Yiddish Lesson #4


They said we had a lot of chutzpah, to get up on a stage and play that music in front of an audience.

Matt Turner, cello. Tad Neuhaus, guitar. Joanna Dane, harmonica.


Bigsley and Bernadette: Rumors

"Did you hear that?" Bigsley asked one evening. "Rumors are going around that it was us who smashed into that window over at the Herons.  How do you like that?  And you know what else?" Bigsley waited for Bernadette to reply.  But when she didn't, he decided she must be too curious to even speak. "They say we were in the act of mating when it happened.  Romantic, eh? I guess whoever started that rumor didn't realize that you are too preoccupied with your brooding shenanigans to get out and enjoy yourself.  Your loss, I say. But what the hell, at least we aren't dead."  All was quiet except for the crickets, the hum of air conditioners, the buzz of three leaf blowers, the rumbling of half a dozen lawn mowers, and the dull roar of the nearby interstate.  "But I'll tell you this," Bigsley said, just as Bernadette was sure he had finally given up. "When it's time for me to die, Baby, I can think of no better way, than being smashed to pieces by your love.  So, is it a date?"


For Obvious Reasons

A woman sits on the patio of her empty house.  The house is empty because things in her life have changed and now she is moving out of this house and into an apartment in another city.  She is sitting because she is tired from all the hauling of all the things that have been inside the house, and from the emotional drain of all the changes that have happened over the past month.  But when she thinks about this thought, she realizes that the changes have been happening for much longer than that and tries to decide for how long.  A year? Two?  Perhaps a decade?  But as she becomes more engrossed in trying to figure out where exactly all these changes began, she thinks, with some satisfaction for having thought of it, that the changes have been going on since the day she was born. And then, of course, she realizes that it goes back much much further than that. This makes her feel a bit better about sitting alone on the patio of the empty house.

Two birds smash into the large patio window right beside the woman and fall with a thud to the ground.  It is only in the absence of movement that the woman realizes that the birds had been flying around the yard chasing each other for quite some time while she had been thinking about other things. How long had she been sitting here lost in her thoughts? And what exactly had she been thinking about anyway?

From her seat on the patio, the woman can see that the two birds are not dead.  One tries to flutter a wing that is obviously broken while the other lies still, its beak cocked at a uncomfortable angle. Why had they been chasing each other? The woman can see the birds breathing and begins to feel terrible waves of guilt, for this house with its large window, for the changes that led her to taking down the curtains, for sitting so still, for not paying more attention in ornithology class. She wishes she could do something. But, for obvious reasons, she can not.

The birds do not die right away, but lie on the ground staring at each other.  They stare at each other until their eyes turn cold and even then, their gazes do not falter. The woman wonders, how long can this go on?


Happy First Blogiversary

Top Ten Things I've Learned About Blogging

10. Don't judge a blog by its URL.

9.  Blogging is not all fun and games.

8.  Never blog about your blog.

7.  Blogging can make loved ones nervous.

6.  Always carry blog cards.

5.  Blogging is not always the answer.

4.  Being a blogger is not as glamorous as it appears to be.

3.  Bloggers are people too.

2.  Blogging is a girl's best friend.

1.  Russian spy bots boost blog stats.


A Few Things I've Learned About Music

If you want to be a real musician, you must have a foundation in classical music.* All other forms of music are inferior to classical music, though jazz is a very close second. Country music is for stupid people. Rap is just a lot of noise.

If you want to learn to play an instrument properly, you must take private lessons once a week and practice at least a half hour every day, though one hour is better.

Practice every piece until it is perfect.  Playing a piece perfect means you do not make a mistake.

Playing music for other people is nerve-racking because you are being judged.  To play all the notes in the proper order for the proper length of time means that you are a very good musician.  To play all the notes in the proper order for the proper length of time with emotion means that you are an excellent musician.** When you make a mistake it means one of two things: you are not talented enough to be a good musician or you did not practice enough.

The Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic have excellent musicians because they never make mistakes.  The Omaha Symphony and the St. Louis Orchestra have good musicians, but not great, because they sometimes makes mistakes and sometimes play slightly out of tune.

The most talented musicians are born with perfect pitch and become very annoyed when other musicians play out of tune.

