Thursday, December 30, 2010

music to end the year by

1. Stevie Ray Vaughn, "Crossfire"

Let's start this last post of 2010 with a guitar god and a serious groove. Stevie Ray has become my surprising workout partner ever since I doled out the Euros to Femme Fitness on the Kärtnerring, embracing the sad reality that I need both serious cardio along with some impact reduction on my poor knees. Texas Blues takes my mind absolutely off my joints and puts it right into a spirit of work and sweat. Stevie Ray makes all that grime seem pretty easy.  Maybe he can teach me to grind that hard and stay that chill.

2. Some Orchester with a conductor, "Wiener Blut"

OK, just saw my spelling error, but I'm so pleased with it. Check out the remarkable small string ensemble at the beginning, which FWM just lets them play. The concertmaster sat with me at last year's Christmas party and told me all about playing for Karajan, Kleiber, Levine. The principle cellist played the Giovanni recits with me, he's the one whose grandfather was hired by Mahler to be in the Philharmonic. This clip is from a concert they played last summer during which they also played the Star Wars theme, totally worth checking out on YouTube for the various facial expressions alone.

This week they are all rehearsing for the New Year's concert, set to be broadcast all over the world tomorrow. I got invited to a rehearsal but was turned away at the Musikverein by the Phillies' administration. So was the conductor's wife. There were hoards of tourists trying to talk their way into the hall. The Philharmonic guy told me to come back the next day, when maybe, just maybe, he'd let me in, but only if I promised to hide behind one of the larger pillars so that other people didn't ask questions about why I'd been allowed in. Somewhere, Gustav Mahler is clutching his skinny chest and rolling his eyes.

3. Luciano Pavarotti, "Di rigori armato il seno"

I heard this opera often in the last few days, all the same Schenkerei as at the Met (the black-clad orphans, the super-gay hairdresser, ad infinitum). I never heard the Pav sing this part live, but I thought of him this week and just wanted to hear that voice again.

4. Ella, "Mr. Paganini"

And if you can't sing it, you simply have to SEEpmiddlybiddendeedendop. Heaven, heaven, heaven.  "Round Midnight" is also on this clip, and I hope you are looking forward to health and joy round about that time tonight.

Happy New Year, y'all. Guten Rutsch. Schau ma moy.


Friday, December 24, 2010


We haven't had a tree in years, probably due to a combination of non-Christianity and laziness. We haven't collected ornaments, no garland, no star. Christmas is a fun holiday in our house, don't get me wrong, but it has always centered around friends, meals, and gifts. The decorations of our childhoods haven't made it into our home. I always love going back to the Midwest, especially to my sister's house where the decorating is especially perfect, abundant and detailed but not tacky at all. Her house is gorgeous at Christmastime. Even this, which should ignite both artistic feeling and sibling rivalry, has not inspired me to get off my Yuletide butt.

Well, Vienna, another score for you, delivered at a crucial moment. Just when you're treating me like we're in an extended foreign language version of Mean Girls, you serve up a Christmas miracle: I dragged my first Weihnachtsbaum home on Tuesday.

For weeks, there were no trees to be seen, and I imagined that one must have to go far out of the center of town to find them. Turns out that they just show up late. As in, less than a week ago, Vienna was suddenly full of trees, little knots of trees every few blocks. The whole town smells like pine. There's more. Not only did I go to a Weihnachtsmarkt to buy ornaments, I got MtMn to go with me. I imagine this will be his only such sojourn, but he did it for me: big husband points. We had to walk by tons of crap, but there were treasures to be found: beautiful honey from about an hour outside of town (German word learned: beekeeper = Imkermeister), and six handpainted glass ornaments. I realized even as I bought them that someday I'll be handcarrying a box of decorations onto a plane when we move back to the states. Either that or we'll have to take a boat.

There is exactly one tree on our block with electric lights on it, and I suspect they came from somewhere else, because I've seen no such thing in the stores here. Everyone I talk to at the opera puts candles on their trees. Maybe this is less of a fire hazard because the trees are fresh? I guess we find out tonight when we light ours. I do know that the smell of the beeswax along with the pine is, in a word, herrlich. The light twinkling off the ornaments just might be perfect.

Wednesday I went around work giving out present to colleagues, and everybody said the same two things: "Thank you" and "already?" Everything happens as late as possible, so different than stretching it out over a month. Yesterday almost nothing happened at work except gift-giving, plus a big company party in the afternoon. There was singing and a huge buffet and good conversation all around, and promptly at three everyone disappeared to finish the preparations. I was asking people about how they decorate their trees, and no one else had done it yet; that's for Christmas Eve. I found out that lots of my colleagues grew up hearing Bing Crosby and Perry Como.

