Monday, January 30, 2012

On the trail

Eastside Road, January 29, 2012—

Lindsey on the trail
ON THE ROAD AGAIN, as you see. The last week of January is so often a beautiful false spring here in the Bay Area; ornamental plum trees begin to blossom to everyone's consternation — So early! It's never happened before! (You hear this every year.) And our feet begin to itch, so I strap on the boots that have served me so well, and hoist a practice pack onto my back, and set the iPhone trail-tracker, and off we go.

Today's hike — it was a bit too strenuous to be called merely a "walk" — took us through oak hillsides above Lake Sonoma, the artificial lake formed a number of years ago when one of the last of the Corps of Engineers dams was built in the great Northern California water project. We protested the building of Warm Springs Dam at the time, to a great extent because it interfered with local rights to the environment that had been in place long before the coming of Europeans to the continent. And I'm sure we had ethics on our side: but I wasn't so sure, yesterday, that I wasn't selfishly happy we'd lost the fight.

The Visitors Center at Warm Springs Dam is closed at the moment — for renovation, the sign proclaims, but in today's economy you never really know why these facilities close. But the Corps of Engineers, which apparently maintains not only the dam but also the fish hatchery at its foot, maintains its own headquarters across the road from the Center; there you can get trail maps, and advice, and I suppose news of any recent threatening activity: poison oak, rattlesnakes, for all I know cougars.

We drove up Skaggs Spring Road to the South Lake trailhead; only three or four other cars were there on a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon. The trail leaves from the south end of the parking lot. For the most part it's a one-man-wide trail cut into contours on the hillside, which drops steeply from Skaggs Spring Road down to the lake: you never come near the water, though the trail drops and climbs frequently, quartering the contours, crossing narrow freshets at times. It had rained last week, and the trail was soft underfoot, muddy near the freshets: we saw footprints of people, dogs, raccoons, pigs.
No animals to be seen, no birdsong. Soft air; fragrance — a sudden vanilla surprise, and the nearly constant scent of oak and duff. A few wildflowers — those tiny white ones we called filaree last weekend; and low-growing Baby Blue Eyes; and of course the magnificent madrone, some of them too in bloom.

Thanks to technology — MotionX-GPS on the iPhone — I can tell you we covered 4.84 miles in an hour and forty minutes, not counting rests, and that our altitude ranged from near 975 feet at the parking lot down to 650 feet, with a number of ups and downs along the way, for a total ascent of 943 feet, descent of 929. A good first workout for the year. Until July 27, you can see the map here.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Asides on an Ebay Oboe

oboe.jpgAS I KNOW I'VE mentioned before — ah yes; here it is — my instrument in high school was the noble bassoon — partly because as a young child I'd loved both Grandpapa in Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and the Sorcerer's Apprentice as brought to me by Walt Disney in his Fantasia, partly no doubt because the band teacher, Kenneth Knight of loving memory, has a bassoon at his disposal but no one willing to learn to play it.

One of my best friends at Analy Union High School was Merton Tyrrel, and he played the oboe. I always respected him for that, and for other things: he was handsome, self-controlled, well-spoken, intelligent; he seemed a good oboist, and of course he got a number of leading passages in the arrangements our concert band played at the annual spring concerts. (In the fall season we converted to a marching band, setting our double-reed horns aside in favor of sturdier things like saxophones.)

When I left home for college I no longer had the use of a bassoon, and I gradually lost interest in playing a musical instrument. For a while I made a scanty living giving private lessons in the recorder, but that didn't seem to count. Years later I played bass drum in a community orchestra organized with federal FEMA funds during one of the more enlightened recessions we had in those days, but that didn't last long. Nor did my participation in the Mills College orchestra put together by the late Sally Kell, for whom I played on the college bassoon, a wheezy instrument that I could barely negotiate through von Weber's Peter Schmoll Overture.

I always wanted to learn the oboe, but never did. Oh, I could play a C-major scale on it, faking it from bassoon fingerings, but that was about all. A few years ago we were in town killing time: Lindsey and our daughter Giovanna had gone on to the bookstore; I stopped off at a curious music store I'd never investigated, since gone out of business. I noticed an oboe in a display case and couldn't help betraying pleased surprise.

Oh, you play the oboe? the lady behind the counter asked. No, I answered, in a rare expression of incompetence. I used to play the bassoon, but that was fifty years ago.

Can you put it together, she asked. Yes, I can at least do that: and I carefully assembled the pieces, noting it seemed to be in good condition.

Can you at least show me what it sounds like, the lady asked; I've never heard an oboe. No, I said; I'd need a reed to do that. Well, here's a reed, she said, Go ahead and play it.

I moistened the reed in my mouth for a minute — it was a new one — and carefully fitted it to the oboe, fingered what I thought would be a G in the first, easy octave, and made a terrible squawk. Oh, the lady said, That's what it sounds like.

Well, not quite, I said, and continued to experiment a little. G, A, B. G, F, E. After a while I managed to play a scale, and continued up into the next octave a little way. I was surprised I could almost seem to play the thing.

If my wife were to come in here, I said to the lady, and hear me playing this thing, she'd turn around without saying a word and walk right out. I put the oboe back to my lips and played the scale again. Lindsey walked into the shop, looked at me, turned around without saying a word, and walked back out.

That must be your wife, the lady said; and I swabbed out the oboe, took it apart, and put it back in its case. How much, I asked. Oh, said the lady, I think I could let it go for seven hundred fifty.

Too much, I said as much to myself as to her, and left to rejoin Lindsey and Giovanna.
case.jpgFOR A FEW YEARS afterward, every month or two, if we happened to be walking past a music shop, I'd say to Lindsey I think I'll just step in here and see if they have an oboe I can afford. You'd better not, she'd always say: but I generally did. They never did, of course. You can't buy a decent oboe for less that a thousand bucks, and then you don't know what you're getting.

Then, last summer, I took the plunge and rented an oboe to see if in fact I really wanted one. I played scales; I played simple tunes; I made up simple tunes, always practicing, if you can call it that, when Lindsey was out of the house, aware the sounds were pretty painful to hear. At one point I decided to take a lesson.

The teacher looked at me dubiously: a man in his late seventies taking up the oboe. Can you make a sound with that thing, he wanted to know. I looked at him with a little bit of contempt, I'm afraid, and fitted the reed, and played a two-octave C-major scale.

Can you play it in tune, he asked next, trumping my contempt with a finer because more justified attitude of his own. No, I had to respond; but I can try to do better. But the cheap plastic oboe I'd rented was not much fun to play, and I was always fearful: if I crack it, or break it, it's going to cost me a lot of money, at least twelve hundred bucks, and I'll have this cheap plastic thing on my hands. My thoughts went back to the music shops.

Then, last Thanksgiving, when we were visiting Giovanna up in Portland, I took a look on Ebay and there was an oboe, as is, nearing the end of its auction period, with hardly a bid on it. It was a wood oboe, grenadilla to judge by the photos; the key mechanism seemed intact, and it was nestling in a battered leather-covered case that reminded me of the Linton bassoon-case I'd carried back and forth to school all those decades ago. I took the plunge, and was surprised, pleased, and a little ashamed and embarrassed when I won it, for only a couple of hundred dollars.

When it arrived it looked fine, just like the photos, but was of course unplayable: the pads covering the tone-holes nearest the reed all leaked. Nothing for it but take it into town to the repair shop, hoping for the best. It was early December, and I wouldn't know anything for weeks: the only local woodwind repairman was busy with all the fixes needed for local Messiahs and Nutcrackers and carolers. I tried to put it all out of my mind.

Then, day before yesterday, while we were on a hike in the hills near Sonoma, my iPhone rang: the oboe was ready for me. The remainder of the hike grew both easier and more tedious; I could hardly wait — to see what I had, and to learn what the price tag would be.

He'd had to replace nearly every pad. Made of leather, they're a favorite food of a common household insect. (I've learned they also like the horsehair on violin bows: you have to keep these things in the light, just like a woolen sweater, if you don't want them eaten away.) He'd also cleaned out all the keywork, whose bearings had gummed up over the years. No telling when it was last played. His work cost a little more than the oboe itself had: but for a relatively modest amount I had a fine, solid oboe, much more responsive than the plastic thing I'd been renting, more rewarding to play — and my own.

