Friday, July 27, 2012

Poetry Friday: Skyscrapers

The Flatiron Building,
first "scraper," squat,
like a snout.
Today it hardly scrapes the sky.

The Chrysler Building,
still the most beautiful,
most elegant. It points
its tiara toward heaven.

The Empire State Building,
majestic but haughty.
Imperious, indifferent,
scene of the most suicides.

The Twin Towers, doomed,
still speak to one another
but in whispers.
You hear them around nine A.M. 

(Above: Alfred Steichen, Flatiron Building, 1905)  

More Poetry Friday at Life is Better with Books.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


I've just learned that Kimberlie of Welcome to the Dumpling House has lost her husband. The two of them adopted four children from China, including an older boy with medical needs who has been home for less than two years. My heart breaks for her and for their four children, who knew the love of their father for such a short time. Please pray for them.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Something Beautiful

This summer, against the background noise of complaints that "my friends don't have to do this," I've embarked on a learning-at-home program with my son who's going into first grade (I won't call it homeschooling, because we are not what you would call a homeschooling family). We are doing various unit studies of my own design, starting with a central text on a particular topic and then branching out to ancillary texts. My son then has to write a sentence and draw an illustration in his journal every day based on our reading.

We started out with the topic of making the world more beautiful, a subject dear to my heart. We read the wonderfully straightforward Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney, with its evocative folk-art-like illustrations, as our main text, and then went on to others that supported the same notion: Mole Music by David McPhail, about a mole who takes up the violin with consequences further-reaching than he can imagine; the classic Frederick by Leo Lionni, about the worth of the work of the artist; and, finally, a book that was new to me, which I found by happy chance, Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth.

This book has become one of my favorites in any genre, and my son wants to hear it again and again. It is about a little girl, in a neighborhood that looks very much like my old Bronx, who is saddened by the dearth of beauty in the hardscrabble world around her. She goes on a quest to discover what is beautiful, what has value, and what gives happiness to the hearts of her friends and family, and in the end resolves to take concrete steps to bring beauty to a place that knows little of it. The book itself is a beautiful thing, with an admirably simple and restrained narrative and wonderfully realistic pictures by Chris Soentpiet, a veteran illustrator who was, incidentally, adopted from Korea and has also illustrated a sensitive book by Eve Bunting, Jin Woo, about an older sibling coming to terms with his family's adoption of Korean baby.

I read an article recently about the ways that the wave of gentrification which has turned most of the five boroughs into a playground for the wealthy has averted the Bronx. I only lived in the borough as an adult, but all my life, when riding the subway in the outer boroughs where the lines go above-ground, I pondered the many sections in my vast city where neighborhoods seemed to consist of one auto-body shop after another (many of them surely chop shops), aluminum-shuttered bodegas where the only fresh foods were onions and plantains, and twenty-four-hour laundromats. These were places where not a single green thing seemed to grow, and yet children ran through the streets and played in the spray from illegally-opened fire hydrants. What was it like for children, I used to wonder, to live in a place where they never saw anything beautiful?

Sharon Dennis Wyeth's book gives one answer. She does not condemn the inequality that compels some children to live amid poverty and ugliness. Rather, she suggests that the beautiful may be something that cannot be comprehended by the senses, something hidden, secret, and essential, and that it is something to whose revelation we all can -- and should -- contribute.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Poetry Friday: The Lordly Hudson

"Driver, what stream it is?" I asked, well knowing
it was our lordly Hudson hardly flowing.
"It is our lordly Hudson hardly flowing," 
he said, "under the green-grown cliffs."

Be still, heart! no one needs your passionate 
suffrage to select this glory--
this is our lordly Hudson hardly flowing
under the green-grown cliffs.

"Driver! has this a peer in Europe or the East?"
"No no!" He said. Home! Home!
Be quiet, heart! This is our lordly Hudson
and has no peer in Europe or the East,

this is our lordly Hudson hardly flowing
under the green-grown cliffs
and has no peer in Europe or the East.
Be quiet, heart! home! home! 

-- Paul Goodman

Above: Hudson River Looking South From West Point (Robert Walter Weir, c. 1865)  

More Poetry Friday at A Teaching Life.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Business

I don't usually write here about how fantastic my children are, because, while it's a topic of endless fascination to me, I'm sure it interests no one else. Nonetheless, I'm going to put in a quick Jude update here to mention that the way he is being woven into the fabric of our family can only be described as amazing. He is a great little kid, and it seems as if he's always been here. He's also adjusting really well. I took him for an evaluation to see if he'd qualify for speech therapy under Early Intervention, and he didn't; in spite of the fact that the supervising speech-language pathologist has other adopted Chinese children his age in her practice, it turned out that Jude's acquired language, despite the fact that he was nonverbal in Mandarin and English three months ago, was too good. It is pretty adorable to see him point to various things and, when I hand them to him, to hear him cheerily reply "Ta-tee [thank you], Mama!" before toddling off, or when he puts on his little backpack which he's crammed full of doo-dads, calling "'Mon, Ree-ree," to his brother (whose name sounds nothing like Ree-ree) and beckoning with extravagant arm gestures before setting off on some adventure. As a friend of mine put it, "Jude is the business."

