Monday, December 17, 2007

The Beethoven's Birthday Storm

It was not much of a snow-event and not, certainly, as bad as some areas had been hit in other parts of the country, but here at Chez Dr. Dick, it was bad enough. The forecast as usual had been iffy, changing back and forth from snow to ice and sleet back to snow to rain and/or freezing rain to the usual grab-all "wintry mix" (or as I once said on-air, "fleet and sleezing rain"). Given that I'm not much of a fan of winter weather -- or for that matter, weather in general (or come to think of it, much of anything) - it was not going to be a pleasant weekend.

It began on Saturday as a Big Delay. Scheduled (as much as one can schedule the weather in Outlook) to begin sometime Saturday morning, by late afternoon it was still a no-show. And the forecast was still vague, no doubt not to panic holiday shoppers. Still, when I stopped at the store after work on Friday night, it was clear lots of people were planning to feast on bread and milk regardless.

So a friend and I went out to engage in a bit of what turned out to be non-shopping, finding stores that were pleasantly not bursting at the seams, then grabbed a bit of dinner before heading over to the Harrisburg Borders. When we left, the sleet had begun and it was a quick trip home before things deteriorated any further.

When I went to bed, the forecast was leaning more in favor of a rain event. Fine.

I woke up to the sound of the cracking of wood. After realizing we had momentarily lost power overnight - only for a split second, perhaps - I looked out the window to see nothing but ice. Ice coating the branches of the maple tree outside my bedroom and study windows, ice coating the branches of the Japanese maple and kousa dogwood in the back yard (see photo), the front lawn coated in what looked like crystal shards, the large crimson king maple out front looking like it had a six-inch buckskin-like fringe of icicles hanging off the lower branches.

On the back porch were several birds - juncos, titmice, chickadees and a female cardinal - so I quickly rushed some fresh birdseed out into the feeder with more scattered across the floor of the porch.

The cracking of wood that I heard might have been branches from the oldest batch of silver maples, trees I've never been happy with, but they were saplings on the lot when my parents began building the house in the late-50s, since then spawning other batches in various parts of the yard. It looked like there was a new trunk but it turned out to be a sizeable branch standing kind of parallel to the trunk but upside down (see photo, below).
There was more sleet, there was more freezing rain, then there was a downpour of just plain rain which apparently was freezing on contact and, once in a while, a snow flurry.

The lights kept flickering, the power going out just for a second but enough that I got tired of seeing the computer reboot before my eyes or having to reset the alarm clock and the microwave every hour or so. Then there was another fierce crack of wood, louder than the others I was hearing all morning and afternoon.

I was most concerned about the maple tree on the east side of the house. It had been a puny three-leaved seedling, a freebie when we bought the ginko, when we planted it and by now if it wasn't too close to the house, it was overhanging too many of the wires running the edge of the property. But that loudest crack was actually half of one of the other silver maples, this one on the western side by the old woodpile, which now stretched out across the yard, lying in front of the mound of forsythia. Smaller branches littered the lawn and fairly sizeable ones will need to be pulled out of the forsythia, though nothing, it seems, will ever harm the forsythia (in time, unchecked, I'm sure there would be no back yard, just one mound of forsythia working its way toward the house).

Eventually, the squirrels showed up at the feeder, later than usual. There are three of them, apparently one family since any more than those get chased off with a great deal of chattering and tail-fluffing. Squirrel Ives easily fills the feeder while the younger one, Hoover, works over the porch-floor. A white-footed one, Nureyev, is capable of making amazing leaps into the Japanese maple.

Though not today. Making it to one of the thicker branches in the middle of the tree, he barely managed to hang on -- looking like the kitten in the famous '70s "hang in there" posters -- and with considerably less grace than usual, pulled himself up onto the branch and worked his way cautiously to a spot he could jump more easily onto the ground. He left without further comment.

Once the freezing rain had apparently stopped (and the sun shone perversely for a few fleeting moments making everything sparkle brilliantly enough to almost take your mind off the potentially treacherous situation), it was a matter of waiting for the high winds - gusts up to 40-50mph in the follow-up forecast. Would the power stay on?

Thousands of people in the area were without power - 46,000 still, the day after the storm - with the prospect of it not being restored till Tuesday or Wednesday night. (Update - as of Wednesday morning, 12-19-07, 2300 in the Harrisburg area were still without power.) One friend told me about the number of trees damaged or ruined by the storm at his place, much worse than mine. The clean-up and its cost were things you tried not to think about: it was enough to be waiting for what else could happen before it was officially over.

At one point, a parade of township firetrucks, ambulances and something called a "Mask Unit" drove through my neighborhood, apparently looking for any tree damage that would need to be reported to PPL or the road crews, prepared to take anyone to the hospital in an emergency, ready to report damage to anyone's house from falling trees. Fortunately, on my short street, they were able to just keep on truckin'...

Another casualty for me was the Christmas Concert by the Susquehanna Chorale which I had planned on attending that afternoon. Though a member of the chorale told me the roads "were wet, not all that bad," I chose to stay in, reading too much on-line about falling trees and branches, then watching chunks of ice (some several feet long) cascade off the wires and branches, shattering onto the roadway. I didn't feel I wanted to try dodging stuff like that with my car, so I got some soup and hot chocolate before settling down on the couch to listen to a late Beethoven quartet (Op. 131 with Guarneri).

For me, in the new old house, it was my first major storm and I will remember it, no doubt, like the first major storm after I had moved into Harrisburg to my first midtown apartment in the early-80s, when the forecast called for flurries and we had something like 24 inches of flurries on Lincoln's Birthday. This one will be the Beethoven's Birthday Ice Storm of 2007.

And winter doesn't even begin until this weekend! Bah humbug, indeed!

- Dr. Dick

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Togetherness

While there are times I wonder if it was wise bringing in a pregnant stray cat (and there have been times, kittens being kittens, that I was convinced it wasn't -- with nodding assent from the Big 3), there were times in the past weeks where there was never any question. Here are three pictures of Kittens at Rest, a rather unusual state and enoyable on all accounts.

At the top is the mother of all kittens, Frieda Farrell, on the right with her son Baker in profile. Though she's no longer officially "feral," she's not exactly the most acclimated of cats: she still won't let me near her (since mid-August, I have only touched her once and that was the second time since I brought her in in April), but she loves to curl up on the one chair, stretch out on a rug, even play around the scratching post. She's not really the Greta Garbo of Cats, either, but at least she's not spitting and hissing at me any more, like she was up until she was spayed.

Meanwhile, on another chair, this one with the red background, are Charlie and, in the foreground, Guy Noir.

On the gray background, an office desk kind of chair they love because it swivles and rolls around easily, are Abel and Blanche.

With four male tabbies, three of them orange, it's difficult to tell them apart, given the lighting and their positioning.

Guy is the cream tabby (hardly 'noir') who at times is known as Guy Noodge for his incessant kittenish brand of curiosity, usually at times when I am most hoping for the chance to concentrate on composing or reading.

