The allure of the new

Over the past year, before starting blogging and rekindling piano, my ‘new’ challenge was writing.   More at the suggestion of my husband than out of my own burning desire to write, but it seemed a worthy exploration since I love reading so much.  To that end, I have taken a few workshop classes at a wonderful Denver writers’ community, Lighthouse.  It’s serious instruction, feedback, and cultural interchange, and a lot of very talented writers partake.  I would not consider myself one of them.  But, I’ve committed to give the writing thing a dedicated try, even though I don’t feel like I have a gripping story just waiting to be told.  However, fiction is wearing me down – there is a unassailable gulf between the drivel I produce and the writers I admire (as well as, I have to admit, even the writers I don’t admire – they still have gallons more talent, dedication and skill than me).  And the workshop course in which I was interested for next session (the last before the three-month summer break) was full.  So, I have done the unthinkable (for me).  I have signed up for a poetry workshop.  I have never really been drawn to poetry, but in my first “what-do-you-want-to-write” course at Lighthouse, this was one of the genres we played around with.  It’s actually quite fun.  The music of words is a goal in itself, and I think that any great writer wants more expressive words.  I think poetry can help shape all that and I’m looking forward to it.  Still, I have a (silly) preconception that Poets, with a capital P, are not my type of people.  And that they will all be Serious.  or Dreamy.  and they will DECONSTRUCT everything.  I’m sure I’ll be proven wrong (I hope so), and even if not, these are probably lessons well worth learning if one wants to express oneself elegantly.

However, I suspect that part of me is glad of the genre change because it’s what I do.  I engage my fleeting interests in a topic, dabble, and then cut and run.  My list of failures and quits is impressive: (1) college piano course – just stopped going (try explaining a 1 credit-hour F to your parents in a subject you’ve been studying since you were 5 years old); (2) pottery  – hand-shaping was fine but the wheel drove me away for good; (3) introductory Chinese – I don’t even think I made it through 4 classes; (4) French classes – I did take several sessions but hated the summer “conversation” course to which I was reassigned when not enough students signed up for the next course, so I just stopped going and never went back.  I’m sure there are more examples that my subconscious has buried.  Even after 6 weeks, my newly-refound piano lessons are losing their lustre because practice is really hard and it’s so easy to find something else to do.  The unifying point is that I have absolutely no capacity for seriously hard work.  I think that writing is about to succumb to my flightiness.  While I did revise the first story I submitted (and I admit, it turned out much better), I have no interest in revising the stories I submitted for my class this session.  Maybe I’m just busy with work, but I see the old spectre lurking in the wings waiting to claim this interest as well.  So, while I try to convince myself that I am continuing on with writing, just exploring a different genre, part of me doesn’t trust my story.

Do you all have similar failings in yourself that you recognize but don’t conquer?

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Instruction from Dr. Johnson

While I’ve not yet been ambitious enough to crack Boswell’s “Life of Johnson,” languishing on my shelves, I did pick up a bargain copy of Johnson’s “A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland” published together with Boswell’s “The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides.” Each man published separate journals of the tour they took together in the autumn of 1773.  Dr. Johnson’s is presented first.  It is humbling that at that time our own country was not yet established, Dr. Johnson was visiting cathedral ruins and lamenting universities falling into decline.  Johnson covers less lofty topics as well, though.  While commenting on the lack of ventilation in Scottish houses, he frets that such observations may “take something away from the dignity of writing.”  He then continues:

But it must be remembered, that life consists not of a series of illustrious actions, or elegant enjoyments; the greater part of our time passes in compliance with necessities, in the performance of daily duties, in the removal of small inconveniences, in the procurement of petty pleasures; and we are well or ill at ease, as the main stream of life glides on smoothly, or is ruffled by small obstacles and frequent interruption.  The true state of every nation is the state of common life.

I know my husband would agree that I would do well to heed Dr. Johnson’s words on this point.  Too often I hurry over the necessities and daily duties of life, with my mind on the next big adventure or “elegant enjoyment.”  To do so can breed frustration or boredom with the quotidian when, as Dr. Johnson reminds us, that is the stuff of life.  While I’m sure I won’t do an about-face, I am going to try to keep these words with me for the next few days and try to better enjoy “the state of common life.”

