Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Book in the Oven: Patterns in Music & Prose

Aside from noting Thoughts on a Train has survived its first anniversary, August is a month I’m always happy to see the end of. Perhaps because it’s the extreme part of summer, just the way I can’t wait to get through February (no matter how short it is) because I don’t care for the extreme part of winter, either. Is there a symmetrical pattern there?

Actually, there is – I’d never noticed it before:

May, the height of spring, is my absolute favorite time of year (not necessarily because I was born in May), and that would be symmetrically balanced by... well, unfortunately November is not one of my favorite times of the year: to be true, it should be October. While I like seeing the structure of trees once the brilliantly colored leaves of October have fallen and now need to be raked, the month of November is a month I can otherwise take or leave.

Let’s see, the Golden Section of the year would fall in... Mid-August! And the next dividing point would be – May! Which would be mirrored by – yes, October!

But I can’t really carry it beyond that, working in February to be the next logical point. Hmmm... so it becomes fairly arbitrary, doesn’t it? Starting the year in January is pretty arbitrary, too, since the man-made calendar we now use (different from the ones the Romans used) has nothing to do with the actual cycle of the seasons or the lunar month, if you determine a month by the rising of the full moon. Is that how Nature marks its months? Certainly nothing in Nature will tell us January 1st is the New Year, but I digress...

Yet it’s really no more arbitrary than saying music moves in 8-bar phrases, the standard structural unit of Classical Music. If the 12 notes of the chromatic scale relate to the 12 months of the year, symmetrical patterns develop:

If you choose the mid-point of this series of notes, you’d have two parallel units (1-6 = 7-12) but creating an interval that, since medieval times, has been called “The Devil in Music,” the tritone. Can’t have that!

If you follow through with this pattern – comparable to form evolving from multiples of 2: 4+4 = 8 - then a parallel pitch symmetry would be based on dividing the scale in half and then in half again. This gives us C - E-flat (or D-sharp) - F-sharp - A, a diminished 7th chord. We are trained, after how many centuries of traditional diatonic harmony, to hear this as “dissonant” or “unsettled,” a chord that needs to resolve.

If we divide the 12 pitches by taking every 4th note, you would get C - E - G-sharp which is an augmented triad and equally ambiguous in its traditional harmonic function (or lack of it, which is what attracted Debussy to it in the first place).

If we divide the scale according to the Golden Section, we would get C to G which subdivides at E and A. This creates a C Major Triad – aaahhhhh – and A, which could be the pop-style added-6th harmony which is actually not a dissonance (it doesn’t need to resolve) and which also points up the relation of C Major to its logical relative minor, A Minor (different modes sharing the same key signature).

So why not apply the Golden Section to phrase lengths and formal structure, too? Can’t we have 3+2 measure units where an 8-measure phrase that subdivides into 5+3 measure units? Try that in your Theory 101 class and see how far you get.

The traditional tonal scheme of the Classical Era tells us that the logical chord progression is I - IV - V - I – the tonic chord moves to its dominant through the subdominant: in other words, major chords built on C, F and G resolving back to C. That can translate into a key scheme as well: if you’re in C Major, you can most easily modulate to the dominant, G, or (next in importance) to the subdominant F. A C Major symphony could have a second movement in G or F: that was logical. You could also go to the relative minor, A Minor, and that would be okay, too. Not to forget the parallel minor, C Minor and its relative major, E-flat Major. But when Beethoven and Schubert started going to, say, E Major – a “distant” key in the scheme of things – this was considered bold and questions like “can they do that?” were heard across the land...

When theorists began codifying certain rules of music in the 18th Century, symmetry of form was one of the hall-marks of the Classical Era. This would be typical of the Apollonian Mindset, which was disrupted by the messiness of those ‘composing under-the-influence’ when Dionysos, the icon of the Romantic Era, became the leading psychological figure of the 19th Century.

It would be too cut and dried if it actually worked that way, since Mozart could slip in a 10-bar phrase once in a while and be called daring and there are many composers in the 19th Century who were much more classically-oriented than the going approach to then-contemporary music. The best and most creative composers could get beyond these rigid ideas of a system to create music we can appreciate without being conscious of the rules they’re breaking.

Anyway, I was just thinking of patterns and their logic. It amuses me to be building the structure of my musical language on patterns determined by the Golden Section (or the Fibonacci Series) and then turning around and building a ‘tonal’ scheme out of the symmetrical halving of the scale – if I have a tonal center, C, its dominant-relationship would be F-sharp; E-flat and A would be its secondary relationships. So in a way, I’m being just as illogical as the old traditional tonal system of the 18th Century.

The reason I’d done that – again, fairly arbitrarily – focused more on finding some kind of equivalent rather than just being petulant. If it’s the opposite (the antithesis), then I can find some other thesis to create a synthesis.

By applying some of these structural ideas to writing prose, the temptation would be to think too rigidly – all structure seems rigid, anyway. If I were writing poetry, I might look into the idea of balancing the number of syllables – poetic feet – according to the Fibonacci series. At this point, I haven’t really looked at my prose style (such as it is) to see what its natural rhythms and internal designs may be. I know many times I will choose a particular word over another or place, for some reason, a sub-clause here as opposed to there because I find the rhythm more interesting, a little embellishment of a straight-forward clunking rhythm that becomes too predictable.

It’s the balance and forward momentum of the form that intrigues me: Beethoven did it all the time in his music, using shorter and shorter subdivisions as he approached the climax of a phrase or movement. The tempo doesn’t change but our sense of it does: the days, that arbitrary division into 24 hours, aren’t getting shorter, but our perception of it is because the sun sets earlier, now.

In the past couple of days, in between headaches, back-aches and dealing with the hernii – not to mention referee-ing the Cats versus the Kittens – I’ve been applying some of these thoughts to the novel-in-waiting, “Echoes in and out of Time.” In a previous post, I described how I came up with a 100-block grid and mapped out the different segments of the novel’s various “echoes” (the novel is, in fact, a series of echoes). Not wanting to have, like, 100 short chapters, the process now is how to group them into larger units.

Like the structure I’d used for the quartet and the symphony, there will be five “parts” (each the equivalent of a movement) in an overall arch-form: Part One will be balanced by Part Five, and Parts Two and Four will be balanced around the large central Part Three. But rather than dividing the 100 units equally into Five Parts of 20 each, I’ve divided things along Fibonacci lines:

Interestingly, the number of episodes in each Part will be in a Fibonacci relationship with its parallel part (and Part III will equal Parts I + V).

From that, the first part becomes a “sonata form,” the equivalent of a traditional symphony or sonata first movement, but divided along similar lines. The “Exposition” is the standard introduction of thematic material – not just the characters, since my two “themes” revolve around the personal life and the various creative issues that define the Narrator.

