk home was brisk; I pushed myself to reach the warmth of the house as soon as possible. The crow had gone silent; perhaps it had taken shelter deeper in the tree, huddling against the cold.

I thought about my walk once I was back inside. I had no day to rue. Just a dust of snow and a crow cawing vociferously and a long-dead poet who accompanied me downtown and back.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Inch Thirty-Seven: Family Ties Rebound

When you get a divorce, you usually snap family ties and connections that have been in place five years, ten years, twenty years. The sister-in-law, the nieces and nephews, whomever—they all go back to the other side.

And then something happens, independent of the divorce, that reconnects you with those one time family members, and you take up once again, in some new form, the ties that once bound and then came unbound, and rebind them.

I have written about this before, when I found myself reconnecting with my first mother-in-law and a former sister-in-law. Through the wonders of Facebook, I had already created some electronic ties with members of Ben and Sam's paternal family. I see the photos of their children, stay in remote touch with a "like" here or a brief comment there. I have sent presents to Eric's baby girl. These are small ties that would not have been possible in the past: the remote but personal connection.

These past two weeks, I have been in close contact with nieces and nephews, cousins of Ben and Sam, with whom I have not spoken in a decade or more.

Marisa contacted me first. She had some questions she wanted to bounce off of me—a request I could and did not deny, unusual only in that it has been so long since we talked. Her voice spilled through the phone—the same vibrant, rich, upbeat voice I had known so long ago. We talked, I listened, I commented, and when in passing she mentioned one of her cousins and a family health crisis, I sent off a FB message to that former nephew and got a quick response.

And then Waldo died. Waldito, my former brother-in-law.

By the time I got through absorbing that news, I had more messages. What was my phone number?Waldo Enrique (the oldest son) wanted to call me.  Would that be okay? And when my cell lit up later than evening with a number I did not recognize, I was pretty sure who it was.

"Hello, April?"


Waldo may have been the first I met of the eleven nephews and nieces that were part of my husband's family. I don't remember. Waldo was always good-natured and sweet-voiced. And here he was again, only now he is 48 instead of 16. Now he is the father of a 15 year old, instead of the teen himself. And now, as he reminded me laughing, "we are getting old, April."

He called because I had posted my thoughts about his father's death on Facebook. I wrote:

I just received word this morning that my former brother-in-law, Waldo De Castroverde, died yesterday. I am filled with memories of many, many occasions spent with him and Vivian, his wife, and their children, Waldo Enrique, Ana, Alex, and Orly (now Orlando).
This is a picture of Waldo and Sam playing chess at our house in 1996. He and Vivian were in the Midwest to watch their son Orly wrestle and drove over from somewhere (Iowa, I believe) to visit. Sam was not quite six and lost the match. Ben, who was 10, ended up beating Tio Waldo and that was the end of the chess for the night!

Waldo grew up in Cuba and was committed to seeing Cuba becoming a true democracy, first by opposing the dictator Batista and then by opposing the dictator Fidel Castro. Waldo was one of 1400 Cuban exiles who made up the military force that took part on the Bay of Pigs fiasco. As a prisoner, Waldo was part of a group of captured soldiers selected by Fidel to go to the U.S. to negotiate a ransom agreement with the Kennedy administration to free all of the captured soldiers. When negotiations failed, Waldo was sentenced to a 30-year prison term, of which he served 20 months before being released in late December 1962. While in prison, Waldo debated Fidel about democracy, communism, and freedom. He loved to recount that story.
Waldo never gave up his dream of a free Cuba, and had the Castro regime fallen, Waldo would have returned to his beloved homeland to help rebuild the country. One of his nicknames was “El Presidente” and there is no doubt in my mind that he would have run successfully for high office.
I was fortunate enough to know Waldo and to join his family on many occasions for holidays, debates, meals (Waldo could outcook anyone and his paella Cubana was the best in the world), and special occasions. He loved his family, he loved intellectual discourse, he loved to read, he loved the United States, and he loved Cuba—what it was and what it had the potential to become. Waldo loved to debate anyone on any topic, and as the debate gained momentum, he would suddenly switch from English to Spanish, which served to increase both the volume and speed of the debate. When he was in his 40s, he fulfilled a lifetime dream of becoming a lawyer, and practiced for the next several decades first alone and then with his two younger sons. I have to imagine he was a whale of a lawyer and I would to have loved to have seen him give closing argument.

Waldo and I talked for several minutes about his father, about his parents, about his siblings, about all the things you talk about when there is a hole in the family fabric, even though I cut my own hole in that family when I divorced Waldo's uncle. It didn't make a difference.

Ties that bind, ties that are unbound, and family that picks up those ties and ties them anew.

Friday, November 7, 2014

One Yard: On Writing

Back in March, I set myself a goal of writing a blog post a week. Almost eight months later, I have written thirty-six of them, a whole yard of posts marking the passage of time.

I'm not sure I have much more to say about it than that. When I began, even a foot of posts seemed improbable, given my intermittent postings over the prior months. I am still challenged by finding the right place for writing in my daily life. I still chastise myself for continuing to write mostly in the margins of my days. I think of the poet William Stafford, who would rise early each morning, light a small lamp to see by, kindle a fire if it were cold, make himself comfortable, and then sit in the dark, quiet house and write.

In recounting that story to my friend Margo, I added "I'm not getting up at 5:30 to write."

And therein lies the rub. Stafford addressed that point, as his son Kim captured so clearly in a memoir about his father: "We are not practicing to be writers; we are entering into the practice of being writers, revising our very lives, yielding in each moment to the vocation that demands our deepest allegiance." (From Early Morning by Kim Stafford)

A variation on that thought is found in Simple Living by Frank Levering and Wanda Urbanska: ""It's the peculiar notion held by so many that you spend the lion's share of your life wanting to do something else...before you get to the sliver reserved for the 'real you.'"

In short, writing is what writers do.

I can tick off a handful of reasons without even pausing as to why I don't write more frequently. I work at Juvenile Court, I volunteer at the Legal Clinic, I have regularly blood work and oncology appointments, I am working on a special court project on a contract basis for our local Municipal Court, I am married to a man with an overly busy schedule, I bake, I sit on our Civil Service Commission,  I am the caretaker for an aging aunt, I am married to the Symphony.

And I write in the margins of my life.

I have a good friend who also writes in the corners of her daily existence. Cecelia's life is immensely crowded with a young family, school events, parish commitments, a husband whose job takes him out of town, and a full-time job. I am a lady of leisure compared to her. She and I are talking about making a commitment to each other to write x times a week and each of us encouraging the other to write. She has some ideas in her head and on paper; I have a juvenile novel one-third written and the rest hanging out there somewhere.

Is x too many times? Realize that x is an unknown. Does x=2? Does x =3? Let's say x=2. If I write my blog post and my Myeloma Beacon column in the same week, have I met my minimum quota (x)? Or does x represent one blog post and working on my novel? And if I write only five minutes on my novel, is that writing? (One of the many great things about Cecelia is that she puts herself through these same mental paroxysms, so we understand each other perfectly.)

Solve for x.

In the end, it comes down to making writing work in my day. Or, truthfully, making a commitment to writing. Just not at 5:30 a.m.