Wednesday night I sat in the Loge for Rosenkavalier, which turned out to be an exercise in delicious disorientation. The same director did this production and the one at the Metropolitan Opera, which I assisted on several times. The sets vary a bit due to the different sizes of the two theaters, but the action/schtick on stage is almost exactly the same. That was the where-am-I entry point, watching a well-loved piece in a new place with new people but knowing everything that was coming. And then suddenly, beautifully, I realized I was not watching the opera, but watching a group of colleagues and new friends. Under a grey wig and spectacles is a sleepless young father whose second son came quickly in the middle of the night a few weeks back. My new recital partner and friend masquerades in breeches, sword at the ready. The elegant woman in ermine picked up her family at the airport today. This is the experience I've had in other theaters, other homes, shifting in and out of worlds at will. Vienna was warm and foggy and full of lights as I walked home, a little unreal, and I could enjoy the feeling of displacement all the way.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010


I feel confident in transcribing his song, because he repeated it about seven times in his joyful little voice while sitting on his mother's lap on the crowded streetcar. The sleepy-eyed commuters and the jittery late-season shoppers shared quiet smiles, and he sang loudly, too young to care about what other people were thinking, with absolute concentration.

Danke Danke lydesstah

He was practicing the cool new sounds from kindergarten, probably on the way to his next class to play and sing with friends, have snacks, take a nap, and learn more English. Charlotte, our impossibly beautiful next door neighbor, has already shyly showed me her My First English book, which she puts into her little backpack every day before heading off to class with the other three-year-olds.

Appa bufftau also hai

I can still remember the Christmases of my Lutheran childhood illuminated by a thin chord of magical sounds linking me to the disappearing speech of my grandparents. I can still remember the sounds I didn't really understand: yay air so glawver yulekvel, for dah bre Yesu firt. But I didn't lack understanding either. I was yay, air was being, Yesu will always sound the same. A window only cracked, a sharp lack I feel as on the train as in front of me that little man sings, wide open.

Laika tyment indeskai

In my icecold workplace people walk through the offices with warm smiles and sweet gifts. The world will always be both brutal and generous. Knowing this makes it easier to consider both remaining and leaving. Packing up after the show, I hesitate over my heels and the bouquet from Sunday's recital. I leave those uncomfortable shoes in my office and bury my face in the roses, which are coming home with me.

Thank you, little star.


Saturday, December 18, 2010

Gifts from the Internet

There are so many! And these few I offer to you this fine morning.

The Language of Yodeling
Hot girl and her friends exploring the erotic joys of the vocal break. So. Damn. Strange.  (PS, this is for you - remember driving down the coast listening to Bruckner...and yodeling?)

Sweet Seemly Sight
Never gets old. Also, it's really, really old.

Hamlet Gonashvili
Always remarkable to find out which artists have already come and gone without you even knowing about them. Thank you, Internet, for making it possible for us to hear this!


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Vielleicht...aber vielleicht auch nicht

1. We sit at the back of a balcony box behind and above the front of the stage in the Grosser Saal. The Commendatore is across from us and waves. The Monks from St. Augustine's file into the balcony past us to sing the opening chant. Even the early music bands in this town have a sweetness to their sound. Is that possible? Am I really hearing that hint of Schlag on gut strings? Or is it the wood of the hall itself, still vibrating with a hundred genius ghosts? Or is it the slightly slower tempi of these Vespers that allows slightly longer and more loved tones? Harnoncourt may not be the peppiest Monteverdian, but there he is at 81, in his house, with his band, and the two seraphim cry out to each other and time turns back on itself. Omnes, omnes generationes.

2. I walk through the thickly falling snow under the white and red Christmas lights, past the Stephensdom covered in white, past drunk crowds of friends laughing loudly and slipping on the ice. My glasses fog over when I step into the pub. He has fans, a table of young people who want to talk about guitars and take his picture. People throw their money into the upturned Stetson. I'm on a black elevator goin' down/Little Joe from Kokomo it rattles to the ground/The dice is laughing at the man that he throwed/You're goin' over to the lowside of the road. 