The five episodes of “Theme 1" introduce the narrator, his mentor, his wife and his parents (this further breaks the episodic structure down fibonacciously to 3 + 2). Theme 2 consists of four episodes focusing on “creative issues” – the narrator’s epiphany when he hears his first piece of music by the composer who will become his teacher and mentor; his wife’s spontaneous approach to being a performer; a new character, the mentor’s stylistic rival at the university where they both teach; climaxing with the narrator’s doubts about his own creative voice (his lack of spontaneity, the dichotomy between his mentor and his mentor’s rival).

Having established this inner conflict, the next batch of episodes constitutes a Development Section – kind of a free-form approach, musically – which takes elements of this thematic material and creates something dramatic out of it, ending with a climactic segment about the Writer’s Block that is frustrating the narrator’s life and, he discovers, his mentor’s. (While this divides into 2+2, they’re balanced by the number of words in each episode.)

All of this, Episodes 1-14 so far, takes place in about 24,000 words (maybe 50 pages or so) – because I’d also gone through the whole 100 blocks and figured out, according to the structure, how many words (approximately) would be “allocated” for each episode, keeping things within a certain fibonaccic symmetry but also maintaining the inevitable natural rhythm as it moves toward the end.

But at the moment, we’re trying to see how many kittens can dance on the top of a desk, so I’ll leave it at that for today...

Dr. Dick

Monday, August 27, 2007

Out'n'About With Frieda

Much to my surprise, Frieda – the mother of the Mighty Handful who’d been spayed last Monday – put in her first appearance that same night, finding a new hiding place outside the bedroom that had been her home for the last four months! Considering she kept herself pretty well hidden ever since she arrived here, this was a momentous occasion, especially given the treatment she’d received when dragged out from under the bed that afternoon: I was sure it’d be 2012 or so before I’d see her again.

Not that she’s exactly one of the gang just yet. She’s still pretty aloof, a veritable Greta Garbo. And I still can’t get near her. But every little step is a bit of progress. And it was just good to know she came through the operation without any noticeable problems.

After I got home Monday night, I couldn’t find her: she wasn’t in her usual hiding spots in the “blue bedroom” or back in the bathroom under the toilet where she’d given birth to and raised her kittens. She didn’t seem to be in any of the adjacent rooms, so I figured she made it out to the living room.

Now, since I’m still in the process of moving my stuff into an already full house and haven’t quite assimilated everything, there’s a “spare bed” we’d used in the living room back when my father was ill and had converted the room for his use. Since it’s the most comfortable mattress in the house for me, basically, I’m temporarily sleeping in the living room.

And it was under that bed that I found Frieda. No big deal, considering: the important thing to note, here, is this is a different bed in a different room – she’s come out to join the rest of the family, even though she’d had the opportunity for the last month to do so but, to my knowledge, never did more than maybe check it out when I wasn’t home.

When I got back from work, she was still under the spare bed. After I finished bringing in the groceries, there she was, sauntering cautiously down the hall into the kitchen – she had apparently just gone back to use the litter boxes (I noted with a sigh of relief) but she wasn’t slinking and darting off to hide under the bed. Or anywhere. She sat there, watching me, while the kittens coming over to her as if saying hello. I’ve rarely been aware of any interaction between them since they’d been weaned, though once in a while I’d find one or two of them still curled up asleep with her back in the old haunts, especially Baker.

It was surprising to discover – since she was always just crouching under a bed somewhere before – her kittens are almost as big as she is, now! This makes it even more difficult to tell which of the orange tabbies is which!

Still, if I got too close to her, she pulled back and retreated to the bedroom door. Finally, she just sat there, peering around the door-frame as if waiting for me to go away.

More surprisingly, though, was seeing both Max and then Murphy stroll past her without any acknowledgment: no hissing, no cautious slinking followed by a mad dash to get around her, nothing! It was like she wasn’t even there! And Frieda didn’t react to them, either: it’s like they, at least, have gotten used to each other.

In the morning, I couldn’t find her anywhere. I spent an hour checking under everything except a recliner where Max had curled up and spent the night. Every chair, in fact, had a cat on it – a couple of kittens here, one of the Big 3 there. Frieda was the only one not visible. It wasn’t until hours later that I realized I hadn’t checked Max’s recliner – and there she was, peering out from the back of the chair through a narrow space that seemed made for a hiding place (and not a very safe one if the recliner would be put to use). So I left her there, putting a bowl of food back of the chair for her before I left for work.

And so it went through the week: Friday night, I actually saw her four different times – walking down the hall, scooting through the kitchen, sitting in front of a bookcase, checking out the forest of legs under the dining room table – probably more time out-in-the-open than I’ve seen her since I brought her inside. Maybe she’ll acclimate, yet!

Saturday night, she actually joined the kittens for dinner – mother and all five kittens crowding around the bowls, chomping away. Of course, my camera was on the other side of them, and I would’ve scared her off if I tried to get past them, so I let the occasion go without recording it.

This morning, however, I woke up at 5am and saw someone “meatloafing” under the dining room table. It was Frieda (see picture above, taken after she'd already shifted her paws), just sitting there, her front paws folded underneath her in the classic “could-be-mistaken-for-a-meatloaf” pose. And this time I was able to get some ‘snaps’ of her. Soon, Baker, who’d been sleeping nearby, came over to say good morning. In this picture (left), they’re looking off toward the back door where Charlie was getting into some mischief with a ball of crumpled paper.

And that’s the latest from Le Maison du Chat.

Here are a couple of pictures of two of the kittens, taken last week: Baker (right), the Shy, Quiet Type who is rarely around when I’ve got the camera out; and then Abel looking like a real sweetheart of a crooner, nestled into a chair with its maroon throws.

After another run to the store last night, I realized it takes 42 cans of cat food and two 3-lb bags of dry food, not to mention the containers of cat litter (average, I think, 20 pounds) to make it through a week.

But now, back to working on the novel, not that it will really help bring home the tuna...

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Writing & Composing: Getting Organized

Back in 2003, when I was finishing a string quartet, I realized how difficult it was, given only a few hours a day to compose – a luxury, according to one composer friend of mine busy teaching at a major conservatory who can only look forward to extended writing time in the summer, maybe – to get back into the creative flow of things the next day. I would write myself little notes, scribble something in the margin, slap a post-it note over the last thing I’d written down, but sometimes even that didn’t help. If I had four hours to write, often two of those were spent trying to figure out where I was coming from the day before. Though there may have been an idea of the piece as a whole, it often didn’t translate into the smaller details of this present passage, a measure here or the start of the next phrase.

