Saturday, October 21, 2017

symphonic variations

Here's the problem I'm facing now:

The orchestra of modest prestige was surpassing itself with a flawless, even revelatory, performance of the great symphony. It ends with an elegant, quiet, dying fall. And on the final note: BLAT!

I can't avoid alluding to this somehow, so how do I bring it up in my review?

the world according to cat

Seeking insights in The Trainable Cat by Bradshaw and Ellis, I found this:
As an illustration of just how flexible their behavior is [in their third month], one of the skills that young cats learn during this period is how to get our attention, specifically by meowing. This socialization is so characteristic of cats that it is often presumed to be instinctive. However, feral cat colonies are generally rather silent places, the cats communicating mainly by body language and scent, and not vocally: cats generally reserve this sound for communicating with humans. Young kittens instinctively meow to their mother to attract her attention, but she stops responding when she wants to wean them, and when they discover that calling out to her no longer provokes a reaction, they stop doing it. However, the meow, though dormant, evidently remains in their repertoire, and as they adapt to their new home, cats find that meowing has become effective once more, this time in attracting the attention of our own species.
The book goes on to say that meowing becomes an idiolect, with meows for different purposes understandable by each cat and owner but meaningless to anyone else.

I can testify to the motivation in which "every cat works out for himself which meow produces the desired result," because I could hear our former cat Pandora trying it out on the drive to the vet. She would meow constantly, using a variety of pitches, lengths, and other variables, in evident hope of hitting upon the one that would persuade us to turn around and take her home.

Maia, however, didn't begin to meow until fully into adulthood, and has no special code. She comes into my office and meows in the same general way whenever she wants something, and since she only ever wants three things - food, petting (actually scritching and nuzzling), or playing with a peacock feather - I determine which she wants by where she goes on leading me out of the office.

If she wants food, she goes to the hall bathroom, where her dish is kept. If she wants petting she goes to the bedroom, because she's learned that petting only takes place on top of the bed, where cat and I can most easily be on the same level. If she wants playing, she flops down on the hall landing, which is cue for me to go halfway downstairs, fetch the feather from on top of a downstairs bookcase, and waggle it at her through the railing. Maia is the laziest huntress in the feline kingdom, her method of chasing the feather consisting of lying on the floor on her back and wiggling all four paws at it.

Friday, October 20, 2017


1. I just finished a work project that had been hanging over me for two months. It's not like it took that long to do the work, just that it was hard to face doing it. It's a detailed critique of a paper whose author had taken extremely ill to my temerity in giving initial reports of errors and unclear material. What reaction I get to the full report will determine what happens next.

I got lots done in the interim, but it was all small or extremely time-bound projects. Bigger jobs I should have gotten started on, I thought, "No, I have to get this done first." Didn't help.

2. Took All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders to read on the way to a concert last night. (More on the concert later.) I'd also seen somebody reading it at last weekend's brass quintet concert. It took me until the end of the YA section at the beginning to figure out what other author that section was strongly reminding me of. Not at all Cory Doctorow or Jo Walton, Anders' stated inspirations for that part (and I've read the relevant books by both). Look: juvenile characters, trying to run their lives around their oblivious parents. Extremely ordinary mundane opening setting and situation, and then Really Weird Stuff starts happening which the characters have to deal with without freaking out. A subtle but pervasive wacky goofiness underneath. And all told in a plain, clear, almost over-simple language. Who is this like? (Doctorow is more didactic than this, Walton more elusive.) The author I'm thinking of is very American, whom Brits may not know, but I think most of my American readers will have read this person. Clue: has a cult following. Can you guess?

3. And while up in the City, dinner at a Nicaraguan restaurant. Why not? I never had before. Liked me them Nicaraguan tamales, which have rice in the light masa mix, and a big hunk of pork inside, plus olives and sliced tomatoes. It occurs to me that, of however many countries there are in Latin America and the Caribbean (at least 40, counting the more important island colonies), I've now eaten in restaurants representing only ten of them. I should collect some more - easy to do in the City - despite many of the countries being tropical, which means a fondness for plantains and yucca, which I don't like.

4. What I most miss from my old XP computer is the solitaire game. I hate the newer versions, which have ugly designs and which, when you pick up a card from the tableau, automatically turn over the face-down card beneath it. I hate that. I don't want computers that play the game for me. If they do, why am I there at all? All I want the computer to do for me is shuffle, which with physical cards I am incapable of. (One of many sporting tasks I can't do. I can hit a golf ball, a volleyball, or a bowling pin: that's about it. At tennis, ping-pong, or softball I am beyond hopeless.)

