The week before last, there was a day of very stormy weather in Western New York. On that day the Erie County Fairgrounds and Chestnut Ridge Park--both favorite spots of mine--were hit by tornadoes.
Tornadoes aren't unheard of in this region, but they are much more uncommon than in other parts of the country. When one hits here, it's usually news. We were very lucky that no one was killed in these events, which did serious damage to the Fairgrounds (where a lot of people were passing the afternoon in the casino there). The damage at Chestnut Ridge hit me even closer to home, because that park is one of my favorite places to go on my Sunday nature walks with the dee-oh-gee.
I plan to write a longer "Chestnut Ridge Appreciation Post" at some point later on, so for now all we need know is that the park is the largest of Erie County's county parks. It resides in the hilly country south of the Buffalo Niagara region, and its trails feature steep climbs into and out of valleys and ravines and deep forests of old pines. The tornado struck down a lot of those trees as it cut its swath through the park, leaving some still broken and twisted as the clean-up crews haven't gotten to them yet.
Yesterday morning was my first visit to Chestnut Ridge since the tornado hit and even though I expected to see the damage, it was still stunning to behold once I finally got there. The most surprising thing was how localized it was. Most of the forest looked perfectly normal, and then I rounded a bend in the trail to see these landscapes.
Nature will recover, in one way or another. It always does. Still, stark reminders like this of nature's power are always humbling.
So a few weeks ago I was on my own at night, as The Wife was at work. (Well, The Daughter was there too, but she’s of the age when she’s doing her own thing.) I made something for dinner and decided to watch a bit of something as I ate. I saw that The African Queen was on Netflix, so I thought, “Hey, I love that movie! I’ll watch a few minutes of it while I eat, and then I’ll write.”
I ended up watching the entire movie.
It’s every bit as good as I remember, and if you haven’t seen it, well—you need to.
Yes, it’s an old adventure movie, but the emphasis is on the characters, so when the thrills come, they genuinely thrill, because you end up caring about these two people on this little boat on a river in Africa.
Our story: World War I has broken out, and Charlie Allnut, captain of the tramp steamer The African Queen, takes on Rosie Sayer as a passenger after her African mission is attacked and her brother killed in the wilds of Africa. Charlie’s intention is to take Rosie to safety, but she has other ideas after Charlie tells her about the German gunship Louisa that patrols the giant lake downriver: she wants to convert the African Queen herself into a floating torpedo and crash her into the Louisa, sinking her and winning an important victory for King and Country.
The African Queen is engrossing every time I watch it. The slowest part is the opening, the section of the film establishing who Rosie and Charlie are and why they’re in this remote part of sub-Saharan Africa. This is all over pretty quickly, though: it only takes about fifteen minutes before Rosie is aboard the African Queen, heading downstream with Mr. Allnut. I honestly can’t remember what the original plan is, but as soon as Charlie explains to Rosie why they can’t just boat to freedom, she comes up with her plan to strike for the good of the British Empire. Our plot is underway very quickly, and then it’s all about the obstacles they find along the way. These are predictable: massive rapids, a spot where the river bends around a German fortification, more rapids, engine trouble, worse engine trouble, and finally a morass of swampy channels as the river reaches its delta before entering the lake. There are underwater dives to repair the ship, there is heroic derring-do as Charlie has to keep the engine going while the Germans are shooting at them, and there are leeches.
The real obstacles to their success come in the relationship between Charlie and Rosie. Charlie is tough and cynical, but not in the way that Bogart’s Rick Blaine of Casablanca is tough and cynical. Charlie is the person who thinks that nothing is possible at first, until he goes and does it. Rosie is the one who thinks that nothing is impossible, and thus she cheerfully prods Charlie into all manner of ill-advised dangers. She is also offended by Charlie’s drinking, which she lives with until the night he drinks too much and says some awful things. The next morning he awakens, morbidly hung over, to find her pouring every one of his remaining bottles of gin into the river. Ouch.
It can’t be a surprise to anyone that Charlie and Rosie end up falling in love over the course of their shared trials and adventures. What I love most about it is that it’s not totally a typical screen romance. Charlie and Rosie come to form a partnership, and Charlie shifts gradually to seeing things with Rosie’s optimism and “can-do” spirit. Halfway through he pretty much stops insisting that everything is impossible before they do it, and they end up working together to get through the rapids and rebuild the boat and even, before what they think will be the African Queen’s final voyage, give her a thorough sprucing up, as befits a boat that will be doing the work of the Royal Navy.
The African Queen is a beautiful, funny, loving adventure film that is as engrossing as it gets. Bogart and Hepburn are awesome together, the action sequences are exciting and riveting even with their 1950s special effects, and it succeeds in being thrilling without giving us some mustache-twirling villain (at least, not until the very end, in the form of the German Captain of the Louisa, who gamely postpones executing Charlie and Rosie to marry them...a move which he likely regretted later). Most of all, The African Queen lets the boat be a character. That’s important!
Anyway, if you haven’t seen The African Queen, what are you waiting for?
I don't know anything at all about this piece. I heard it while driving to work one morning last week, and I liked it quite a lot. It's a dramatic and romantic miniature by Anatoly Liadov, called About Olden Times. Liadov is a composer I haven't heard much at all, mainly because he appears to have mostly written "miniature" works, at least some of which may have been written with the intention of using them as part of longer works that never reached completion. Still, what little Liadov I've heard has been like what we have here: lyrical and potent pieces that manage to make their point in less time even than a typical Franz von Suppe overture. I am often drawn to the big-and-epic, but there's something to be said for short-and-sweet, too.
The symphonies of Gustav Mahler represent perhaps the apex of the symphony itself as a musical form. These are enormous works that make enormous demands on the listener. They are dense in concept and epic in scope, with musical architecture that is so complex that it calls to mind the large-scale works of JS Bach.
Mahler's symphonies are also deeply human, reflecting the loves and hopes and dreams and despairs of one of classical music's most driven and tortured figures. Mahler's vision was almost Herculean, and there is scarcely a moment in any of his symphonies when he is not plumbing deeply personal depths. In his symphonies one encounters entire worlds, with sunrises and songs to nature and starry skies and loves both found and lost. One also finds meditations, both fearful and elegiac, of death and what lies beyond. Mahler's art is a testimony to a depth of feeling that is only found in the greatest artists, and his ability to translate that feeling meaningfully into musical terms is one of art's great mysteries.
Mahler lived a relatively short life, from 1860 to 1911. He was a late Romantic, and thus did for the symphonic form what Richard Wagner did for opera. Where Wagner's work was lionized and celebrated and nearly worshiped, though, Mahler's was largely rejected and did not start to gain serious traction until after World War II, partly as the musical pendulum began swinging back from the modernism that was already astir as Mahler's life drew to a close. This was partly due to the very enormity of many of his works and the demands they placed on huge orchestral forces; the rediscovery of Mahler probably owes something to the arrival of long-playing recording technology in the middle of the 20th century. It's also hard not to suspect that the world's reluctance to embrace Mahler's music was partly due to anti-Semitism (Mahler was a Jew). It seems fitting that one of Mahler's greatest interpreters and champions was Leonard Bernstein (whose work we hear today).
Mahler's compositional output is relatively small, not consisting of much beyond his symphonies. This is not due to laziness, but because he was actually one of the hardest working musicians in history. In addition to his composition, Mahler focused strongly on conducting, serving for a number of years as the head of the Vienna State Opera. He ruled over that organization with a fiery, dictatorial zeal, micromanaging nearly every detail. A later experiment with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and then the New York Philharmonic, ended poorly and Mahler had to return to Europe. By this time his health was failing.
By all accounts Gustav Mahler was a difficult person with few social graces, so it can be hard to square the coldness of the man with the depth of feeling in his music, some of which is filled with warmth. Mahler seems to have had no outlet for his deep emotion other than his music.
David Dubal writes:
Mahler's music seems to encompass the total range of human emotions. For countless numbers of people, it has become their Bible of sounded emotion. They feel Mahler's elation, rejection, panic, terror, sentimentality, and drunkenness as their own. In short, the music expresses dozens of sensations so pointedly that the true Mahlerite surrenders himself completely, becoming, it seems, at one with the composer's inner world.
The Symphony No. 1 opens mysteriously, like a dawn on an uncertain day, and descending motifs are heard in a kind of call-and-answer until we arrive at the main melody of the movement which is suddenly warm and genial. The entire first movement is filled with pastoral pleasure, even in a few stormy passages which lead to pleasing fanfares. The entire movement closes in a burst of rhythmic energy that leaves one smiling.
In the second movement we have not a traditional scherzo but a tune that sounds like a Landler, which is an Austrian folk dance that preceded the more famous waltzes to come. This dance is lumbering and forceful, but it too is laced with moments of genuine tenderness. The mood darkens further in the third movement, where Mahler's masterstroke is a minor-key rendition of the tune "Frere Jacques" in a funereal procession. Mahler's lyricism shows up here as well, and the verdant warmth of the first movement is mostly forgotten at this point.
Then we get to the finale, where all is storm and passion. A mighty cymbal crash ignites the fire which bursts forth in a torrent, and this long movement goes from violence to lyrical torture to violence again...but there are hints along the way of a triumph to come, when we hear a very soft passage of hope in the brass midway through. This is heard again a bit later, more loudly, and then at the end--after Mahler finally returns to the mysterious sounds of the symphony's opening pages--the triumph is complete. The symphony closes in tremendous, victorious light and the sense that a true journey has just been completed.
And that's in a little under an hour. Mahler's second symphony will take another thirty minutes, and his third will take even longer than that.
Here is Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D Major, with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein.
Next week: Hopefully, the Mahler Second. I will likely not be doing all of Mahler's symphonies in consecutive weeks, because I need to give them the hearing they deserve before I write about them. I'll probably alternate my way through them over the next couple of months.