Writers often say the same thing: ending a chapter or a scene often is like stopping the process and it’s now difficult to pick up to head off into the next one. Several ‘how-to’ books suggest ending a day’s work in the middle of a paragraph, even in the middle of a sentence, where the direction you’ve been going will help inspire you with what comes next. If you’ve already reached that destination, it’s like starting out fresh all over again, and sometimes that’s very hard to do. It’s important to jot down some ideas that will help you pick up the thread.
When composing sometimes takes several hours just to produce a few seconds of music, it’s always like ending in the middle of a sentence – it’s not the same luxury as working with words, perhaps. And sometimes the obvious direction a phrase may have been going in one day is not always so obvious the next day. Considering how often I find myself wondering where I put the car keys, chances are pretty good that I’m not going to remember the next day where that line in the viola was headed. Maybe I’ll come up with something better – maybe not; maybe it will take several days to get back on track.

The second movement of the quartet was the light-bulb when I realized how much I really needed some kind of solution, here. I’d described writing this frenetic and frightening music that changes, often violently, on less than a dime as being “dipped daily into a bowlful of piranhas.” So from a psychological standpoint it was difficult to put the pen down, say “okay, done for today” and then get ready to go into work. I needed something to distance myself from the fear of the piece, without needing to put myself back into that frame of mind to come up with another handful of notes (it lasts only a couple of minutes but it took, I think, several months to write).

I had already diagramed how the whole quartet would evolve with a few descriptive phrases for each one to serve as a guide. But that still wasn’t enough. I also knew the overall form of the piece – dominated by the Golden Section – but I had not really refined this to the more “localized” levels of the work: if the movements were the equivalent of chapters in a book, then I’m talking about the paragraphs and sentences, even the subordinate clauses that add up to make the larger structure. So I continued this graph from the over-all piece down to this micro-structural level until I knew exactly how many beats of music I needed to fill before this phrase ended and whether this cadence was more harmonically weighted, more important that the next one.

Part of the problem with the “eternal novel-in-waiting” was just sitting down and writing, letting it unfold in any direction the mood strikes me that day. It was annoying to go one way only to find out I didn’t like where it took me and then have to go back and delete, like, 10,000 words or more... This time around, I started thinking, since I don’t compose music that way, why should I write fiction that way?

The problem is, I know how to organize music, using whatever 20th Century system to coordinate pitches and harmony and of course musical forms and procedures (whether simple like A-B-A or complex like fugues) that go back centuries: how do you organize words into some kind of structure?

A novel is not really a “form” beyond the usual generalization it is prose with some semblance of plot divided into chapters. A sonnet, however, is a form, setting up a pattern of lines and potential rhyme schemes. So I need to find some kind of pattern I can use to create a larger structure which I can then fill in, starting like I did with the symphony and the string quartet with a macro-structure (the over-all view broken into movements) and working my down to some level of micro-structure (phrase-groupings and “harmonic rhythm”). And of course, there’s my old friend, the Golden Section, to help determine what the dividing lines and where the “structural points” should be. And I had tried applying them to David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” which seemed to be more organized than just a haphazard trip through a pastiche of styles.

It was a year ago that I’d found a copy of Georges Perec’s “Life: A User’s Manual” which I’d picked up at a sale somewhere. I had no idea what it was about before I bought it and after paging through it at home had not much more of an idea about it than before. But it intrigued me and occasionally I’d pick it up and read a few pages. A collection of nothing but short chapters about people who lived in an apartment building seemed designed for the occasional dip rather than a long-term swim-the-channel plunge.

It wasn’t till I started reading a little about it that it became more interesting. It was designed around “the knight’s tour,” a mathematical puzzle based on the way a chess piece moves across the board. Now, I was never a chess-player, even proving a pointless challenge to my brother who wanted to play when we were kids because I just didn’t think in terms of strategy – I just moved the pieces around accordingly, reacting to what he would do. Eventually I realized by the second move, usually, I was already doomed. But as a way of organizing something, this fascinated me, and I spent many hours long into the night sorting this out.

Perec made a ‘map’ of his fictional building and superimposed on it a graph of one hundred blocks, each one representing a different room (also including halls and stairways). Finding a starting point, he then mapped out how a chess knight would proceed until it had landed on every single block without duplicating a single one. The outline of his novel, simply put, would then develop along this tour – an episode in the life of the tenant whose order in the greater scheme was determined by the knight’s passing back and forth across the map. There’s much more to it than that, of course, but for my purposes, this was enough to start the juices flowing.

He places a number of other “constraints” on it – you can read more about it in the Wikipedia entry – which reminded me of the restrictions placed on a composer by different systems, something pre-determined (even in tonal music) that limits you in the number of possibilities available to you. As a student, I always thought the greatest freedom was anarchy – free-for-all creativity – but as I got older, I began to realize Stravinsky was right. I’m not sure any more of the exact quote, but something along these lines: the more constraints you impose, the greater freedom you give yourself. And so I decided to see what this could do for my novel.

In the previous non-cat post, I described how the “echoes” of the title “Echoes In and Out of Time” have come to work: as the narrator’s story unfolds in the present, memories from the past weave themselves through the narrative. In the sense that our memories rarely come to us in an orderly succession, the question was “how do I make any sense out of these different echoes?” Like the old expression about “how your whole life passes before you at the moment you’re dying,” I decided to have the narrator’s whole life do exactly that not in chronological order – too cheap a solution – but in a way determined by this “knight’s tour.”

Suddenly, the old linear approach was no longer interesting to me – but the challenge was to make it work in some intelligible way that wasn’t just a clutter of memories with no seeming connection, one to the other. Though I disliked the old-fashioned linearity of a narrative tale, one of the things I missed from reading Perec’s novel was some sense of a tale being told: it’s there, but it requires more work on the reader’s part. In my standard dialectical approach, I wanted to see how I could somehow contain elements of both.

So I drew my table of 100 blocks and numbered them 1 - 100. I didn’t want it to be 100 little episodes, so I figured I would need to group them in larger and larger units like phrases and sections of music in order to create elements of form – meaning there will have to be some common thread to connect them, But for the moment, I came up with a series of patterns to determine what period of the narrator’s life these memories would originate in. This gave me a pre-determined order which I then applied to the blocks.

Without wanting to bother finding another tour pattern (being neither a chess-person nor a math-geek), I simply borrowed the one Perec used (that’s not exactly plagiarizing since he was using an already existing pattern in the first place). This gave me a whole different set of order which would become the episodes of the novel. The order of the episodes would be determined by the knight’s tour pattern; the content of the episodes was already determined by the other patterns I’d put in place over the blocks 1-100. While Block #1 was actually going to be Episode #59, it was Episode #1 I wanted to start with, which happened to be Block #56. As the knight moseyed along, the next episode was Block #77, then the third episode was Block #96, then #75 and so on – until I reached episode #100 which took place on Block #6.

By looking at the content I had superimposed on these blocks, I then had a time-frame from which to construct the memories: the knight’s tour gave me their order. (I can now forget about the Block Numbers: they’d served their purpose.)