Abel, Baker and Charlie, so named at birth because there was no way of telling them apart then, have developed into distinct personalities. Curiously, I find myself going back to the early pictures and wondering if I had labeled them correctly.

Baker is just a bit more reddish than Abel but 95% of the time, I can't tell them apart without looking at their faces. Each has a V-shaped wedge on each cheek, opening toward the mouth (this would seem to be a standard tabby marking) and Abel has two darker spots inside this wedge. Baker's dots are underneath the wedge. When they're running past you and you want to know who just knocked over the wastebasket, it's tough getting them to sit still long enough so you can check the wedge...

Generally, Baker has the quieter and sometimes sweeter personality. Abel is more out-going and, frankly, more likely to get into mischief. Charlie, the largest of the five, has no white on him (Abel and Baker have white chins), the pinkest nose and lips and a tail on the verge of being fluffy (he also has his mother's curious tail-marking that almost looks like a wound, a zig-shaped Harry-Potteresque configuration, wherein, probably, lies a tale). He's also got the sweetest disposition of the kittens, too, and purrs like an outboard motor. He would make a great dog in the way he always wants to be right next to you: judging from the size of his paws, I'm wondering if he might not be a Lab in disguise...

At the left, helping me blog, are Guy Noir and Charlie.

Blanche (originally as in Guy & Blanche Noir), the smallest of the litter, can be a combination of all the others' personalities. Her expression is usually quizzical, since (being a tortoise-shell and basically a black cat with peeks of orange seeping through and small patches of white on her chest and belly) it's hard to see she actually has a nose and a mouth, just big round eyes.

She also went into heat for the first time the weekend after Thanksgiving, something no one in this household was thankful for. Confining her to the bathroom where she was born, I called the vets and made "the arrangements," setting up the requisit shots-and-bloodwork visit followed by, ten days later, the surgery. She will not be going into heat again.

Naturally, now, it is the turn for her four horny brothers, but we'll save that (and them) for another day...

After the move, which finally occured in mid-November (the official unpacking has yet to begin), an old box-spring found its way into the bedroom which the kittens had, before they were left loose in the house, called home. This of course gave them every right to check out everything. Not only does it give them a great vantage point to watch the nests of white-capped sparrows and tufted titmice under the bedroom window, they can also oversee everything else that goes on in their room.
Small wonder I often find myself, walking around the house or sitting at the piano trying to compose, feeling I'm being watched.

The other night, off sick from work, I had curled up on the couch hoping to read a few more pages of Ian McEwan's Atonement (before I probably decide not to see the movie after all), and soon found myself surrounded: Max had draped himself over my left arm, Blanche was in her usual fuzzy bandolier stretched across my chest, making reading impossible, and Guy, Abel and Charlie had heaped themselves next to my right hip, all of us taking up barely a third of the full length of the couch. There was no one who could take the picture for me and no sense in getting up to find the camera.

Oh well, another day and back to work, after I check out what that noise was in the living room....

-- Dr. Dick

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Toward a More Fugue-Efficient Car

Johann Sebastian Bach, in addition to the time he spent composing every day, always enjoyed tinkering in his workshop, whether he was trying to figure out ways of improving the clavichord, a kind of lap-top harpsichord, or working on a new book, “The Idiot’s Guide to Writing Cantatas for Every Sunday in the Church Year.” It was usually late at night, after the city of Leipzig had gone to sleep and the various Bach children had all been put to bed, that he loved most to sneak down to the basement.

His latest project was designing a more fugue-efficient car which he figured would be a major contribution to society, given the cost of supporting the arts these days. But he knew it was becoming hopeless because the younger generation had lost the knack for fugues: a simple melody with simple harmony was all they needed to make it run smoothly if not very far.

Those huge vans took whole symphonies, though, and proved to be time-consuming for the average motorist but yet everybody had to have one until they realized how difficult it was to write a symphony every couple of days. Even Haydn had given his van up for a smaller car that ran on variations.

And then Bach heard that Philip Glass was working on a new kind of engine system that could get several more miles out of just a single chord progression and didn’t even need a melody!

What did it matter to people like that, having something designed to run on the finest intellectual principles?

He had just recently perfected the fugue-injector engine with its dashboard application allowing you to insert the written-out fugue which is then transferred to the fugue tank where it is converted into fuel. This he found to be a big improvement over the original harpsicarburator engine which had a keyboard attached to the steering column but he found it distracting to be improvising fugues while driving (especially when Anna Magdalena would call him on his cell phone).

After he had started on the design, he quickly discovered that simple two-voice fugues, nothing terribly adventurous but suitable for beginning drivers, didn’t get you very far and were basically only good for quick trips to the store and back. For the daily commute, he needed at least a three-voice fugue with two good modulations in it. If the middle entries employed a good statement by inversion, then he added a little stretto before the final statement, he might be able to run a few errands on the way home, too.

Originally, he wanted to call it the Well-Tempered Car. Unfortunately, the engine frequently needed to be tuned which caused most of the fugues to burn slower than usual. Several times he found himself on the side of the road with his pitch-pipe trying to crank the engine back to A-440. Frustrated, he wondered “why bother,” watching everybody whizzing by in their Scarlatti Sonatas and Mendelssohn Cars Without Words.

But then he came up with another idea and that night he was back in the workshop.

Just the other week, he’d developed the compact version which he allowed the boys to drive around the neighborhood: this was the Clavicar which was capable of running on basic canons and two-part inventions, good for beginners.

Once when he was in a hurry, he let little C.P.E. write a fugue for him but the boy, who was usually as bored by fugal exercise as he was by aerobic exercise, had made too many mistakes – a botched tonal answer and a deceptive modulation that contained hidden parallel fifths – which just spun the engine off to the curb and poor Bach had to sit there and write out a whole new fugue just to make it to his rehearsal on time.

He found that you can’t just quickly dash off the same old/same old, either. Even though a fugue is a fugue, it has to be well-constructed with good material to really get some mileage out of it: too much “free counterpoint,” as they call it - he always thought it was just “filler,” watering your craft down with empty additives - and the car starts stalling at intersections or making rude gastrointestinal noises when it reached quarter-note = 120.

So each night, before going to bed, he would write a couple of fugues to get him through the next day. With any luck, he might go a whole day on a good double fugue - that would be great but it didn’t always happen, especially if he was behind on the weekly cantata. Invertible counterpoint was always effective but sometimes when you’re rushed you can make some miscalculations which could gum up the works and Bach, even though it would never happen to him, knew that his sons, for instance, would never have the discipline to manage one of those every day: maybe for a holiday trip, but not your daily commute.

There had been a fine five-voice fugue with two counter-subjects that he was able to drive around on for almost a week. And there was that whole series of fugues he’d written on a theme submitted by Frederick the Great’s Energy Secretary which got him all the way to Berlin and back, even though they laughed at his ideas...

Maybe one day, ja, like their father, C.P.E. and Wilhelm Friedemann and all of their generation will be able to master the fugue in all its many possibilities. His dream was to finish a collection he called “The Art of Fuel,” containing only the finest of those fugues with which he’d gotten the best mileage. It’s a dream that keeps him going.