In order to be a great musician you must always practice your scales.

Violin and piano are the hardest instruments to play.  If you want to be a great violinist or pianist you must start taking lessons when you are five.

Playing in the orchestra means that you are a serious musician.  Playing in the band means that you are a dork.

To hear good music, you must dress up and go to a concert hall.*** Always clap when the conductor comes out on stage.  Never clap between movements.

Playing music is not the same as playing.  Playing music is hard work and very good for you which means it is not a game and not meant to be fun.

The dynamic markings and accents are there to make a piece interesting and must be played how they are written.

People who listen to loud rock music have bad taste in music.

Music you just make up will not be good music unless you are a composer.

Foreign music is either boring or annoying.

Street musicians are bums.

You are either born with a good singing voice or you aren't.  Never sing in public if you do not have a good singing voice.

If you are born tone deaf don't even try to play an instrument or to sing. It is possible, though, to become a great appreciator of music.

Jazz musicians improvise.  Improvising means playing music without reading it off the page and is very hard to do properly.  Playing jazz is fun unlike playing classical music which is serious but more rewarding.

Black people have a lot of rhythm and play jazz better than white people.  Benny Goodman and Dave Brubeck are notable exceptions.

It is important to learn to play an instrument when you are growing up but not as important to continue playing it once you are an adult.

It is very difficult to learn to play an instrument when you are an adult, so don't even try.

If you don't know how to read music, you will never be a great musician, though people will be awed if you can play by ear.

It is painful to listen to people trying to play instruments they don't know how to play, therefore never play an instrument you haven't learned how to play.


**Playing with emotion is an elusive thing which can not be taught.

***Jazz on the Green is the exception.


Trip Out East: In the Basement of the Hirshhorn Museum

The man is probably sitting though we can not tell for sure.  Maybe he is not wearing any clothes. One arm, his right, rests on some sort of platform, a card table perhaps.  Behind him is a wall.  His eyes are closed, mostly, though he does slowly open one or both.  After a short time, he slowly closes them again.  The film is 19 minutes long.  He is bald and solidly middle aged.  We can see him breathing.  It is a silent film.  His breath is slow, though occasionally it does accelerate, just enough to make us realize that he too is watching himself breathe, that this watching of his breath is the most important thing in the universe, that without this breath there is no life.  He can feel the breath rising and falling in his chest. He experiences the expansion and contraction of his lungs the way a scientist observes a dividing cell.  He is both empty and full.  Maybe he is briefly amazed that there was a time when he never thought about his breath.  But he knows that line of thinking can be dangerous, leading to an avalanche of memories that will take him from his task, the slightest shifts of the mind triggering his heart beat to speed, leading to dangerous ideas. He regains control. You can see the film from the doorway of the room. Some people do not even come in.  Others walk into the room and almost immediately leave. But if a person stays long enough, it gets more and more difficult to abandon him. We stare at this man, watching him breathe. We feel our own fragile breathing, our own frail minds. What will happen?  The sign outside the room says the man has planned and prepared to make this film for two years.  He is an artist from the Netherlands.*  He is covered in bees.  At first, the bees cover his torso and only some of his face, like a thin beard.  But the story develops, the bees bleed onto his forehead and up over his scalp like a suit of living chain mail. We follow the path of one individual bee that crawls up his cheek and bumps against his eyelashes.  And then that bee is reabsorbed into the vibrating mass while another is spit forth. Our attention is seized by the discomfort of watching this man being slowly enveloped. Maybe we neglect to even consider the great noise or the heft of such an outfit. Why? we hear someone ask. Why would anyone do such a thing? But if we stay long enough, we find out that we are breathing too and that if we pay close enough attention to each breath we can stop the eruption of concern and discomfort and misunderstanding, stop our thoughts from needlessly chasing their tails, and discover that at the heart of fear can live serenity.

*Jeroen Eisinga


Trip Out East: The Lincoln Memorial

The steps leading up the Lincoln Memorial are bordered by wide inclined marble.  Did the architects purposefully design these slides knowing that every child who takes this pilgrimage, led by their dutiful parents, would get bored with the dignified words inscribed inside and need a distraction?  Or was it a great surprise when the memorial was unveiled and the first mischievous child sat on his butt and gleefully flew down the slick cool marble?