For the content, I needed the usual stuff of a story, the who, what, when and where of narrative: if I chose a pattern that would give me the narrator’s age and I divided those into periods of his life (childhood, school, middle-age), this would automatically supply the place (where he was at that time of his life) and make available the different people who could be involved in his life at that time. For variety, I added patterns about the seasons of the year (originally thinking four seasons would be the equivalent of a man’s life before I remembered the Shakespearean pattern of the Seven Ages of Man) and about the days of the week and the times of day these would occur. However, they couldn’t all be patterns based on the same number of details because then they would always coincide, so they had to be in different multiples in order to keep producing as much variety as possible.

Having now created an outline for the “story,” I decided to place the most climactic episodes at key points – the episodes that would be the most significant events that would still drive the narrative. These, I decided, should be determined by the Golden Section. And so several more hours were spent with a calculator figuring out where, out of 100, these ought to go. Perhaps it was the lateness of the hour and the relative deadness of the brain, but it wasn’t until this summer that I discovered I had made a few tactical errors, here, mostly in not being consistent with rounding off fractions.

But once I determined what those ought to be – and I had already worked out the details of my narrator’s life in previous drafts – it left only the details to be filled in in between. But then, I put it off. There were other things to do and other distractions that took precedent: while I was intrigued by the idea of “National Novel Writing Month” where people sign up to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November (“NaNoWriMo”), I knew that November was not going to be the time I could focus on a novel. With the company’s move to the New Building and then some ensuing health concerns plus, eventually, my mother’s death and the on-going move into the house, the novel was all but forgotten.

And then the other week, I found the folder and got hooked on the idea once again.

Now, I had determined, if I could write 45,000 words in “The Schoenberg Code” last year (not counting several thousand words left on the edit-room floor), this novel should probably be more than “a mere” 50,000 words. If I’m only going to write one novel in my life, it might as well be a larger-scale one, never mind it is my first one and I don’t even have a collection of short-stories to my name. This is like a composer saying “I know nothing about composing but I think I’ll write a symphony to get my feet wet.” If I had determined the structure of my symphony and the string quartet by arbitrarily deciding each should be, oh, so many minutes long, I decided, ultimately, I might as well go for a 165,000 word novel which would be the equivalent of something between 450-500 pages in a trade-paper-back format (for instance, David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” is 508 pages). That seemed a comfortable goal. I just wrote a symphony that’s about a half-hour long and it took two years, so I’m not looking for a quick fix and an easy sell, am I...?

Making some other corrections to the plan, I found I needed to tweak the various patterns since so many similar combinations were now cropping up, one simple correction creating more and more ‘mistakes,’ of course. It was much easier to realize a pattern does not have to be a chronological list of days of the week or seasons of the year as long as there’s some logic to its creation. After all, in writing a serial piece, composers would tweak the notes they had come up with for the 12-tone-rows in order to obtain better results. And of course there is always the creative prerogative to just fudge things that don't quite work: I wanted the first and last episodes to take place within the same context of time and place. By placing those elements into the continuum, I fashioned the necessary patterns around them, and so it worked out.

Then the fun began: I made a graph 100 blocks long, marked out the structural points according to the Golden Section, then took the same structural graph I’d made for the symphony and superimposed that onto the novel, more or less: a five movement symphonic structure thus produced a five-part novel (chapters? not sure yet) though whether those in the 2nd and 4th parts will create a lighter-hearted kind of scherzo remains to be seen. But it pointed out how, focused around Episode #62, the Golden Section of the novel, various points can parallel or “mirror” each other – similar events or similar ideas perhaps in different “time-zones.” I started thinking what kinds of events could take place, given the narrator’s age and the time of year the pattern had pre-determined. Suddenly I see myself now being more creative with what before were “too many choices.” And now I could sit down and just start writing it!

But for now, that’s 2700 words for this post and there are things to do, cats to feed, work to accomplish, you know the drill...

Dr. Dick

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Eternal Novel-in-Waiting

Like many people with a computer, I’ve been working on a novel.

Like many people who begin writing a novel, I have given up on it as often as many people quit smoking.

So it’s curious, now that I am back together with my piano after an 18-week hiatus and could begin composing again every morning as I’ve been eager to do this whole summer, my thoughts have turned back yet again to... the novel!

It’s had a curious evolution over the years – decades, really. I began toying with it probably while I was still teaching at the University of Connecticut in the mid-70s. I know I began working on it while I lived in New York City, intent some day on returning to New England where the story was set. I know by 1980, I was drawing maps of my imaginary city where it took place, writing up capsule biographies of the various characters, doing lots of research and reading a number of those “how to write a novel” books.

These last two things can kill any inclination to write, I found: between being intimidating or telling you everything you particularly like about writing – elements that eventually become your style – is wrong (that is, “won’t sell”), it becomes just more fun to do research, writing up reams of notes about place, time, historical details, personalities and so on, than to actually write the novel.

There were, I think, 200 pages of handwritten text by 1982. Then I got a computer and learned how to use a simple word-processor to help me write some 5-10,000 words a day (that was my goal). What I didn’t learn was how to back up everything I was writing: oh, I started out religiously, saving everything on a floppy disc. But after a while, it was one of those things taken for granted. And when that computer crashed and died, it took with it some 60 pages of un-backed-up novel. Everything was in the computer and because it was an adventure to sit down and see where the story would take me today, a very stream-of-consciousness approach to writing, I had no way of reconstructing what had been lost. I was numb for a week.

Then I realized, like many people with or without a computer who begin writing a novel, I could barely keep myself awake reading through it, anyway. Some days, I thought this passage was really very good; the next day the same passage struck me as derivative and silly. Wow, just like composing music, I thought.

Since I wasn’t composing at the time, it seemed a reasonable exercise to keep my creativity in shape. At one point, I put it aside to get back to composing – a Te Deum for the 125th Anniversary of my alma mater, Susquehanna University – and then found, after that premiere, that I was unable to compose again (as it turned out, for several years). Throwing out the first draft and many of its ideas, I started over again, more or less from scratch, refining the plot – as much as it had one – and approaching the characters from different angles.

By the mid-80s, I had read all seven volumes of Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” (before more recent translations decided to rename it more accurately “In Search of Lost Time”) and though my plan was nothing quite so epic and hopefully not so time-consuming, it shifted my attitude about what a novel – particularly this novel – could be. I should mention this was also around the time I was reading, in chronological order, the complete novels of Henry James (including 40 short stories) except for “The Sacred Fount” which at the time was out-of-print and unobtainable. I read another 100 pages of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and an equal number of pages of “Finnegans Wake” in those same years, so needless to say my brain, in addition to being full, period, was filled with all the kinds of things every how-to-write-a-novel book was telling me not to do.

Somewhere in the late-80s, the novel was given a title. I don’t recall what the working titles had been before, but somewhere during the 2nd or 3rd draft stage – once I got a computer – it became “Echoes in and out of Time.”