Anyway, there's lots of instructions online for getting the good solitaire on a newer computer, but they all start with porting it from your old XP, and I no longer have my old XP. But, aha! I finally found the right game downloadable online. It's here. It's not perfect - if you make it full screen, the cards don't get larger, just further apart - but it's what I want.

5. Astonishing analysis - by William Saletan, who does politico-cultural analysis as well as anyone - of how moral conservatives can bring themselves to defend Trump. It's easy. You just abandon every moral principle you've ever advocated, and turn it all upside down.

6. The moving story of a cartoonist who lost his home in the Santa Rosa fires, told in his chosen medium.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

English suites no. 9

A fairly well-known suite by an otherwise obscure composer, Peter Warlock's Capriol Suite is from a favorite genre of mine, 20th-century retellings of much older music. It's a selection of French Renaissance dances from the collection of Thoinot Arbeau, faithfully transcribed, but with touches of orchestration that make it Warlock's own, particularly in spicing it up. For instance, that pungent chord at 0.12 is intentional, and not the result of the players' wobbliness, which I chose this performance in spite of, preferring the vigor and energy of this rendition above others. There's a lot more pungent dissonance in the finale.

The very brief movements are Basse-Danse (0:00), Pavane (1:24), Tordion (3:26), Bransles (4:33), Pieds-en-l'air (6:37), and Mattachins (Sword Dance) (9:30).

Literary authors writing under pen names is fairly common, and not just among women hiding as men: Mark Twain, O. Henry, George Orwell, Cordwainer Smith ... But though there have been musical forgeries from time to time, Peter Warlock is the only composer of any note I can think of who was a pen name. The choice of name either reflected his interest in the occult or didn't, depending on who you read; his legal name, Philip Heseltine, he used only on his critical and scholarly writings, in which he specialized in studying Renaissance music.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Christopher Robin, hello

There's a movie coming out called Goodbye Christopher Robin, one of those modern historical dramas so popular recently. It's a genre I'm very susceptible to, so I'll go see this one.

But before I have to throw in a comparison of the movie with reality, I'd better triangulate reality with the general impression of it. For The Enchanted Places, Christopher Milne's memoir of his childhood and the story behind the books, is the most seriously and comprehensively misread book that I know. This is pervasive; it's not just one or two cases. People read it, but what they get out of it isn't there.

You know the basics. A.A. Milne, successful dramatist and humorist, published between 1924 and 1928 four children's books of fanciful poetry and stories inspired by, and using the real name of, his small son Christopher Robin and his collection of stuffed toy animals. They became huge and lasting successes, to some irritation of the author who preferred to be known for more serious or adult work, and to his son, who, as the end of The House at Pooh Corner points out, did not remain a small boy playing with stuffed toys.

That part's true, but a mistaken emphasis on the irritation has created false stories of a bizarrely dysfunctional, but imaginary, family out of the memoir that Christopher Milne, as in adulthood he preferred to be known, published half a century later in 1974. (I'm citing the 1975 US edition from Dutton.)

False story #1: That A.A. Milne was a cold and distant father with no interest and little contact with his son as a real person.

Partial truth to this: That as a small child, Christopher was largely raised by a nanny. This was absolutely standard practice in upper and middle-class families in Britain at the time, and for many generations earlier. Some parents were cold and distant, some were warm and loving. They all had nannies. You can prove nothing from this. The Milnes, at least, were not the kind of parents who only see their child for a few minutes at bedtime and allow no real interaction then, though they've been falsely accused of that.

Another partial truth to it: AAM did not have a gift for playing with and relating to small children. (Not the only renowned male children's author of whom this was true: Dr. Seuss was positively uneasy with small children in a way that Milne was not.)

But CRM is not resentful. He calls his childhood "happy" (p. 5) and is sympathetic to his father: "Some people are good with children. Others are not. It is a gift. You either have it or you don't. My father didn't. ... My father was a creative writer and so it was precisely because he was not able to play with his small son that his longings sought and found satisfaction in another direction." (p. 36)

