Thursday, November 29, 2007

All New All Purpose

I read cookbooks while I eat. I don't know where or when I picked up the habit, but at this point it's firmly instantiated. I'll make myself lunch, sit down at the table, grab one of a rotating selection of cookbooks and food-writing omnibuses, and proceed to read about cream biscuits while downing PB&J. I recognize that this behavior bears no small resemblance to paging through Maxim while jerking off, and I'm moderately ashamed of it.

Not that I'm going to stop.

Besides, I'm turning 27. I have no idea what I want in life or how I got where I am now, and I have at least eight simultaneous and contradictory plans for what to do next. I need guidance. And thanks to my shameful cookbook addiction, I know just where to turn. Aside from the Bible, what single book purports to instruct you more comprehensively than The Joy of Cooking? Joy is postively Delphic in scope, the place to turn for advice on everything from pheasant to petit fours. It clocks in at 1,136 pages and is about to become, in its much-maligned 1997 edition, my new I Ching.

It'll be -pardon the expression- a piece of cake. I'll simply close my eyes, flip to a random page, and point. At which point Joy will reveal my future to me in all its currant-studded glory. Let's have a go, shall we?

p.189: Braunschweiger is the most popular of the liverwursts.

Just because something's a superior liverwurst doesn't mean it's not still liverwurst. A job is a job.

p.223: Pastas should be cooked until tender yet firm.

Life is contradictory; strive for balance. Or possibly: don't work out too much.

p.787: Experienced cooks know that biscuits are quick and easy, but, frankly, anyone who has never made a biscuit is apt to be daunted by the mystique.

New things are scary. Biscuits are delicious.

p.908: Keep in mind that these are the most challenging and delicate of pastries, and proceed the way porcupines...are said to make love.

Oh, help.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

First Monday Music Club

So the big question (after "Who am I?" and "Why am I here?") is whether or not I'm going to go see Alex Ross. Alex Ross is the New Yorker music critic who recently published a shockingly readable hisotry of 20th-century music called "The Rest is Noise." He's also my intended.

OK, not really, but if you can't have an intellectual pseudo-crush, what's left for you in life? And really, we're perfect together: I'm interested in 20th-century music; he's interested in 20th-century music. He likes to write; I like to read what he writes. My relationship with Alex is easily the most functional, conflict-free relationship I've ever had with a man. (It helps that he says what he has to say and doesn't talk back.)

Unfortunately, my elegant Titanic of a tryst is about to run smack into the iceberg of reality. Because Alex Ross is giving a talk. Four miles from my bed. For free.

I should be ecstatic. I mean, he's actually coming. We could breathe the same air! I could analyze what he's wearing! The sound waves generated by the vibration of his vocal folds could goose the tiny bones -incus, malleus, stapes- of my middle ear! Woah.

Instead I'm only mildly excited, the kind of excited I get when I have new email or the toast pops up from the toaster (yay toast). I mean, do I really need to see Alex Ross? His talk's being broadcast live on the local public radio station; I could listen to him in the comfort of my own home, a cup of tea in one hand and a bottle of bourbon in the other. The Alex I know, the Alex with whom I make sweet, sweet literary whoopee, would already be with me. Plus I'd have tea and booze.

As a reader and a listener, I've long been ambivalent about authors and composers. On the one hand, they're inconvenient, fleshy appurtenances to whatever words or music you happen to be dallying with. On the other hand, they're what vibrates your bones.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Who Shot Who in the What, Now?

It wouldn't be too far from the truth to say that I'm in love with ignorance. I like the gape of it, its dim invitation. I like the way it trails off, the way you can't see its horizon, the way you can slip downward into the grey muck of it when you thought you were strolling on solid ground.

It also drives me frantic. Waiting for the toaster to ding (when? when?) is a terrible purgatory. Losing yourself on unfamiliar roads is throat-stopping. Then there's the moment you think you have a handle on yourself, your life, and your desires, only to have some monster emerge from the trapdoor in your stomach, claw its way up your extremities and shake loose your grip. Suddenly there you are, launched into the air, fat and new and silly as a red balloon.