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Time passes

Not that anyone’s reading this, but it has been almost a month between blog posts.  Things got very busy at work and life got a little complicated.  Things are still busy at work, life is still complicated, but I have a little time to post in order to keep this fledgling blog going.  Between work, piano lessons (the theory is a tough slog), and my writing class, I still have managed to get a few books read in the month of February.

One of those is “Skippy Dies” by Paul Murray.  It generated a lot of buzz last year, but I actually came to it after reading Murray’s first book, “An Evening of Long Goodbyes” (also great).  As you’re told in the title, and every review, the main character, a 14-year old at a prestigious Dublin boarding school, dies in the first few pages.  The novel then goes back and pieces together the events before his death.  This makes up the first 2/3s of the book and the reader is immersed in the world of today’s teenagers – a scary, wondrous, and sometimes boring place that Murray captures with amazing accuracy.  Skippy’s rotund genius roommate, Ruprecht, who involves the boys in his experiments in string theory and the search for other dimensions, is a wonderful character.  However, Murray also takes time and attention with the supporting cast of characters as well, introducing the sex-crazed Mario, cynic Dennis, and sweet Geoff.  You can feel, between the lines, the pain, exhilaration and confusion of these boys as they try to figure out who they are now and who they will become. It’s also notable that Murray doesn’t shy away from the drug and alcohol use, emotional manipulations, and technological obsessions that sadly make up teenagers’ lives today.  It all feels authentic.  The last third of the book follows the characters we’ve come to love (and the ones we’re slightly frightened of) as they deal with the aftermath of Skippy’s death, also treated very nicely.

Although I think they were well-written for who they are, I enjoyed the characters of Howard, our eyes into the adult world of the school’s teachers, and Lori, the girl who manipulates Skippy’s affections, much less.  But they are not easy or sympathetic characters and I think Murray did a great job involving the reader in their struggles to figure out how the best way to live their lives.  Psychopath Carl, who gets first dibs on Lori’s affections through a combination of diet pills and bad-boy appeal, is very scarily drawn, but again, Murray did a great job so that the reader can see the rage and confusion fueling Carl’s slow decline.

All of this is to say that you should go read this book – I can’t promise that you’ll love every page but I think that’s true to the teens’ experience of the world (adults too) – sometimes it’s stupid, sometimes it’s uncomfortable and alarming, sometimes it’s hilarious, and sometimes it’s just achingly beautiful.  I really look forward to reading anything else from Paul Murray.

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Clark Gable on a bike

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My second-fave photo from Rides a Bike.

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Bing on a bike

Perusing the internet this morning over coffee, my attention was directed to the charming site, Rides a Bike. The entirety of the site is photos of bygone/classic stars riding bikes. Shirley Temple, Jacques Tati, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, etc.  It’s wonderful – please jump over and check it out.  Though many photos are charming, my heart jumped up a bit when I saw the following photo.  I absolutely love Bing Crosby.  Love all his songs (“Mele Kalikimaka” is the best Christmas song ever), movies (the “Road” movies are genius; I watch “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” every year @ Halloween), Palm Springs (one of his fave hangouts) – basically anything touched by the man.  So this photo made my Saturday morning!

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Momentum

I am an impulsive person (sometimes to my husband’s chagrin) and I think we are taught to generally regard impulsivity as a negative trait.  Or at least to regard our impulses suspiciously.  However, I think there are many times in which impulse serves me well.  For instance, many of the books I’ve ultimately loved were obtained on a whim immediately after reading an interesting review.  So, in the thrall of my rekindled interest in taking the piano seriously, I set about inquiring to find a teacher.  Things moved a little bit quicker than I anticipated andall of a sudden, I have my first lesson (in 16 years!) tomorrow evening.  However, I think it’s a good thing.  If you don’t jump into something when you’re excited about it, when will you?  The opportunity presented itself and I took it.  Now I have to settle down and transition from excitement to work-mode! 