3. "I find it driven."
I play it again, the soprano waits, he stops me.
"Am I too fast?"
"No, it's not a tempo question - I just think each eighth note needs to be more suspended, not leading into the next. Otherwise it sounds too casual."
I smile. "Maybe that's my American Oberflächlichkeit."
He laughs. "No, no, it's not superficial! It's just too...directed, somehow. Maybe that's what's American about the way you play it, you have a goal. Beloved, hurry up!" Now all three of us laugh. He smiles, just barely: "For Americans, or for most people today, a love song is just, JA. But in this aria we need to hear, well, maybe...but also, maybe not."
Sylvia breathes and begins. Vieni ove amore per goder t'appella.


Friday, December 10, 2010

so close and yet so far

I followed through with an act I could not complete past the threat stage last summer: I deactivated my Facebook page. From one angle this looks completely mad, to disconnect from a huge group right at a point of enormous frustration. I need my friends right now (like there's ever a time when you don't need your friends). But I had the same instinct right when I was leaving Texas, and there's something right about it for me. Hard to explain. Maybe it's this: living in a world that isn't real to me yet, where I am such a stranger and so lacking in connection, I need something stronger. Facebook is so fun and casual and I have enjoyed it so much, but the calories are pretty empty. I think it might keep all of us from spending just a little more time and effort on the most important people in our lives...or maybe that's just me.

So if you're my friend and you read this, please follow me, or save this link, and tell my other friends about it. And call me, or write to me. I'll call or write back. I miss you.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010


So MtMn has been practicing a lot, but I was still surprised when he announced he was playing a solo gig at a local English-speaking hangout. a solo guitar gig. With singing. See. all of that is stuff he can do and has done throughout a long musical life of playing every style imaginable, but two hours of solo singing and strumming is something new. Saturday night was his debut, and it felt like another huge step in our current reinvention of our life. It was absolutely new to watch him singing the blues, Robert Johnson and Taj Mahal and the occasional Soundgarden, in a crowded cafe packed with people escaping the frigid night. At the same time, it was life as it always has been (or at least as it has been since 1983), me in a dark and crowded bar with friends watching him perform across the room. As I have a thousand times before, I settled into a chair and listened, watched strangers listen to him, let the detritus of a long and frustrating day wash away to the strains of "La Grange".

At 11:30 we walked, MtMn and MSMB and me, from that pub to the Stefansdom, ready to experience a real moment of Vienna weirdness, a performance of the Mozart Requiem that would end precisely at the moment of the composer's death. The performance of the piece was excellent, actually, good soloists and orchestra and a superb choir (check them out here - different performance but it will hook you on this group). I won't lie, I was dozing during part of it (it was late and freezing!). But here was the great Requiem happening in this beautiful space at the insane hour of midnight plus, and when at the end the priests came out with the bells and the incense and the cross to solemnly process through the church followed by all of the musicians...well, it was crazy, solemn and sincere yet kitschy and hilarious. 

Vienna in December is dark and damp and yet glowing with Christmas lights and the roasted chestnuts sold on every corner, and it greets me every morning with a tight little smile. Is it a movie set or a mirror? Half a world away my baby brother turns forty and my grandmother sleeps at Fort Snelling next to her veteran husband, and my heart runs back in that direction with every second beat. Yet here we are this morning in Glasergasse 3 (not at the opera house thanks to Immaculate Mary) with the window open to the sun-warmed winter air, drinking coffee and hanging out, making plans.

The pub gig might be regular. so he's practicing.

Jesus left Chicago and he's bound for New Orleans.
Workin' from one end to the other and all points in between.

Took a jump through Mississippi, well, muddy water turned to wine.
Then out to California through the forests and the pines.

You might not see him in person but he'll see you just the same.
You don't have to worry 'cause takin' care of business is his name.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Passing through

The last five days have redefined my whole idea of being "unterwegs", on a journey. I'm on one wild ride, unsure from moment to moment of time, day, temperature, century - of location in general. I'm either nailed to the spot or unmoored, and sometimes I experience both conditions simultaneously. It started on Friday when I got the news of my grandmother's passing. On Facebook. I hadn't heard any news in the morning, but there was my brother's status update casually glanced at the rehearsal break. I had half of my mother's number dialed when I realized it was the middle of the night in Minnesota. I called my bro, who had since gone back to bed, and so I returned to rehearsal. The next days were a frustrating mixture of poorly timed attempts to connect to my funeral-planning family (that seven hour gap is a nasty beeyotch when your heart is aching and everyone involved has a big to-do list) and extremely taxing rehearsals (it happens, art can be hard. Stop laughing.). It was exhausting, disheartening, and lonely.