- Dr. Dick

*** ***** ******** ***** ***
© 2007

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Under One Roof

It’s now official: I am no longer a mid-town resident. I have survived the move and various other non-related events from that week – all but the unpacking which has yet, officially, to begin. I spent Thanksgiving, thankfully, all under one roof.

It was a timely move: having worked on the clean-up phase this past weekend until almost 10pm, I began feeling uncomfortable carrying odds and ends out to the car parked in front of my old apartment. Monday, then, when I went in to finish up, I heard that one of my neighbors, a resident of almost forty years there, had been mugged at gunpoint, walking back to his house after parking the car around 10:30 the night before.

For those readers outside the immediate vicinity of Central Pennsylvania, it has been a strange autumn here: the third week of November and many trees still had their leaves, and many of them still hadn’t changed yet. It has been autumnally cool but not really cold, only a brief encounter with measurable snow.

One of the things my grandfather always said: the date of the first measurable snow will indicate the number of measurable snowfalls that winter. I’d never really kept track of it since it sounded so odd for a scientific man like him who kept meticulous records to say that: one year not too long ago, with the first snow on December 4th, we had five measurable snows, so that wasn’t bad, but one of them as I recall was a 12" blizzard. Last year, we waited until I believe January 21st for the first official snowfall and we only had a few snowfalls, though the storm around Valentine’s Day was one to remember! So I cringe thinking “what if 18 is the correct number this year?” I think I’ll keep track of them on the kitchen calendar this time.

Several years ago, my mother had gotten, with the best intentions, some exercise equipment. While I stood there in my senior moment calling it first a “walker” (no, that’s for later), then a “stroller” (no, that’s at the other end of the cycle), the word finally came to me: “treadmill.” I know she had used it for a while, but living alone she was always concerned it would suddenly kick itself into highspeed and she would be stuck on it, going 40mph, hanging on for dear life and unable to step off the machine. This past weekend, I discovered that not only was it still plugged in back in its corner of the living room, it still worked. So I have started using it myself, set at a leisurely pace to accommodate the still aching pulled abdominal muscle, sneaking my way gradually into a routine of 10-15 minutes a day (it’s a start). The photograph above, taken a few days ago, is the view from that corner, so it was, at least for a couple days, a rather pleasant way to spend a few minutes.

I have also gotten back into the routine of putting seed out in the bird feeder, a simple squirrel-accesible affair nailed to a post on the back porch. 25 years ago, we would have sparrows and purple finches by the busload but today, other than the occasional white-crowned sparrow, most of the clientele are tufted titmice, chickadees, juncos, once in a while the Carolina wrens along with infrequent visits from cardinals and blue jays. And of course, the squirrels and chipmunks.

In the past two days, I have also seen a red-bellied woodpecker (so named despite the fact the red is on the cap and back of its neck, but not on the belly – not that they would call it the red-necked woodpecker – just enough to distinguish it from the red-headed woodpecker with its full head of red). Once in a while, there’ll be a downy woodpecker in the Japanese maple, maybe a flicker, once a meadowlark. In the front yard which is more open and meadow-like, there are birds I never see in the back yard: the bluebirds have probably left for the winter but yesterday I watched a family of white-breasted nut-hatches in the one tree out front.

But it was windy on Thanksgiving Day despite temperatures flirting with the 60s, so now most of the leaves have dropped, including the Japanese maple in the photo above, now an array of bare branches over a carpeting of dark red mulch. Still, looking out at night, seeing it in the light of the full moon is still a beautiful sight.

The kittens have turned 7 months old this week and it will soon be time to take the lone female, Blanche, in to be spayed. Their mother, the ever-elusive Frieda, has begun putting on weight but more uniformly than before: perhaps it’s just an indication she’s getting enough to eat rather than, having been spayed over the summer, that she’s discovered a secret uterus somewhere. I rather doubt I could coax her into joining me for a stroll on the treadmill.

And I am getting back to composing after being interrupted these past two weeks with the move and its follow-up: several hours were spent Thursday trying to figure out where I’d left off and how it should continue from there. I’m not convinced yet I’ve found the best solution.

But one day at a time, as they say... one day at a time...

-- Dr. Dick

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Adventures of a Luddite: Man vs. Car

For sixteen years, I drove a fairly basic car. It didn’t have much in the way of fanciness to recommend it and it was kind of boxy and ugly to boot, but it got me where I needed to go (except for those times it kept stalling on me whenever I’d fill the gas tank: that was kind of weird but only lasted for a few months) and, when the end came, I only went to replace it because it just wouldn’t pass inspection any more. Yeah, I felt like I was abandoning an old friend when I dropped it off to pick up my brand new used car, a much snazzier version I’ll probably be lucky to be driving sixteen years down the road.

This newer car has a lot of now-standard bells and whistles, things that weren’t available in the Dark Ages when I’d bought the other one. The CD-player was a nice plus and I find myself listening to the radio less, now, when I’m driving around, especially on weekends. I’m finding Simone Dinnerstein’s “Goldberg” Variations wonderful mood-adjusting music for driving to and from work, for that matter, especially in heavy traffic.

I never needed a keyless entry remote before. You walk up, put the key in and unlock the door. Why do I need to do it from 200 feet away? (Do I sound like Andy Rooney? OMG, I’m even beginning to look like Andy Rooney…) Turns out, it didn’t really work from 200 feet away, after all: sometimes I’d be standing two parking spaces away and it might work. Okay, big deal.

Then there was the alarm system. Living in mid-town Harrisburg at the time, I thought this was a good idea, given the increase in crime in my neighborhood. Of course, I had a garage to park it in, but you never know.

Keep the car empty, they told me sixteen years ago, and no one’s tempted to break in. But it got broken into anyway, by a short person who apparently just wanted to steal the car, not anything that was in it (I know this, because they’d adjusted the rear-view mirror). And a neighbor’s car had gotten broken into by one of the more colorful local characters who thought the cigarette lighter was really cool-looking. Great.

Some time in April, after moving into my house, I’d gotten into the car to retrieve a CD from the player. I quickly turned on the ignition, retrieved the CD, shut off the ignition and the car started to scream. I couldn’t figure out how to shut it off. Now, at the time, I was sitting in my garage. It’s not like I was trying to break in or anything.

So I called the dealer’s service people and they said “oh, that means it’s in Valet Mode.” What, I asked naively, is Varlet Mode? No, no, he clarifeid, "Valet Mode." They explained what that is but could not answer how it got there. After several calls, the solution was just to bring it in for them to look at. Later.

Checking one of the booklets, it appears I had three choices: Normal Alarm, Valet Mode and Off. Since “Normal Alarm” was for some reason no longer one of them, I opted for “Off” since the alarm would just start screaming every time I put the key in the door.

This worked fine for several months. Then an odd thing happened. Parking on a city street one afternoon, the alarm (which, you'll remember, I had turned off) started screaming when I got out of the car and locked the door. It stopped when I got back in and put the key in the ignition. Weird. It's like I was trying to break out of my car.

