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Monday, April 06, 2020

Poetical Excursion: A poem about overalls!

So, something cheerful...I'm going to try to post more of that sort of thing over the next few weeks, I think. The world has darkness a-plenty and I'll be occasionally writing about that, too. But here's a poem I found by an author named Tony Johnston. She is a prolific writer of books for children who lives in California. This is from a book called Once in the Country: Poems of a Farm, written in 1996.

My Overalls

The best thing is their color,
old-night or early-dawn.

No, the best thing is their limpness
when I hoist them on.

No, the best thing is their looseness
like the soft skin of a pup

No, the best thing is their buckles
like a suitcase snapping shut.

No, the best thing is their perfume
of cows and hay and dung.

No, the best thing is their many holes
to let in all the sun.

Obviously I don't own any overalls that are redolent of "cows and hay and dung", but I do have a couple of old pairs--vintage!--that aren't quite holey yet, but may get there sooner rather than later.

More poems to come!

Sunday, April 05, 2020

The Era of the Virus, one month in

First off: thus far, everyone at Casa Jaquandor is fine.

So, as of this writing, we're roughly one month or so (however you choose to measure such things) into Covid-19's grip on American life. This is roughly about when, in March, I started to think that maybe this wasn't going to simply be one of those diseases that comes and goes but doesn't amount to a whole lot. But looking at the timeline, by the 5th of March, the World Health Organization hadn't even classified Covid-19 as a pandemic yet. That wouldn't happen for another six days. On March 12, Tom Hanks announced that he and his wife, Rita Wilson, had tested positive for the virus while filming a movie in Australia; right around the same time, American sports leagues began canceling events, flirting with the idea of playing in empty venues, and then eventually postponing seasons altogether. From my vantage point, it seems deeply strange that these events aren't even four weeks behind me yet.

You may or may not remember that my day job is in facilities maintenance at a large grocery store. As the food business is considered "essential," for obvious reasons, we are not threatened with closure, which means that unless I get sick or things in the world deteriorate to the point where we do have to close (and in that case, we'd probably be looking at some kind of apocalyptic horror kind of thing), I still have a job and am earning money. The Wife also still has her job, as she can work from home (and really, how fortunate are we right now that she ended her long career in restaurant management a year-and-a-half ago!), and The Daughter has her part-time job. We're OK. In terms of a direct hit to our lifestyle, this crisis isn't really that big of a blow to us. We're all pretty introverted, and mostly we stay at home anyway, except for occasional treks out to stores or restaurants. We've bought some takeout food, and since I'm at The Store anyway, I do my shopping on my work days, thus making extra trips on the weekends unnecessary. When we are out and about (and when I am working), we're observing every precaution regarding social distancing and constant handwashing that we can. It seems to me that we are very well positioned to get through this mess.

There are some unfortunate sides of this, obviously. At least one of our favorite restaurants has closed "temporarily," and we fervently hope that they can reopen once the danger has passed. This is by no means a lock, however, and it would be especially tough for us because The Wife is celiac and finding restaurants that make good gluten-free food is always a challenge. Also, as it's become clear that this pandemic is not going to be over before May, a number of events in that month--including two that we attend each year--will not be happening. Rochester's Lilac Festival and Buffalo's Nickel City Con, both in May, are now officially canceled. The Nickel City Con cancellation is especially hard for me, because that was where I was going to launch The Savior Worlds (The Song of Forgotten Stars, book 4). The next event on which we have our gaze focused is my brother-in-law's wedding in Idaho, which is scheduled for the first week of June. We're hoping, but not optimistic. Meantime, we stay home, we cook, we read and watch our teevee shows in streaming. And we still go on walks with the doggos; at least outside is not denied us! Cane and I still do our weekly nature walks at local parks. We've seen more people out and about in the parks lately, which is expected, and not only that, but more people are venturing off the main roads and paved areas for the trails in the woods. Maybe more people will find themselves back in nature as they can't go anyplace else.

And at least this happened when (a) it's spring after a mild winter, so being outside is an option, and (b) when we're living in a house! That's a huge blessing for us. I can't imagine how this long period of social distancing bordering on (if not being actual) quarantine feels for people in apartments.

If you're wondering what it was like working in The Store through all's been surreal. As the threat started to settle in and the panic buying set in, The Store's sales doubled in a day. It was a Thursday and it was astonishing. The only thing I've ever seen that rivaled it was back in 2014 when The Store was closed for four days after that seven feet of lake effect snow buried Buffalo's Southtowns, and then everybody dug out and The Store reopened. This was truly breathtaking as all the paper products and cleaning supplies and gigantic amounts of the actual food were cleaned out in a matter of hours. I worked an extra day that week to assist with restocking on a Saturday morning, when The Store had already changed its hours from 24-hours-open to opening at 6:00am and closing at 11:00pm just to give everyone a fighting chance to regroup. At 6:10am I pulled an entire pallet of toilet paper onto the sales floor. By the time I got the pallet to the aisle 17 where the TP goes, there was only a third of the pallet left. I just dropped the entire pallet right there and went back for the next one.