Elaborate Bungle

Friday, August 17th, 7:30pm
Heyde Center for the Arts, Chippewa Falls

Opening for Jessica Norman's CD release concert
Voodoo's Dream, In Bed with You



If I could write a poem today, it would be about the train that passes close enough to our new house that I can see it from the shaker porch and about how its great lumbering weight vibrates the desk where I sit and about how I like it like that. If I could write a poem today, it would be about the way the sound of the train whistle shakes loose memories from my Nebraska childhood, those long summer days playing kickball in the Heenan's backyard while the cicadas shee-wooed through the heat of endless evening. If I could write a poem today, I would write about how sometimes in the night the train conductor blows his whistle like some sort of melancholy symphony, an accompaniment for curious dreams, reminiscent of those echoes that rolled off the Catalina Mountains when we lived in Tucson, when our first born was no bigger than a song.  But a poem needs solitude and a length of uninterrupted time which today are impossibilities, this house filling up with children and their relentless kinetics permeating every fold of my concentration. Why does the train whistle sound so lonely? Why do I long to hear it call?


Post Card

Dear L.,

We got your post card today. Delighted to hear what a great time you are having. I'm a little disappointed in myself for not sending a land letter, but so be it.  Today I finished clearing out the large garden behind the garage that for who knows how many years has become overgrown, here in our new house that we love more every day because of: The yard, the neighbors, the porch, the tiny back balcony, the secret little drawers. I did accidentally cut the stem of the one plant A. repeatedly said he wanted to save, a very old grape vine hanging over the garden fence.  I apologized, many times.  The Buddha says only one arrow, but I gave myself three or four for that one.  

Has it already been a year since we saw each other, and you suggested I start a blog?  Look at all that's happened and look at all that hasn't.  We just got back from a trip out east.  One day in D.C. I had the entire afternoon to myself.  I walked from Georgetown to the Mall and just before passing the White House, it started to rain.  Of course, there happened to be a museum right there, open and free. The Renwick Gallery of American Craft.  You would have loved their 40 Under 40 exhibit, especially the work of Sabrina Gschwandter (what a name!) a woman who has created quilts out of 16mm film and polyamide thread, and that of Stephanie Liner, an upholsterer from North Carolina who made an egg shaped piece of furniture that is also a dress, the sedentary wearer of which can be observed through small round windows.  

Meanwhile, I've been reading the work of a Polish journalist named Ryszard Kapuscinski (what a name!) who unfortunately died in 2007, otherwise I would send him a letter of appreciation.  While traveling around the world reporting on wars and famines and art exhibitions he carried with him the work of Herodotus, an ancient Greek who also traveled the world (as he knew it) recording the stories people told about the Greco-Persian wars. These are things I knew nothing about, but now know a little more, mostly, how startlingly brutal people were long before the advent of gun powder.  Herodotus makes observations about how lonely it is to be a traveler, going everywhere and fitting in nowhere and in highlighting these passages I take it that Kapuscinski related whole-heartedly.  

Yesterday I started Andrew Weil's book Spontaneous Happiness since supposedly, I'm going to start teaching that very subject to a group of high-schoolers in just a few weeks.  In trying to sort out why there is such an epidemic of depression in our modern industrialized society, Weil argues that, among other reasons, our brains are not suited for the lifestyle we've created for ourselves.  He is quick to point out that just because people tend to be happier in less modernized societies does not mean that their lives are easier.  ". . . . Hard does not mean depressed, just as easy does not mean content."

Somehow, all these things must be related since I've chosen to tell you about them, though like so many things, it's unclear exactly how.  A. has managed to get himself TWO trips to Puerto Rico in the next three months. Don't even ask.  And next week, he is driving to Durango with S.H. (Yes, that S.H.) to go mountain biking for a week.  I'd tell you something funny about the kids, but this is already an obscenely long email.  Thanks for reading. I'm grateful for that.

Love, love, love and a safe return home.