But CRM also says that this applied only to nursery days. "Later on it was different, very different." (p. 36) And he proves this with extensive anecdote throughout the book. First, AAM did have the courtesy to arrange for the nursery visits of an acquaintance whom the boy called Soldier, who did have that knack with children (ch. 4) Even from when CRM was still small, the book tells some remarkable anecdotes showing AAM as a father of both sensitivity and wit. My favorite is this:
Once, when I was quite little, he came up the nursery while I was having my lunch. And while he was talking I paused between mouthfuls, resting my hands on the table, knife and fork pointing upwards. "You oughtn't really to sit like that," he said, gently. "Why not?" I asked, surprised. "Well ..." He hunted around for a reason he could give. Because it's considered bad manners? Because you musn't? Because ... "Well," he said, looking in the direction that my fork was pointing. "Suppose somebody suddenly fell through the ceiling. They might land on your fork and that would be very painful." (p. 120-21)
That's the species of wit I'd like to show with small children, and have very occasionally had the luck to come up with. And that was in the deprecated nursery days! Read the father gently correcting a factual error the son had been taught in school (p. 119-20) or the truly extraordinary way he weaned his son, then aged about ten, from an interest in shooting (ch. 21). And the cherished family holidays (ch. 22). The son says he and his father were very close for many years, and there's plenty to back this up. When CRM was in his 20s, his father sent him philosophical books, hoping the son would share his beliefs but not pressing him to do so (p. 142-44); this is discussed in CRM's third book, The Hollow in the Hill, which is not really a memoir but, as its subtitle states, "The search for a personal philosophy." In his second book, The Path Through the Trees, which is a memoir and a sequel to The Enchanted Places, there's lengthy discussion of AAM's role in helping CRM join the Army in WW2 and in his positive enthusiasm in helping the son realize his aptness for and to qualify for his post as a sapper, a combat engineer; and post-war pulled strings in the book industry to help CRM get set up as a bookseller.

A further warp, and yes I've actually seen this claimed, is that "his dad bought him Tigger because he wanted to see what personality young Christopher gave him -- in other words, A.A. was not being a thoughtful dad but seeking copy as a writer." That is an unjust insinuation worthy of a cruel prosecutor. Here's what CRM actually says: "Both Kanga and Tigger were later arrivals, presents from my parents, carefully chosen, not just for the delight they might give to their new owner, but also for their literary possibilities." (p. 77) So the charge is as if it was just his father. As if the parents couldn't have both motives, of being thoughtful and generating ideas. As if there's anything wrong in AAM's hoping he might get a story out of this. People post amusing videos of their children on YouTube all the time, and I hope you can tell the difference between the ones who are actually exploiting and abusing their children and those who are just delighted to share something amusing.

False story #2: That Christopher Milne spent his life in burning resentment of his father exploiting him as a literary character.

What people who purvey this are thinking of is a passage in the epilogue to The Enchanted Places in which CRM recounts a shadow that came between him and his father in the post-war years when he struggled to find a job and a career. "In pessimistic moments ... it seemed to me, almost, that my father ... had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son." (p. 165) Emphases added. CRM is not fully endorsing this bitter view, even for the time period that he had it. Eventually he realized that "If I wanted to escape from Christopher Robin, so, too, did he." (p. 166) AAM's burden, of course, was being known just for that, or having his other works judged only in that context.

As a boy, CRM would sometimes be teased by other boys over Christopher Robin. But that wasn't a heavy burden. If it weren't that, they'd find some other excuse to tease. CRM is clear that this was no more than an occasional irritant: Its "appearances at school were few. Mostly we were occupied with other things ... mostly I had other things to think about ... it never occurred to me that perhaps I ought to be blaming somebody for it all. ... My relations with my father were quite unaffected." (p. 163-64)

In adulthood, he retained continued discomfort with Christopher Robin, but it's something he came to terms with; it could hardly have been otherwise once he settled on a career as a bookseller (as was pointed out to him by his mother, "who always hit the nail on the head no matter whose fingers were in the way," p. 167). All he says about its place in his maturity is that "posing as Christopher Robin does today make me feel ill at ease" (p. 5) and "he still fills me with acute embarrassment ... after years of practice I am still terribly bad at this sort of thing" (p. 168). That's only acceptance insofar as he was willing to tell the story in his book, instead of hiding out altogether; but it's far removed from the kind of burning resentment, especially of his father (to whose memory he dedicated both his second and third books), of the brief spasm of 1947 and of the false story.

I hope, probably in vain, that we can have done with the misreadings of the book, before whatever misreadings generated by the movie descend on us.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

museum visit

Our friend E. recommended the exhibit on Teotihuacan current at the de Young Museum in the City. So, B. having the day off work today, we went. It's a pleasure to have such things within the range of doing on impulse without prior notice.

Most of the Mexican pyramidal sites that people know are in the Yucatan, but this one is in the central highlands near Mexico City. It predates the Aztecs, but whether it was built by their ancestors or someone else is unknown. It's been excavated for over a century, but a lot of valuable material has recently been discovered in tunnels.

