Sunday, February 27, 2011

Week in Seven Words #56

There is a link between the ability to remember the past and the ability to imagine the future. People who struggle to recall their past with any clarity or detail also tend to have difficulty envisioning fleshed out future scenarios.

Fresh snow in a garbage can conceals all waste.

His eyes dart to the clock or stare past my shoulder at the wall; you're done existing for me now, they seem to say.

Raw knuckles and the dust of snow on rooftops. It's cold again.

At dinner after a long day the conversation is full of welcome nonsense.

Seven years ago, at age 53, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. He's physically fit, still jogs on familiar paths around his home, his cheeks flushed and his complexion healthy. You need to keep moving, he says, or else you die. There are many things he can't do anymore without guidance and supervision, like making a cup of tea or even setting the table for dinner, but his wife keeps pushing him to do as much as he can for himself - she says she's not going to let him go so quickly. He pauses at the dining room wall, thinks a photo of his son is himself at that age. His wife corrects him. Outside, resting after his run, he says you have to keep going and not think about the future. He can't think about the past either. Lost and optimistic, he jogs on clean beautiful paths in the countryside.

I prepare several topics to cover and questions to ask, but there's only so much you can plan when teaching. When it goes well, when you and the students are alive to each other and interested in the discussion, fresh connections form between facts that seemed unrelated, new ideas emerge to be refined or torn down, and everyone sings a little with a spark of inspiration.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Good Short Fiction: Dance of the Happy Shades (Alice Munro)

Title: Dance of the Happy Shades
Author: Alice Munro
Where I read it: Selected Stories (by Alice Munro)

It's that time of year again - Miss Marsalles, the piano teacher, is throwing her annual party for her students.

No one really wants to go. The students are expected to give a recital, which is bound to be disappointing. Miss Marsalles has faith and optimism in all her students, but because she hesitates to criticize their playing and finds pleasure even in their most mediocre offerings, she's not a particularly good music teacher.

And there are a number of other reasons not to go. Miss Marsalles is homely, old-fashioned, and unmarried. With the passing years she's lost more and more students, and the ones left are mostly just the children of former students.

She lives with her sister, and they make a strange-looking pair:
... it was surely an arresting fact that there should be not one but two faces like that in the world, both long, gravel-colored, kindly, and grotesque, with enormous noses and tiny, red, sweet-tempered and short-sighted eyes. It must finally have come to seem like a piece of luck to them to be so ugly, a protection against life to be marked in so many ways... for they were gay as invulnerable and childish people are; they appeared sexless, wild, and gentle creatures, bizarre yet domestic, living in their house in Rosedale outside the complications of time.

Over the years they've moved to increasingly smaller and shabbier homes; the one they live in now is in a rundown neighborhood. The sister has recently suffered a stroke. Everyone knows the recital will be in a small stuffy room, with offerings of bland food, music played poorly by indifferent children, and then Miss Marsalles' year-end gifts that she hands out to each child - books they'll never read, quaint pictures they'll never hang up, or boxed games that are "insipid and unplayable - full of complicated rules which allowed everybody to win."

Still, some people agree to come to her party. They do so with an air of martyrdom; it's a yearly tradition, just one afternoon to suffer through, and if they refuse to come it will probably hurt Miss Marsalles, who believes that "All children need music. All children love music in their hearts..."

What people don't know is that for this year's recital, Miss Marsalles has also invited her students from the Greenhill School, where she's been giving a music class. The Greenhill School is attended by children who are developmentally disabled.

Their arrival at the party is an unpleasant shock.

There is nothing to be done. These children are going to play. Their playing is no worse - not much worse - than ours, but they seem to go slowly, and then there is nowhere to look. For it is a matter of politeness surely not to look closely at such children, and yet where else can you look during a piano performance but at the performer?

And what happens when one of those children shows a natural gift for music?

There are a number of reasons why I'm recommending Munro's Dance of the Happy Shades. The quality of the writing, for one, and the thoughts the story offers about human gifts and talents, and how they are distributed among people.