(I mention this because I came up with the title before I began working at WITF-FM which even then was a few years before we started carrying a program called “Echoes.” I also mention this because “Echoes” is a program of New Age Music and I generally detest New Age Music. It’s enough to make me want to change the title, but I digress...)

At first, the “echoes” were going to occur in a present intertwined with a story from the past. In this case, the narrator of the story was a composer – of course, since I wanted to write a novel about creativity, I figured it should be about a composer having a writer’s block (using the old saying “write what you know” and knowing that many non-musicians who’ve written about music clearly don’t) – who purchases an old house that a century or so before had been lived in by a once-famous author. In an old desk in the attic, he discovers the author's journal that clearly (and then eerily) parallels his own problems with composing.

As I aged, so did my narrator, even though it is by no means autobiographical. What began as the story of a composer coming of age in his 30s when I was in my 30s, it turned into a composer dealing with middle age and the proverbial mid-life crisis when, in my mid-40s, I was doing pretty much the same. Now that I have made it into my 50s and well into the 5th renovation of the novel, my narrator is likewise in his late-50s, facing retirement but also dealing with creative issues following a long period of creative inactivity. (And of course I'm telling myself this is not an autobiographical novel - really!)

Curiously, much of what started fueling these new approaches was the resurgence of my own composing. As I worked on first a piece for solo violin and orchestra (still untitled) and then a string quartet (which I actually heard performed), I started realizing much of what I needed to do to help my composing along would probably also help with my writing.

It was not a question of getting up and writing for an hour before I went to work – working second shift meant I had my morning and afternoons basically to myself. And though I’m not a morning person, I found if I woke up at 9am instead of noon, I could get a lot more done if I didn’t stay up until 4 or 5am doing absolutely nothing (part of the problem for many of those years was I had no idea what I actually was doing).

In the meantime, I also discovered I was much more interested in structure – how the music worked theoretically – rather than writing spontaneously. It was curious, going through old papers here in the house now that I’m moving in, to find an interview when I was a teen-ager writing pieces played by the Harrisburg Symphony, when I was saying how I had no idea what was coming next, I would just sit down and compose.

The loss of this facileness, of course, would later become the problem: I may have had a certain amount of talent but I had not developed, despite years of training and degrees to the contrary, any real craft. Rather scary thing to discover...

And so I tried to make up for lost time and training by working out a “systematic approach” to composing – keeping in mind that while “system” to some people can mean serialism, tonality is also a kind of system. If doing crossword puzzles or playing word games can keep your mind sharp, doing comparable musical exercises could do the same for my creative side.

If I mapped out the structure of the piece beforehand, I would know exactly where it would go from here before I even got there. This gave me a better chance of being able to continue writing day after day rather than waiting hours and days and maybe weeks and months for inspiration to strike.

If I was going to refine or even re-invent my musical voice, I might as well go whole-hog and change everything. The string quartet and even more so the symphony were planned in advance down to the beat where phrases would climax, much less the movements and the piece as a whole. It became a skeleton (form) on which I would then fill out the muscle (harmony) and the flesh (melody or for what in my style passes for melody).

The object is to keep the structure just as invisible to the listener as your skeleton is to the person standing in front of you, but just as necessary for everything to move and function as you are perceived and understood without the other person needing to know the physics and biology that makes you who and what you are.

And now I’m beginning to apply that to the novel.

A composer-friend of mine in Connecticut used to do these detailed graphs and charts, pages full of notes but not musical notes – numbers, mostly – but he was one of those “serial guys” and while I liked his music, this intense organization was not for me. I am nothing if unorganized. He would call this pre-compositional planning the “laundromat stage,” things he would work out while doing his laundry. I had to laugh yesterday as I realized I was sitting in my study working out the structure of this novel, filling out pages of notes and numbers... while doing a load of laundry in the basement!

One of the important things that happened somewhere between the 19th Century writer’s journal being the “echo” in a previous draft and the one I’m reworking now, is that the “echoes” have become memories of the composer-narrator’s own life. As anyone who notices, those memories that come to mind unbidden do not happen in chronological order. Nor do they have, necessarily, any direct surface association with the present or each other – it is this possible deeper meaning that prompted the invention of psychiatrists, perhaps. In literature, it is called “stream of consciousness” and has been described by its critics as the “lack of system.”

Last summer, after reading bits of Georges Perec’s “Life: A User’s Manual,” it occurred to me how to “organize” something that seems so unorganized as “stream of consciousness.”

That’s what I’ve been working on the past several weeks, now. More to come...

Dr. Dick

Monday, August 20, 2007

Frieda's Freakin' Adventure

It was not the happiest of days for Frieda Farrell, ex-street cat from mid-town Harrisburg who has spent the last 4 months (short of a day) living in a bedroom of my suburban house. Despite the fact her five kittens have all acclimated themselves to me and the entire house, and that she has been handed two bowls of canned food and a dish of dry-bits every day, Frieda has remained as feral as the day I finally managed to rescue her back in April -- at least, I like to think of it as rescuing her (I'm not sure what her take on this turn of events has been).

In those four months, except when I'd peer under the bed or behind the toilet to check on her, I saw her out in the open perhaps a dozen times, and then only fleetingly, high-tailing (or low-tailing it, as the case may be) back to the apparent safety of her hiding place.

But it was time - she'd gone into heat last week, after all - and so I made arrangements with a travelling vet to come to the house and do the deed here. Whatever it cost, I assumed it would be worth not having to try catching her again, renting a tranquilizer gun and transporting her to my regular vets myself.

And so today was the day.

Without knowing what was in store for her, she'd found a new hiding place that morning. One of the old box-springs in the bedroom had a tear in the under-fabric and she was actually hiding INSIDE the box-spring, verified by a slight nudge answered by the old familiar hiss. This could make catching her even more of a challenge.

When the vets got there, they brought in a long pole with a noose on the one end. Several snarling minutes later, after we up-ended the box-spring, he succeeded in nabbing Frieda who had clearly decided she was not going to go willingly. Held firmly by her hindlegs and stretched out along the pole, noose still around her neck, positioned almost upside down, she was hurried out to the van and given anesthesia. It looked awful and if not bad enough from her standpoint, I was thinking what it must have seemed to Baker, one of the kittens who still spends a lot of time hanging out with her under the beds and who happened to be with her when the vet arrived.

If after 4 months and she still hadn't calmed down enough to let me pet her, I figured by now it might be 2012 before she'd let me near her again, after this routine. I can just hear the next chapter of "Tales from Behind the Toilet" - except there won't be any more kittens for her to impart the wisdom of the ages to, now...

There were tests to run, shots to give - and of course the spaying itself. Fortunately, she did not have diabetes as I was afraid (she'd been drinking a lot of water, nearly flooding the litter box even after the kittens were weaned) - and a good thing, too, since I was trying to imagine giving her shots or pills every day as I had done for 3 years with Tobie, a previous cat of mine who became diabetic when she was about 9 years old. But returned to her bedroom, Frieda shakily scooted back under the bed once she was released, still woozy from the anesthesia but determined to have nothing to do with the Big People.