This happened two more times, each time when I parked on a city street. Like it could smell fear.

Then last weekend, it happened again, only it wouldn’t stop. Nothing I did made a difference. Finally, after two minutes of ear-splitting din, it just stopped. But every time I put the key in the door or in the ignition, it would go off again. I couldn’t drive the car. So I called a friend to come in and give me a ride back to the house. Because it was the weekend, the service garage wasn’t able to help me till Monday morning.

And so Monday, I called about the car. Nope, nothing as easy as “press the alarm button three times while turning the key in the ignition and clapping in a flamenco rhythm” to reverse the curse, of course. “Bring it in.” Which means it had to be towed. They gave me a special dealership roadside service 800-number to call.

“And where are you,” I asked after I reported to this guy what I would need.

“Arizona.” I had an image of me waiting while this tow truck was driving out from Phoenix.

They connected me with a local towing service (hmm, I think I could've done that myself). They would be there in 40 minutes. Well, make it 90, but hey…

So the guy went to get the car ready to be hauled up onto the flat-bed. This took about fifteen minutes. During which the car’s alarm system never stopped screaming except every two or three minutes when it might take 15 seconds to catch its breath.

Did I mention I have a hearing condition where certain frequencies can attain near-painful levels? Mmmmm...

By mid-afternoon the next day, the car was… well, not exactly ready. I had originally said I just wanted the alarm system disemboweled. They told me they weren’t sure they could do that since it was tied into the car’s computer and removing it might affect other electrical systems. Swell.

But an hour later, I was assured they could, if I really wanted them to, disable the alarm. Would it be covered by the expensive warranty package I had purchased with the car the year before? Uhm, well, no, that wouldn’t be a repair, would it, and the warranty would only cover certain repairs.

Ah. So if I had them fix the alarm system so it worked properly, would that be covered under the warranty? Well, not exactly. So, I asked naively, because something screwed up with the computer, I would have to pay this out of my own pocket? Uhm… yes...

So it would cost me $158 to disable the alarm system and keyless entry. Or it would cost me $485 to repair it.

Curiously, I’d just gotten a recent offer from Dell about buying a new PC with a discount that would make it under $500. So I could buy a whole new computer for what it would cost to fix one bell and whistle (as it were) on my car’s computer.

So I made my decision. And peace has once again returned to Hooterville.

-- Dr. Dick

Monday, October 22, 2007

Pilling the Cat

It has not been the best weekend, kitty-wise, though they are, today, six months old! Perhaps I should have a party for them but as I get closer to finding homes for three of them, I feel a mixture of pending relief that things might be more manageable in the nearer future but also that sadness knowing I will miss them even when I won’t miss the cyclone of energy all five of them can at times create.

It was Max’s turn to go to the vets this time: his eyes were again running and now he had started sniffling and sneezing, the equivalent of a cat cold. He’d had something like this when I first brought him in almost six years ago when he was probably seven or eight months old. In fact, his eyes were so watery, the goop draining from his eyes looking like bad mascara, one of his name options at first had been Tammy-Faye before I realized this was a male cat.

So now I am to give him eye-drops 3x/Day and two different pills 2x/Day each. He was not keen on this regimen when he was confined to my apartment’s bathroom, pending his release among my other cats (which then included a 12-year-old diabetic cat and an 18-or-19-year-old cat I had inherited from my neighbors after they had both passed away). And now he is nearly twice the size and weight he was then, making the wrestling match not as well balanced as it had been. He was now a seasoned six-year-old with an attitude that could easily defy a mere middle-aged human.

It took me nearly two hours to get the first pill in him on Saturday. The one, just a half-pill, kept falling out of the “pill-popper” I need because, being only one person, it is otherwise impossible to hold him still, pry the mouth open and insert the pill all the while retaining the normal set of appendages I had been born with. He has also become an expert squirmer: coiling him with copper wire and placing a magnet beside him, pilling him could become an alternate energy source for my house. Clenched tightly in the equivalent of a full nelson between my knees, he can still turn his head from side to side with such speed, I managed to get the half-pill in his right ear which he then shook out onto the floor. After placing that back up on the desk, I decided perhaps the capsule would be easier. But it became too exhausting, so I would sit back and wait, taking ten minute breaks hoping that perhaps he would finally give in to the inevitable. While I was resting, he was storing up more energy and probably could have kept this up all day. Finally, somehow, I managed to get one capsule down his throat. He went and sat in the corner to preen himself for the rest of the morning, hoping to restore his image before the other cats.

After a busy day, I was too bushed to wrestle him for the evening’s pilling so I chose to wait till morning. At 9:30, I succeeded with the eye-drops. By 10:15, I had managed to stop the flow of blood.

He had chomped down hard on the tip of my left index finger and though I do not, normally, play the piano with any regularity to warrant dreams of being a pianist per se, I still like the idea of keeping my finger. It took a good 15 minutes to staunch the wound, leaving me with a sink full of blood spatterings and a mound of cotton balls damp with hydrogen peroxide. Fortunately, when I’d brought in Frieda, the feral cat and mother of the kittens-to-be, I had stopped on the way home to replenish the first aid kit, considering she had given me two healthy bites in the process of catching her (practically the last time I was able to touch her).

And of course I lost my temper. So now I and the cat are both traumatized at the idea of a twice-daily pilling.

Oh, and when I placed the errant half-pill on my desk after the first attempt at pilling? I opened the door to the room where all this was happening to find all five kittens waiting curiously for the outcome, wondering if, like their bout with the diarrhea medication they’d been subjected to a couple of weeks earlier, they were now going to be next. When I failed to come after any of them, they resumed their normal kittenish curiosities which, in Charlie’s case, involved checking out my desk. Before I could grab the half-pill to put it away, he had sniffed at it and swallowed it down! Just like that!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Kitten Pictures I Have Missed...

When they were born, I began taking pictures of the kittens every day. As they got older and reached a plateau where they appear to have stopped growing, I have practically stopped taking pictures, though they tend to stand still less for the ritual than they had even three months ago when they realized these legs were meant for flying.

And as I’ve said, my camera is slow on the re-set with a three-second delay between pushing the button and activating the flash that can be a C-Change for a Grade-B Camera with its AA-Batteries. Since I do not have it slung on my hip the way some people carry their cell-phones and key-chains, I usually find myself and the photographic subject in a room distant from the location of the camera. By the time I would retrieve it, the cats have moved on to some other pose not nearly as interesting.

The other day, I was in the master bedroom which for the first several months of their lives had been theirs, when I heard a thump behind me. Turning to see what they’d gotten into, now, it turns out they had “up-dumped” the little two-hole cat condo on its side. Blanche was peering out of the one hole wondering how that could possibly have happened when one of the four blondes hopped into the other hole and quickly assumed the same position. They were now, apparently, waiting for the other cats to come and roll the condo around as they do on occasion. I had seen them do this, as I stood cameraless in the doorway, with Blanche inside. In a flash it had been over and she sauntered out a bit dazed but looking like “let’s do that again.” Of course they never did. Nor did they this time, either. Before I could even move much less retrieve the camera, they had hopped out and the condo was now empty.