It seems easiest to accept talent in people who are good-looking or socially approved. But Miss Marsalles, in her bright unselfconscious way, appears to find talent acceptable in anyone. She doesn't think that there's anything remarkable about a girl from the Greenhill School sitting "ungracefully at the piano with her head hanging down" and playing beautiful music.

What she plays is not familiar. It is something fragile, courtly, and gay, that carries with it the freedom of a great unemotional happiness.

Miss Marsalles herself is one of life's oddities - aging and out-of-touch, and so full of earnestness and innocent perceptions (but not cartoonish; Munro keeps her believable). She lives on the fringes of society, almost in another world. Most people don't know what to make of her; they would probably live in a state of despair if they had to swap lives with her.

But the piano teacher doesn't seem to see anything about herself or her life to pity or lament. She loves music, and she loves children; she expects to see miracles in the midst of people's imperfections. Why should she not have those sources of happiness and that talent for taking joy in life?


Other stories in this collection include Lichen and A Wilderness Station.

Monday, February 21, 2011

For Presidents Day - a bit of Valley Forge

After reading this interesting Smithsonian Magazine piece on George Washington's skill with maps and his extensive use of them, I thought I'd post some photos from a visit this past summer to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania where the Continental Army was encamped the winter of 1777-78.

The army held its drills on these fields, under the supervision of Baron von Steuben (there would have been ice, mud and snow everywhere):


George Washington's Headquarters:




The accommodations for the soldiers guarding the house were more spare:


There was rampant disease and scarce supplies; over two thousand soldiers died over the course of the winter.

At the Washington Memorial Chapel, the "Grieving Mother" statue:


Some of the mothers of these soldiers would have been with them at Valley Forge (along with wives, sisters, children...); the estimated 500 women encamped there worked primarily as nurses and to repair and launder clothes.


From a letter that Washington wrote from Valley Forge to George Clinton, governor of NY:
I am calling upon all those, whose stations and influence enable them to contribute their aid upons so important an occasion... tho' you may not be able to contribute materially to our relief, you can perhaps do something towards it; and any assistance, however trifling in itself, will be of great moment at so critical a juncture, and will conduce to keeping the army together till the Commissary's department can be put upon a better footing, and effectual measures concerted to secure a permanent and competent supply.

Several years later he was addressing a meeting of his officers, who had serious grievances against Congress (with the danger of there being a clash between the army and the civilian government). At one point he said, in the middle of reading a letter written by a Congressman explaining the financial difficulties that made it difficult to adequately recompense the troops: "Gentlemen... you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country." Neither his speech (he wasn't the best of public speakers), nor the words he'd read to that point, seemed to move them as much as that little bit of human frailty.

It's amazing to think about all the turning points of history in which he was a key figure.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Week in Seven Words #55

He was a man with anterograde amnesia - he could encode no new episodic memories. He had some past memories to anchor him a little, give him a sense of identity. Otherwise he was adrift. He inhabited narrow parcels of time, probably no more than half a minute long (and often less), whatever his short term memory could hold. He did not remember people he had just met, or what he had just been saying or doing, or what others said and did to him. Every morning when he woke up he felt as if he was awakening after a long sleep, years-long. He would lean over to a diary at his bedside and write that he was finally awake. Then he would discover a previous entry documenting the same thing (that he had finally woken up!) and with a feeling of uneasy dismissal he would cross out that previous entry, thinking it impossible that he could have written such a thing. Most of his life felt like that - the recent seconds slipping, and then a sensation of waking up fresh to the world, not remembering why he was sitting on the couch (his couch?) or why there was a dinner plate in front of him.

Less than two weeks ago the field was caked from end to end in snow and ice, brilliant in the sunshine, with a couple of benches bobbing around like rowboats on an arctic sea. This week the snow has crept away, uncovering dry brown grass. Boys and girls in sweatshirts, tee-shirts, and shorts rush out to play frisbee. Nearby some guys play volleyball barefoot on a sandy court; their big golden dog dashes around their bare legs.

The words come with difficulty, over the phone or face-to-face, but once I find them and say them some relief comes to me; things haven't turned out badly or as awkwardly as I feared. I can even laugh.