This did not, however, stop her from hopping up on the bathroom countertop moments later, wooziness and incision aside, just as she had done the first night she arrived here. Baker hopped up right along side her and gave her a sniffing over, purring quietly as if to comfort her. I chose not to bother them and just stood there, talking quietly to her, sensing the fear and uncertainty in her eyes and the likely undercurrent of feline profanity that would have turned me into a pile of mince-meat in a flash.

A few minutes later when I returned to the bathroom, she had now settled herself into the box in the corner (see picture, above). From there, then, she settled down behind the toilet again and I just hoped she would be okay. When I got back from work tonight, she was still tightly curled up in the same corner, her eyes bright and wary as if saying "don't... even... think... about touching me..."

And so we'll see what tomorrow brings.

Dr. Dick

Saturday, August 18, 2007


It’s been a while since I last read through May Sarton’s “Journal of a Solitude.” The second copy, replacing the first copy loaned to a friend who then lost it, is dated 1989 and already falling apart, so perhaps it’s been that long. My new third copy, a trade-paper-back edition published in 1992, arrived this past week. It seemed like a good time to read it for probably the fifth time over a span of three decades.

In more than one sense, I’ve always been a loner. So I seem automatically attracted to books about solitude, mostly considering its impact on creativity, particularly a work like Anthony Storr’s “Solitude: a Return to the Self.” As a composer, as a musician, I am conscious of the amount of time spent in solitude writing or practicing and, despite the presence of an audience, performing as well. But never having really been or seen myself as a performer, it is the work of composing that I find infinitely involved with the idea of solitude.

This journal, then, was the first of May Sarton’s books I discovered, most likely when I was living in Connecticut, teaching at UConn in Storrs when I was 20-something. After living in non-solitudinous New York City for two years (where it was easy to feel so alone despite the millions of people around you), then returning home to Harrisburg, I began collecting her other journals, beginning with the earlier one, “Plant Dreaming Deep,” which then necessitated another reading of “Journal of a Solitude” before going on to the rest of the series: “A House by the Sea,” “Recovering,” “At Seventy” and the more austere and often frustrating journals of her old age, “After the Stroke,” “Endgame,” “Encore” (a journal of her 80th year) and “At Eighty-Two.” In between I gathered up and read ten of her novels and, considering the fact she’s more recognized as a poet than a novelist, even though I’m not into reading much poetry, a large volume of her collected poems.

Creating is a very personal journey and not every artist cares to get into the deeper, emotional aspects of ones own creativity, having already done it once to bring a work of art into being (or, until it is seen, read or heard, a closer state of being). So given my own difficulties dealing with creativity, it was helpful to read someone else’s, written from their own viewpoint.

For instance, in the opening pages of this journal, she comments about her first one, “Plant Dreaming Deep” which

“... gives a false view. The anguish of my life here – its rages – is hardly mentioned. Now I hope to break through into the rough rocky depths, to the matrix itself. There is violence here and anger never resolved.”

Like me, she says she “live[s] alone for no good reason, for the reason that I am an impossible creature, set apart by a temperament I have never learned to use as it could be used, thrown off by a word, a glance, a rainy day....” Dealing with too many letters and writing too few poems, she continues,

“It may be outwardly silent here but in the back of my mind is a clamor of human voices, too many needs, hopes, fears. I hardly ever sit still without being haunted by the ‘undone’ and the ‘unsent.’ I often feel exhausted, but it is not my work that tires (work is a rest): it is the effort of pushing away the lives and needs of others before I can come to the work with any freshness and zest.”

Two days later, she writes

“Cracking open the inner world again, writing even a couple of pages, threw me back into depression, not made easier by the weather, two gloomy days of darkness and rain. I was attacked by a storm of tears... that appear to be related to frustration, to buried anger, and come upon me without warning.”

At the same time, she is watching an old friend die, a farmer of rough New England stock who for years had scythed and trimmed the grounds around her house, taming Nature. He’d worked hard, struggling to maintain the beauty of her gardens, of the yard, keeping the woods at bay, just as she worked in her study, struggling with words, keeping the demons at bay, in order to make sense out of her ideas to write a poem.

She likes the fall, rain and gloom aside, because the brilliance of the leaves is one thing but seeing the trees bare down to their branches, then, is like revealing the inner structure, the reverse of a poet ordering words into sense, filling in the structure (a natural form or pre-ordained) applying words like leaves. The structure is something fascinating to me, too, and perhaps for that same reason, I like watching the transition from fall into winter (if only one could do without the dreary damp rains and then the cold biting blizzards of reality).

But it is the “depression” – a word too easily tossed about – that is the hardest to cope with. In the past I have felt “depressed” when I’m not composing (or perhaps, more accurately, unable to compose) but even when I am composing, “depressed” that it is not going well or as well as I’d like. Or, for that matter, that I must stop what I’m in the midst of because the reality of the day intrudes: an unexpected visit by a friend, going to work, contending with interruptions from a neighbor’s noise, the Doberman Next Door.

These past four months have been difficult because I have been unable to compose for lack of the piano. The irony is, it sat in my apartment where now the second-floor neighbor had moved out meaning I could play or write whenever I wanted to without waking her (she slept till noon, I needed to finish writing by noon). But I was finally able to find someone who could move the piano for me, bring it out to the house and, ironically, return it to the wall it occupied when we first bought the instrument, brand new in the late-60s. As I write these words, the piano is now being tuned. Already I have been playing Bach Preludes and Fugues (music good for the soul’s contemplation) past midnight, unconcerned about having upstairs neighbors or people’s lives on the other side of my walls.

A few days after the previous quote, Sarton writes,

“The value of solitude – one of its values – is, of course, that there is nothing to cushion against attacks from within, just as there is nothing to help balance at times of particular stress or depression... So sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands.”

The reasons behind it, she goes on to explain, are not as interesting as how one handles it. Waking up too early in the morning with a sense of doom – “a bad state” – she realizes what lifts this may be a daily routine like watering the plants or feeding the cats (a “living need,” she says, not like dusting which may explain why she is such a poor housekeeper, something else I can identify with).

Like her, I have sat at my desk in an unproductive funk because it is cloudy and miserable outside and this colors my creative disposition as well; then, after longing for a mild sunny day, I find I am too distracted by the sense that I should be out doing something “constructive” before realizing what I am doing is “constructive” – it is constructing a world – but much of it I just can’t do sitting out on the back porch.