A few nights ago, sitting at my computer, I happened to turn around to catch Charlie peering out from under the chair by my bed. As most of my chairs are covered with old throws and blankets in an attempt at protecting what is left of their upholstery, the space beneath this particular chair becomes a much sought-after cave, draped off from the rest of the world by a maroon blanket and a wheat-colored chenille throw with fringed tassels on the ends. There sat Charlie, between the two throws, looking up at me, his head between the tassels, a few knots hanging loosely over his forehead and others draped around his shoulders like a wig gone askew that reminded me of Janis Joplin if she had been a blonde. My camera was only two feet away but of course the move to reach for it became a new curiosity and before I could touch the camera, Charlie was on the desk checking it out, his wig hanging limply off the chair like, well... like an old throw with tassels on the end.

Walking into the kitchen the other morning, pre-coffee, I had this eerie feeling I was being watched. Turning to get something out of the refrigerator, there on the top were Abel and Guy, their chins both resting over the edge, peering down at me. Then Guy looked up toward the ceiling which reminded me of the famous painting of the two presumably innocent cherubs. Blanche sometimes also likes to perch on top of the fridge, leering over the edge like Snoopy’s impression of a vulture.

There are times I simply do not want to imagine what is going through their minds.

-- Dr. Dick

Monday, October 15, 2007

Earth & Home

Today is a blog-action day for “environmental-oriented” posts, though at the moment I should probably be writing about the new composition I’m working on, the novel I want to get started if I weren’t working on a new composition or about the kittens who continually keep interrupting me from concentrating on either.

In all honesty, I’m concerned about environmental issues but often feel there’s not much I can do by myself, at the same time admitting that if everybody felt that way, nothing will be accomplished. Even to change a little bit is a huge improvement and once even that little is accomplished, it gives me a little bit of incentive to go on and try something more. Sorting recyclables has been probably the first major inconvenience to learn, rather than just throwing it all in the trash: it gets annoying when you’re trying to figure out what “number” of plastic a thing is and whether that recycling bin at work or at home accepts that or not. I can fill up my trash-can-sized recycling container with cat food cans and plastic cat litter jugs in no time!

When I buy cat food, for instance, it bothers me that the kind they prefer to eat, 9-Lives, is packaged in an un-environmentally-friendly wrapping of thick plastic sheeting which usually has a couple of “holes” in it that can prove traps just like the plastic rings you find on soda bottles. Ever since I’d seen pictures of sea-birds with their heads stuck in these (or the character Lovelace in “Happy Feet”...), I’ve taken the scissors to things like this and chopped them up into small hole-free units, but that’s still a lot of plastic to dispose of. It’s not just that that’s often the cheaper brand the stores offer, it’s only one of two main brands of canned cat food on the shelves at all, anymore, so why spend more money on food the kittens won’t eat which I’m going to be throwing away (at least the food is biodegradable)? A lot of the cheaper “house brands” were among those in the earlier recalls from Menu Foods, responsible for causing pet deaths through poisonous chemicals that had been put into the food accidentally or just to cut corners on costs. So I’m a little cautious about just picking up something because of one issue or another: it’s cheaper, it’s better for the environment, maybe it won’t kill my pet.

A long time ago, I stopped using shaving cream and other aerosol sprays, probably from the time in 1978 when I sleepily mistook the shaving cream can for my under-arm spray-on deodorant. While room “infusers” are probably adding something undesirable into the immediate atmosphere as it is, I started buying Febreze because it says on the canister it contains no CFCs which deplete the ozone layer, but what else is it doing to the environment at large? One hopes it’s not just an advertising ploy that doesn’t contain something else that could be as dangerous or worse.

Since I’ve become a “home-owner” now rather than an “apartment renter,” my sense that I ought to be doing something more is much stronger. When I was a kid back in the days LBJ was going around the White House shutting lights off in rooms that weren’t being used, the first time anybody talked about the idea of conserving electricity seemed silly – and people would tell me when I’d shut off a light after leaving a room, it was a waste of electricity shutting the lights off and on all the time, creating wear and tear on the bulbs, therefore wasting money by needing to buy more bulbs.

Now they tell us we should unplug all our appliances when not in use, especially the ones with remotes because they’re always drawing on some minuscule amount of power that quickly adds up. But who wants to crawl around to get to those discreetly hidden-by-design outlets every time you want to turn on your TV set?

For every convenience there seems to be an equal and opposite inconvenience.

For every idea there also always seems to be a negating counter-idea. One person’s scientific data is another person’s junk science. Both sides can claim the other side’s science is motivated by a political agenda. It’s enough spin to make your head do more than spin...

So I don’t drive a big gas-guzzling vehicle with a mezzanine in the back (one big enough to carry a full live orchestra in it, not just a CD-player), but I’ve owned nothing but Japanese-made cars since my Corvair fell apart in 1976, just like Ralph Nader said it would, earning me no points with people saying I was not doing my part for the U.S. economy. Of course today, I guess most American made cars are no longer made completely in the USA, but it hasn’t changed my attitude about the American car.

During the warmer weather, I do my best to buy gas after sundown, when it’s supposed to be better for the atmosphere. Unfortunately, I find I need the air-conditioner on in my car more often than I used to because (a) I bought a used car not thinking it was painted black and had black-leather interior, a veritable microwave-on-wheels, (b) the windows fog up in matter of seconds on humid nights which, I’m told, means the car is so wonderfully air-tight which is a good thing but I hate turning a corner and suddenly not being able to see through the fog on my windshield, and (c) global warming or not, I’m getting older and just can’t take the heat as much as I could a decade ago.

Suffering through five interminable summers in my most recent first-floor city apartment where I couldn’t keep the windows open even when I was home for fear of what street-creature was going to break in, I swore my next place would have central air. And so it does. Fortunately, I didn’t have to run it as much as I thought I might this summer, but I also have windows I can leave open that are not accessible to street crime. I can also hear my neighbors’ air-conditioner units running a lot more frequently than mine. I’m very happy my electric bills this summer were less than I would have expected. And considering my previous apartment (with its one valiant window unit keeping the study habitable when I needed to write) may be one third the space of the house, my present utility bills are nowhere near three times the size they’d been in the apartment! Go figure.

One of the first things I did was replace a lot of light bulbs with those “energy smart” twirly-looking compact fluorescent bulbs. Now, my previous landlord had gotten one to put in the building’s hallways and they were horrible, way too bright. But the Giant had a buy-one/get-one-free special one week so I figured I’d try it. I’ve never been a fan of fluorescent lights, normally, but putting these two bulbs into reading lamps in my house, I felt much better about the whole idea. They’re not as bright as the old-fashioned bulbs which I always felt were too bright for what I needed anyway. And these new much-touted bulbs don’t look or “feel” like old-fashioned fluorescent bulbs, either. So I went out and bought a bunch more, and now have ten different lights in my house with these energy-saving bulbs.