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Someone to Hold Me

Some of you already know about writer Emily Rapp's chronicling of the brief life and approaching death of her two-year-old son.  Her essay in Salon is one of the best things I've read on any topic in a long time.

Monday, July 9, 2012


If you haven't noticed, Hollywood gossip is not in the general purview of this blog.

I loved this post, however.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Music and Memory, Part 26: Heroin

About fifteen years ago I began the transition from pursuing a standard career as an opera singer to pursuing a recital career based mostly on the fruits my own research, a transition that would become final when I left my opera management the day before September 11, 2001. This change was precipitated by my meeting F., a wonderful Italian collaborative pianist and musicologist, on Saint Patrick's Day, 1996. Before long, we were researching and performing together, and he was my exclusive recital partner until he took a teaching job in Europe in 2005.

One day we were on our way to a gig in one of the mid-Atlantic states. We had walked from our late lamented neighborhood across the George Washington Bridge to Fort Lee, New Jersey, to rent a used car, had driven back to get our stuff, and now were on our way. On that drive, my colleague F. said two things that astonished me. The first was in response to my putting a Joni Mitchell CD in the car's player: he ejected it, saying, "Life is too short for bad music," and replaced it with a live recording that he had pirated himself at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Italy (I continue to disagree with his assessment of bad music in this case). The second happened a little further down the road, as he told me about the sunsets, mountains, and animals he'd seen while on a concert tour in Brazil. "Really, Pentimento," he asserted, "all of that is far more beautiful and important than music."

I was speechless. How could that be? Music was my elixir; no, my medicine. Thinking more about it, I wondered if it might not, more specifically, be a sort of chemo drug, a life-saving medicine that carried the risk of certain potent side effects. Nothing was more important to me. It came before, preempted, and supplanted what should have been my most important relationships. My early life had been so tenuously established, my adult life so undisciplined; music was the only constant, and sometimes I felt it was a thing even more essential to my existence than a chemo drug would be: it was oxygen itself, the most basic ingredient for my survival from one day to the next. I clung to it like a vine that heliotropes its maundering way around a trellis to get to a patch of sun. Or maybe music was my heroin, the jab that could deliver a few hours of beauty and a sense of agency into an otherwise bleak life.

Performing -- even rehearsing -- with F. has been one of the high points of my life. Our musicalities complemented one another in a way I'd never experienced before. We had plenty of conflicts in our working relationship, but working with him was one of the essential steps in my maturation as a singer and musician. We performed together just once after he moved abroad, when my first son was one year old and I was pregnant again, though I didn't yet know it. Having a baby meant that I could no longer practice obsessively, as I'd always done before, and, as we rehearsed before the gig -- the only time we had -- F. stopped and said, "How is it that you're finally singing the way you always should have sung?" I suppose it had to do with lowered expectations, with not predicating a hundred other things upon my success in that one particular performance, and with having my single-minded focus distracted and dissipated by the needs of another person.

Now F. is far, far away, and so am I. And I wonder if there is some way to convert the heroin of my former life as a singer into some kind of methadone, to ease off my addiction to that intense inner world with a duller, less devastating version of it. It's been said that pop music anchors the listener to the place and time that he heard it -- that particular summer, that one party, that boy or girl -- and that, as such, it's a mnemonically static form, whereas classical music is redolent with all kinds of associative possibilities. I'm not sure I buy that; hearing any of dozens of classical pieces evokes for me the time and place when that piece entered my life, directed my thoughts, dominated the world of my senses. It's very difficult for me, for instance, to hear Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 without seeing a hundred moments from the years of my childhood to the years of my doctoral study; sometimes I cry when I think that Beethoven has to be dead, but I wonder if I'm not really crying for the past in general.

But the past is receding like a world seen through the wrong end of a telescope, and I must remind myself every minute to be here now, in post-industrial America, in crumbling northern Appalachia, a wife and mother, in the land where my own mother is dying and where my family members are wandering desultorily or struggling desolately, and where I seem to have lost the power and agency I once had when I was a young singer who lived for and through music.

(Above: Dame Maggie Teyte sings "Oft in the Stilly Night," which is not a folk song, as the announcer states, but rather one of the Irish Ballads of Thomas Moore, set to music by John Sullivan in the early years of the nineteenth century).