There are many ways not to think about something

There are many ways not to think about something. I could try, perhaps with the aid of chemicals, to turn off all thinking. I could seek distractions in projects, movies, TV shows, games, and sex. I could focus intently on details of the present moment such as sights, sounds, smells, movement, and physical sensations or on a specific cognitive challenge such as memorizing pi to a hundred digits.

Some thoughts — about minor mistakes, annoyances, inconveniences, conflicts, losses — can be avoided in such ways long enough for the temptation to think them to pass. Other thoughts resist suppression so obstinately that trying to avoid them is futile. One of these thoughts is that one’s cat — a smart, beautiful, adorable, sweet, sensitive, tolerant, affectionate companion of many years — will soon be “put to sleep” and cease to exist.

So I keep a vigil, staying focused on the over-powering fact of the day. And after she dies below a shower of tears, I continue the vigil, fighting off habituation to the thought and a reduction of its power, because a cat can cease to exist only outside one’s thinking of her.

The Amurica that I know 2

I was eating lunch with a group of people in a café. A young man sitting at the counter near the window started playing Foreigner’s “Head Games”loudly on his phone. It was so loud and filled the café so well that one of my companions thought that it was coming from the café’s sound system. I walked up to the young man and said: “Would you please turn that down?” He responded immediately by turning down the volume a tiny bit. Then he asked me if that was enough. I said: “No, it’s still plenty loud enough to disturb people.” He said: “You’re the only person who’s disturbed.” I said: “Oh, I don’t think so.” He continued to argue with me. I wanted to re-join my companions. Walking away, I just said: “You should be more considerate.”

Once again, I think: If someone points out that I am doing something that disturbs them, I apologize and change my behavior (unless I have a really good reason why disturbing them is acceptable). Why do so many people just not care whether or not they disturb others?

Before cell phones, did anyone think that playing music loudly in a café was appropriate? Has the ubiquity of phones changed our understanding of what’s appropriate in public? Or am I not remembering the time before phones accurately?

Hugh Iltis died

Hugh Iltis died four weeks ago. See: http://news.wisc.edu/hugh-iltis-uws-battling-botanist-dies-at-91/

I saw Mr. Iltis in the grocery store three or four few years ago. I did not know who he was. He had such a marvelous face that I overcame my shyness … well, not exactly. He was with a companion, a woman. I had a better opportunity to speak with her and the prospect of speaking with her was less scary. So I overcame enough shyness to speak with her and offer to take Mr. Iltis’ portrait. I gave her my card. Then Mr. Iltis came to me. He was curious, asked about my studio, but did not say “yes” or “no”, and did not call me. Maybe my answer that I did not have a studio but would prefer to take his portrait outside a studio in any case made him wonder about my legitimacy as a photographer. I thought of him out of the blue last evening, not knowing that he had died. I would have loved a chance to talk with him.

Now pictures of him as a young man make me appreciate yet again the span of life and the sadness of its ending. They also remind me of our tendency to see things only as they are now, isolated from their history and their future.

The Aria in Bach’s Goldberg Variations

Yesterday, I found Simone Dinnerstein’s 2007 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and liked it very much. The piano has a good tone, neither too bright nor too dark. The articulation is clear and crisp but not overly staccato. What I liked most were the slow tempos. I suspect that many pianists approach Bach as a technical challenge and thus an opportunity to display their talent. Some of Bach’s works do seem to be more about technical challenge and mathematics than music. They are too dense. It’s why I listen more now to the keyboard works of C.P.E. Bach, one of Johann Sebastian’s sons. They are less dense, more musical, more accessible. In any case, the Goldberg Variations are not one of those dense, overly technical and mathematical works. There’s music in them. Much music. Beautiful, beautiful music. Some variations must be played slowly enough to let the music out. (Other variations are pure joy at high speed.)

Had I found a recording of the Goldberg Variations that I liked even better than Glenn Gould’s second recording of the work, which I adore? Is that even possible? Maybe! Let’s listen to more …

While I was listening to Dinnerstein play the sixth variation, the high notes seemed weak. My first thought was: How could she do that? She can obviously play this stuff. Why leave the high voice weak? My second thought was: Gould must certainly make that voice sing. Let’s find out.

So I listened to Gould’s second recording of the sixth variation. Before he even got to the section in which I was concerned about the high notes (which were just as weak to me as in Dinnerstein’s recording), I froze while standing in the middle of our living room. A smile took over my face. Everything about Gould’s playing was more satisfying to me than Dinnerstein’s: more crispness, more clarity, more boldness, more musicality, an even better tone from the piano. Once again, Gould had transported me into a world that only he could create.

While he was playing, I had to make my wife listen to the aria and to me telling her why I like it.

Please note that I know this aria very well. I’ve made a start at learning to play it myself. It’s the first alarm that goes off every morning to wake me up. (The second alarm is Norah Jones’ Sunrise.) I’ve listened many times to Gould’s second recording and, fewer times, to Murray Perahia’s recording. Occasionally, I listen to other pianists and other arrangements. The Canadian Brass recorded the Goldberg Variations, and there’s a gorgeous string trio version of it played by Martin Beaver, Bryan Epperson, and David Harding. Recently, I attended the debut of Christopher Taylor’s hyperpiano, on which Taylor performed the Goldberg. These Variations are my favorite piece of music. The aria is my favorite part of it. I have heard it so many times that I have to ration my listening of it because I’m afraid of getting tired of it. (I’ve had to take the same approach with Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, and Paul Simon’s Graceland. I should have tried that approach with the Beatles’ whole oeuvre.)

So there I stand in the living room, eyes closed, moving my arms to the music, telling my wife how profound the sadness and the wisdom are in this composition and this recording that I know almost well enough to be tired of.

And I cry.

Why? Why do I perceive sadness and wisdom in this work? Why does it affect me? I can think of a few reasons.

One reason is the sounds themselves. The simplicity of the music, in sharp contrast to much of what Bach wrote. The slow tempo. The harmonies. The flow of the melody. Gould’s apparent, slight, hesitating rubato which makes me feel that he is feeling the piece and that we are feeling what Bach felt and wanted us to feel. (Later, I listened to another recording of the aria that was corrupted, utterly ruined by excessive, sentimental rubato. Not with Gould.) The repetition of the high G that starts the work as the bass climbs simply and slowly. I hear Bach saying: »This is it. This is life. And death. And all the struggles and sadness and joy in between. Nothing showy about it. One note can say just about everything that has to be said if you play it right and listen to it right.«

(On a consulting job, I worked near an elevator that announced its arrival on the floor with a tone that seemed to be a high G to my very pitch-imperfect ear. Every time that elevator arrived on the floor, the aria from the Goldberg Variations started playing in my head. And that elevator landed on our floor frequently. The Variations squatted in my brain for months.)

Another reason is Gould’s decision to record the piece a second time and play it very differently from how he did the first time. He recorded it the first time when he was 22 or 23, too young to know much about life. He played — here it comes, the word always attached to him — eccentrically. He played intellectually. Twenty-six years later, he recorded the piece again and played it quite differently. The difference suggests growth, maturity, insight to me. What had Gould learned in those 26 years about the piece, himself, life? He lived in anxiety about his health. He died the year after his second recording. Does his playing express his feelings about death? About the shortness and joys and sadnesses of life? I like to think that it does. It seems similar to Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight in this regard: a genius reflects later in life on his art and life and death. And the sadness and the wisdom that come out are almost profound enough and intense enough to frighten us.