Of course, the down-side is they contain mercury and need to be disposed of carefully: soon, I guess, someone will be complaining about the high levels of mercury entering the landfills from people throwing away their compact fluorescent bulbs. But they last longer – five years, if the advertising is to be believed – so it might take a while before that hue-and-cry is heard.

This, however, is kind of scary: what to do if one of these bulbs break! Hmmm... I remember putting one of the first ones in a hard-to-get-at lamp and having it fall on the side of the table, shattering over the carpet and the foyer. Not even thinking about the “danger of mercury,” I just swept it up with a dust-pan and put it in the trash can! It wasn’t till later that I noticed the warning on the back about containing mercury and disposing of it “in accord with disposal laws.”

Well, with every advance in technology comes another issue that requires more care and potential risk. But if that kept us from dealing with changes, we’d still be living in caves watching TV by moonlight.

I hadn’t built up a utility history in this house yet, so I don’t know how my normal usage of electricity or heat would compare to my newly enlightened (no pun intended) usage, just to compare it to what my mother’s had been in past years; so far, light bulbs and air-conditioner usage has resulted in substantially lower bills, both in terms of use and costs. I feel good about that: at least it’s a start. Of course, now the heating season is upon us. But the house is currently registering 66 and is still comfortable. When it got that chilly in my previous apartment (where I didn’t control or pay for the heat), I felt I needed to get out the parka. Perhaps it’s the different kind of heat, who knows?

Then there’s the yard.

When I first moved in town, one of my crazier neighbors passed on a book called “The No-Dig No-Weed Garden” which sounded like a perfect fit for me, though I was convinced the author probably owned a scythe-making factory somewhere. I’m not one to do yard-work and was always happy it was the landlord’s responsibility to mow the postage-stamp of a yard, except for my last landlord who would break down and mow it maybe twice a year. I don’t see the need for neatly kept acres of grass, especially with all the time spent mowing it and all the problems trying to keep it green and pristine during summer droughts. At this stage in my life, I’m very happy having a guy come and mow the yard every 2 weeks or so. It’s mostly green because it’s mostly weeds, but still greener than some of my neighbors who planted some kind of designer grass that maybe thrives lushly only in the tropics. When I was living in this house with my parents, I joked about planting lots of trees so it would kill all the grass, concrete not being a viable option, but then there was the avalanche of leaves to contend with in the fall: it’s bad enough with just eight or so.

My garden did not prove to be much of a success this first summer: what the rabbits didn’t mow down themselves just never managed to take off on their own. I planted morning glories and moon glories in planter boxes along the back porch and under the kitchen windows, but they only started doing well late in the season: the moon glories, good flowers for a night person like me, didn’t even start blooming until a week ago. It was always enjoyable to sit on the porch at night, unwinding after work, but this year I missed their huge white blossoms – usually 6" across – which I used to enjoy from late-July till frost.

Something I’d often thought of doing was finding a spot in the yard where I could plant some milkweed. I’ve always been fascinated by Monarch butterflies, ever since I was in grade school. I’ve noticed several Monarchs flitting around in the yard this summer, so I might try that next spring. At least a few plants along the back of the house.

My father always loved watching the birds that would come to the back porch feeders, especially early in the morning when he would wake up before everybody else. It was normally just the run-of-the-mill sparrows, but the cardinals were favorites along with the occasional evening grosbeak or rufus-sided towhee. There’s only one feeder left, now, but this year it’s attracting, aside from the usual seed-swilling squirrels, a bevy of tufted titmice – is that the correct plural for titmouse? Titmouses just seems silly – and scores of chickadees which are a delight to watch. I always put part of the scoopful down on the porch floor for the chipmunks who scurry out to fill their cheek-pouches: if nothing else, it keeps the kittens occupied for a few minutes and that’s a good thing...

There are the occasional downy woodpeckers in the Japanese maple, and the wrens are more often heard than seen. Out front, a family of bluebirds flies in from somewhere to swing back and forth between the trees and the phone-lines, often swooping up onto the eave of the roof right at the kitchen window where I stand and watch them. At times, I can count six or seven of them. I wonder about putting a nesting box out in the middle of the yard somewhere for them next year.

Ah well, always more to learn and think about.

-- Dr. Dick

Monday, October 01, 2007

How Many Kittens Can Dance on the Top of a Desk?

Someone who once raised a kitten told me they could not imagine what it would be like dealing with “five times the energy of one kitten.” It’s not really 1 kitten’s energy x 5... it’s more like 1 kitten’s energy to the 5th power...

At times, it’s like living with the Flying Wallendas when they get into their “gymkhana” mode. A few weeks ago, they discovered if you land just right on the seat of the rocker-recliner and leap up onto the back at just the right moment, clinging for dear life, and then the next kitten jumps up on the seat which sets the rocking into even more violent motion, it can fling the top kitten off well across the middle of the living room. Style, of course, is everything, with paws outstretched much like a flying squirrel, sort of like this:

Three or four of the kittens tried this in fairly quick relay, one making a rather messy landing like a kid doing a cannonball though most of them sailed through the air with great and obvious delight. Fortunately the Catapult Event was not one they have tried perfecting, at least while I’ve been home.

Unfortunately, last week all five of the kittens were having bowel issues. I’ll spare you the comparisons to cheap mustard, but it was necessary to get this straightened out. It didn’t seem to affect their energy or appetite but it did make the rounds of cleaning the litter box not only more of a challenge but clearly more urgent. The vet said, since they all have it, just bring one of them in for a diagnosis.

And so, Abel took one for the team.

At least, I think it was Abel. Both he and Baker have been becoming a little more alike in coloration. Before, if they were side by side, Abel was the yellower of the two, Baker more reddish. Now, even in the best light, it’s impossible to tell for sure.

So now, part of the routine, if I can catch them when they’re in that relatively rare state of dormancy, I have to give all five kittens 1.5cc of liquid medication that is like a runny vanilla pudding and smells kind of sweet. Whether that makes them like it or not, I don’t know, but they all have varying reactions to it.

Charlie is the easiest: he may actually like it. Blanche is the biggest challenge and she normally manages to spit up a good deal of it – the first time, all over her, all over me, some on the rug, on the side of the piano and, somehow, on a picture a few feet above us. Guy usually develops a stiffness in his hind-legs which makes it difficult to get him into the requisite half-nelson crouch: he’s sort of like greased lightening without the grease or the pig. When I do Abel and Baker, I catch one then shut him in the bathroom till I’ve done the other one, to make sure I don’t give one of them two doses and the other one gets skipped...

The first time, it took about 35 minutes to juice up all five. This morning, it took about 15, so we’re making progress. And someone is doing much better, checking the litter boxes: at this stage of my life, one out of five isn’t so bad...

And then, for about 20 minutes, it’s like I’ve just given them a can of Jolt. This is the point of the day where the other cats go and hide. I try to stay out of their way.