So I'm always a little confused by the way a song's lyrics relate to the rest of it. Some songs have lyrics that are so indelible that it seems almost sacrilege to put any other lyrics to that tune and vice versa ("New York New York", for example). Other songs have wonderful tunes but awful lyrics that are so bad they almost make the rest of the song laughable in itself ("McArthur Park" is a good example here). And then there's a third category, where the lyrics aren't necessarily good, but rather...just weird. It's easy in songs like that to get wrapped up in trying to figure out just what the heck a song means, and if the melody and rhythm aren't good, the song just disappears.
Here's a song whose lyrics make no sense to me at all. I haven't the faintest idea what this song is trying to say, if anything. And you know what? Maybe it's not. Maybe it's just a rhyme that exists for no other reason to fit an incredibly catching melody and compelling dance beat. I dunno...but I know that I love this song.
First off, a stipulation: lists like this are mainly meant to inspire discussion and debate and, being that this is the Internet, rock-throwing and name-calling and aspersion-casting-upon-one's-children-and-parentage. OK? OK!
Second: Well, Martin actually has a pretty good list here. You'll have to click through to see his comments on each film (worth doing, also for the honorable mentions), but here's the Top Ten by itself:
1. The Lord of the Rings (complete)
2. The Princess Bride
3. The Wizard of Oz
6. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
7. Dark City
8. Pan's Labyrinth
9. Beauty and the Beast (1946, dir. Cocteau)
10. Raiders of the Lost Ark
Martin's "honorable mentions" include some Disney movies (more on that below), Dracula, Frankenstein, Legend, Labyrinth, and Excalibur.
As noted, Martin generates a pretty decent list. I've seen seven of his ten (Dark City, Pan's Labyrinth, and the 1946 Beauty and the Beast are the ones I've missed). I personally quibble a bit with Raiders: even though it has supernatural elements (as do all the Indiana Jones movies), I see them as primarily adventure films rather than fantasies. But that's quibbling, and the fact remains that if you've never seen fantasy on film, watching all of the movies on Martin's list is a great start. Also, I do not quibble at all with his Number One pick, which is as good as filmed fantasy gets.
Ladyhawke and Dragonslayer? Hmmmm. I like both, but I'm not sure I'd rank them this highly on my Filmed Fantasy Pantheon. In fairness, though, it's probably twenty-five years since last time I saw Ladyhawke, and not too much shorter than that since my last viewing of Dragonslayer. I remember the latter being a well-made and exciting fantasy, if a bit dour in tone. I owe both a rewatch, though.
My biggest quibble with Martin's list is that in his latter commentary he notes that for this list he adopted a "No animation" rule:
Going into this, I decided I had better exclude all animated films. Otherwise the list might well have been dominated by Disney's classic retellings of time-honored fairy tales: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, and The Little Mermaid.
See, the problem here is that animated films are still films and animated fantasy films are still fantasy films. Likewise, there's no reason to assume that the animated films will dominate the list, or that those animated films that will be doing the dominating are Disney films. A Top Ten list is often going to be exclusionary to the point of absurdity to begin with, but this is particularly bizarre, like making a Top Ten Restaurants of New York City list, but excluding those restaurants that focus on French or Italian cuisine. And in mentioning Disney, Martin makes a telling omission: he omits the masterpieces of Studio Ghibli. Looking at the list above, I would quite willingly trade Ladyhawke and Dragonslayer for Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.
Then there's Martin's dismissal of Willow:
Then there's Willow. Sorry, no. Yes, I liked Val Kilmer as Mad Martigan, but that's about it. Willow set filmed fantasy back 20 years.
Look. Taste is taste and if you don't like a movie, so be it. I don't think Willow is a classic either, and I wouldn't put it on my Top Ten Fantasy Movies list either. But yeesh, it ain't that bad. I genuinely think that Willow has received a bum rap over the years. It's an OK, fun, swashbuckling Sunday-afternoon-on-a-winters-day movie, and there's a lot more in it that's good than Val Kilmer.
And "Willow set back filmed fantasy by 20 years"? That's a very silly statement to make, and Martin has to know better. Look at all the fantasy movies that came out in the 1990s, within just the first ten years after Willow (which came out in 1988). And just ten years after Willow, The Lord of the Rings was in pre-production. No, Willow did not hurt filmed fantasy. It's a dumb thing for Martin to have said.
Let's see, what else? Well, Martin doesn't mention any of the Harry Potter movies, which seems odd, because they're giants in the filmed-fantasy world, and they are a highly underrated achievement. They got the same cast together for eight movies over about ten years and told a big story. A little more respect for Potter, please!
And finally, Martin has this to say about Excalibur, which is probably the best version of the King Arthur story filmed yet:
I mentioned Excalibur earlier. There's much to admire about John Boorman's film. The visuals are a feast for the eyes, and the movie includes some wonderful performances. But Nigel Terry has to be the least charismatic King Arthur in film history, pouting his way from start to finish, and the film tries to cram in too many different aspects of Arthurian legend, and does justice to none of them. Some studio really needs to step up and film the definitive modern treatment of the Matter of Britain, T.H. White's The Once and Future King. And not as a cartoon (Disney's The Sword in the Stone) or a musical (Camelot) either. White's trilogy deserves to be done as three films, the way Peter Jackson did Lord of the Rings.