But that's only part of the story. I was also filled with gratitude and joy because at home a few weeks ago, Grandma gave me the gift of two good days, great conversations, a special burst of energy. I could talk to my sisters and brother and mom and dad on my phone, on my computer, practically for free and for as long as we pleased (I'm old enough to remember precious, painfully rationed long-distance calls). And miraculously, I was there in the church briefly on Sunday when the funeral took place, thanks to Skype. I saw the beautiful faces of my family, their faces were in my home and my face was there at Vision of Glory Lutheran. I saw one nephew's nervous smile before he went to prepare for playing the piano during the service, and as he turned to go I thought, my every family event up till now, I've been sitting at the keyboard.

We'd had a pianist as our dinner guest that evening with his flautist wife and their brilliant daughter, new friends that lit up a heavyhearted weekend with laughter and conversation. We enjoyed a Thanksgiving feast, ate with abandon, and did the dishes together. Normally I'm the kind of person who refuses help with washing up in my kitchen (control freak, duh), but this night I didn't. Earlier in the day, my sister had called about her eulogy; she was taking ideas from everyone in the family. One story she mentioned was about how Grandma and Mom did the dishes together and sang, as Grandma had once done with her sister. So I let my new friends help me with my dishes (albeit no singing), and there was something deeply moving about that, although I'm glad I didn't have to try and explain it. After they went home and my static-y Skype call was over, I opened both sets of windows to the snowy Viennese night and took a long breath of cold winter air.

Clarity and collaboration, there may be something to this pairing. It will be a while before I can write about this week with any of the former. The orchestra is finally here in our Giovanni rehearsals, along with our music director, and finally the piece begins to take shape. I'm playing the recitatives with two stunning partners, cellists who are splitting the performances. So there are three of us collaborating on this project, and of course the work is faster and light years better with the addition of two sets of ears, minds, and hearts. I rehearsed with one of the two gentlemen this morning, and that was ninety minutes of grace. Not only am I challenged to a new level of elegance by his musicianship, I was given the gift of his total engagement with and enjoyment of our work, of his profession. I asked him how many times he had played Don Giovanni. He smiled and mentioned that next season would be his last before retirement, and as we talked he spoke of his grandfather, who joined the Vienna Philharmonic in 1892, who played under Mahler and Strauss and who collaborated with Brahms. 

A quick email check before rehearsal contained glowing reports of the eulogy and the piano solo. Outside my windows it was snowing hard, and I had to hurry downstairs. Behind me my boss gave the downbeat, and the orchestra thundered on all sides the music that will outlive us all. 


Wednesday, November 24, 2010


It means "Hall of Splendor", or if you are translating in haste for someone in the Kantine, "fancy room". I played a gig there last night, in the room of splendor of the Austrian National Library. The Nationalbibliothek is part of the Hofberg complex, the spectacular lodgings of emperors past, and it turns out that in addition to the great furniture and tracts of land, the Habsburgs also collected the occasional Buch.

80 meters long and 30 meters high, cathedral-like in dimension and jaw-droppingly beautiful, this is the former great hall of the Imperial library. Marble floors and pillars support the frescoed dome and the walls lined with centuries of thought written down in all languages. The first display case I saw upon entering the hall contained a 5th century parchment illustrating the mail routes of the Roman empire. It's like a pretend fantasy library from some great yet-unmade movie, Harry Potter meets the DaVinci Code.

See old Karl VI in the center there? Last night he was surrounded by life-size images of some very beloved Alfred Roller designs:

My colleagues and I were the entertainment for "100 years of Rosenkavalier". That wonderful piece is having a big anniversary in 2011, and a small, fascinating group of supporters had a preview of the installation last night. The Roller designs were just a taste. I stared for many minutes at some of von Hofmannsthal's original notes for the first scene between the Marschallin and Oktavian. He brought them to Strauss for an initial meeting, and as they talked together (no doubt over coffee), Strauss came up with a few melodic ideas. There they were, the opera's initial ascending horn call and the sighing violin answer, born as doodles in the margins of some hastily sketched dialogue. 

We performed in the unheated hall and then repaired to the comfort of a reception. I talked to a former Austrian Supreme Court justice, a diplomat, a professor of literature, opera lovers all. I was moved by the connection of this audience to this piece, and by their grateful connection to the performers. I walked back to the streetcar with the mezzo, a woman experienced in this opera but buzzing with anticipation over her first Oktavian at the Staatsoper, coming in just a few weeks (especially after talking to our audience members about who they've heard in that house!). 