Recently I read a mediocre book by Tom Wolfe entitled "I Am Charlotte Simmons." Despite its female protagonist, the book was really about men: male prerogative, male power plays, male relations. Fights for status -overt and covert- between men were described lovingly, with near-pornographic focus:

What did Adam the tutor amount to? He amounted to a male low in the masculine pecking order who is angry, deserves to be angry, is dying to show anger, but doesn't dare do so in the face of two alpha males...JoJo had enjoyed this form of unspoken domination ever since he was twelve. It was a source of inexpressible satisfaction. Literally inexpressible.

For the first time, it dawned on me that there was a whole realm of male interaction I'd been missing. More than missing; I hadn't even dreamed its existence. It was the observer effect: insert yourself into the scene and forever change whatever it was you'd come to study. This not only got me wondering, it got me mad. HOW COME I NEVER GOT TO SEE IT? Not that I really wanted to observe frat boys going mano e mano, but my ignorance -past, present, and future- seemed colossally unfair, some gross miscarriage of justice on the part of the universe.

I've calmed down since. Because ignorance is not only a liability; it's bliss. Show me a lack of knowledge and I'll show you the creep of imagination. Show me a deficiency in understanding and I'll show you the upwelling, warm and dark and wet, of possibility.

In honor of ignorance, then, part of a poem (not mine). You guess the rest.


From Albert Goldbarth's "Imperfect Knowledge"

The structure of the billowing Portuguese man o'war: I don't know.
And: why isn't it ever enough to be "ceased," why
add the "de-"?: I don't know. Whitman:
given his later fascination with serious (what we would see
as "protomodern") dance, what might we learn
if only we had a visual record of the movements
in performances he'd watched, and could compare these
to whatever slide and stomp and swirl was his,
between the type-set table and press, in his time
as a printer?: no one knows. (Some experts
could "hazard a guess.") If even that eludes us...
how to "read" the huge balletic leap of a beast
on the wall of Paleolithic cave, its clayey umber self
part-trailed like a comet in its wake
[you see? "balletic" ... "like a comet" ... "self ... and so
we'll never know]: that cave and this one,
where my brain conducts its little introspections,
may not have one flapping bat of thought in common.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Bottoms Up

I have a problem. OK, I have a lot of problems, but this particular problem has to do with the fact that eating and reading have become hideously interlinked in my brain to the point where I can't sit down at the table without reflexively grabbing for words. I read the paper. I read advertising circulars. I read the backs of cereal boxes. And yesterday, while snacking at my parents' house, I read a brochure entitled "You, Starbucks, and Nutrition."

(Can't you just see some marketing wonk leaning back in his chair, steepling his fingers, and explaining that "you" needs to be the first word of the title because "you" come first with Starbucks? Hmmm.) Anyway, "You, Starbucks, and Nutrition" (subtitle: Helpful Information About the Beverage Options We Offer) is basically a list of the caloric content of every drink from a tall brewed coffee to a venti mocha Frappuccino. The brochure also offers hepful tips. Watching carbohydrates? Try tea. Watching fat? Try a nonfat cappucino.

And then there's this little gem:

Here's another good way to trim down a drink: we customize our beverages to order, so if whipped cream is a standard part of your favorite beverage, you can ask us to "hold the whip."

My first thought was: Aha! Finally Starbucks is admitting to the vaguely S & M nature of the relationship it cultivates with its customers. (You want your addictive substance? Pay up! Pay up now!) But actually I think the quotation marks give it away: "hold the whip" is not so much a submissive's plea as a passphrase, a linguistic marker of your insider status.