Several times this week I watch myself from a somewhat detached vantage point within my mind, like a master observing the workings of an automaton that she ostensibly controls. There I am speaking to one group of people, then to another, and there I am walking, one foot before the other, and listening patiently, and being in turn observed by others. And in response to a lot of what I see I think, "why"?

Bad hand-writing makes for a sort of malleable identity. What's meant to be a 'G' looks like an 'S'; a lowercase i is more like a lowercase o. One person no longer exists on the roster, and several have wriggled out of order, out to explore new alphabetical territory.

Diagrams on a board; illustrations dotted out on yellow notepad paper. We map out another attempt at overcoming a difficult problem.

For the first time in months I sit outside on a bench and read. I don't get much reading done; the breeze tempts me to distraction.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Week in Seven Words #54

Row after row of students taking an exam. Their movements are mostly confined to their seat-space. They look stiff, and their limbs twitch. Each movement seems painstaking, as if they've been programmed to move in fixed ways - slight adjustments of their head and spine, their feet occasionally fluttering nervously (an impending malfunction?), their hands hovering over the page.

Thick stacks of paper like concrete blocks, lugged around in a box or in grocery bags.

Though we have permission to stay as long as we like, it still feels a little funny - but still pleasant - to hang around in a house that isn't ours and finish off the last third of a bottle of sparkling wine as we talk past midnight.

Veggie lasagna with soft warm cheese, savored in a narrow wedge of time between errands and class.

In the back room of the cafe - wood panels, wooden beams, a creaky wood floor, sunlight on the glasses and the white tablecloth. A painting of a white dog, looking distant and benign.

He is small and lovely and brings joy.

She is excited, tells me with a thrill how tiny he is, how his toenails are smaller than her earrings.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Recruiting the other senses

| Artists Wanted | In Focus : Pete Eckert from Artists Wanted on Vimeo.

Pete Eckert is a visual artist. He's also blind.

This short video about his work and life is thoughtful and inspiring. I especially liked the synesthetic quality of Eckert's approach to art, how he says that "sound gives an image..." and how his work involves "learning how to see again using sound."

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Week in Seven Words #53

Conversation becomes a refuge from stress and a stream of relentless demands.

The sidewalk is frozen over, though I don't know this until I skate forward several inches. Keeping a bewildered balance, I reach out for the railing that fronts the houses on the street. I hold on and skate along, my good winter boots dancing beneath me. From across the street a man in a yellow coat stands perfectly still and watches.

Children are used to receiving gold stars and scoldings and many other kinds of feedback, and when they get the opportunity to reward or scold others they're usually happy to do so. One child has a carefully calibrated rating system: "That one was good. That one was all right. This one is medium. This other one is medium ok. That one is medium good. That one was badly done, a bad job."

At the school, there's the smell of wood, carpet, and dust, warm armchairs and coats thawing. The narrow hallways are lined with old class photos and sloppy cheerful kindergarten artwork. Upstairs is the library with the window seats and rocking chairs, the sturdy illustrated books propped up on shelves.

At a lecture a man and woman sit in the back, snickering and smirking and raising exaggerated eyebrows at each other when the speaker makes a significant point. Why don't they ask a question instead, openly challenge the speaker rather than conduct themselves with a sort of weaselly contempt?

I leave him by the elevator, where he's tapping at the button, tapping tapping... why isn't it coming? He says nothing, just hits the button over and over, as if he's not sure he communicated his intentions clearly the first time.

The bus trundles down slippery streets, past old cramped houses that shiver under the snow. Inside the bus is warm, and it rocks the passengers back and forth.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Some beauty and peace

I remember first listening to Dvorak's Ninth Symphony ("New World Symphony") in the 10th grade. I had tears in my eyes during the second movement, and it's remained one of my favorite orchestral works.

Someone emailed me these Youtube videos the other day, of the Dublin Philharmonic playing the 2nd Movement, and I thought I'd share them here (though I wish the movement didn't have to be divided up between two videos).

Part One:

Part Two: