Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Strange Day at Work

This past Friday, we took a moment at work to honor our office manager's birthday.  Everyone piled into our rather modestly sized conference room for the surprise.  Another worker ran inference by calling her over to the nearby annexed office space we use for deliveries.

The office manager was turning 59 and those in charge of the event (I was occupied with other work matters but designated two of my employees to handle all the arrangements) decided that instead of the all too common practice of placing a "5" candle and a "9" candle on the cake we would put 59 individual candles on the medium sized sheet birthday cake.

When I entered the room to join in the surprise the candles were already lit and burning furiously.  I don't recall ever seeing such a fire on top of a birthday cake before.  You could actually feel the heat as you walked past the cake.  As it often goes with such things, we were successful in getting the office manager out of the space so things could be set up, but she became delayed upon her return.  The candles continued to burn at a torrid pace, some of the individual waxed sticks were actually approaching the icing.

Minutes passed.  A small pool of wax soon formed and found a low spot on the icing and began to slowly ooze onto the conference table itself, a little puddle of wax.  One of my employees was sitting in front of the cake, fretting over it, saying we needed to blow the candles out and relight them.  Oh no, sang the chorus, she'll be here in any minute.  The small puddle of wax ooze continued to form slowly on the table.  The candles were ablaze in 59 flames of various sizes.  It was an impressive sight.

Finally, the office manager returned and immediately blew out the flaming mess.  The wax puddle was about the diameter of a softball by the time we were all singing "happy birthday to you."  I didn't have any cake myself.  Sweets are usually not something I care for although I did have a homemade German chocolate cupcake just to be sociable.

After the birthday celebration, being a Friday afternoon, little thought was given to work unless something of urgency presented itself, which it didn't.  Instead, there was a free-flowing conversation in my department about various things.  Somehow, we ventured over into horror movies, scary moments, and the paranormal which triggered a bizarre remembrance by the same employee who had wrestled with the wax puddle as all those candles burned.

It was back in the spring of 2001 and she was distracted while driving in the congested traffic of a nearby town when she noticed too late that she had blatantly run through a red traffic light.  A police car was parked nearby.  Fearing she had been seen she immediately turned into a shopping center and went into a small store to try to avoid what she felt was a certain ticket.  The cops did not follow her.

Feeling a bit relieved, she decided to buy a couple of items she needed for home.  The line to the single open cash register was a bit long.  As she stood there waiting her turn an elderly black man walking with a cane came through the front doors and looked around.  As he began to approach the line he raised his cane and waved it in the air, pointing toward the line.

“I have a message for you,” he uttered rather provocatively.  My employee turned to look behind her for the person the black man was speaking to but the people behind her were looking at her.  She looked at those in front of her in the line, they too were staring at her.  As she told us this story I felt as though she might be describing a strange scene in a Fellini film.  She realized to her surprise the old man was speaking to her.

“I have a message for you.”  First the traffic light incident and now this.

She said the man waved his cane about for a moment and then shuffled up to her in line and handed her a folded piece of paper.  Then he turned and left the store, never to be seen again.  She stared at the paper.  The line resumed its briefly interrupted motion.  Items were being checked out.  My employee opened the paper.  It was written by a neat, legible hand. The words seemed absurd.

According to my employee, the note mentioned something about hijacking and buildings burning and several other references of devastation. It was a long note, taking up most of a page out of a school notebook.  It went on about things that were going to happen but my employee was so shaken by the rather bizarre turn of events that she couldn’t finish reading the note, which had no context to her intimate life whatsoever.  She wadded it up and tossed it into the trashcan as she left the store with her items.

Several months later, September 11 occurred.  Then she regretted tossing the note.  She was clear that the note did not contain anything too specific, at least the portion that she read.  There was no mention of the Twin Towers or the Pentagon or Arab Jihadists.  It merely communicated generalities though the tone was clearly about sudden death and destruction.