Further perusal of "You, Starbucks, and Nutrition" suggests that Starbucks has, very purposefuly, created an entire alternative dialect of coffee drinking. There's tall, grande, and venti. Solo and doppio. Frappucino, caramel macchiato, vanilla creme, java chip, barrista. If you don't know the lingo, your first venture into Starbucks could seem like a stroll across some border you didn't even know existed.

This is scary. Why? Because language isn't some isolated, free-floating human capability. It's inextricably bound up with constructs of culture, community, and place. Language marks you as part of a group or as an outsider; as a member of the elite or a member of the working class. What Starbucks has, with great calculation, fabricated is not only a range of caffeinated beverages, but an entire culture. Starbucks is selling community.

Do you want your community to be run for profit? Because I don't. Hand me that whip.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Capriccio Stravagante

Last night I attended a concert of early music. Not so shocking, really; I've done that kind of thing before. But I've never, in my years of early-music concertgoing, encountered a scale like this:

Bach Level ($2000-$5000)
Mozart Level ($1000-$1999)
Handel Level ($500-$999)
Vivaldi Level ($250-$499)
Purcell Level ($100-$249)
Couperin Level ($50-$99)
Telemann Level ($25-$49)
Pachelbel Level (to $24)

My first reaction is, hey, why stop here? What about Kuhnau Level ($7)? Finger Level ($2.99)? Mattheson Level ($35)? I'm also interested exploring the liminal space between composers. If you give $99.50, are you lodged halfway between a French harpsichord suite and an early English opera? Is $1999.36 some kind of peppy contrapuntal sonata form? And what do you do if you give $6000? Do you move up to Schoenberg, or is there nowhere to go but Jesus?

I'm frantically thinking about all the preceding crap because I don't want to think about the real implications of this scale, which have not very much to do with music and quite a bit to do with its commodification. Maybe it's good to reinforce the idea that music has worth, but folks, this is a slippery slope. Start out slapping price tags on composers, and you could end up calculating the worth of every artistic experience. Two minutes of Rameau? $14. Reading Whitman? $56. Spinning around really fast and then falling over? $27.49; half-price if you squash someone else.

The danger is that the moment you know, down to the cent, what something is worth is the moment you stop experiencing and start consuming. Art is supposed to shove you around, to lead you, even if only very gently, astray. Knowing the purchase price of something is like hiking with your nose stuck in the map. You already know where you're going so you never bother to look around.

Sad. Put me down for Schmelzer at $22.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Ringing the Changes

I moved house. And things are different. I divined this thanks to my amazing powers of observation, with which I've been busy cataloging the alterations. These alterations start with the supine position I've been forced to assume with regard to the necessity of motorized transportation, and move on to the sulfurous taste of the tap water, the trucks rusting in the neighbors' backyards, and the constant stream of ragged, blue-lipped men levering themselves into the phone booth on the corner.

What it took me a while to notice, though, is that it's not only my visual environment and daily activities that have shifted; it's my entire aural universe. Sound crawls to the finish line leagues behind sight. Its waves are lazy; it lacks light's passionate burst of speed. So it's no wonder that I've been slow to pick out the noises -small, fat, sharp, and continuous- that make up my new world. After my first full week, I've barely begun.

Here's what I used to hear: the asthmatic rumble of inefficient heating and cooling, the ecstatic yelps of the downstairs neighbor, the screech of cars careening into one another at the corner of Atwater and Henderson, the relentless rustling of the dumpster divers, the 3:00 AM drunken baying of young scholars.

Now I hear trains. Train after train, streaking its way through the cold, clear air. Also the incessant scritching of squirrels, the neighbor tickling her children, someone working on a roof three doors down. The particular rumble a sizeable truck makes driving on a brick road; the hum of the four-lane street a block away.

And church bells. Every hour on the hour, more on feast days, often ten minutes at a stretch. Calling me, if not to worship, than at least to attention.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Things That Make Me Cranky: #269

Oh, New York Times, you've let me down. So seldom do you make me cranky! So frequently do you provide delicious distraction from my work! So comforting do I find the liturgy of the unfolding of your sections!

