Monthly Archives: June 2009

Like A Virginal

Johannes Vermeer, A Lady Standing At The Virginal (c. 1672)

Johannes Vermeer, A Lady Standing At The Virginal (c. 1672)

A piano is a large piece of furniture, found in many American homes, that is used to display doilies and knickknacks.  It is technically a musical instrument, but in most homes the piano has not been tuned since the mid-1950s, so it tends to have the tonal quality of four hubcaps falling off a car simultaneously.  Another reason that living room pianos are rarely used is that hardly anyone knows how to play anything besides “Chopsticks” and the first few bars of “The Blue Danube Waltz”.  After plunking through that repertoire (and repeated encores of it), the pianist is not rewarded with applause, but with the sound of doors slamming throughout the house.  There are hundreds of thousands of pianos in existence — perhaps millions, even — but there are only 731 good piano players in the United States.  None of those can be found in a Methodist church.

The first piano was made around 1700 in Italy.  The name piano is a shortened form of its original name, pianoforte.   A rough translation of that Italian term would be “soft and loud”.  As we know, the instrument can generate soft and loud sounds, depending on how firmly the keys are struck.  Bartolomeo Cristofori’s invention was a breakthrough:  he figured out how to have little leather-covered hammers strike the strings.  Prior keyboard instruments, such as the harpsichord, plucked the strings.  That made a pleasing sound, but the volume remained the same, whether played with fingertips or elbows.

As mentioned, the harpsichord was an antecedent of the piano.  It was very popular with Baroque composers, but it was only one of several keyboard instruments of that era.  What we might call the “home model” of it was known as the virginal, a more compact and simple version of the harpsichord.  The strings ran roughly parallel to the keyboard and usually had 45 notes (as opposed to 88 on a modern piano).  When they first appeared in the 1400s, virginals were made without legs so that they could be placed on a tabletop to be played.

There are various theories about how the instrument got its name, including the doubtful claim that it’s because the virginal was mostly played by women.  Another possibility has to do with the tonal quality it produced.  In a document called Tractatus de musica that dates back to 1460, a Czech writer offers this explanation:  “It is called a virginal because, like a virgin, it sounds with a gentle and undisturbed voice.”  Obviously the writer of that statement had never been in a shopping mall with fourteen-year-olds shrieking at each other, “Omigod, Kimberly, shut UP!!!”

Naming an instrument for the sensory associations it evokes is a nice idea, though.  Maybe that’s why the trombone was originally called the sackbut.

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Chapter One

Lucas birth dayA new story began yesterday.  The first sentence of it is like almost every other life story:  “The baby came out crying.”  You can’t blame him for that; it’s quite a shock to be evicted from the comfortable place he’d been residing for the past nine months.  The main character of this particular new story is named Lucas Reeder.  The principal supporting characters are Brian Reeder and Heidi Campbell Reeder, my son and daughter-in-law, respectively.  (Yes, I’m a grandpa now.)

After that first sentence of every life story is where the fascination begins, because every story goes off in a different, unpredictable direction.  Where will Lucas be and what will he be doing when he’s three, and twelve, and twenty-one — and, God help him, sixty-two?  Will he be an extrovert or an introvert?  Will he have an aptitude for making business decisions, like his Grandma Jackie?  Will he grow up loving baseball, as his father did?  Will he become a veterinarian, like his Great-uncle Teddy?  Will he show an early gift for singing, as his Grandma Sally did?  Or when he’s four, will his dream be to drive an ice cream truck, as his Auntie Jen dreamed at that age?  Chapter One has just begun, full of all sorts of exciting possibilities:  How will Lucas get from here… to there?