Now of course I have to play it, every day or nearly so, to justify the expenditure. I reason this will be good for me, physically, firming my breath control and of course my lips, exercising my fingers and wrists beyond the familiar constraints of the computer keyboard. Perhaps even training my ears to adjust to equal temperament as I learn to shade each of the thirty or so notes I'll be playing, each requiring a slightly different approach with fingers, lips, and throat to bring the oboe's instinctive sweet natural tuning into the one-interval-fits-all attitude that's constrained "classical" music for the last three hundred years.

It already has me thinking about music, and listening to it, with renewed ears. Last night, for example, we went to a high-school concert of chamber music. Students of varying degrees of competence played jazz, chamber music, wind transcriptions of varying degrees of competence. Perhaps because this was in Berkeley, it all seemed extraordinarily democratic, leveled. "Classical" music was dragged down from its pedestal; vernacular music was nudged out of the cashbox.

Four ambitious girls tackled the first movement of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" quartet, and showed me for perhaps the first time just how dangerous and exciting the development section of a sonata-allegro movement is, with passages careering through remote keys, like an enormous cruise ship coasting too close the hidden reefs.

Another quartet, dressed in leather and hiding behind very dark glasses, stalked onstage carrying saxophones, acknowledged the audience with a bit of defiance, and proceeded to a stately, respectful rendition of Bach's "Air for the G-String."

We all too often experience music only through performances by professionals. Amateurs, even beginning students, when they play for us, remind us of the difficulties, the complexities, the intricacies of musical ensembles. Music of any culture fills a societal need, investigating co-operation, sensitivity, awareness of others while concentrating on one's own task, juggling understanding of received cultural inheritance with the "values" and imperatives of the cultural present.

Even my solitary exploration of my oboe enlarges my engagement with the other-than-me, as my brain and my breath and my fingers work the mechanics, the ratios, the sounds, trying to find a way to make the tone even, in tune, pleasing — in a word, just.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Pirandello's ashes

For a little project I've been working on I turned to the remarkable story of the ashes of Luigi Pirandello, the great Italian novelist and playwright of the early 20th century. I present the story here, as written by Filcusum on the blog Il Mestiere di Leggere and put into English, after a fashion, by Google Translate:
When he died on December 10, 1936, the children found half crumpled piece of paper in which Pirandello had written: 'I. Both let pass in silence my death. Friends, enemies that prayer is not talking about newspapers, but it does not even mention. Neither preacher nor equity. II. Dead, I do not get dressed. I s'avvolga naked in a sheet. And no flowers on the bed and no lighted candle. III. Chariot of the lowest class of the poor. Nude. And no one accompanied me, neither relatives nor friends. The cart, the horse, the coachman stop. IV. Burn me. And my body just burned, or left disperse, because nothing, not even the ashes, I would like to advancing me. But if you can not do the cinerary urn is taken to Sicily, and in some rough stone walled countryside of Girgenti, where I was born. "

Points one, two and three were executed to perfection, with great scorn of the regime of Mussolini himself-says-he wanted to do a great funeral fascist regalia. Prior to respect the wishes expressed in the fourth point, instead, spent decades and adventures, mishaps and adventures, and worthy of Pirandello's own pen. Let's proceed in order.

FIRST FUNERAL-Two days after his death in a chariot of the lowest class of the lowest class, a case brought to the crematorium. But no one heard her to indulge his desire to spread the ashes to the wind, a practice unheard of in those days before it illegal and opposed by the Church. The ashes were then collected in an urn and taken to the Roman cemetery of Verano, where they remained for eleven years

THE SECOND FUNERAL-After the war, in 1947, the mayor of DC Girgenti, in the meantime become Agrigento, Lauricella, claimed the honor for his city to give Christian burial and funeral and solemn to the ashes of the illustrious countryman. He turned nothing less than the Democrat chairman of the board at the time, Alcide De Gasperi, who - despite the considerable difficulties still faced in transport - earned an American military plane for the transfer from Rome to Agrigento. To accompany the remains of the great dramatist was appointed Professor. Gaspare Ambrosini, known Pirandello and pirandellologo and future first President of the Constitutional Court. Place the ashes in a precious vase of the fifth century BC greek imballatolo well and good, shock-proof, in a wooden box, the plane was ready to go when a dozen people-all-came to Sicily ' plane shortly before takeoff is requesting a ride. The teacher, aware of the serious problems of displacement of the time talking to the pilots of the 'Air Force and obtained consent.