Why, oh why, in that very interesting article on Marin Alsop (an article which made so many intriguing points I may have to pontificate about them later) did you stoop to the following paragraph:

In the field of early music there seem to be significantly fewer impediments to women [conductors]. Conductors like Jane Glover and Emmanuelle Haim have had busy careers. Ms. Haim is now conducting Handel's "Giulio Cesare" with the Lyric Opera of Chicago...

I could go on, but it hurts too much. Why? Because Anthony Tommasini is perpetrating the kind of malfeasance that's plagued science writing for years, the kind that makes me so irritable my eyes cross. Yes, it's the good ol' evidentiary bait and switch.

Let's look closely at the paragraph in question. It starts with an assertion. In the field of early music there seem to be significantly fewer impediments to women [conductors]. Hmm. OK, interesting assertion; so far so good.

Now, boys and girls, what do we do with assertions? Yes, you're absolutely right: we support assertions with evidence. Most often, we handily position the evidence directly after the assertion so as to idiot-proof our logic.

OK, so inserted neatly after our assertion comes the following: Conductors like Jane Glover and Emmanuelle Haim have had busy careers.

But wait! This isn't evidence, or if it is, it isn't evidence for what Tommasini's asserting. Does he offer numbers, or probing anecdotes, or a disquisition on WHY early music is friendly to women taking the podium. No! He offers us nothing more than names of two female conductors who have conducted early music.

ARG!!!! First of all, I could offer you the names of two female conductors who have conducted modern orchestras; then our numbers would be even. Maybe Tommasini's thinking about proportional representation at the podium (the percentage of conductors in early music who are female vs. the comparable modern percentage) but he doesn't say so. And if he were looking at proportion, he'd have to consider the gender ratios of his pools: does the field of early music attract more women of every stripe? But the real problem is that Tommasini's assertion wasn't about how many female conductors there are in actuality. It was about impediments to female conductors. Sure Glover and Haim are conducting, but that says absolutely nothing about whether or not they faced impediments along the way.

No, Tommasini offers us an assertion and then only PRETENDS to back it up with evidence. What he's actually backing it up with is bilgewater. And thus the evidentiary bait and switch. WHICH HE IS NOT ALLOWED TO PULL BECAUSE HE WRITES FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES!! I can pull that crap if I want, but that's because I write for a blog. My blog. With a readership of seven.

I have to go lie down now. Fie on you, Anthony Tommasini.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Tomorrow the World

Four or five years ago, in a valiant/desperate attempt to figure out what, exactly, I was going to do with my life, I took an afternoon off practicing and skulked over to my college's career center. The career counselor, who had lank blond hair and looked as if she'd survived a couple of valiant/desperate attempts herself, listened to me babble for ten minutes, covered up a yawn, and then, having clearly pegged me as 100% out to lunch, sat me down with a personality test.

It was one of those tests that slaps a label on you, labels being your ticket, in theory, to smoother operation and better tech support. It was, in fact, the Myers-Briggs, a personality test of blissfully marginal validity that was developed in WWII to help women find their place in the workforce. The Myers-Briggs charts your location along four personality dimensions, thereby dividing the population pie into sixteen (unequal) slices, each with its own flavor and texture. I can think of any number of important personality variables overlooked by the Myers-Briggs (snarkiness, irritability, appreciation for cheese), but I suppose Myers and Briggs had to start somewhere, and where they started was with the following four dichotomies:

1) Introversion vs. Extroversion (I or E)
2) Concrete vs. Abstract (S or N)
3) Analytical vs. Emotional (T or F)
4) Judging vs. Perceiving (J or P)

Those of you who know me can probably guess which side of each fence I came down on; suffice to say that I ended up on a pie slice some snarky, irritable, cheese-hating pop Psychologist nicknamed "The Mastermind." Apparently, I am a frustrated evil genius.

With no career trajectory. Thanks, career center.