The narrative of his story will be shaped, as all of our stories are, by choice and by chance.  (I’m setting aside divine intervention for the moment.  I have no doubt personally benefited from it over my lifetime, but as a story-telling device it has fallen out of favor.)  Guiding Lucas to make good choices will be his parents, of course, and they’ll correct him when he makes bad ones.  By chance — where he lives, the schools he attends — he’ll encounter a cast of supporting characters more abundant than in any Dickens novel.  Most will be good, while some — unfortunately but inevitably — will be villains.  As he matures, he’ll be able to tell which is which.  And someday, we can all hope, Lucas will meet that special person; the one he’ll love as much as his mother and father love each other.

Over the next few years I’m looking forward to sitting with that boy and reading books to him, but every day of his life, Lucas Reeder will be telling his grandpa a story.  And I love a good story.

Overheard

"Sorry, but I couldn't help overhearing..."

"Sorry, but I couldn't help overhearing..."

A guy with a big gut can pick up the scent of a backyard barbecue even if it’s a block away.  Similarly, a scriptwriter can overhear potential snippets of dialogue in other people’s conversations even if it’s taking place across a convention hall.  It’s not eavesdropping, really; it’s just that the writer’s sonar has detected a sequence of words floating through the air and it registers, “I might be able to use that.”

I don’t remember if this one ultimately wound up in a script or not, and I don’t remember where I was when I heard this exchange:  “I can’t seem to find my sunglasses.”  “You mean the ones on your head?”  You can see why that sent me scrambling for pencil and paper, can’t you?  That just sounds like it should come out of the mouths of characters on a TV show.

There are other times when overheard conversations wouldn’t be suitable for family viewing, but they have their own intrinsic entertainment value.  A few years ago Sally and I were in New York and took the boat out to Liberty Island.  We stood respectfully under the Statue of Liberty, our necks craned so we could look up at this monument to freedom.  An imaginary orchestra performed “America the Beautiful” in our heads; it was a stirring moment.  Behind us was a group of school kids.  One of them asked, “Who wants to play drug dealer?”  Several others enthusiastically responded, “I do!  I do!”  The imaginary orchestra instantly became an imaginary train wreck.

I’m still haunted by stuff I’ve overheard that defies plausible context.  What had preceded some enigmatic phrase or sentence I heard?  How had the conversation gotten to this particular cluster of words?  And what followed it — a gunshot, perhaps?

Here’s an example; it also took place in New York City.  The restaurant where we were eating was crowded and noisy, but there was a brief lull in the chatter and clatter, allowing us to hear a middle-aged man say to the woman across the table from him:

“In ten years, your great beauty will be gone.”

In an instant, I determined that we were seated close enough to the couple that we were probably in the splatter zone when she upended the table and stormed out of the restaurant.  She didn’t do that, though; she sat there silently, glaring at him.  That gave me the chance to evaluate his statement.  Frankly, he may have been a bit generous in characterizing her as a great beauty.  She was kempt and had the requisite number of facial features, but was not what you’d call a head-turner.  She was attractive in the same way you might consider your aunt attractive.

But still!  Why in the world would the guy say something like that?  The noise in the restaurant resumed, so I couldn’t hear what followed.  Oh, he continued talking, and she continued glowering, but I couldn’t catch enough actual words to know if, well, let me think — maybe he’s a plastic surgeon, using the great-beauty-will-be-gone line as a pitch for a facial tightening.

It briefly occurred to me that maybe she was an actress and he was her agent; he was trying to gently prepare her for the transition from leading-lady roles to “character” roles.  Maybe he was saying that in ten years her only offers would be to play things like Matron #2 in a women-in-prison movie.  But as I indicated, she wasn’t really the leading-lady type now. 

OK… then were they a married couple, and he was trying to provoke a divorce?  Or — almost too awful to contemplate — was this a first date?  As a romantic overture, “In ten years, your great beauty will be gone” ranks only slightly above, “Whoa.  Look what I just dug out of my ear.”

Sally and I finished our meal and left without getting any more clues to the mystery.  Sometimes it would be better if I just didn’t overhear stuff like that in the first place, but I can’t help it.  And ever since that night, anytime I’m in Manhattan and hear a siren, I can’t help wondering if that woman finally stopped that guy from ever flattering anyone again.

Waiter, There’s Something In My Wine

The Sauvignon Blanc?  Excellent choice, sir.

The Sauvignon Blanc? Excellent choice, sir.

The results of a six-year study of New Zealand’s acclaimed Sauvignon Blanc wine were recently released, in which scientists confirmed what connoisseurs had known for some time:  it emanates a combination of  aromas identified as passion fruit, asparagus, and — this is a direct quote — cat’s pee.

Before you start conjuring up images of cats being kept at wineries in cramped cages and being forced to drink lots of fluids, I hasten to add that no actual cat pee is used in the production of New Zealand wines.  It’s just that during the fermentation process, some chemical reaction happens, giving it the scent of cat urine.  We’re told by these experts that’s a good thing, while it would not be desirable to drink wine that smells like dog poop.  Perhaps if you’re a demented old woman living in an attic with 37 feline companions you get used to having almost everything taste like cat’s pee, but given a choice, most of the rest of us would probably prefer wine that is more reminiscent of hand sanitizer.

Wine snobs make themselves easy targets for mockery with pronouncements like that one, but I understand how they get themselves into these pickles.  (Hm — wine that has pickle overtones?  Nah.)  What they are earnestly trying to do is characterize the subtle scents and flavors in complex wines, but words fail them.  Oenophiles (the wine-lover’s word for “wine lover”) are at least trying to comprehend the traits they love about wine.  At the other end of the spectrum are the consumers who will gulp down any old thing as long as it makes their date start to look more attractive.

Just up the evolutionary ladder from those who admire wine only for its alcohol content are wine beginners.  They know that wine is red or white.  Or sometimes pink.

Intermediate wine drinkers have learned not to put ice cubes in their wine glass, and understand that names like Merlot and Zinfandel have to do with the different varieties of grapes from which each is produced.  Intermediates also understand how a so-called “dry” wine differs from a sweet wine.  They’re starting to have preferences for one varietal over another, and possibly even which wineries make an especially good version of what they like.

Advanced wine drinkers know about things like strong tannins (the pucker-provoking component in some red wines) and long finish (meaning that the flavor stays on the palate for a while after the wine has been swallowed).  They have also learned to appreciate how certain wines complement certain foods, and which don’t go well together.  For example, they’ve found out that if you drink a robust red as an accompaniment to fowl, your teeth will feel a little furry.  They might also notice — and have the good manners not to mention — that the wine you served today needs to be cellared a bit longer, meaning that it would be even better if you had opened it next year.

Finally we come to the connoisseur.  They might not be able to spell connoisseur without the help of a dictionary, but they’re the ones who can detect hints of plum and cigar box in their ’96 Chateau Mouton Rothschild.  And, of course, they got a whiff of cat’s pee in the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.  The most discriminating among them can even tell you if the cat was a Siamese or a Calico.

Two Michelangelos

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew (1599)

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew (1599)

One lived to be almost eighty-nine; the other died before he turned forty.  One thought of himself primarily as a sculptor; the other was a painter.  Both were named for St. Michael the Archangel.  Neither was someone you’d want as a guest at your dinner party.  What they lacked in social skills, however, they made up for with creative talent:  the two Michelangelos were among the finest artists that Western Civilization ever produced.

The one you know by his first name (pronounced MEEK-uh-LAN-gel-oh by Italians and some art critics) was Michelangelo Buonarroti.  Born in 1475, he was the principal artist of the High Renaissance.  He was 23 years old when he carved the incomparable Pietà that flanks the entrance to St. Peter’s.  ( We overheard an American tourist point it out to a traveling companion, calling it “that Michelangelo thing”.)  He was 26 when he began chipping away at a block of Carrara marble, revealing the David who had been hiding in it.

Although he excelled at carving stone, Michelangelo was also a painter; he taught himself fresco techniques to do the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  He was an architect as well, and even wrote some poetry.  Incidentally, he died in 1564, the same year Shakespeare was born.  If you’re putting together a list of the all-time greatest artists, write in Michelangelo Buonarroti at #1.

