Monday, November 30, 2009

Whimsical Pursuit #1

A little exercise - could be the start of a creative project or just a way to slay some boredom:

Write down ten things you'd like to discover in a rain puddle (there are many near my home now).

Sure a 100 dollar bill (in a Ziploc bag, conveniently) would be nice.

But what else would you like to find?

(Frogs and silver fish? A pockmarked rock? An antique ring? Your own reflection, smiling?)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A new blue

“Then one day a graduate student who is working in the project was taking samples out of a very hot furnace while I was walking by, and it was blue, a very beautiful blue,” he said. “I realized immediately that something amazing had happened.”

What had happened, the researchers said, was that at about 1,200 degrees centigrade – almost 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit – this otherwise innocuous manganese oxide turned into a vivid blue compound...

At Oregon State University, the accidental production of a brilliant blue that, with its chemical composition, has a number of advantages over other kinds of blue compounds.

Now there'll be more beautiful lasting blue in the world.

Also reminds me of the Robert Frost poem, where in the first stanza he asks:

Why make so much of fragmentary blue
In here and there a bird, or butterfly,
Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,
When heaven presents in sheets the solid hue?

And gives an answer in the second stanza.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Need to rest your weary feet?

I don't know if you'll be able to, because your toes will be tapping too much.

Imagine you're sitting in a warm saloon, where the barkeep knows your name, serves you the best drink in the house, and lets you tug your boots off and put your feet up wherever you please. From the piano comes the light-hearted patter of Something Doing, and in spite of all your cares you're feeling carefree.

You're at ease at the end of a long day. And as the music plays, you ease your feet back to the floor and tap along:

Something Doing, composed by Scott Joplin

Found at this archive of piano roll recordings.


Evanissimo at Youtube does a really good job playing Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag, a wonderful ragtime piece (and the piano itself looks suitably old-fashioned too). The music's clear, and I like the tempo he chose:

This light and breezy music is challenging - something you may forget when listening to it played by a performer with skill and talent, who's put in the effort to make it sound as effortless as possible.

Monday, November 23, 2009

While searching for a hearth...

...I found Robert Morgan's "Hearth".

I'd started out with the intention of posting photos of fireplaces - of furniture pressed close around, armchairs and rocking chairs, chestnut and oak, brick and dark wood mantels, the flames warm and coaxing.

Instead I found this poem. A chimney standing alone in a field, the only part of the house standing. And though no one's using this chimney there are still fires to be found in it, although in different forms, like this one:
And bees have found a clover there

bending in the dance of rooted things
where the honey of flames was.

Wonderful use of repetition, lovely precise language; the poet sought out beauty and warmth, found it in a solitary chimney - the kind of place that kindles the imagination of poets passing by.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

What am I becoming?

George Eliot was a brilliant author in many ways. She understood people, how they shape and are shaped by society, the hundreds of little influences that affect decisions and alter character. She understood human flaws and human triumphs, people's ideals and limitations, their hopes and secret pains, moments of illumination and stubborn blindness.

I read Middlemarch several years ago and had jotted down passages that struck me, that I knew I'd want to revisit and think about. One of them is the following:

We are on a perilous margin when we begin to look passively at our future selves, and see our own figures led with dull consent into insipid misdoing and shabby achievement. – Chapter 79, Sunset and Sunrise

Eliot writes that specter well - one's own future self, a drab and gray figure sacrificed piece by piece, over the course of years, to mediocrity. A seemingly painless sacrifice, committed for the sake of comfort and approval and to appease one's gnawing fear of failure. And so instead of imagining our best selves and struggling towards that, we give up, we go slack, we pretend that the the virtues, values and gifts that we cherished aren't that important after all.

Guard against the impulse to let yourself slip away, to allow yourself to slip along without effort or imagination. It might be tempting to tell yourself that it's no use anyway, that what you do isn't of any consequence; yet everything we do - or don't do - has a consequence for ourselves, for others, for the world, even if we can't understand the full extent of it.

Even when life and its pressures seem overwhelming, don't lose sight of yourself and what you hope to be.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here."

Both the words and the deeds are remembered, though like much of our history, the fact of them is remembered more than the spirit. We need reminding; the words, the memory of those deeds, need repeating.

November 19th, 1863, Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. And the words, they project across decades, decades, the spirit and the force of the ideas alive to us, if only we choose to attend to them.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

It's easy to take this country for granted; it's easy take your liberties for granted. But the struggle for their continuance and endurance has always been hard-fought; it certainly still is today. Don't let yourself forget what our soldiers do and face every day. And keep in mind the multiple ways in which this struggle manifests itself - the daily battle against complacency, ignorance and lazy habits of mind, defeatism, petty tyrannies, the creeping tendrils of confinement and control that wrap themselves around our lives when we're not looking, when we cease to care.

The Gettysburg Address

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Word of the Year - Unfriend?