My other employees were silent.  I exchanged quick glances with one of them.  Well, this employee has no history for the dramatic or the spectacular in her history with me and my department.  She is a level-headed person.  There was no reason to doubt she was being truthful.  She is not one who ordinarily tries to top everyone's story with something from her life, especially with a story so bizarre.  It occurred to me that, as spectacular as the story was, it nevertheless amounted to absolutely nothing.  After a moment of silence, I shrugged my shoulders and looked at her.

“Well,” I offered slowly, “it seems to me that fellow made a mistake.  He gave that note to the wrong person.”

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Lutoslawski at 100

I posted in 2009 and in 2010 about my enthusiastic appreciation for the great modern Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski. At those times I had few online examples of his music to offer in my posts. His work continues to interest me and I listen to some sort of Lutoslawski piece periodically throughout each year. In 2013 I am in general listening to more contemporary classical music than anything else music-wise. I intend to make some future posts on new compositions I purchased for my collection this year.

Classical music is not dead, nor is it devoid of fresh material. New compositions abound but it is a challenge for a listener such as myself, living in a rural area largely isolated from the cultural vibe except for random snippets I find on the Internet, to keep up with what new CDs are coming out by my favorite living composers.

Lutoslawski is not one of them. He died in 1994. But his music still surpasses most of what I listen to from composers today who are obviously influenced by him. As it happens this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Polish master's birth. For that reason alone there is much more music composed by Lutoslawski available online. Excellent performances of his music now flourish on YouTube.

Several weekends ago, Jennifer and I were listening to music from YouTube through my iPad and Apple TV over our stereo. We started out actually listening to Silver Blue an old JD Souther tune that was performed somewhat more famously by Linda Ronstadt. But I really like JD's original studio version with its prominent acoustic bass. Jennifer seems to prefer this live version. As so often happens in life, one thing led to another and we ended up stumbling upon a treasure-trove of videos on Lutoslawski that I could not find back in 2010.

Specifically, we enjoyed a performance of Lutoslawski's Symphony No. 4 conducted in France in 2011 by one of the heirs to Lutoslawski's musical tradition, Esa-Pekka Salonen, a composer I would rank alongside the very different compositions of John Adams (among others) as one of my living favorites. This performance of the Fourth was ecstatically received by the audience, who called Salonen back out to the podium three times. It is a strong symphony and ends in a lively fashion. Jennifer was entertained by it in what was her first time hearing it.

There is an interesting and insightful aside to this symphony. While receiving a prize in Stockholm in 1993, Lutoslawski spoke with Salonen during the grand celebration dinner. He told Salonen that he had just finished a new work, a symphony, and he would like Salonen to arrange for the LA Philharmonic to commission it. Salonen almost fainted at the prospect of premiering a Lutoslawski symphony. It was a powerful moment for Salonen and a reflection of the companionship Lutoslawski felt toward the conductor by making his rather unorthodox offer. After all, usually orchestras commission works before they are composed.

Of course, the Salonen-Lutoslawski connection is evident on my recent iPad app purchase, The Orchestra. Salonen conducts all the pieces on the app and comments on all of them in progression with himself praising the Lutoslawski piece on the app and next conducting his own composition. There is a chronology of Debussy to Mahler to Stravinsky to Lutoslawski to Salonen in the app. This, I think, accurately traces one of classical music's main evolutionary paths toward post-20th century compositions.

On YouTube you will also now find an very interesting hour-long documentary on Lutoslawski featuring the composer himself speaking excellent English and communicating a great deal about his music. You can learn more watching this video of Lutoslawski rehearsing a performance where he conducted his own work. You can observe Salonen in discussion with Steven Stucky (another living favorite of mine) reviewing Lutoslawski's life and work. Whereas choices were sparse three years ago today there are wonderful videos featuring his String Quartet, his Mi-Parti, his Partita, his Cello Concerto, and many other works.