As they settled, someone asked what was in that box Ambrosini slung so well, having received an explanation and said: "Pirandello, what he had asked that his ashes were scattered to the wind? It is not that fate has decided to please him today ... .. "Calo an eerie silence, while the passengers were looking at each other, and under the seats got up forefinger and little finger of one hand. Then, as the propellers began to turn, one of them asked to get off. Ambrosini spoke with the pilots, they suspended the procedure and the passenger fell off. Needless to say, one after the other followed him also the other nine. At this point, the pilots are suspicious and asked the teacher explanations. These gave her, repeating several times the word superstitions, that the two drivers repeated as an echo, exchanging knowing looks. So it was that the two suspected ancestors were from Sicily, or Naples, claiming various reasons, refused to leave.

To Prof. Ambrosini, accompanied by his inseparable case, we have to get on a train was waiting for a full day of travel. Everything would have gone smoothly if awakened from a nap, he had not noticed that the cash was gone. The car tried to train and finally found it in the middle of four individuals who had used as a table to play cards. Unaware, of course, to make a game "with the dead", and dead: a Nobel Prize. Comunqe both recovered. Finally arrived in Agrigento, the Odyssey of the case was not over yet. The bishop of the city Giovan Battista Peruzzo refused to give his blessing to a greek vase. No blessing, no solemn funeral: all the propaganda and political organization set up by DC Mayor went up in smoke. At the last moment, when the waiver of the funeral seemed inevitable, the bishop was persuaded to promise the blessing if the box with the ashes had been housed in a coffin Christian. But Cassamortaro of Agrigento had coffins ready, we had to settle for a small white coffin, of those children. But the case did not fit there. Then it was necessary to extract the jar and secure it to fit inside the small coffin. And so it was that finally Luigi Pirandello had his second funeral. In full regalia, as he never wanted.

THIRD THE FUNERAL. The vessel greek and his ashes were kept in the birthplace of Pirandello, waiting for the planned memorial dedicated to him was made in the locality Chaos, just below the famous pine tree to which the playwright was so fond But you know how things go in Italy, the work was finished only fifteen years later, in 1962. And so it was that the ashes of Pirandello had their final arrangement, and their third funeral. These civil and religious authorities, and cultural figures such as Salvatore Quasimodo, Leonardo Sciascia, an aluminum cylinder which had been emptied the ashes was first blessed and then walled up inside the monument.

EPILOGUE. But there's more. It is said that the charge of the transfer, an employee of the town known as Dr. Zirretta, had to sweat seven shirts to complete the operation. After so many years, twenty-six to be exact, the ashes were calcified within the vessel. Armed with chisel Zirretta, helped by a couple of assistants, reduced them again and poured the powder in the metal container. But the container was too small. It advanced a fair amount. What to do? He must have a light bulb turned on in the mind of the employee of the town of Agrigento. A light bulb, brilliant. He took the ashes left, poured in a newspaper and headed for a cliff nearby, overlooking the sea. But did not have time to get there: a gust of wind carried away the ashes. And so it was that the last will of Pirandello - my body just burned, were both left-release (at least in part) compliance.

All's well that ends well, you say. But it is not over yet. Because in 1994 it was discovered that the famous greek vase of the fifth century, preserved in the Museum of Agrigento St. Nicholas, still contained some 'ash of Pirandello. Evidently Dr. Zirretta chisel had not worked through. It was decided to refer the remains of the remains of Don Luigi examination of DNA. And, surprise, it was discovered that only a small portion of those ashes belonged to the Master. The remaining, most of that is, to other bodies, non-identifiable, which evidently had been cremated with him in 1936
Comforted by the science we can now say, Pirandello, who are and are not those ashes of Pirandello. And that metal buried in the urn of Chaos, along with Pirandello there are many other unknown people, the nobodies. As one said, no one hundred thousand.

Which Google Translate might better have translated
Uno, nessuno e centomila
, the title of perhaps the master's greatest novel. But why quibble after such a marvelous story?