OK. If you use the word "cartoon", that tells me that you don't really respect animation. Not really. Maybe the Disney film of Sword in the Stone wasn't particularly good, but to dismiss the effort entirely makes me think there's a little more to Martin's stacking-of-the-deck against animation. As for a musical, well--no, Camelot isn't great. That's not why the "definitive" version of the Arthurian story hasn't been filmed, though.
I think it's because the Matter of Britain's very nature is stacked against a film or even a tetralogy of films (The Once and Future King is a gathering of four previous books, not three, as Martin should know). The Arthur story isn't one story but rather a whole bunch of them clustered together under one banner. I don't know how one film or even several films could make that all work without significant re-casting of the story and removal of some of its key parts. Gillian Bradshaw's trilogy of Arthurian novels, perhaps, or Mary Stewart's wonderful trilogy of Merlin novels. Any telling of the Arthurian story is going to leave something behind, because it can't possibly all be squeezed in there. I doubt very much if we'll ever see a massive filmed trilogy of the King Arthur story, to be honest. That's a bummer, but I think that's the way it is.
So, what would be my Top Ten Fantasy Films list? Well....
1. The Lord of the Rings (complete)
2. Princess Mononoke
3. The Princess Bride
4. Conan the Barbarian
5. The Thief of Baghdad
6. Time Bandits
7. Who Framed Roger Rabbit
8. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
10. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Claude Debussy, like Hector Berlioz years before, won the Prix de Rome in his youth; and like Berlioz, he did not much care for the experience of living in Rome for the years required of winners of the prize. One good thing did come out of his time there: the two-movement symphonic suite Printemps, which is worth hearing as a signpost of what was to come as Debussy matured into his role as one of the leading exponents in music of French Impressionism. The entire work is one of sensation and feeling and impression. There are no melodies that linger in the ear, and the whole time of the piece, it seems to be leaning toward a certain type of song that never arrives. I often find this sense of direction-without-destination in Debussy, and it's a large part of why I often find it hard to really respond to his music, as lush and wonderful and evocative as it often is.
I like to try new (or new to me) snack foods and candy on occasion. And by 'on occasion', I mean, 'all the time'. I try not to try new snack foods and candy all the time, but...well, I do my fair share of sampling such wonders.
Examples? Here are three!
:: Lucky Butter Coconut Cookies!
These are nice. Not great, but nice. They have neither a strong coconut nor a strong butter flavor, but enough of each to be detectable. The cookies are thin and crispy, but not so thin as to completely crumble when you bite them. The individual cookies are nicely big--about two inches by one inch rectangular--and the upper side has a nice buttery sheen and a pretty yellow color throughout. They're quite good with coffee. If you're looking for a pleasantly mild kind of cookie, these are definitely that. And the package is really cheap: I got one pack for under two bucks.
:: Jimmie Stix!
One major reason I love going to Vidler's in East Aurora (which is an old-school five-and-dime store) is its selection of obscure candy. If you're looking to venture beyond the familiar realm of Snickers and Reese's cups, this is the store for you. Vidler's is a constant supplier of my favorite candy bar of all time, the Boyer Peanut Butter Smoothie (a peanut butter cup with a butterscotch shell). Here I have another confection by Boyer, the "Jimmie Stick", or "Stix" in plural. They're literally what the package says: two pretzel sticks covered in peanut butter and then covered in chocolate.
I liked this thing a lot. It reminds me of the "Take 5" Bar, without the caramel. The peanut butter and chocolate go well together, obviously, but the pretzel interior gives the whole proceedings a very pleasing crunch, and the pretzel's saltiness elevates the proceedings. I really liked this and will definitely buy more next time I'm in Vidler's.
:: And finally, Utz "Sweet Corn" Potato Chips.
This summer the fine folks at Utz, who make a lot of fine salty snacks, came out with a line of "Grilling Classics" chips. There are three flavors: Cheeseburger (which are actually really good with a hint of yellow mustard), Grilled Hot Dog (which are really disappointing and taste mostly of char), and now these. If the Cheeseburger chips are the good ones in this line, and the Hot Dog ones are the bad chips in this line, then these are the "Meh". They're not horrible. The chips have a definite taste of corn that has been applied somehow, but it's also an artificial taste of corn, and it literally tastes artificial. Sometimes you can add a non-traditional chip flavor to a chip and result in something that's kind of tasty (like the Cheeseburger ones), but other times you end up with something akin to cognitive dissonance as your tongue screams to your brain, "This should not taste like this. ERROR. ERROR." I think we can call that "culinary dissonance", right?
Anyway, like I said, the flavor of these chips isn't unpleasant. They're not bad at all. But I was not able to get used to them. The last two chips in the bowl tasted every bit as wrong to me as the first two, and that's a problem. I'll finish the bag, but these won't be on my list of Munchie Paths To Trod Again.
So, who out there has tried something new in the Munchie world of late?
I keep promising Gustav Mahler, and I keep postponing Gustav Mahler. Alas!