Two pieces deserve special mention. Lutoslawski's Piano Concerto is now available online. Composed in 1987 it remains unmatched in my opinion by significant recent compositions in this form. There is also an excellent short lecture on the concerto offered here. It covers some of the reasons why I consider it the greatest piano concerto in the last half-century.  Next, the Symphony No. 3 can now be heard. It was unavailable online when I reviewed it in 2010.  This Great Third is still the symphony I listen to most often. Appropriate to the spirit of this post, the performance in the link is by the LA Philharmonic conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen.

This proliferation of Lutoslawski videos on YouTube and other Internet spaces is rather extraordinary and I feel lucky that it has literally occurred over the past 30 months or so. It is clear to me that Lutoslawski is one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. Salonen summarizes what it means to him to conduct this music today: "Not only is he a very important composer who shaped a lot of the music of the twentieth-century, but it is also very personal. I knew him. I admired him. Both as a composer and as a human being. He's turning 100 and his music is still very much alive, very much part of our lives...this is our duty to show what a majestic treasure this repertoire really is."

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Vermeer at the High

Yesterday I saw the Girl with a Pearl Earring.  She was not as vibrant as most of the printed and digital renderings I have seen of her.  Her colors were muted by light and time.  Her background had changed from dark green to black.  She looked a bit more stated and brighter when Johannes Vermeer painted her around 1665.  But her mystery and expression and marvelous technique was as fresh as ever.  She is timeless, as is Vermeer.

She was alone in a darkened medium-sized museum room, except for some historical explanation of the work printed on the walls.  The room had more people in it and felt more crowded than the rest to the exhibition at the High Museum.  She is so young and sensual and alluring.  Her eyes and lips seem to want me from 350 years ago; that is how I felt when I saw this masterpiece in its first appearance ever in the southeastern United States.

Little is actually known about Vermeer, no self-portrait of him exists.  Only about 35 of his paintings survive, though a precious few others were destroyed are known of have existed.  I have blogged about him before and specifically how Marcel Proust used him in his great novel.  For me, Vermeer is where painting really begins, despite my appreciation for the much older painting by Leonardo da Vinci I saw recently in DC.

The exhibition also featured several works by Rembrandt van Rijn, the most I have ever seen in single exhibition.  The play of light and dark.  Rembrandt mastered it.  I was most impressed by his Susanna (1636) but could not photograph it because no photos were allowed in this "special exhibit".  Jennifer especially enjoyed The Goldfinch (1654) by Carel Fabritius, an unfamiliar artist to me.

Another unfamiliar artist, Pieter Claesz, caught my attention.  He only had two pieces in the exhibit but both seemed highly symbolic and metaphysical in nature.  Both possessed energy and realism despite the juxtaposition of odd objects.  Vanitas Still Life (1630) has a skull with a time piece a quill and other things.  Still Life with a a Lighted Candle (1627) as brilliant as Rembrandt, featured spectacles, some books, and a glass of water reflecting the other pieces in distorted fashion.   Absolutely marvelous work.  I will research this artist more deeply in the near future.

Other impressive works in the special exhibit included: View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds (1670-1675) by Jacob van Ruisdael, The Violin Player (1626) by Gerrit van Honthorst, The Old Lacemaker (1655) by Nicholas Maes, Interior of an Imaginary Catholic Church (1668) by Emanuel de Witte, and a thrilling (to me, the embroidery on the gloves and the hanging jewel viewed within inches of the painted surface) Portrait of Aletta Hanemans (1625) by Frans Hals.  These are some of the Dutch Masters that dominated painting up until the time of the impressionists in the 1870's.

Afterwards we toured the contemporary art level; viewing some African art and visiting the Richter Room at the High.  Not really much new there. As we were exiting for lunch a small group of teens, mostly Asian, arrived with an instructor, an experienced guide who knew all the subtleties of the exhibits.  Jennifer and I listened in as the guide explained the 800 skylight openings in the ceiling of the High.  Each has a short extension of maybe a couple of feet curved slightly northward to maximize the intake of natural northern light.  This is the primary illumination in the contemporary level; thus the art is displayed in natural light when the sun is out.  I had never noticed this before.  The effect is lost, of course, at night.  But I have never been to the High except in daylight.  Some of the kids laid on the floor and looked at the blue sky overhead.  Jennifer and I shared this information with her parents who we trailing us.  We all walked around in appreciation of it for a minute or so, looking skyward.