TP continues to be an issue, along with paper towels and facial tissue; cleaning supplies are also only starting to filter back onto the shelves. Hand soap and hand sanitizer are also very hard to come by (we have plenty of soap and we don't use sanitizer at home). Those first days, the pasta and pasta sauce were obliterated, as were the dairy supplies. Fortunately, I had just bought three dozen eggs and half-and-half and what cheese we needed days before, and supplies are slowly coming back as we get to needing more of that kind of thing. Also, this is an area where The Wife's celiac disease is a kind of weird pseudo-blessing: the regular pasta was completely gone, but the gluten-free pasta, in another part of the store? Untouched. We've never come close to running out. In fact, as I've been shopping of late, I've been buying heavy on certain staple items. (It also helps that as an employee, I can actually go in and do my shopping before The Store even opens. Hey, we have to eat too, and my management has been very understanding of the reality that in this environment, oftentimes employees are finding essential items long gone by the time they get to shop if they wait until the ends of their shifts.)

I've noticed that a lot of people have no real appreciated for how supply chains work in large retail. Our stores got hammered, with sales doubling in a time that can be meaningfully expressed in hours, so of course the orders went way up; within days the warehouses were emptied. Then the warehouses passed along huge orders to the suppliers and manufacturers, who don't maintain huge back inventories because it's just not cost effective to do so. Demand shot up so high that supply on some items is still likely to not rebound for another week or two. Most of the people I've talked to during this crisis have been understanding and not jerks at all, but still, there's a frightening degree to which the average person is unaware of the gigantic infrastructure that exists to keep them able to get to a grocery store to buy milk and bread.

And that was just the first blast. As the "shelter in place" orders came down, and as the magnitude of what has been unfolding settled in, The Store has changed dramatically. Gone are many of the large displays that filter customers in one direction or another, forcing them to look at some nifty thing we want them to buy; the recommendations for social distancing demand us to open up as much space as we can. Self-serve food bars? We had more than a dozen of these. They are all shut down now. Too risky. Same thing with the bulk foods. The cash register area had to be reconfigured with stanchions and barrier-lines, to force customers into queues, in order to minimize the length of time a customer is standing near a cashier. Just this past week, we installed Plexiglas barriers for added protection. More and more customers are wearing masks and gloves as they shop. And more and more are showing awareness of other peoples' personal spaces, which is a very welcome development.

That's where we are right now. I do have some politically-natured thoughts on all this, but I'll save those for another post. For now, April is upon us. It will likely be worse than March was...but as they sing at the end of Les Miserables:

For the wretched of the earth,
There is a flame that never dies;
Even the darkest nights will end and the sun will rise!

Come on, Spring! You can do it! #KnoxFarm #eastaurora #wny #spring #nature #hiking #trees

Friday, April 03, 2020

Poetical Excursion: Edna St. Vincent Millay and Beethoven

I won't post a poem each day of this National Poetry Month, but I'll try to do so as often as I can! Here's one I found in a collection of music poetry I have, which fits right in with my year-long focus on Ludwig van Beethoven. This sonnet, by Edna St. Vincent Millay, is titled On Hearing a Symphony of Beethoven. Note that Millay does not specify which of the nine symphonies she has just heard! It could as easily be the light and good nature of the 1st, or the power of the 3rd, or the majesty of the 5th, the dance-like awe of the 7th, or the storm-turned-to-joy of the 9th.

Sweet sounds, oh, beautiful music, do not cease!
Reject me not into the world again.
With you alone is excellence and peace,
Mankind made plausible, his purpose plain,
Enchanted in your air benign and shrewd,
With limbs asprawl and empty faces pale,
The spiteful and the stingy and the rude
Sleep like scullions in the fairy tale.
This moment is the best the world can give:
The tranquil blossom on the tortured stem.
Reject me not, sweet sounds! oh, let me live,
Till Doom espy my towers and scatter them,
A city spellbound under the aging sun,
Music my rampart, and my only one.

The lines that hit me hardest here are the ninth and tenth:

This moment is the best the world can give:
The tranquil blossom on the tortured stem.

Unlike a painting or a sculpture or even a poem, a symphony (or any piece of music) can only exist in time. You can't linger on a particular melodic moment that especially strikes your ear, the way you might stop in an art gallery to spend more time gazing upon a particular painting on the wall. Music is only meaningful in time, and thus music only exists as a momentary thing. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony does not exist in the same sense that Michelangelo's David exists. Every performance is a singular event, ephemeral and blossom-like.