And no, no Mahler this week, either--but in a way, this week's symphony does help pave the way a but. Instead we'll revisit Hector Berlioz, because you can never have too much Berlioz. This is one of my handful of "desert island" works: if I were banished from society but I could have recordings of a few classical works to hear for the rest of my days while banished, this would make the cut. It's Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette Symphony, which is one of several works he wrote that are really not easily classified. The work bears no formal resemblance to any symphony written around its time, and at times it seems like it might be straight-up opera. And yet it is not: its most intimate moments are purely orchestral, and its heart lies in the central portion where Romeo meets Juliet at the ball, and then the love scene between the two, and then the scherzo depicting Queen Mab as Mercutio describes her. So much depth of feeling and illustrative color in those movements, along with some frankly amazing melody. Berlioz never gets enough credit for his melodic invention. Berlioz's formal scheme here does anticipate Mahler in a way, for Mahler too was never one to rigidly adhere to the four-movement symphonic model that dominates the form.
This work is on my thoughts anyway of late, because I have been reading Berlioz's memoirs. I haven't got to where he writes of this symphony yet, but I look forward to that. Here is Romeo et Juliette.
Next week, I really do hope to get to Mahler. Really.
I've been reading the memoirs of Hector Berlioz lately, having come to the odd and surprising realization that even though he is my favorite classical composer, I've never read his memoirs all the way through! The strength of his opinions is amazing--Berlioz was not a man to ever entertain feelings of 'meh'.
I'll have more to say about the Memoirs another time, but for now, here is Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture.
I never knew my grandfathers. Both had passed away long before I arrived on the scene. My grandmothers, though? Both lived into my teens, when--quite sadly--both passed away within about six months of each other. Grammy, my father's mother, went first in the fall of 1986. Gramma, my mother's mother, passed later that winter (or maybe it was early spring). Here's a memory I have from each.
Grammy and the Manhattans
Over the last seven or eight years or so, my tastes in adult beverages have shifted from beer to wine and cocktails. My favorite cocktails tend to be rum-based, with my favorites being the Mojito and the Dark-and-Stormy, but over the last few months I've discovered Grammy's favorite cocktail, the classic Manhattan.
Grammy simply adored Manhattans. I don't know of a time when I wasn't aware that there was a drink called a Manhattan and that it was Grammy's favorite drink. One time, toward the end of her life, she was visiting us for a week or two. By this point she was starting to experience some problems with her mobility, but when my father invited her "down the street" (his longtime euphemism for "going to the bar") for a Manhattan, well, suddenly she was a bit more spry. My mother later told me that when I was just a toddler and my family was moving from Pittsburgh to Portland, OR, Grammy gave her a bottle of Manhattans to see her through the trip.
So I decided a while back to try making a Manhattan, mainly out of curiosity. I have several books on mixology, so I grabbed a recipe and picked up the ingredients and had a go. The base recipe I use is as follows:
Stir together in a mixing cup with 1 ice cube:
2 parts bourbon
1 part sweet Vermouth
dash of Angostura bitters
Stir for at least twenty revolutions of the bar spoon (yes, I count them), and then pour over ice in a rocks glass. Garnish with at least two Maraschino cherries.
There are recipes out there that call for both sweet and dry Vermouth, but I haven't tried that mainly because I don't have room in the fridge for two open bottles of Vermouth. I have also used Red Stag whiskey, which has a black cherry flavor. One thing I don't do consistently is include the Maraschino cherries, and I have received stern lectures on this from both my mother and my sister. I like the cherries, but too often our jar of them migrates to the rear of the fridge, and who wants to dig through cups of yogurt and jars of pickles and partial cans of tomato paste and who knows what else every time they want a drink? Not me...but for purism's sake I should probably get with the program.
Besides, the cherries also pertain to Grammy specifically, because she could put the stem in her mouth and tie it in a knot with her tongue. That's some serious stuff, folks. Everyone's grandmother should have at least one eye-popping useless skill, right?
Gramma's Blue Jug
I expect that everyone's grandmother had a particular item in their home, just some ordinary thing that was just an unremarked and unremarkable part of their daily lives, that stays in our memory. We remember this item not for any specific event that we recall in which it played a part; it's just that this particular item, whatever it might be, serves as a kind of totem for a particular time and place. If we're very lucky, we inherit that item. If we're kind of lucky, we at least see one just like it once in a while at an antique store.
For Gramma, it was a blue ceramic jug.
At her house it always contained ice water. She'd fill it from the tap and put it in the fridge, and I don't remember any ice water in my life ever being so cold and refreshing as that from Gramma's blue ceramic jug. Now, ceramic is a good material for such things because it takes its sweet time in transferring heat. Cold ceramic stays cold (or hot) for a long time. Water from that jug couldn't have physically been colder than anything else in that fridge, but for some reason it felt like it was. This jug was blue, and it was circular in profile with the handle a part of the circle as opposed to being its own protrusion. The cork-inlay stopper matched as well.
As far as I know, Gramma had that jug in her fridge up 'til the day she died. I have no idea what happened to the jug after that. Gramma lived with my Uncle Bob, who wasn't...well, let's just say that Uncle Bob was not a terribly easy man to like and leave it at that. Inheriting the jug wasn't a possibility, and that was that.
Some years later, my sister managed to find one in an antique store, and she bought it for my mother, who was ecstatic to have the jug. For her, it didn't even matter that it wasn't the very jug from Gramma's kitchen. The color was the same, the jug was the same, and for her it was every bit as good as having the real thing. I'm not so avid an antiquer as my sister, but I do go to antique stores a few times a year and I've always kept an eye out for the same jug. I've never yet seen one "in the wild", but I would have bought one if I'd seen it and the price was right. If it was too much, well--I'd look at it in the case and remember drinking out of Gramma's and move on.
Flash forward to just last week, when I went to an antique mall near Rochester, NY with my sister. She found one of the jugs, in the right shade of blue. She bought it and gave it to me. It turns out that she's seen several of them over the years and now she owns two of her own back home, where she lives in Colorado. She was even planning to give one of those to me, but when she saw one right then and there, she figured it would save her some future postage (as well as worry about shipping an antique ceramic jug). How did I not see it, since we were at the same mall? Well, the mall is huge, so when we entered we each went a different direction. Had we reversed course, I might have seen it first and snapped it up.
Anyway, I agree with my mother: having a jug that's exactly the same is pretty much every bit as good as having Gramma's original jug. Right now it's on a shelf in my study. Will I use it as a jug in the fridge, filled with ice water for a hot summer day? I don't know yet. I sure like looking at it, though.
I could, I suppose, mix up a big batch of Manhattans and keep them in the jug in the fridge. That would be a poetic tribute to two wonderful grandmothers....
What a dramatic work this is! Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky's symphonic poem Francesca da Rimini is based on a story from Dante's Inferno, and as such, you can imagine how volatile a piece of music it is. The story being illustrated is a tragic one involving a heroine named Francesca da Rimini, who is condemned to Hell along with her illicit lover, where their torments are many and varied. It's not hard to understand how Tchaikovsky came to relate strongly to this story, given what a disaster his own love life was. This work is powerful and illustrative, with little of Tchaikovsky's usual, celebrated lyricism. This is a dark work and a fascinating listen.
Last week while my sister was visiting from out of town she and I went antiquing. I enjoy antiquing, but she absolutely loves it, and she did some research and found a huge antiques mall located in Canandaigua, NY, which is an easy hour-and-a-half drive from Casa Jaquandor. Among a few other things, I bought this lovely box:
At the time I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but it's really nice! Well-put-together, with that lovely soft lining. Obviously it's meant for jewelry (or so I think), and I don't own much jewelry of my own, but I couldn't pass it up.
And then, a few days later, the obvious thing to keep in the box--at least the top part--occurred to me.
Behold my entire collection of fountain pens!
That makes me happy. I've been rekindling my love of fountain pens of late, and this is a much better way of holding them than standing them all up in a mug, which is what I had been doing.
However, looking at this set-up, it appears that I have no more space for any more fountain pens. Hmmmmm...maybe next time we go to that antiques mall, I'll look for another box!
Anyway, why not kick off the weekend with some adventure music? Lead on, Dr. Jones!
There's a lot to love about Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, just as there's a lot about it that's frustrating. The score is magnificent, though! It's one of my favorite John Williams scores, and that's saying a lot. The score is just bursting with wonderful melodies from start to finish, the action writing is suitably thrilling, and the whole score is just a wonderful listen. These are a few selections. The second track featured here ("Keeping Up with the Joneses") is especially interesting as it is barely heard in the film at all, despite a really quite wonderful jaunty theme that turns wonderfully lyrical.
A lot of people I know--most people I know, likely—struggle with happiness. They struggle with keeping it once it’s found, and they struggle with finding it in the first place. Some struggle more mightily than that: some have to fight just to believe that happiness is a thing in the first place.
This is why I have problems when people say things like “Happiness is a choice” or otherwise imply (or state outright!) that one can simply decide to be happy. As if happiness is a simple matter of flipping a mental switch.
I had this exchange on Twitter the other day. An acquaintance whom I know to be very smart and energetic and hard-working in the pursuit of the concrete goals which she has set for herself asked this question:
Why is it this hard to be happy?
My answer (and I must grant that maybe she wasn’t even looking for an answer) was this:
In my experience, happiness is like anything else worth having: it requires constant work and can be fleeting.
She thanked me, and that was the end of the exchange.
But there was another exchange earlier that day, this time on Instagram, when someone posted in response to a particular selfie of mine:
I wish to enjoy life the way you do.
That amazed me, because there are many times when I feel as unhappy as anyone else. When I feel like true, enduring happiness is forever beyond my grasp, and that all I can achieve are discrete moments of happiness—a hint of it here, a taste of it there—without ever really being happy.
Other times, I feel just fine—but those moments of melancholy are frequent enough that I recognize them well. But I thought about that comment a lot, about how I look to some outside observers like a person who greatly enjoys life, and some thoughts crystalized.
Here’s the photo that earned that comment:
Just a normal photo of me, decked out in blue denim Dickies overalls and a red henley shirt, standing knee deep in a stream with a tiny waterfall behind me.
Most Sunday mornings I have a ritual: Cane (or Dee-oh-gee 1.0) go out to one of the local nature parks or other such locations for a nice walk or hike, and then a stop at Tim Hortons on the way home for coffee (for me) and a donut (for him). I always take a bunch of photos as we walk. Cane smells things and looks at things and enjoys his change of scenery. One of our most common locations is Chestnut Ridge Park, which is in the hills just south of Orchard Park. It’s one of my favorite locales because of its rugged terrain, its numerous trails, and the several streams that flow through. (I’ll have a longer “Chestnut Ridge appreciation” post at some point.)
So it was a pleasantly warm morning, and Cane and I went wading in one of the streams. As you start getting to midsummer, the water levels can be iffy. Last year this area experienced a significant (for these parts) drought, which led to the streams being mostly dry for much of the summer. It’s been wetter this year, so there’s been a nice amount of water flowing thus far, and as long as I can recall, I’ve loved wading and swimming and generally frolicking in running streams in the forests. There’s a spot in Chestnut Ridge where the stream (which in most places isn’t much more than ankle deep, or maybe midway up my shins) plunges over a waterfall.
I know, not much of a waterfall—the mighty cataract is about eighteen inches, two feet max. But the sound is pleasant and the pool at the bottom is two, maybe two-and-a-half feet deep. And even better, this spot is a place where nobody almost ever goes! In all the time I’ve been going to Chestnut Ridge I’ve seen someone in that spot exactly twice. It’s easy to get to and it’s really close to the main road through the park, and yet it’s not obvious that it’s there, so almost no one treks down there. It’s a quiet little idyllic spot hidden in plain sight, which is one reason I love it.
This particular day was sunny and warm and very pleasant, and the water was pleasingly cool, so I waded into that deeper pool, up to my knees. This was pleasant enough, but there are times when the world whispers an invitation into your ear, and it was impossible to ignore. So I sat down in the water, fully clothed, overalls and all. (I emptied my pockets first.)
Like I said, I’ve always loved running water and streams and especially forest streams, going back to whitewater kayaking I did as a teenager and ever farther. It’s hard-wired into me, so much so that I doubt I’ll ever voluntarily move to a place where there are no such places. A summer hike, to me, implies the existence of a spot somewhere along the hike where I can, if I’m hot and if the water is cool, just jump in for a few minutes.
The trade-off is that I spent the rest of the hike in clothes that were soaked from neck to toe, but that wasn’t unpleasant in the least. In fact, it kept me pretty cool. And because I keep towels in the car, I didn’t even sully the driver’s seat. A good time was had by all.
So I suppose I did appear, in those photos, to be enjoying life particularly well, and I really was. It was a set of wonderful moments. Sitting in the water with my back to that waterfall, feeling it rush around me? That was a connection of a kind I rarely feel. And that was some real happiness, right there.
Thinking about these two exchanges, I have also thought of a passage I wrote in Stardancer several years ago. There’s a beautiful moment that comes for Tariana, and one of her quirks is that she always remembers quotes from poems and books she’s read as things happen to her. It’s how her brain filters her experiences. In this moment, she remembers the words:
A life is a collection of moments. We are shaped by the moments we remember.
Maybe I was having thoughts like these all those years ago when I was writing the book, and maybe I had these thoughts before that. But after thinking through these two exchanges online, I realize: I genuinely do see life as a sequence of moments, and I genuinely do believe that happiness as a large-scale, enduring goal is not the right way to view happiness. All we can do is try to maximize the number of happy moments we enjoy in life.
I do not believe that we can choose to be happy, any more than I can choose to be six foot eight. I can, however, choose to pursue experiences from moment to moment that make me happy. I can choose to take my greyhound out for hikes through beautiful places, and I can choose to eat pizza with sausage and banana peppers on it. I can choose to stop watching the local football team when all it ever does is make me angry, and I can choose to stop in the middle of my hike and dip myself fully-clothed in a pool in a stream.
“It will be as though they dipped themselves in magic waters.”
--Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones), Field of Dreams
I want to be careful about this. I am not endorsing the idea that one can choose happiness, because I generally believe this to be nonsense. And I certainly do not want to belittle the travails of those among us whose mental makeup, or outright mental illnesses, make it deeply difficult to make a choice of any kind at all, or those whose choices for similar reasons would be self-destructive or toxic to loved ones. These are serious problems and we need to be working on them.
But I do think that we chase happiness as a “state of mind” in a massive misframing of the problem. Perhaps constructing a happy life is a matter of constructing happy moments. There is no “holistic”, Zen-like approach to baking a cake: you have to sift your flour and measure your ingredients and mix them in the proper order for the proper time and bake it in the proper pan for the proper time at the proper temperature. Likewise, to build a shelf one must first draw up the design, make a cut-list of wood pieces, then do all the cutting, and only then start laying the thing out. Writing a book? Well, I always return to Stephen King’s metaphor of comparing novel-writing to building the Great Wall of China. One brick at a time, one word at a time.
Maybe a happy life is made of one happy moment at a time. Maybe. I don’t pretend to know entirely, and this thought-process is admittedly half-baked and it doesn’t properly account for people whose lives are a struggle just to function, much less think about making happy moments. But again, maybe reframing the question can shed some light on an approach.