I was most attracted to the carvings in serpentine, jade, onyx, and other stones, but there were also a lot of intriguing ceramic pieces, carvings on large conch shells, etc. One of their favorite images was the feathered serpent, sometimes depicted on wall murals at 6 to 8 foot length, and just begging to be incorporated into a fantasy novel. (It's been done, by Kenneth Morris and perhaps others I don't recall.) There were also feathered felines (the captions used the word feline for all such creatures, whether feathered or not, as their resemblance to what we'd call cats was elusive), birds with hands, and people with ghostly imperturbable expressions akin to those of moai statues, carved from stone but with eyes of shell or pyrite. It was all memorable and distinctive stuff.

We added a successful browse through both of the museum's gift shops, and then drove down, out of Golden Gate Park where the de Young is located, to Borderlands in the Mission district, passing by a whim past their future site on Haight a couple blocks east of Ashbury, to which they're in the process of buying the freehold; this turned out to be a better route to the current store than the one I'd been previously contemplating. There we had cider in the attached cafe - ah, fall! when the cider blooms - while waiting for the store to open at noon, where we bought more books.

Lunch at a Mexican place in South City where I'd been before, and then home, and that was our half-day out.

Monday, October 16, 2017

concert review: American Brass Quintet

Sent out to hear and review a brass quintet concert. A brass quintet? Never done one of those before. Yes.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

English suites no. 8

Like Rossini and Sibelius, Elgar wrote little in his last years. Much of what he did write was reworkings and expansions on old notebook material, but the results could be good, like this work, the Nursery Suite (1930).

Elgar was inspired to put it together by the suggestion that he could dedicate it to a nursery, specifically that belonging to a young royal mother, Elizabeth, then Duchess of York, for her two small daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. Yes, the present venerable Queen was a dedicatee of this work at the age of four. Nor was this the only occasion in recent history that a royal infant has caught the attention of a major composer, as we'll hear in a later entry.

It's got quite a variety of movements, most of them gentle and appropriate to the topic. They are: Aubade (Awake) (0.00), The Serious Doll (4.48), Busy-ness (7.59), The Sad Doll (10.17), The Wagon Passes (12.10), The Merry Doll (13.55), Dreaming (15.26), and Envoi (Coda) (18.43, continuing on from the previous without a break). Of these, the shortest and highly atypical "The Wagon Passes" - which sounds more like Mussorgsky's "Bydlo" than anything else that is not, appropriately as they have the same topic - and the "Envoi" - which recapitulates previous movements' themes amid a violin cadenza - are the most interesting.

concert review: San Jose State University choirs

As a graduate of, and also long-time alumna participant in, the SJSU choral program, B. very much wanted to attend this special concert to celebrate its 70th anniversary, and I was happy to go along. (She also attended a reunion gathering that I did not.)

The Choraliers, the top chorus; the larger Concert Choir; and the simply enormous Alumni Choir all sang in the Cathedral Basilica downtown, mostly acapella and otherwise with minimal accompaniment, a wise choice as the basilica has some of the wettest acoustics I've ever heard. The building is shaped like a short and stubby cross, with the chancel in the middle of the transept crossing rather than at one end. [I have to look up these church geography terms every time I use them.] This encouraged creative placement of the chorus, which variously was split into contrapuntal groups, or lined up behind the audience, or slowly marching through the aisles. The High Catholic interior, with saints in niches and otherwise fiercely decorated, with a ceiling Boschian in elaboration if not in irreverence, helped the atmosphere.

All three choruses were thoroughly excellent. Naturally the sacred classics, by the likes of Sch├╝tz and Victoria, came off best; there was also a good one by Charles Stanford, whom I wouldn't have thought had it in him; and the huge Alumni Choir, with its powerful bass section, simply exploded with Bruckner's Locus Iste, my favorite motet of all time. There were also some powerful hymns and folk songs, though the piece by Morten Lauridsen gave ammunition to the argument of a friend who claims that this much-honored choral composer simply doesn't know how to set text. (Apparently he wasn't expecting words like "choreographer" to have so many syllables.) A few other pieces, notably the one in Latvian (they also sang in Sotho and Tagalog as well as English and Latin), were not in good taste; but Ned Rorem's setting of Tudor-era poems, From an Unknown Past, was delightful as well as amusing.

The concert was led and introduced by university choral director Jeffrey Benson, with contributions by some grad students in choral conducting, and guest appearances by Benson's esteemed predecessor Charlene Archibeque, who was director when B. was there and, with a 35-year tenure, was known by just about everyone else too, getting a delighted standing ovation.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Kesh fire report

Wakwaha has been overrun with flame.

Tachas Touchas is seriously endangered.

The other seven towns are OK at the moment, but Kastoha has been evacuated and others are in potential danger, including Ounmalin and Sinshan.