Once, when trying to nap on the couch, one of them leaped down onto my stomach from the back of the couch before charging off across the living room. They only weigh about 5 pounds but if all four feet hit the right spot, this maneuver has quite a bit of kick to it, though I’m sure whoever the kitten was was disappointed that my trampoline proved less effective than the rocking recliner’s catapult.

Abel has become the champion drape-climber. Fortunately, they are of sturdy material, though when the sun shines through them, I am reminded of Romeo & Juliet – “cut him out in little stars and he will make the face of heaven so fine...” – because it’s something that could come in handy at a planetarium, little pinpoints of lights that might well be creating constellations of their very own.

Most of my photos of the cats are not taken in motion. Well, yes, I have numerous photos of floors and desks, devoid of cats, because they move faster than my camera’s shutter-speed. So the ones that are worth posting are uncharacteristically of cats at rest. Like Guy Noir, here, helping to edit my blog-post.

Caught in motion, however, were Abel & Guy Noir (see top photo), wrestling in a large tote-bag which I hadn’t completely emptied yet. A moment after I took the picture of Charlie & Abel (below) stretched out between my monitor and the keyboard, they had rolled around and changed positions before tearing off down the hall. (Incidentally, the desktop on my monitor is a photo of them plus Baker taken half their lives ago.)

The space around the computer so far is their biggest contention. First of all, this has been Max’s space since he joined the family almost six years ago, if not in front of the monitor, then stretched out across the wrist-rest and preferably over one or both wrists, often laying his chin on my mouse-hand. So he’s not keen on sharing this space with a bunch of annoying half-pint over-achieving fuzz-mites.

Curiously, Charlie will settle in, purring constantly, with his head nestled tight against Max’s flank which just annoys the hell out of him. It’s hard enough getting anything done as it is between the purring, the whining and then the imminent attack, the swipe of a paw, a hiss, a growl before contentment resumes if only for a few brief seconds.

Only once have I tried to deal with all five kittens on this small computer table (which is, for the record, an old gate-leg table I picked up at a Connecticut flea-market for $5, fleas not included).

With so much energy on the cusp of critical mass, the center could not hold and in short order they all went off, not slouching, to the living room. The fact that three of them – and Max – stayed on the desk long enough for me to snap this picture runs contrary to the laws of kitten-physics where the primary law states “a body at rest tends not to stay at rest long enough.”

Speaking of rest, I feel a cat-nap coming on...

-- Dr. Dick

Monday, September 17, 2007

To the Front Burner: Evidence of a New Piece

Considering I’m not one to do much that would pass for “cooking,” it’s surprising how many food analogies I use when describing the creative process: a previous post was about the “book in the oven” – and I really could post something now about having written (wow) its first paragraph – but now it’s time to mention an idea for a piece has moved from the back burner to become a work-in-progress on the front burner. Whether it turns out well done, half-baked or ends up in the dog’s dish (oh wait, I don’t have a dog... even the cats would turn their cute little collective noses up at this stuff), it’s definitely not going to be ‘fast food.’ I don’t want to put it on any kind of a schedule, but it’s going to take several months, at this rate, to get it finished. At least it’s started and so far I’m thinking it’s off to a good, well... promising start.

And it’s not even what I thought it was going to be when it first occurred to me back in the spring.

Originally, I was thinking a choral piece in five sections – with or without instruments – setting some biblical verses I’d chosen from those I knew were especially meaningful to my mother. But the idea of “just” setting biblical verses was not very appealing: it didn’t have any shape and certainly nothing to hold it together beyond its being a collection. I didn’t want a “suite” or medley – I wanted a single piece.

There was also the possibility of setting them as song texts – in other words, a collection of five songs with voice and piano. That would make the “medley” aspect of it more palatable.

Now, I haven’t done any real composing since mid-January when it became too difficult to work with the new upstairs neighbors at my old apartment. Not that they were noisy, their fights more late-night affairs befitting people who slept in till noon. It was that ‘sleeping in’ aspect that made it difficult for me to write, my piano directly under their bedroom. For the past five years, for better or worse, my five sets of upstairs neighbors have all worked 9-to-5 jobs which meant, once they were gone for the day, I could compose without bothering anyone (or being bothered by them). Weekends, often, were another matter, which sometimes proved to be a problem for me since it was the only time I could compose with a 9-to-5 approach myself. But by mid-January, all this came to a stand-still. Then, with my mother’s passing and the subsequent process of adjusting, then moving into the house and various minor health problems which precluded finishing the move – the piano only arrived from the apartment last month – I felt like I ought to be composing but couldn’t. This has happened before, for one reason or another, so I chose to sit this one out rather force the issue.

Yet I spent a great deal of the time thinking about what I ought to be writing. The idea of something for Mother (actually, for both my parents) was obvious, rather than just jumping in to write anything that came to mind. Those violin and piano pieces I’d been blogging about last year didn’t need much to finalize– the third piece was essentially done – and working on the Christmas project was an option since, soon enough, another Christmas will inevitably roll around. Then there was the novel I’d wanted to try – if I didn’t feel like writing music, maybe prose would work.

In the past few weeks, I didn’t spend a lot of time at the piano – noodling through some Bach Preludes and Fugues (at least, the easier ones), checking in periodically with works by Schumann and Brahms I used to play, spending a weekend evening visiting Thoreau, courtesy of Ives’ “Concord” Sonata. But even that I started to do less.

In the back of my mind was the idea of this choral piece – the Bible verses – and so I’d listened to a lot of choral music (mostly while driving around in the car), both new (from Harmonia mundi’s collection, Baltic Voices 2) and old (from the Hilliard Ensemble’s Josquin album) but not much in between. There were things I knew I’d need to work on stylistically for this piece, so it wouldn’t sound hackneyed. Then I stopped listening to it, for a while listened to very little music (rough to do, in my line of work), then went back to some of my favorite composers: Britten on the one hand, Elliott Carter on the other but again not much in between.

Some time (last summer?) I thought about writing something for the voice, looking into perhaps something ‘timely’ from Aeschylus’ “The Persians” but not finding the kind of text I was looking for. Thoughts kept going back to the scene with Andromache in Euripides’ “Trojan Women” which I’d already set back in my Eastman days (in fact, had spent a good deal of time working on it at this same piano in this same house when I was on vacations). But it kept making me think how I’ve always wanted to work on another great Greek tragedy, “The Bacchae,” and that was just more than I needed right now.

I was very much taken by the voice of Joyce DiDonato whom I’d seen in the Met’s broadcast of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” (what an amazing voice). I listened to some of her CDs, especially the Wigmore Recital – which then made me think of turning the biblical verses into “recital songs” rather than choral pieces. Two people – how difficult could it be to find two people to perform my music? Not a choir, not an orchestra, not an opera company, just two people...

This summer, the deaths of three great singers also affected me: Beverly Sills in July and Luciano Pavarotti earlier this month, but mostly Jerry Hadley, an acquaintance of mine from our mutual days at UConn (I’ve written a great deal about his tragic death this past July). I also read Joyce DiDonato’s blog where she wrote about the recent deaths of her mother only a few months after her father's.