Somewhere near the top of that list is where the other Michelangelo also belongs.  He is not usually known by that name, or his surname, which was Merisi.  He is commonly referred to by the name of his hometown, which was Caravaggio.

If the Renaissance was about the return to classical idealism and the discovery of perspective, you could say that Caravaggio ushered in realism and the discovery of light.  His paintings are done in high contrast — strong light and dark shadows; you Art History majors will remember the term for this approach is chiaroscuro.  For those of you who weren’t Art History majors, the technical jargon doesn’t matter.  Just stand in front of Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew or Crucifixion of St. Peter and marvel at the way he “lit” the scene, and the way he captured the key moment in the drama — what photographers sometimes call “the peak of the action”.

In the early seventeenth century, contemporary audiences were shocked by Caravaggio’s use of ordinary people with dirty feet and callused hands as models for saints.  They were also shocked by his terrible behavior.  From 1600 on, he was almost constantly in trouble with the authorities, brought up on charges ranging from wounding a soldier to throwing a plate of artichokes into the face of a waiter.  In other words, if Caravaggio was living now, he’d be regularly featured on the E! Channel.

In 1607 he got into a brawl over a disputed call in a tennis match and wound up killing a guy.  He fled Rome, hiding out in Naples and Malta and Sicily.  His only hope was to get the pope to grant clemency, so he arranged a trip back to Rome.  At a place called Porto Ercole, Caravaggio literally missed the boat, collapsed of a fever, and died a couple of days later (July 18, 1610).  That probably came as a bit of a relief to the people who knew him personally, but subsequent generations of painters studied his work and said “wow”.  As the eminent twentieth-century art critic Bernard Berenson wrote of Caravaggio, “with the exception of Michelangelo, no other Italian painter exercised so great an influence.”

OK — so let’s go back to my hypothetical list of the all-time greatest artists.  I’ve already admitted my bias toward Caravaggio; who do you think is worthy of a Top-10 ranking?  Nominations are welcome in the Comments section.  Just to get you thinking… What about Diego Velázquez?  Bernini?  Pieter Bruegel?  Vermeer?  Albrecht Dürer?  Picasso?  Renoir?  Or, what the heck — the woman who painted that mural in your den?

Adrift On An Island

 Mykonos WindmillIf you plan to do any traveling outside your local city limits, there are several good reasons to purchase a travel guidebook.  One is that I have several friends and family members who make their living by writing them.  Another good reason is that a little research before you arrive at your destination can help you avoid the ordeal of being part of a tour group.  The people who lead those groups know too many facts, and feel compelled to share every last one of them with you.  

 Let’s say you’re standing next to a castle.  You probably want to know the name of the castle, when it was built, and its most famous occupant.  A typical tour guide will not only tell you that, but will identify every statue on the castle’s exterior, tell you who each of those guys married, who their heirs were, what wars they fought, and what obscure treaties they signed.  But it rarely occurs to the tour guide to answer the question that, by now, is on everyone’s mind:  “Where are the toilets?”  

We prefer to do our homework beforehand and travel independently whenever possible.  I’ll admit that can lead to some unexpected travel adventures, such as this one in the Greek islands that I wrote about in my journal on April 22, 1994:

We anchored off Mykonos this morning.  Seas were up, so it was a challenge to get into the tender which took us ashore.  Sally and I were among the first to get to the island.  We determined that we would begin our day here by getting some scenic panoramas from the top of Mykonos.  I had seen photos of one of the most picturesque windmills, and had read in the guidebook that its name was Milós Boni.  The book also had some directions as to how to reach it, but as we started out, we soon discovered that there were no street signs, in Greek or any other language.