The occasion was Jennifer's brother visiting from out west.  He usually makes a trip once a year to see his parents and sister and extended family and friends.  I enjoy talking to him.  He is as wide open in terms of conversation topics as is my wife, they are brother and sister after all.  We all had lunch at a very busy Murphy's afterwards in Virginia Highland.  It was crowded and we had to wait about 20 minutes for a table on a Friday afternoon.  On the way out of Atlanta we drove past the Fox Theater and the Georgian Terrace Hotel.  I think that is my favorite part of Atlanta, after Turner Field itself, of course.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Noodleology at Dream Lake

Jennifer floating on Dream Lake.  The water was silty this year from all the summer rain we have had in the region.  The house in the distance is rarely used.  So we pretty much had the whole place to ourselves.
Some readers might recall that the getaway Jennifer and I planned last year to Dream Lake was overwhelmed by unexpected interference from our daughter. This year we took our daughter and her cool new boyfriend with us. For both Jennifer and I it was four days and three nights of relaxing off the grid. No cell phone. No iPad. No TV. Almost nothing, though some friends that joined us remained lightly connected and I used their devices to keep track of the Braves playing in Philadelphia.

Dream Lake is about 3 acres in size and is situated amidst the thick woods and large open fields of a rural area of northwestern South Carolina, where the state has rolling terrain. Jennifer and I spent several hours each day down at the dock the owners built on the small lake they made by damming up a spring-fed stream and the runoff into the valley from rains. She enjoyed floating out in the water as I did with several of our Dillo friends who made the trek up from Atlanta's urban jungle.  Ever since our DC trip Jennifer has been itching to get “away”, which meant no obligations, nothing to see or do, and a major water feature.  After about 20 minutes out on her float she announced that she had “arrived” at the “someplace else” she craved.  It doesn’t take long to reach that mental state when there is virtually no one else around and you have plenty of water in the Now.

It is a short walk from the cabin and along the edge of a 10-12 acre field through the pines and hardwoods down to the dock. There are various floats to choose from and even a canoe and fishing gear if you are so inclined. Over the course of a couple of days I got to try everything but my floatation of choice were the various styrofoam noodles that you can either bend and sit upon down in the water or place around your upper body in various ways. I preferred to sit on three noodles. That way my entire body was submerged in the water and therefore blocked from the sun's rays. Only my head and the top part of my shoulders stuck out of the water. My Panama hat shielded my face and most of try shoulders, so I didn't use any sun lotion or block. I detest using creams and lotions. Anyway, the plan worked. I floated for a long time out like that over the course of several sunny and hot afternoons without any lasting burn. When not in the water we dried ourselves in the shade of the sitting area built at the top of the dock. The slight breeze felt nice though the sun remained hot. Our bodies were chilled by Dream Lake so the heat did not seem as intense. Whenever the sun and humidity got a bit stifling you could hop back into the water for 15 minutes or so, get out and enjoy the refreshing summer air again.

After unloading our crammed full Cadillac, we were in the water within just a few minutes. The summer day was hot by the time we had made our 3-hour trip over there and the water was completely invigorating - warmed by the sun near the surface with pockets of very cold water further down. Dream Lake is filled with cool mountain water but it isn't so cold as to take your breath.  It was pretty silty, however, due to all the runoff from the plentiful rain we have had this summer.