Without further ado, the 2009 Word of the Year is: unfriend.

unfriend – verb – To remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site such as Facebook.

As in, “I decided to unfriend my roommate on Facebook after we had a fight.”

That's... sort of depressing. I mean, that's the best we could come up with? (Granted, last year's was "hypermiling", which sounds like something you do on amphetamines. But "unfriend" sounds sullen and lazy and right at home in junior high.)

Anyway, here's one of the reasons why it was picked, given at the Oxford University Press (USA) blog:

It assumes a verb sense of “friend” that is really not used (at least not since maybe the 17th century!)

Interesting. But still... unfriend. Not that some of the runners-up are any better, though there are certainly several that have more character ('intexticated' is spot-on).

The OUP blog also gives us two "notable word clusters", one centered on Twitter, the other on Obama (there's something fitting about that). Read and enjoy!

Take a moment also to think about some of your favorite words. Two of mine are "brouhaha" and "chalice".

Monday, November 16, 2009

Artistic expression and the Berlin Wall

The resulting colorful expressions on the West side of the wall were in sharp contrast to the East’s sterile ramparts and came to symbolize the differences of the separate societies.

Berlin Wall Art: The Wall Before the Fall presents Edward Murray's photographic documentation of the Berlin Wall in May of 1989 - the scribbles, scrawls, graffiti, and art plastered all over the western side of the wall, an outpouring of free expression and a visual protest against totalitarian oppression.

Some examples:

The heads of monarchs

Silhouette throwing a bomb

Sinister canine joker

Rhino smashing through

Pasty faces and a pointing hand

SOS for the Baltic states

Saturday, November 14, 2009

"I know they were singing those arias out of their own sorrow."

Says Cecilia Bartoli when interviewed about her new album, in which she sings pieces originally written for castrati. The interesting Slate article in which she's interviewed, Nature's Rejects, explores the lives of castrati, male singers forcibly castrated as young boys in the hopes that they would attain fortune and fame, illustrious singing careers. Most did not:

These nobodies sang for pennies in the streets, turned to prostitution for male customers, and sooner or later disappeared into the oblivion of the outcast. A great many ended up suicides.

And the famous ones, outside of their brief dazzling triumphs on stage, led lives full of distortion and depression:

Meanwhile, the years of superstardom were limited, because castrati tended to age badly: "Most of them become as big and fat as capons, with round and chubby hips, rumps, arms and throats." Even successful singers were shunned by many, their status as ambiguous as their bodies.

I recently became a fan of Andreas Scholl, a countertenor whose vocal range is said to be that of the alto castrato Senesino. Countertenors of course have not gone under the "little knife", a euphemism that only hints at the true horror of what the castrati went through when they were young boys:

... brought unsuspecting to a nameless place, screaming as he is held down for the operation, the wound cauterized with hot iron.

Countertenors did exist side by side historically with castrati, with the castrati apparently considered more illustrious and dominating opera especially. And it's reported that the castrati didn't quite sound like anyone else, including the female sopranos they replaced; there also would've been differences with countertenors (whose speaking voices tend to be low; testosterone, different type of vocal cord structure and development).

Countertenor Scholl and mezzo-soprano Bartoli render music with beauty, richness and power. Now after this article I wonder, what were the differences perceived in a castrato singing voice (of whatever range)? It seems the castrati in general were deemed to possess a prized vocal quality entirely their own, beyond individual differences in voice and musical ability; their listeners felt like they were hearing something not quite human.

They weren't viewed as human, not really. They were treated as instruments, cruelly shaped, forcibly carved. If the instrument cracked, you just threw it out; there were new ones to craft and maybe those would give you sounds you'd never heard before.

They were the products of a social, cultural and biological experiment, and a fascinating and disturbing example of how easy it is to adopt skewed and unhealthy cultural norms, and to excuse horrors in the name of (and for the sake of) beauty, art, or any number of other ideals.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday the Thirteenth!

It doesn't have to be about slasher killer thrillers and horror movies.

You could consider blackbirds instead.

Wallace Stevens found thirteen ways of doing so in his beautiful, eerie and meditative poem:

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

Think of thirteen ways you could consider a certain person, creature, idea or object.

If I Can Make It There, I Can Make It Anywhere...

Smithsonian Magazine’s Top Ten Places Where Life Shouldn't Exist... But Does.

Granted you’d have to be a microbe of some kind to survive in most of these places. But what I really like is how pretty much any place - a lake of acid, a sulphurous sea vent – can be a home to something.

One especially amazing point:

More recently, scientists have resuscitated bacteria that have been on ice for millions of years. The bacteria were in suspended animation in the oldest ice on Earth, in a valley in Antarctica. Those a million or so years old revived relatively easily, and some of the oldest ones, which were covered in ice 8 million years ago, also showed signs of life.

How do these bacteria achieve this kind of suspended animation? What is it in their genetic makeup that enables them to do so?