But never mind. What I really want to talk about here is variable number 4. In case you were deprived of all your senses in a terrible moon buggy accident, I'm a J. J for judgemental. As in, wow, that sucked. Or, I like the grey one. Or, George W. Bush is suffering from subtle neurological damage, most likely due to long-term abuse of alcohol, and anyone who votes for him is a moronic moron.

In short, I have the instincts of a gun-toting, brow-beating, bible-thumping televangelist. Or a five-year-old. This isn't something I needed the Myers-Briggs to tell me; I've known it for years. And for years, likewise, I've been trying to chip away at it, striving to be less judgemental, more accepting, more laid back.

Only here's the scary thing: I'm actually succeeding. The older I get, the more I reserve judgment. So I'm still not exactly hoarding it in the back of the cupboard, or stashing it in the piggy bank for a rainy day, but I'm no longer so quick to take it out and (silently) whap people over the head with it, either. Cheating? Prevaricating? Voting for Ron Paul? How can I condemn you out of hand if I don't know, really deep down, what I would do in your place?

This is either a sign of increasing humanity or deteriorating moral fiber, and I wish I knew which.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007


So it turns out I am gifted not only with double-jointed thumbs and the complete inability to make any kind of important life decision, but with a new spice rack. It's the kind that comes with little jars; those little jars in turn sport labels that tell you the spices with which you're supposed to stuff their bulbous bodies. I find the labels a teensy bit dictatorial, but then again, I could use more things with labels in my life. Imagine if objects, and people, came usefully pre-tagged. BAD FOR YOU. GOES WELL WITH CHEESE. NOT WITHOUT ADULT SUPERVISION.

Come to think of it, most people go well with cheese.

But back to the spice rack: I procrastinated for a respectable amount of time, then set about filling the jars in my happy little OCD way. I funneled in the spices, twisted the lids closed, set each jar in its proper place. Until I came to the jar labeled celery salt. Frankly, there was no way in hell I was going to let any vestige of celery (better known as The Evil) anywhere near me. Even if it was ground up. Even if it was mixed with delicious delicious sodium chloride. Even if it meant that I had to leave an empty jar in my spice rack.

What a sin against compulsiveness! What an irritating irregularity in a regular series! I quailed. Yet, something about the empty jar with its one-eyed glare tripped a memory. Some expression, some aphorism, some dreadfully earnest life lesson. Leave room for Jesus? Nope, that was about horny Christian teenagers. This wasn't about sex; it was about dinner. Set a place for Jesus? That was it. The act of laying a place for someone who might or might not come, of inviting some mix of absence and possibility into your home.

Now, I don't really hold with Jesus. Nevertheless, there's something here I think is important. Some acknowledgement of chaos beating under the skin of the moment, of the stream of delirium or madness or slippery chance running just alongside our trickle of days. Laying a place for Jesus is about making room in your life for the inevitable moment when you look around and think, forcefully and with no irony, what the fuck?

That's what's in the jar. No celery, no salt. Just pure old-fashioned what the fuck? Eat up.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Early Music Show

Yes, I like Andrew Manze. I suppose this is less of an embarrassment than other confessions I've made (what I listen to in the car, how many times I've been naked in the woods, the depth of satisfaction I extract from certain loud and annoying wind instruments). But I still feel, upon disgorging the information, that hot little twinge of shame. I mean, Andrew Manze? He's so (deliciously) trashy, so (god forbid) popular, so very historically inappropriate.

Andrew Manze gets up to no good. With a rate, and a scope, of up-to-no-goodness I wish I had the guts to imitate. So it was less than shocking to pick up the NYT the other day and see, once again, Andrew Manze up to no good.

Only this time, his method puzzles me. Manze and longtime collaborator Richard Egarr play Bach, Schubert, and Mozart on modern violin and piano. Egarr gets a good review. Manze rates a mild lashing: Steve Smith says of Manze that "his approach, while provocative, took a toll on his playing." But how well Manze played isn't what I'm interested in; what I want to know is WHY. Why is a baroque violinist, someone who made his name serving in the army of the Historically Righteous, cradling the enemy under his chin?