So all of these things – plus hearing John Adams’ very moving setting of Walt Whitman’s words, descriptions of his nursing soldiers at a battle-field hospital during the Civil War, “The Wound Dresser” – became ingredients if you will for something that needed to simmer a while (“gestate,” to borrow another analogy). In due time, whether I knew it or not, things would be ready for me.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

This past Thursday, the 13th, would’ve been my mother’s 88th birthday. In the past, I would’ve taken the night off to spend it with her, take her out to dinner, sit up late and talk. It was always difficult to get her something because she certainly didn’t need any stuff. This time, as the day approached, I started realizing how hard it was going to be, observing the day without her, so I decided I would take the night off anyway, even if all I did was sit at home.

The past two days had been spent waiting for the guy from Godot’s Delivery Service and the new mattress I’d bought the previous weekend, deciding it was time for an up-grade, considering all the mattresses in this house are older than 25 years. Even so, I woke up feeling a little less achey than I’d been recently (thanks to back trouble and the hernii), but (oddly for me) remembering a dream I’d just had. Normally I don’t have dreams or at least recall them, but this time I was standing backstage at a concert listening to Joyce DiDonato sing... my music! It was a piece I’d written and this was its premiere, and though I could remember none of the music itself, it reminded me of Adams’ “The Wound-Dresser” in its mood – slow, reflective, consoling. And she was singing – Bible verses. I couldn’t remember the words, either, when I woke up, but I thought, well, time to hit the piano.

Some of the verses I had written down for this piece-to-be included Romans 8:28 (“all things work together for good”) and lines from John 14 which my mother had read to my father as he was dying and which I, in turn, read to my mother as she began slipping away a few nights before her death: “Let not your heart be troubled... In my father’s house are many mansions...” Others, I was less sure about, though her Bibles are full of highlightings and underlinings. How to begin? Originally, Romans 8:28 was the first one, but I thought it might make a better ending, John 14 a better “keystone” (because it would have to be an arch-form).

When I compose, a lot of my reference material deals with the hundreds of possible pitch combinations which Allen Forte had catalogued into “sets” of 3, 4, 5 and 6 notes, each pitch translated into a number (C=0, F=5, B=11 and so on). Back in the early-80s, I wrote all these out on separate index cards, listing every transposition, a box full of cards covered with numbers. It helps when I’m looking for the “right” chord (theoretically) or trying to figure out what sub-component of this set might work best here or there. Since the move, not having composed for the past eight months, I opened this little file box for the first time, and saw a slip of paper where I’d written another one of my parents’ favorite biblical verses, one my dad had given to me 25 years ago when I was complaining about being stuck with some Writer’s Block: Hebrews 11:1 – “Now, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” In other words, have faith in myself and faith in what I’m doing.

And there it was in this card-box as I sit down to compose. It was the obvious place to begin.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

In a couple of hours, I had seven verses outlined in an arch-form graph and taken a not-very-promising motive (more a collection of pitches than a ‘theme’) which spelled out my mother’s name in musical notes – something I’d scribbled down on July 13th – eventually turning VIRGINIA into B-flat - E - D - G - B - C-sharp - E - A.

(Aside from those logical associations where letters equal a pitch, I could also use solfege, those syllables associated with notes – do re mi fa sol la ti do – which meant R = re (D) and I could be either mi (E) or ti (B). This left V and N. In some languages B and V are similar (in Russian for instance, the V-sound is written B), but I already had a B (ti) as a possibility. In German, B actually represents B-flat, and B-natural is called H (so you could spell BACH musically as B-flat - A - C - H). N was the problem. Through a cycle of assigning possible associations to certain pitches, then going on one-by-one, eventually N would be assigned to C-sharp. This is something Bach did a great deal of, famously with his own name, and Schumann did it as well, crafting melodic motives from his wife’s name and, before that, a girlfriend here, another girl-friend’s hometown there. Stephen Stuckey, an American composer who does this a lot in his own music, recently wrote a cello piece for Elinor Frey, which John Clare got a chance to record when interviewing them about the process of writing and then performing this work, called Dialoghi, based on a motive crafted from her first name.)

By working with this motive, I found which of these pitch-collections or sets would work best for this material: these will become the primary source for all the melodic and harmonic elements of the piece. Playing with some of these chords, I heard the ending and quickly scratched it out, soft chords progressing one to the other (but not in a traditional ‘tonal’ way) around the final text – now Romans 8:28 – sung on one sustained pitch by the mezzo, like a benediction. Then, just on a whim, I decided to superimpose my mother’s Name-Motive over these chords – and it fit!

A few hours later, I had the basic opening done, turning the Name-Motive into a similar motive with the pitches in a slightly different order (a derivation that will allow it to evolve in the process of the piece). A few more soft chords, but this time seemingly unrelated, swinging slowly from one to the other, more bell-like, with the idea that, while based on the same set of notes, these have less of the sound of a progression: in the course of the piece, the harmony will proceed from “seemingly random” to more distinct patterns of “harmonic progressions,” the way classical composers have worked with IV-V-I chords for centuries (not because they’re recognizable as chords per se but because they create the release of tension toward that inevitable resolution). It’s how my string quartet and the symphony proceeded as well.

In the next few days, spending at least a few hours each day composing, I’ve completed the first draft of the mirrored opening and closing sections (short texts with a kind of prologue and epilogue feel to them), and sketched out the skeleton for the rest of the sections in between. Taking what I’ve sketched already and how long that takes to perform, I figured out what the proportions would need to be for a piece based on the (for me, inevitable) Golden Ratio – it turns out it will be about 15 minutes long.

There is this moment, given the process of “simmering,” where even the composer may be surprised by what he has come up with. This is what we call “inspiration.” No one can explain where this comes from and any scientific theory that attempts to, if you dig through the mumbo-jumbo, has holes in it anyone else can argue about. It is something, perhaps, that has to be taken in faith – like faith, I guess. My parents would’ve been quick to say with a knowing smile, “There are no coincidences.”

In the midst of this, I sat down and listened to John Adams’ “The Wound-Dresser” for the last time until I finish my piece, mostly because I don’t want to imitate his style or the way he puts it together. But it occurred to me, hearing these words and this music meant to be the living consoling the dying, my piece now had a viewpoint: now, shaping these texts into a unified progression, these words and this music will be those of the dying consoling the living.

Even though Ned Rorem had used it for a huge full-evening song cycle he’d composed a decade ago (and possibly others have used it as well), I still decided to take my work’s title from my opening quote. Since it is a popular biblical quotation, it is, legally, fair game: “Evidence of Things Not Seen.”

And so at the end of that day, last Thursday, a friend and I stopped at the cemetery with some flowers from his garden, including one last rose from the bush that had started life as a flower taken from my father's casket spray, then went out for dinner to celebrate my mom (I had a piece of cheese-cake in her honor – she loved her cheese-cake). I returned home just in time for the arrival of M. Godot with my new and very firm mattress. That, among other things, may help explain why I’ve been sleeping better these past several nights.

Dr. Dick

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...