On a related note, my new teacher has both a Yamaha and a Steinway grand in his studio.  I played a little on the Steinway.  Amazing, huge sound.  Definitely not the Clavinova!

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Rekindling old interests

I’m currently reading “The Piano Shop on the Left Bank” by Thad Carhart.

It is a bit of a departure for me, as I rarely read non-fiction.  When I do, I tend to avoid modern “memoirs” or “experiential” books.  However, this was praised by Simon over at Stuck in a Book (a wonderful blog – he has a voracious capacity for books and an eye for the unique).  Besides, I really enjoyed Paris during my 2009 trip and I play the piano (although not consistently!)  So, I gave it a try – I am so glad I did.

Mr. Carhart draws you immediately into his Parisian neighborhood, where his curiosity is daily piqued by a piano workshop he passes on the way to his children’s school.  Mr. Carhart had played the piano as a child and his interest in the instrument is rekindled.  However, in the old school way, the atelier is not open to everyone – you must be recommended by a current client.  Mr. Carhart secures a recommendation and his quest is also aided by the fact that a younger and friendlier technician, “Luc” (name changed for the book), is in the process of taking over the business.  His relationship with Luc and the shop assumes a central role in Mr. Carhart’s life, but the heady atmosphere of the “back-room” access to an exclusive club of piano aficionados takes its toll.  Mr. Carhart is soon the proud owner of a reconstructed baby grand (despite the fact that he’d thought his small apartment would only fit an upright – his wife is apparently very accommodating!)  The book goes on to interweave a narrative of Mr. Carhart’s piano education, covering an array of interesting topics such as the development of the piano from the harpsichord (I loved the description of how Liszt was so hard on the more delicate early pianos that he would destroy one or two during a concert and at the conclusion, the stage was littered with their carcasses) or Mr. Carhart’s search for a piano teacher.

This book is fortuitously-timed, as I have been meaning to get back into playing more regularly myself.  Last fall, I was exposed to Shostakovich for the first time and have enjoyed to the 5th and 10th symphonies many times since.  I wanted to ‘own’ a little bit of Shostakovich myself, so ordered his 24 Preludes & Fugues.  The second volume just arrived on Friday and my fingers were itching to try it out.  Difficult keys  – Prelude #13 has six flats!  (I’m soft on theory, so I had to look up that this is G flat major/E flat minor).  However, the 24th prelude & fugue is set in a relatively friendly key (D minor – only one flat) and the tempo didn’t seem too out of my league (except at the end of the fugue, will definitely have to work up to that).  Even with the hesitations and errors of my first sight-read through, I can tell it is a wonderful piece.  It’s very representative of the harmonic tensions he used in the symphonies (or at least, those that I’m familiar with) and very emotionally-evocative.  So, my new goal is to practice this piece and get it to a working comfort level ability, if not ‘perfect’ it.  I’m all the more inspired by “The Piano Shop…” and am interested to learn how the rest of Carhart’s own efforts turn out.

The downside of Carhart’s book is the immediate lusting after a well-crafted master piano.  Through his observation’s of Luc’s work, Carhart conveys a deep appreciation for the skill, patience, and craft of repairing pianos.  There are thousands of specialty parts working together to produce these amazing sounds.  Now, I myself have a digital Yamaha Clavinova.  When I bought it seven or eight years ago, the big selling points to me were that the weighted action simulates acoustic keyboards, it sounds good, it never needs tuning, was less expensive, and can be played with headphones so as not to disturb the neighbors in your apartment building.  These factors have all served me well (and because the keyboard detaches from the base, it’s much easier to move than an acoustic piano).  However, despite the fact that I don’t play enough to warrant spending more thousands on a new instrument and now live in an even older building where the slightest sound travels between floors, I found myself dreaming about an acoustic piano.  Not necessarily a fancy Steinway, but something well-built that will produce a lovely tone from the result of all those handmade pieces working together.  Even if it requires more tuning and care, the satisfaction would be worth the stewardship.  If we’re ever free of downstairs neighbors, I’m pretty sure I’ll end up indulging this dream.  But for now, the reliable (and silent) Clavinova will have to do!

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