At least in the city: on a beautiful late-summer day like today – temperatures and low humidity that make me ask “this is still August, yes?” – I could probably be working on some aspect of a new piece if I had that new piece ready to go. Unfortunately, I do not, and so that must wait. My porch, here, is inviting, looking out over a yard with my little garden, shaded by trees and shrubs my mother had planted decades ago, but knowing it is there is an improvement of the dread of contending with another summer, another winter in an apartment that had, unfortunately, become a liability.

So periodically, as I continue this on-line journal and get back into being creative again, there may be references to May Sarton’s journal, reading an entry or two here and there rather than sitting down to consume 200 pages in as short a time as possible before going on to the next book.

Dr. Dick

Monday, August 13, 2007

Five Little Terrors & How They Grew

The title for today’s post is in keeping with previous thoughts on the books of childhood – though not one I ever read. I did forget a large, three-volume boxed set called “The Animal Kingdom,” published in 1954 which I was reading through when I was 8. Little did I know that fifty years later (much less that I would be writing the cliche “little did I know that fifty years later”) I would be living the Animal Kingdom. And five of them are four months old today...

Going through six cans of canned cat food a day plus several scoops of dry bits and the daily detail at eight litter pans, I was reminded of friends of my parents, when I was a child, who had eventually taken in 30 stray cats they had rescued from city streets and had neutered. They converted the basement of their old row home into ”the cat house,” full of boxes, ledges and shelves for them to play and sleep on, bought a couple children’s sand boxes to be converted into giant litter pans, and spent a good part of their off-work time scooping out the sand boxes with shovels and preparing food bowls twice daily, not to mention disposing of 60 emptied cans a day (in the days before recycling, much less pop-top cans and electric can-openers). We used to joke about having cat litter delivered in a truck, dumped directly by a chute into the old coal storage room at the front of their basement.

Comparatively, with only nine cats (a third of whom are ultimately temporary), it doesn’t seem so bad.

On the other hand, with more cats and a larger space to house them in, I find the opportunities for lost objects and the Bermuda Triangles into which they can disappear grow exponentially.

There have been many rompings since the last time I blogged about the kittens as they adjust to life on the loose throughout the house. Which is more than I can say for the Big Three: Sieti, rarely seen, still hisses herself into a snarling furball when one of them gets even three feet from her; Max, occasionally still making his high-pitched gurgling warnings when one gets too close, seems to be accepting them, more resigned than gracious; I have been changing the towels on the bed more frequently this past week, thanks to Murphy’s running commentary...

The kittens generally give the older cats considerable leeway, though it’s difficult, being a kitten, to pass up an opportunity to be annoying to your elders. Murphy, cornered in the one bedroom, had to deal with first one, then another kitten flopping down in her immediate floor space, each staring at her, until all five had her completely surrounded, each one stretched out in the same exact position. Leaving out a wailing growl that sounded weirdly like “call the exterminator, will you!?!,” she closed her eyes and made a bounding leap for safety. The kittens then moved, en masse, on to something else.

Max, who has been curling up in front of my computer for the last six years, has now had to contend with Charlie who likes to do the same and thinks the space is his. Thinking he’d simply elbow the kitten out of existence, Max settled in, gradually shoving him off to the perimeter of the desktop. Of course, the flipping tip of an adult cat’s tail (unlike a dog’s wag, the sign of extreme annoyance) is too tempting for a kitten of any age and Charlie, already perfecting the innocent’s skill of pushing the envelope with as little physical evidence as possible, soon escalated the annoyance to a near-nuclear encounter.

So far, Guy Noir treats all cords and cables as chew toys. While I was chatting with a friend on-line, he chewed through the mouse cable which managed to freeze everything. At another time, in the midst of blogging, he managed to create two phone cables out of one, wondering why I wasn’t on wireless, anyway. He just can’t understand the concept of dial-up: he’ll push me into the 21st Century, yet (“oh, and skip the dry food: it sucks”). And then there’s yet another excuse not to use the cell phone: the recharger unit is now two non-interchangeable wires.

Years ago I had read that to deter a cat chewing on wires and phone cords, simply smear tabasco sauce on the wire. It would take, I estimate, a vat of tabasco sauce to protect all the wires and cables in my house. Nor am I particularly fond of the scent of aging tabasco sauce emanating from every appliance and computer. Besides, I’d tried it with my first cat, Chaumleigh, an inveterate wire-chewer, and he actually liked the flavor of it so much, he went around licking off all the sauce before proceeding, once again, to chew on the cords.

They have also discovered how to turn on the record player which, being 21st Century kittens, you’d think they’d have no comprehension of: but one night, I came home from work and discovered the needle riding the turntable ‘round and ‘round (memo to self: buy, if one can find, a new needle). When it happened again, a few days later, I realized how they’re doing it: hopping up on top of it, usually from the floor, one foot adroitly steps on the “ON” button located just below the edge of the cover. Now I know, for what it’s worth, to keep the arm of the player firmly hooked in place. Or, since it hasn’t been played in like 10 or 12 years, just unplug it.

The other morning, I heard this odd motor noise humming away in the living room, fairly quiet but not a normal sound I’ve associated with the house yet. Upon closer inspection, it turns out to be the recliner we’d gotten for my mother a few years ago which lifts and elevates you from a seated position and also has heat and a vibrating motor (though it does not make coffee in the morning nor bring you a beer). The remote unit is kept in a pouch on the side of the chair: presumably the “magic fingers” were activated when one or more of the kittens bounced against the side of the chair, hitting the pocket and accidentally (one hopes) pressing against the remote. Okay, so I’ll just unplug the chair.

Then there was the afternoon I walked into the bathroom to find the whole roll of toilet paper neatly piled on the floor. At least it wasn’t as bad as this – and a lot easier to clean up.

Making the bed – not to mention the implementation of a liner of trash bags and towels to foil Murphy’s on-going pissive resistance – for some reason incites a great deal of curiosity from at least three of the kittens, so that by the time I’m done, like a perpetual motion machine I have tossed 40 kittens off the bed, one jumping back up as soon as the most recently scooped-up one has landed on the floor.

Last night, while re-working last summer’s sketches for the eternal novel-in-waiting, I crumpled up a sheet of note-paper intended for the wastebasket before I realized this had the attention of ten beady eyes in the shadows beyond my desk. Charlie, the usual master of ceremonies, was the one to grab it but rather than bat it around with the others, he held it tightly in his teeth, and, growling as if he were a doberman, ran full speed from one end of the house to the other with everyone else in typical hot pursuit.

And did I mention Frieda Farrell, their mother, went into heat last week? The vet is not scheduled to arrive until next week...

Dr. Dick

P.S. Here's Abel sharing the space with Max: this one worked out much better!

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Books of Childhood

With all the commotion – not to mention media attention – given to the arrival of the last of the Harry Potter novels last month, I was trying to remember what books I read when I was a child, if there was anything that got me as excited about a new book as children today were getting excited about “Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows.”