Monday, January 09, 2012

Back to the source

Eastside Road, January 9, 2012—
ALMOST EXACTLY TWO YEARS ago I posted an incomplete blog here. I was reminded of it today, when I got to thinking about exactly the same thing. Odd, that a profound feeling should emerge twice in the same season, two years apart. Then, it was because… well, you'll see. Today, perhaps it's because I'm thinking about a little trip we'll be taking in a few weeks, or maybe because suddenly there's been a raft of pop-journalism stories about Places You Should Visit. (One of them, according to one list, is Oakland, California. Well, why not.)

I'll begin by simply restating the two-years-ago post:

Eastside Road, January 29, 2010—
THERE ARE PLACES we have visited on various travels that have seemed very special, from a "medicine wheel" at 10,000 feet in Wyoming to the Fontaine de Vaucluse in Provence; from thestone-age city at Filitosa in Corsica to the Canyon de Chelley in Arizona. What all these places have in common is the not-verbally-articulable meaning they seem to offer to our visit: they speak to us, silently, about something we recognize without understanding, without even in any ordinary sense knowing.


I think about these places a lot, under any circumstances; but I've been thinking about them especially recently since I began transcribing my journal of a trip we took through Corsica and Sardinia over twenty years ago, in 1988. Here you have a photo of the spring at Su Gologone, in Sardinia. As these places go, the places I'm discussing I mean, it's pretty well manicured, turned almost into a park, with carefully planted willows and — hmm; what are those white-barked trees in a row? — and stone retaining walls and carefully graded walks contained by concrete curbs. Turn away from this view, though, and look out across the pool toward a grassy clearing among the trees, and we feel we're looking at a site that's been here relatively uninflected by recent human attention. It might have looked much like this a thousand years ago, two thousand, ten. This may be merely sentimental: even so, the feeling's worth thinking about.

Why does the place seem familiar, though I've never been here before? There are sensations here common to other such places: the calm air within these trees; the sounds of the water; the soft feel of the calm air on my skin. The place conspires to distract me from more specific and immediate issues: the car I've left in the parking lot, the few

AND THERE the blog post stopped, mid-sentence, and I have no idea where it was headed. And I've learned over the years to abandon these things: you can't retrieve them, certainly not at this distance. But as I say I was thinking along the same lines today, more specifically about pools: it's interesting how many of these profoundly moving sites have been at pools. Let me add three more:
  • Fontaine de Vaucluse: we visited this place quite a number of years ago — I'd always wanted to see it, but had somewhat feared the experience. Would it be the romantic, isolated, poetic place I'd imagined, and I'd imagined Petrarch writing about? (For to tell the truth I've hardly dipped into the great Italian sonneteer.)

    The approach warned against this noble conceit. Many cars. Down-at-the-heels tourist cafĂ©. Worst of all, rock climbers hanging from ropes and things, directly over the source. But none of this cancelled the curiously atavistic quality of actually seeing this miraculous place, where a river — the aptly named Sorgue — pours out from a large, mysterious hole at the base of a granite cliff. You can see Moses at work here, if you're biblically oriented.

  • The Fount of Arethusa: at the edge of Ortigia, the island just next to Siracusa, an improbable pool of fresh water not twenty feet from the salt Mediterranean, celebrated by poets from Virgil's time to ours. Like the Fontaine de Vaucluse, this is a much-visited site. The first day we saw it a woman was selling ices from her bicycle, and a group of high-school girls was listening to a lecture about the pool and its history and hydrology, in German, from a serious-looking young man in wire-rimmed glasses. As you see here, the site hasn't changed a lot in the last hundred years.
    StoricoAretusa.jpgcascade vaimahuta.jpg
  • Cascade Vaimahuta, on the north coast of Tahiti Nui: Is it twenty years and more since we were there? Here's the journal entry:
    Took bus around past Point Venus to Papenoo to see waterfall, walking to it a couple of miles up a paved road past little farm-settlements, with small offerings of fruits or eggs on forlorn tables for sale to chance bypassers; walked back to blowhole Arahoho; then hitchhiked back to Arue, catching a ride on the back of a pickup, shared with a grinning urchin who got out halfway there; bus back to Papeete.
    It was our last day on the island, and the excursion could have cost us a lot: at the pool we remembered our plane would be taking off in a couple of hours. We were stunned to realize there was no return bus for many hours, and we were lucky to catch that ride.