Another reason is what I know and imagine about Bach. He published the work when he was 55 or 56, a little older than Gould was at the second recording, in an era when mid-fifties was pretty old. Three sons by his first wife died in their first year. His first wife died suddenly at a young age. Seven children by his second wife did not survive into adulthood. This man knew something about life and death and could assume that he would not live much longer himself. (He lived nine more years.) Am I hearing his feelings about life and death when I respond emotionally to the aria? I like to think so.

Another reason, of course, is my own awareness of the shortness and joys and struggles and sadnesses of life. Sharing this piece with my wife deepens that awareness even more.

The Amurica that I know 1

When I came home tonight about 17:30 on Halloween, a neighbor who lives four of five houses away was playing loud, bass-heavy music outside. I decided that I would see if I could hear the music from inside the house before taking any action.Two nights ago, at 23:45, another neighbor was having a loud backyard party with live banjo playing, singing, talking, and laughing. I could not sleep with the window open on a wonderful (thank us all for global warming) fall evening. And I was angry because I had put up with leaf blowers run by lazy people in tiny yards all day. I’m tired of the increasing disrespect for neighbors. People may not make as much noise as they want any time that they want. Well, apparently, they can. I seem to be the only person who thinks otherwise.

I could hear the music tonight from inside the house. I did not care to tolerate any more noise and let my silence reinforce my neighbors’ belief that all noise is acceptable. So I walked down to my neighbor’s house. I do not know this neighbor. The music was coming from a boombox with separated speakers on the lawn. I looked around for people in the yard and did not see any. (I realized later that I had missed someone because he/she was dressed the same as some automated mannequins in the yard.) Not seeing anyone, I turned the volume on the music down and waited to see if anyone appeared. A man, perhaps around my age, came out of the house. I said in what I thought was a pleasant tone of voice: “Would you please keep the music down a bit?”

Some of what I heard next:

“No, I’m not going to turn it down. It’s halloween. IT’S FOR THE KIDS!”

“You want me to turn it down? Call the police. Go ahead, call the police!”

“IT’S FOUR HOURS! ON HALLOWEEN! IT’S FOR THE KIDS!”

“What are you, some grumpy old man? Get out of here. Go away. Get lost.”

“Why don’t you go home and wank your wiener?”

“You’re probably some kind of pervert, aren’t you? Go away, you pervert.”

When I told him that I didn’t have to go away because I was standing on a public sidewalk, he walked up to me and said: “You wanna just stand here, you [epithet that I can’t remember], then I can stand here too.” He stared me in the eye. I stared back. He called me some names that I can’t remember. I shifted my weight to seem more casual. I wasn’t going anywhere.

He walked away and continued to rant at me, invite me to call the police, call me a grumpy old man and a pervert, and claim that the noise was necessary FOR THE KIDS!

Eventually, I said, in response to his mentioning the police again: “Just so we know where we stand: yes, if you turn the volume back up where it was, I’m going to call the police.” He yelled at me some more to go away. I walked away. One house away, some people in costume were starting to walk down the sidewalk to his house, then turned away. The neighbor yelled at me some more. I don’t know what he was yelling. Maybe he thought that I had turned the people away. I had not.

As I was walking home, my next-door neighbor said: “I’m with you.”

This same neighbor told to me a few months ago that the drone that hovered over our backyard for twenty minutes one day when I was away and my wife was working in the garden belonged to another neighbor and was very noisy. I asked him if anyone had said anything about the noise to the neighbor. No, of course not.

Remembering that incident, I said: “It would be nice if more people were with me.”

Neighbor: “He’s been playing that music since 2:00.”

Me: “Really? Has anyone said anything to him?”

Neighbor: “No, he’s crazy. He’s [several things that I don’t remember about mental health issues]. And he’s tried to kill himself.”

Too many people in this country are selfish and emotionally unstable assholes who ruin the commons for the rest of us. And too many people will not say anything to try to protect their own quality of life because they are afraid of those people. They are afraid of them because they are emotionally unstable, because they are assholes, and because they probably have a gun. Or twenty guns.

This is the Amurica that I know.