I lost my glasses in the first couple of hours. I only really use them to drive and enjoy scenery. I don't need them to read though I often use cheapo reading glasses. Unfortunately, these particular spectacles were my "work" glasses so they were of quality and style. I was experimenting with various water noodle configurations when suddenly one length of styrofoam came lose as I was sitting on it and shot skyward knocking off my Panama hat. I reached over in the water to grab my hat and noticed I didn't have my glasses on. The noodle struck the side of my head as it erupted. Being styrofoam I barely felt it but it must have knocked my glasses cleanly off my head in a different direction from my hat. I looked around quickly but my glasses had already sank. We discussed briefly the possibility of trying to find them but I realized the water was dark and murky about 10-12 feet down. Finding those thin-style glasses in all that muck was not worth the effort. I joked with Clint that Dream Lake had taken my glasses as if to say: “Ok boy, you are here now. You don't need to see that far." Clint laughed.

My daughter and her boyfriend wanted to put up our large four-man tent shortly after we arrived. I cautioned against it as there was a chance of rain that afternoon. Still, it was bright and sunny and they got bored with hanging out at the dock so they shot back up the road to the cabin and had the tent set up just as Clint and I arrived back there. That was much later and Jennifer had already returned to the cabin to do stuff. It thundered on our way back up the path and when we arrived at the cabin, my daughter was putting the finishing touches on the tent. I laughed as I told her she was brave for setting up a tent in the middle of thunder and lightning. No sooner had I uttered those words than the wind blew strong and cool and the sky darkened. Large drops of rain fell haphazardly. I quickly made my way to a screened-in building across the driveway above the cabin's storm pit/cellar. Just as I arrived under its shelter the bottom fell out and it rained monsoon style for about 45 minutes.  Luckily, nothing had been placed in the tent yet.  Afterwards, I admired how well Clint’s fine backpacking tent had weathered the storm.  All dry inside.  His meditation cushion was drenched, however.  His gong was 2/3 filled with rainwater.  I dubbed it a waterlogged gong.

On the afternoon of our second day there Mark and I noticed a large insect flicking its wings on the surface of the water. It was actually coming toward us away from the grassy line of the bank. I thought that was odd and I used my legs in a running motion to glide with my noodles over toward the bug. As I approached the critter became so still on the water’s surface that I thought I had merely not seen it clearly (I no longer had my glasses after all) and that it was going to turn out to be a floating leaf. But I maintained my approach until I could see it clearly. It was a dragonfly or something like one. It had double bi-story wings but the top wing was missing on its right side. Perhaps the insect was incapable of lifting itself out of the water without all its wings. Its coloration was incredible. Bright green spots and iridescent blue were arrayed on its dark seemingly armored plate. By this time Mark and Jennifer were closing in along with Clint. It was at this precise moment that a fly landed on the head of the dragonfly. Instantly the floating insect's head turned 180 degrees and its mouth opened swallowing the fly. The last I saw of the fly, in the flash of a moment, were its eyes going down in closing jaws. It was an astonishing moment.  I extended my third noodle and the bug climbed aboard.  I took it back toward the dock while Jennifer got out and took some photos of it.

Jennifer took this shot of me as I used one of my three noodles to bring the injured dragonfly toward the dock.  Note my noodle floating technique...and the fact that my glasses are missing.  Doh!

Close-up of the dragonfly who seemed to prefer remaining on a noodle.
Late one night Jennifer and I found ourselves up with Billy, our attorney/musician Dillo friend, who has made himself into something of a smoothie guru. (A trendy thing among some Dillos. Clint has become another aspiring smoothie king.)  Billy was telling us how he had merged a couple of diets into his smoothie approach. The doors to the cabin were open and the windows were up to let the cool night air into the otherwise warm cabin. Somewhere, despite all the window and porch screens, a very large flying bug (a roach of some sort) started thumping into the wall and ceiling and making a great commotion in the kitchen. Jennifer was on the attack and wielded a kitchen knife against the noisy invader. She stabbed and banged the counter and made a major rattle while at one point gritting her teeth and allowing "you do not get to live!" Billy became a little uneasy as the assault continued and became even more chaotic. He left the kitchen area and joined me near the cabin's dining table as Jennifer slashed the poor bug. She brought me the antennae after she chopped it off the unfortunate creature, as a trophy I suppose. Afterwards we enjoyed Billy's chocolate flavored smoothie concoction.  Billy experienced a new found respect for the tenacity of my wife, well-known to me for many years. Most people, even Dillo friends, have never seen her quite that way.