And not even for new music! We've all gotten used to the sight of Historically Informed Performers abandoning the dead for a chance to suck the life from the living. (And I'm not even an eighth as cynical about the crossover as I sound.) No, Manze's playing the good old stuff -"his" repertoire- only he's playing it on an instrument to which his entire musical career has served as a challenge.


Not that I don't think it's an interesting or worthwhile enterprise, but what's the motivation? Is it that Manze never cared particularly about the accuracy prong of the early music fork (yes, HIP is about consumption) but has instead been following his own -formidable- musical instinct? Is it about locating novelty, coaxing the new sound from the string or the unexpected phrase from the piece? Or is it that, for Manze, the worth of HIP lies in its challenge, the way it forces the musician to push his or her impulses through the barriers of codified style and less-than-responsive instruments? Then the jaunt into modern violin would be merely Manze's newest challenge, a fresh opponent against which to push.

Or maybe, just maybe, trying to analyze why a person does anything is as futile as trying to cram 500 years of musical endeavor into a book of rules. In which case I should stop trying to parse the concatenation and instead pose the real question. Not why, but how.

How can I, here, now, get up to no good?

Thursday, November 1, 2007


Ever since I lost my taste for Snickers, Halloween has been a drag. First, there's the scare factor. Why does no one seem to realize that life is scary enough as it is? I seldom make it through the day without at least one bracing hit of adrenaline; why would I want to exhort my amygdala to even greater glory? Isn't driving, and walking down the street, and following the news, and schmoozing, and performing, and having people come up behind you, and submitting yourself or your work for rejection, and contemplating the future MORE THAN ADEQUATE?

I think so. But then again, I find The Little Mermaid vaguely terrifying. (In fact, the only scary movie I've ever made it all the way through is The Blair Witch Project, which, probably due to its lack of a manipulative musical score, only made me seasick.) So perhaps I'm not the best judge.

Not to fear, though: I can attack Halloween on any number of other grounds. For instance, there's the costume thing. Not that I don't enjoy seeing other people disguise themselves as Karl Rove or teletubbies or whatnot, but oh, the effort. Going to a costume party is like going to a potluck, only worse, because you can't eat your entry ticket. Nor can you taste it in advance or enjoy the leftovers, unless you have an inadvisable predilection for paste. And it's not only physical labor that's required; there's mental effort, too. You have to decide what you will be, which requires some sort of analysis of the person you are, the person you might be, and how little work you can get away with in making the transition. Besides, I think we dress up more than enough in real life, putting on "teacher" clothes, or "performer" clothes, "on the market" clothes or "don't touch me" clothes, clothes that say "I'm not trying" or "I'm blending in" or "I put off the laundry three days in a row and am stuck wearing bikini bottoms instead of underwear; also this New Kids on the Block T-shirt I've had since seventh grade."

So the costumes are exhausting. The candy is sickeningly sweet. Scariness sucks. And I haven't even touched on the dilemma -so very fraught!- of whether to eat your candy right away or string yourself along through the year like an addict husbanding cocaine.

What's left? The thing is, Halloween is the only holiday of the year when you actually talk to your neighbors. Think about it: when else, barring fire or flood or extremely loud Justin Timberlake, do you knock on your neighbors' doors? When else (even if it's only "Happy Halloween") do you utter more than a shamefaced half-grunt of greeting? We've crawled, especially in suburbs and cities, into isolation: shutting ourselves up in our houses, scuttling for the car, treating the nearby houses and the trees and the street as a backdrop, part of a stage set against which we play out our lives.

Trick or treat? That's Halloween's false choice, its dummy dialectic. The trick to Halloween is the same as its treat: the open door, the glimpse -five seconds long, ten- of life wriggling in the wings.