And since we're here, let's just go ahead and have a Beethoven symphony. We could hardly do better to honor Edna St. Vincent Millay. Here is the Symphony No. 2 in D Major, with Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at the BBC Proms in 2012.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Something for Thursday (Thank you, Adam Schlesinger)

Singer and songwriter Adam Schlesinger has died of complications from Covid-19. He was an amazingly prolific singer and songwriter who worked on his own material with his own bands, as well as songwriting for movies and teevee. I've heard a lot of his work...and I haven't heard a whole lot more. My primary exposure to him came via the amazing, wonderful show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a show I adored with each and every episode. Here are some of the songs on which he worked.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Poetical Excursions, National Poetry Month 2020: Thomas Nashe

National Poetry Month is upon us.

At last--at long, long, long last--it is finally April. This March was...something, wasn't it? In fact, there's a joke going around online; I've seen a number of variations on the theme and I've no idea who made this joke first, but it roughly goes like this:

Wow, I just realized that I've been alive in seven decades!

-the 70s
-the 80s
-the 90s
-the 2000s
-the 10s
-the 20s

Yeah, that about sums it up. And this April is likely to be, for many of us, even worse than March was. But here's hoping April sees some kind of turning-of-the-corner.

For me, the current crisis has yielded more time than I even usually have for digging into my internal world of music and prose and verse, and I don't believe I have heard anything about National Poetry Month being called off just because it feels like the world is spinning off its axis. So, in addition to other things, I plan to spend time in April digging into poetry. If the current pandemic has you feeling powerless, remember: you can still enjoy poetry and explore it. There are, after all, several thousand years' worth of the stuff to dig through.

Let's start, though, on a somber note, for obvious reasons. This year's celebration isn't going to be all joy and cheer; sometimes it will be huddling around a guttering candle as the wind roars without, and sometimes it will be waiting in the dark corner as a pounding comes at the door. But it will also be occasional cheer, or, failing that, at least a shaking of the fist at the booming thunderclaps (a worthy image, that, in this year of Ludwig van Beethoven's 250th anniversary).

Let's start with Thomas Nashe.

Nashe was a contemporary of William Shakespeare's, and reliable biographical information on him seems about as abundant. We have his dates as 1567-1601, but we know nothing at all about his death or where he was buried. Much of what is known about him is by inference. He did, though, live in London during outbreaks of the plague, which led him to write this poem. A Litany in Time of Plague is just that: a lengthy rumination on the inevitability and the finality of death, and the way it reduces everyone and everything, in the end, to the purest equality that exists.

Adieu, farewell, earth’s bliss;
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
None from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
   Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
   Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
   Lord, have mercy on us!

Strength stoops unto the grave,
Worms feed on Hector’s brave;
Swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds ope her gate.
“Come, come!” the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
   Lord, have mercy on us.

Wit with his wantonness
Tasteth death’s bitterness;
Hell’s executioner
Hath no ears for to hear
What vain art can reply.
I am sick, I must die.
   Lord, have mercy on us.

Haste, therefore, each degree,
To welcome destiny;
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player’s stage;
Mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
   Lord, have mercy on us.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Tone Poem Tuesday

It's well known that Beethoven write only a single opera, Fidelio. A bit less well known is that Beethoven also wrote a single ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus. In Beethoven's time, ballet was seen mainly as a dance art, and the music was just a framework for the dance. This being the case, it was generally the job of lesser composers to write ballet numbers, while the finer, more serious composers stuck with opera and symphonies and concertos and all the rest. Beethoven was approached in 1801 by Salvatore Vigano, a composer and dancer who was preparing a new ballet based on the legend of Prometheus, the Greek god who stole fire from the heavens and gave it to humanity. Vigano apparently felt strongly enough about the project to want better music for it than he could himself provide, so he asked his friend Ludwig van Beethoven to compose it for him. Beethoven agreed, perhaps because by this point he hadn't really composed anything for the Vienna stage yet and wanted to establish his name in that arena (Fidelio was still in the future). His resulting ballet is full of Beethovenian classicism and drama, with good cheer and wit throughout. If you're looking for the brooding Beethoven of, say, the Pathetique Sonata or the storm of the Third Symphony (which was still three years away from revolutionizing the symphony as a form), you won't find it here. This is as close as Beethoven probably came to the verve and energy of, say, Rossini.

Here is a suite drawn from Beethoven's music for The Creatures of Prometheus. The work proper starts about a minute in; what's heard at first over the gathering of concertgoers in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam is a brief snippet of the larger work that you'll hear in full later on. I'd never heard this piece before I gave it several listens this weekend past, and it's an utter delight. It's always worth remembering that Beethoven could be delightful!

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Something for Thursday: Thanks, Kenny

Kenny Rogers died this past weekend. He had a long and productive life of music-making, and I won't try to offer a major retrospective here. I will note that Rogers was just...always there, wasn't he? And he was always there in a good way. Never once did I hear Kenny's rough voice and think, "Uh, no, I'm not in the mood right now, Kenny." He was always good, always reliable, and in his best songs he always knew how to sell the emotion of the tune.

This song, I believe, was a favorite of my father's back in the day. Thanks for the music, Kenny Rogers!