Anyway, I’ll continue making one happy moment at a time, maximizing both my moments of happiness and my ability to create new ones. That’s why I believe in having as many goofy, silly little things to do as we can, whether it’s belting out showtunes in the shower or taking care of a couple of goldfish in a bowl or walking a dog every Sunday in a park. Or writing stories and blog posts. Or watching a lot of movies. Or listening to classical music and baseball games on the radio. Or maintaining a collection of certain things. Or, maybe, jumping fully-clothed into a pool of water or letting a friend hit you in the face with a coconut cream pie.
(Oh, that pie in my face? That's courtesy my friend Joyce, who retired from working at The Store a while back. She had seen photos of one of my other pie-related misadventures and indicated that she would love to pie me, so when I half-jokingly offered her the chance to do just that as my retirement gift to her, she jumped at the chance. The result:
She left happy, I left happy, everybody was happy. Which is the point of this post!)
Obviously in a country this size we're never all going to be on the same page. Heck, even if the country totaled 200 people, we wouldn't all be on the same page. But the size of the disconnect right now is pretty staggering and more than a little daunting, in terms of the future.
But this is still America and it's still my home.
I don't know where we're going, I don't know where we want to go, and I fear that not enough people want America to go where it seems to me that it really needs to, and should, go.
But this is still America and it's still my home.
I'm not fighting today. I'm celebrating and thinking and reading and listening to music. I'll fight again tomorrow.
Because this is still American and it's still my home.
Happy birthday to the red, white, and blue.
And now, the text of a post I occasionally run on this day:
Here's a really weird story. It's so weird, I'm not sure the historians didn't make it up out of whole cloth. It seems that around 235 years ago or so, some folks living in a place under the rule of a King decided that they didn't much like the way that King was ruling them. At all. They pretty much decided, en masse, that their King was behaving, to use a current term, like a douche.
Now, over the many centuries before these folks came along, lots of other folks in other lands have decided that their Kings and Queens were being douchey, so they came up with ways to replace them. They'd organize revolts, usually behind the banner of some obscure relative of the monarch's so they could say that their person has a better claim to the throne, and off they'd go. So you'd expect that the folks we're talking about here would have just said, "You know what? Our King is a douche. Let's replace him with a new King."
But these folks didn't say that. What they said was, "Not only does our King suck, but he sucks so much that we're now thinking maybe we won't even have any more Kings. We'll do it all ourselves."
Over a year or so, there were some battles and skirmishes between these folks and the troops sent by the King to put down the pesky rebels, but it didn't work, and that notion -- "No more Kings and Queens!" -- took hold. It became a really popular idea, so finally, these folks appointed some representatives to gather in one of their cities and talk these issues over. The conversation went like this:
GUY #1: So, we're all agreed then? Kings suck?
GUY #2: Yes, Verily, they suck.
GUY #1: OK, so what do we do?
GUY #3: Well, we're already fighting, so we just keep fighting. But we should probably tell the King that we're being serious and we're not just a bunch of rabble-rousers here.
GUY #1: Right! How do we do that?
GUY #4: How 'bout a letter? I've got some nice parchment, quills, and a new bottle of ink.
GUY #2: Good idea! But you're about as eloquent as my cow. You'll just write "Hey King, sod off" and be done with it. We should be a bit more poetic about it.
GUY #4: How about Tom? He's pretty poetic.
GUY #1: Good idea! Let Tom do it. Now where's that Adams guy with the beer?
So a guy named Tom wrote the King a sternly-worded letter. It was pretty wordy, given the standards of the time, so here's a paraphrase:
We the undersigned, being representatives of the people of your colonies, have collectively decided that you are a douche and we don't want to live under your rule anymore. Furthermore, we're going to come up with a government of our own that won't even have a King. Now, we've just called you a douche, so you're probably thinking that we should be kind enough to at least tell you all the reasons we have for thinking you're a douche, so there's a list of those reasons later on. For now, suffice it to say that we believe in Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. And you don't. And since we like the whole Life and Liberty thing a lot more than we like you, we're gonna take those and let you do whatever it is you do with your time in that Palace of yours.
So, here's the list of ways you've pissed us off. Note how long it is. You don't have to be a douche, you know.
See? Really, dude. There's no reason for some of that stuff, right? So anyway, have a good life and all. You've still got your island, and Canada seems pretty happy with you for some reason (but really, they're weird folks to begin with, what with that odd game they like to play on ice). But we're out of here.
Signed, All the guys present
PS: Could you make sure your soldiers always wear those bright red coats? It makes it really easy to see 'em in the forests. KTHXBAI.
And so it came to pass that after some years of war, and some further years of cruddy government, they all got together again and figured out how they wanted to set up their new, "No Kings!" government. Their notion was to spread power out amongst a bunch of folks who were accountable to the people, and to further make sure that their government was required to respect certain rights that couldn't be taken away. It was a really weird idea...and yet, these folks worked hard to make it work, and their children kept working hard to make it work, and their children kept at it, and so on and so on and son on, until today.
Does it still work? Sometimes yes, sometimes not so much. But we're still here, and we're still working at it.