Reminder #138,563N: Strategies for Finding Alone Time

Instead of dragging the kids on an urban hike, give them a dollar and a bottle of water and a far off destination, preferably via a forest or creek.  Challenge them to bring back something to prove they took the prescribed route and to buy something to prove they arrived at their destination.  If the children bargain for more spending money, give it to them. Make coffee, sit on the porch with a book or a banjo or a pair of binoculars and hope they don't come back till afternoon.


Yiddish Lesson #3

My intent was to go to Guatemala to attend Spanish school, to visit A. in the Peace Corps and to return in four months.  One month became two, two became three, and instead of attending Spanish school I was hanging out with A. at his site in El Estor telling myself I was learning Spanish on my own, which I wasn't.  Every phone call back home was getting more tense.  When are you coming back? my mother demanded.  I didn't want to leave.  So I convinced A. to get married.  I called my parents.  "Ma," I said.  "We're getting married."  They had never met A. before.  "Oh honey!  What's he like?"

"He's got shpilkes."

"Harry!" my mom called to my dad in the other room.  "Did you hear that?  He's got shpilkes!"

Consequences of marrying a man with shpilkes:

When out to eat together, I often find myself alone (or worse, with all the kids) while A. is off on a mission to find a newspaper or to fill the car with gas or to "pop" into whatever store is nearby.

Even if A. is driving, he is not comfortable with me doing nothing so gives me tasks - to clean out the glove compartment or to look up the proper tire pressure or to make a list of whatever happens to be rushing through his skittish mind.

Several hours in a row spent at home on a weekend is cause for alarm and the immediate drafting of a plan of action which can carry us hours if not days from home.

At least one child has an inability to sit still inspiring many an adult to sternly insist, "Sit still!" an impossibility resulting in frustrating said adult.


Step One

I have been away, and now I am at a loss of what to do.  I dig a hole in the backyard and discover that it is hard work.  I've known this to be true, but have forgotten. How long has it been since I have dug a hole this big?  It is not a big hole.  The directions say the hole must be 10 inches wide and 24 inches deep.  That is not a big hole until one is digging the hole in the sun on a Tuesday afternoon. I go about it wrong from the start.  I get a shovel. I envision that I will put the shovel to the earth, press my foot onto the shoulder of the blade, and the blade will penetrate the dirt, and I will lean on the handle, and a shovelful of dark earth will pop from the ground.  I will do this several times in order to get a hole deep enough.  This is what I think will happen.  But when I put my foot on the shoulder of the blade and press my weight onto it, the blade remains without penetrating any soil at all.  The earth does not simply give in to my whims. I must be using the wrong tool.  But what is the right one?  Probably something noisy and smokey and gas guzzling.  Instead, I find a children's trowel in the garage.  I try a similar technique as with the shovel, but with similar results, I resort to stabbing.  I stab and scoop and break into a heavy sweat.  After a long time I measure the hole.  Wide as my hand and half as deep.  I stab and scoop and stab and scoop.  How fundamental to being human, this digging at the earth, and yet how strangely unaccustomed I am.  I've heard stories that Seymour Cray, inventor of the supercomputer, dug for years, a giant hole (or was it a tunnel?) in his backyard for no apparent reason.  I stab and scoop.  I am nervous that something like an ear might emerge.  Though we are wildly successful at inhabiting the surface of the earth, floating above it, or descending down into it are acts of bravery. All those incredible holes we humans dig: subways and foundations for skyscrapers and mines and tunnels to freedom.  How many billions of graves?


Happiest Day

On a Sunday in the public gardens is a bride, like a cake, her round sweaty face topped with the shiny black strands of a hair piece, making up for the fact that her groom's scalp shows through his hair. The photographer's assistant is dressed all in black, her callous sweaty face framed with a scarf, wrapped snugly under her chin.  She scolds children to get out of the picture.  She stands on the garden path so no one can pass.  The hydrangeas stink up the place.  The photographer's assistant holds the bride's dress as she waddles to her next destination.  The bride and groom pretend to not know each other, smiling only when the photographer asks them to.


Bigsley and Bernadette: Nesting

"You got to admit, that's just plain weird," Bigsley called from his house. Bernadette hadn't left her nest nor said a word in days. "You grow those inside you and then poop them out?  Man, am I glad I'm male.  I mean, there's just something kind of sick about that, don't you think?  It's so. . . animalistic. It makes me woozy just thinking about it."