While various adults could be heard reminiscing about their favorite childhood books, I could remember the first music I heard as a child (what turned out to be Rimsky-Korsakoff’s “Scheherezade” when I was 3), the first recording of my very own (Rimsky-Korsakoff’s “Scheherezade” maybe when I was 6 or 7), and, pattern aside, even the first book about music that I read (a second-hand copy my father found for me of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s “My Musical Life” when I was probably 8 or 9), but not my first book.

I learned to read from the jackets of my mother’s classical records, little 45s we had then, knowing which ones I wanted to listen to by picking out words like ‘piano’ in the title. Of course, we had a piano, my father played it a lot and the fact most of the covers would’ve had a picture of a piano certainly made it easier, but the association with the word was very clear very early in my life.

But the books themselves remain less memorable.

When we would visit my mother’s parents’ house, there was a beautiful bookcase in the living room and when I was about 5, I was allowed to page through some of the books while stretched out on the floor in front of its curved glass doors. One I remember was an old atlas and the maps fascinated me: they would point out where England was, where my grandmother grew up, and where we were located. I assumed they must be miles apart, somehow thinking the Atlantic Ocean was comparable to the Susquehanna River: a mile wide at Harrisburg, it seemed immense when we’d drive over it.

I was also fascinated by the Shakespeare plays my grandfather had collected when he was a young man, each one in a separately bound volume. Actually, the only book they were concerned about letting me look at was Bullfinch’s Mythology with all of its engravings of nude gods, so of course, whenever I was left alone in the room, I would sneak it off the shelf and glimpse a couple pages furtively before sliding it back into place: I couldn’t figure out what the problem was. Published (if not printed) in 1898, it contained 200 illustrations with the occasional vaguely sketched-in breast and a plethora of strategically placed fig-leaves, even where none existed (I know now, having seen some of the more or less anatomically correct originals at least in photographs), leading me to develop a rather difficult-to-explain case of fig-leaf envy. Of course, you have to remember my grandmother was born during the Jubilee Year of Queen Victoria which was, amused or not, a different era entirely.

Now, living in my parents’ house, those books have become mine: last week, I sat on my living floor in front of my bookcase looking at some of these same books again, more fascinated by the fact many of them, like the Shakespeare, pre-date my grandparents’ wedding in 1911, a good many from my grandfather’s student days (Steelton High School, Class of 1905).

But these were not the first books I read.

Of course there were comic books. One of the famous family anecdotes concerned the time my father, in a hospital in Philadelphia, was allowed to go out to see a baseball game with his beloved Phillies. I remember how excited he was to see Richie Ashburn playing live. I remember how bored I was at the prospect of having to sit there watching what I already hated watching on television. So they allowed me to take a handful of comic books – they had to take me along since there was no one there to babysit me – so of course I read them all from cover to cover during the course of the game, even as my father was going nuts watching his team lose right in front of him. Aside from the usual Walt Disney characters and some nature studies (animals of Africa, say), this pile also included “Illustrated Classics” like Moby Dick and Treasure Island (these have yet to re-surface).

From my school’s library, there were books from a series about children, different sets of twins growing up in different countries or cultures: Ireland and Greece, I remember, not to mention the one from the Deep South with a title and illustrations (complete with watermelon) that today would call for its immediate banning.

I read my father’s childhood copies of classics like “Treasure Island” (an adaptation of the original) and “Black Beauty,” both of which I recall enjoying before I was 8, maybe earlier. There were also things like “Men of Iron” which was about the life of medieval knights told from the viewpoint of the boys who were their squires set in Glastonbury.

But then, there’s a photograph of me reading Prescott’s “History of the Conquest of Mexico & Peru” when I was 10, a door-stop of a Modern Library edition which, at some 1200 pages, was the first “fat book” I read. I even remember buying it: my dad had taken me to Pomeroy’s, a downtown department store that had a small book department next to the bins of LPs we were frequently checking out. He wanted to know why I was interested in that one. I have no idea why, even now: it was just something that struck me as I looked through the selections they had.

We also had a copy of Tolstoy’s “War & Peace” (something called, oddly, the “Inner Sanctum Edition” which I half expected to start creaking whenever I opened the cover). I began reading it the summer I was 11 – what a precocious twit I was – then doing a book report on it that fall in 6th grade. For me, this book created a land of imagination through the rarified air of the Russian Imperial court similar to what other books were probably creating for my friends.

And yet I also read some of the Hardy Boys, even some Nancy Drew mysteries my mom had when she was a child (always a fan of mysteries, she continued reading the latest ones by her favorite authors up to the week she died, leaving behind over 1,000 books for us to find a home for). There were also a few science fiction thrillers like H.G. Wells’ “Island of Dr. Moreau” which then led me to “War of the Worlds” (and I still like the book over the movie).

In 6th grade, my seat in class was usually near the World Book encyclopedias – not as good as the Brittanica my parents had bought for my older brother when he was in school, but teachers thought it was better for schoolrooms because it had so many color illustrations. Whenever we were discussing something in class and the teacher was asking questions no one could answer, I would reach over, grab a volume, look it up and then shoot my hand up in the air. And thus the character of the know-it-all Dr. Dick was born...

As for series of books, by the time I was in what we then called “junior high school” I was reading all four volumes of Thomas B. Costain’s “The Plantagenet Story,” a history of the English Kings from Edward I to Richard III (I also pronounced it with the accent on the second syllable, plan-TAAH-j’nit, rather than on what people (and one dictionary) told me was the correct third syllable, plant-uh-JEN-it, which I thought just sounded stupid: in fact, I just looked it up and four on-line sources all place it on the 2nd syllable!). Regardless, when a classmate did a report in geography class mentioning two famous Spanish kings, reading the Roman numerals as letters – Charles Vee and Philip Eye-Eye – it annoyed me that no one corrected her, especially my 7th grade teacher!

There was a biography of the Russian empress Catherine the Great with the classic line in my book report: mentioning how she dominated her cabinet ministers but not wanting to use the masculine form “master” since she was, after all, a woman, I said “she was the mistress of them all,” then wondered why my English teacher was cracking up. I have no recollection how they sanitized the bit about the horse...

So when people are reminiscing about the books they read at 13, rhapsodizing nostalgically about the fantasy world created for them by “The Secret Garden” or “The Chronicles of Narnia,” I remember wading through Dostoievsky’s “Brothers Karamazov,” trying to make sense out of the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter.

Considering I didn’t read the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy until I was in my mid-20s (and then the first thing I read was “Bored of the Rings”), it’s not surprising I still haven’t read any of the Harry Potter books. I had thought about it after hearing Daniel Pinkwater on All Things Considered talk about reading the first one in Spanish because the reading level was equivalent to the level he'd reached in the adult Spanish classes he was then taking. I considered getting a copy of the first volume in German (perhaps comparable to what I’d had between high school and college-level classes) but that would be just too geeky (even for me)...

Dr. Dick