There were three windmills spread across the hills above us.  I picked out the one I was sure was Milós Boni — it was near the crest of the highest hill.  We started a steep ascent up a winding street, which ultimately led us to a very nice windmill, but not the one we were seeking.  We walked back down a ways, and tried another route.  This also eventually led to a dead end.  We retraced our steps and tried a third path.  We were much closer this time — but still a hundred yards or so from our desired destination.

Sally climbed a low fence and crossed uneven terrain to try to get to it; I reluctantly followed.  As she stood on a point with a spectacular view of the town below us, I noticed that we were trespassing in a cow pasture, and that the cows were coming to check us out.  We got out of there and went back down the hill, all the way into town.

Not ready to give up on the quest for Milós Boni, I hailed a cab.  The driver spoke no English, but I let him know that we wanted to be taken to Milós Boni.  He nodded, drove off through the narrow streets and took us up the hill — to the first windmill we had reached.  He made it clear that this was it.  With a lot of sign language, I tried to convey the idea that we wanted to go to the other windmill.  He announced the name of another mill and I agreed, thinking we were getting somewhere now.  He drove us to the second mlll we had come to that morning, which was still a long way from our quest.  I said “no” to this mill as well, and pointed to the one we had been trying to reach.  Somehow he made it known that there was no possible way to get to that mill, so we gave up and got out, paying him 500 drachma for this ride to a place we had already walked to.  (The exchange rate in Greece, by the way, was roughly 250 drachma to $1.)  After taking some photos of these admittedly picturesque mills, we walked back down into town…

Wait, Let Me Finish

General John Sedgwick

General John Sedgwick

As he was being assassinated in 44 B.C., Julius Caesar purportedly said, “Et tu, Brute?”  (You too, Brutus?)  Those were his last words, according to William Shakespeare, expressing Caesar’s disappointment that his protégé Marcus Junius Brutus had joined the conspirators.  I don’t know —  frankly, those don’t seem like authentic last words to me.  No offense, Mr. Shakespeare, but they sound a little, well… written.  I’ll grant you that it’s an exit line that helps move the plot along, but it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing anyone would say while they were being repeatedly stabbed.  Early accounts record Caesar’s last words differently; Plutarch quotes him as saying, “You villain, Casca, what are you doing?”  It seems more plausible to me that the last thing Caesar really said was more like, “Sumbitch, that smarts!”  Of course, since he said it in Latin, it sounded noble.

My point is, in extreme circumstances, one doesn’t usually have the calm presence of mind to compose a nice little speech.  In his book Exit Lines, the unfortunately named Brian O’Kill records what are alleged to be the dying words of an array of historical figures.  He identifies some famous last words that seem to have been posthumously fabricated by admirers of the deceased person, and O’Kill also points out that some last words are forever unknown.  For instance, when Albert Einstein died in 1955, his last words were in German, but nobody else in the room happened to speak that language.

Although it’s not included in Exit Lines, a quotation that strikes me as authentic involves a Union Army general named John Sedgwick.  There are variations in the details depending on which historical account you read, but here’s the, uh, general idea:

On May 9, 1864, during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (Virginia), Union and Confederate troops were maneuvering into position.  Even though a distance of approximately 1,000 yards still separated the combatants, Confederate sharpshooters fired off a couple of rounds.  Some of Sedgwick’s men dove for cover.

The general rebuked his timid soldiers:  “What?  Men dodging this way for single bullets?”, he said.  “I am ashamed of you.  They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”  When some of the men were still a bit slow in getting to their feet, he emphatically repeated the last part of his rallying cry:

“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist — ”

Sedgwick fell, a bullet hole in his left cheek.  In fairness to General Sedgwick, it was a virtually impossible shot that took him out.  The odds of a Civil War rifleman hitting his intended target from 1,000 yards away were astronomical, perhaps even greater than the odds of the Washington Nationals ever winning a World Series.  So in one sense, General Sedgwick was absolutely right.  He just happened to be dead wrong.  For irony, Sedgwick’s last words are hard to top… although Caligula’s exit line — “I am still alive!” — comes close.