Will and Denise came up with his elderly dog Bo for one afternoon. They hung out and enjoyed an evening meal with the group. Will and I ended up conversing about the use of UN attack helicopters in the Congo in response to recent threats by the Rwandan-backed terrorist group known as “M23” . The region has been very unstable for many years. I commented that there was no other war like it on the planet, with some 5 million dead. Will quickly added that if you stretched the time frame over the past 25 years - to include the genocide in Rwanda and other acts of violence in the region - the total dead is more like 10 million. Of course, when you get to that level of violence you are talking something around the caliber of the Eastern Front in World War Two, a subject I have posted about with great interest. We Dillos certainly goof-off a lot in our conversations. We have fun. But we also enjoy serious dialog with a bit more analysis than you are likely to find at most weekend getaways.

Mark and Eileen brought their three little dogs. Counting a couple of neighbor dogs that visited throughout our stay there were 8 or 9 canines roaming the premises, which of course led to several sporadic episodes of a bunch of dogs barking at sounds or newly arriving guests. Early sunrise seemed to be a popular time for all the dogs to bark and raise a ruckus, much to the dismay of some Dillos, tent-dwellers in particular. But, hey, we are dog friendly people.  Mark is a Dillo that likes to talk baseball, so we spoke a great deal about the Braves throughout our stay.  Eileen, the quintessential gourmet cook, made all sorts of tasty summertime treats for us. Lots of veggies and salads and some wonderful grilled pork.  She made sure we ventured beyond smoothie territory.

My daughter and her boyfriend claimed to have enjoyed themselves in spite of the usual Dillo camaraderie.  They swam less than the rest of us.  But they enjoyed the fact that the cabin had a TV and a modest movie collection.  They played cards and bocce ball with the group.  She enjoyed several cigars and I managed to teach her to blow her first smoke-ring which was a mild triumph.  She is growing up and able to party with her parents now – as uncool as we might sometimes seem.  Her boyfriend turned the Dillos on to some newer hip-hop music on the cabin's stereo.  A nice variation off Clint’s usual eclectic mix.
No Dillo weekend is quite complete without a game of Bocce.  Here Will makes a toss as Billy, Mark, and Clint look on.  We play crudely without the official court, al naturale.
From time to time during the extended weekend my thoughts inevitably drifted back to my glasses lying on the bottom of Dream Lake.  Clint claimed there were plenty of other pairs down there to keep them company.  It all came down to my lack of understanding and appreciation for noodleology, the special science of water floatation on styrofoam noodles.  There were several conversations among Dillos concerning how to achieve maximum effect with water noodles.  Billy arrived late in the initial conversation and mistakenly thought our reference to "the noodles" was "sexadelic" in nature, an awesome term he made up.
Clint, me, and Billy drying off in the shade after a dip in Dream Lake.  Noodles galore in the foreground, along with the top of a dog's head.  Plenty of dogs cohabitating with Dillos on this trip. 
Ultimately, it depends on the way you want to posture yourself.  Do you want to float upright? Recline? Rest your arms? There are many variations. But, quite obviously, at no time do you want your noodle to slip from under the surface and launch into the air. For that reason, I found it better to squeeze the noodles between my legs rather than to bend them and sit on them from side-to-side like a swing. Lesson learned. You won’t find much on noodleology if you google it.  Could it be that after all these years a new science was discovered at Dream Lake?  If so, it wouldn’t be the first time Dillo minds have gathered to create something innovative and different.  That’s kinda our thing.  As is just being out there on the water with no one else around.  Enjoying a summer day and realizing that you have arrived at someplace else.