And then at home, the messages were waiting for me. I found my brother-in-law on Skype. He was drying the big pot for the mashed potatoes that may or may not get made, waiting to hear if he should take my nephew on to choir practice or to the hospital where my mom and siblings had already gathered. My grandmother was admitted about a week ago, and Mom's gut feeling was that she wasn't coming home. Still, she had rallied in the last 48 hours, enough so that my uncle was planning to bring her home for the holiday. Yesterday things changed quickly, and now it seems that the liver cancer she's been fighting since the summer will take her soon, most likely during this holiday weekend. 

Some of the people who read this have met Alice. I wish you all knew her. She has lived a great life, an epic life. It started with immigrant parents, a mother who couldn't ever communicate well in English, two siblings who died young, the wish for education squelched by her father, a marriage ended after just five years with her beloved young husband's death, and the decision to leave her baby daughter behind in New Ulm and travel to Minneapolis for work. She was a single mother during the war, was terrifyingly poor, tough, and resourceful. She had a disastrous second marriage and a troubled third to a sad and loyal WWII veteran. She was a working woman until retirement, she took care of her grandchildren; she completed her GED at the age of 70 and nursed her husband through a long, relentless illness. She traveled the world and learned line dancing, she chopped her own ice out of her gutters, she was a terrible driver and has always been an avid card player. She came to Houston to visit me a few years ago, refused the airline's wheelchair and walked through Intercontinental, and insisted on going to Lakewood Chapel to see Joel Osteen. She's Rosenkavalier's younger sister by five years. She hasn't ever heard the piece, but I imagine she'd enjoy the music while recognizing exactly none of its privileged characters. 

It's Thanksgiving Day. My family's in a splendid room in Minnesota.

Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding
Wenn man so hinlebt, ist sie rein gar nichts,
Aber dann auf einmal, man spürt doch nichts als sie.
Sie ist in uns herum, sie ist auch in uns drinnen.
In den Gesichtern rieselt sie. Im Spiegel da rieselt sie,
In meinen Schläfern fliesst sie,
Und zwischen mir und dir da fliesst sie wieder, lautlos...
Allein, man muss sich auch vor ihr nicht fürchten.
Auch sie ist ein Geschöpf des Vaters, 
Der uns alle erschaffen hat.

Time, that's a strange thing.
When you're absorbed in your life, it's nothing,
But then, all at once, you're aware of nothing else.
It's all around us, it's inside us too,
It's flowing through our faces, in the mirror,
In my veins, and silently between the two of us...
Only, we shouldn't be afraid of it.
It's another creation of the Father who created us all. 


Friday, November 12, 2010


Like Keanu Reeves with the plug in his head, I suddenly know kung fu. Halfway through yesterday, in the middle of a simple administrative task, I could suddenly see it: the Staatsoper season. Something shifted over, the edges of the square peg gave a little bit, and suddenly the information started to fit. The inside of my head unclenched to an unsmall degree. I went upstairs to the Orgelsaal, played a Giovanni rehearsal, met friends out in Meidling for Martinigänserl, went home, and slept easily through the night.

At almost exactly three months into our Austrian life, this feels like the end of a large, classic, and probably quite predictable arc. Initial excitement leads to exhaustion and estrangement. A restorative reunion with family and friends enables a return with widened perspective and new equilibrium. Just because it's an old script doesn't mean it's not a good one.

Our dinner, by the way, had nothing to with gin or vodka, but with the Austrian tradition of eating goose on St. Martin's day. We sat in a traditional restaurant and everybody spoke in German and English, including Paul, and laughed and chilled out on a warmish Friday night. Today we'll get on a train and meet some people at their house out in the wine region.

Want some more? Oh HELL yes.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

suck it up

Endlich zu Hause. At last I'm home, sick (thank you plane flight!), drinking tea, and hanging out with MtMn as he obsesses over his latest writing project. I'm happy. I'm down. I'm exhausted. I'm a headachy bandana tied to a big rope on parents' day at camp, I'm the sneezy meat in a lesson sandwich. I'm the in exquisite middle of the tug, the bite, blowing my nose, looking for a way out.

I admire and pity a man strange and dear to me. His turtleshell armor helps to cause the adversity that it enables him to endure. How unlike and like him I am, now and ever. I know the cold won't last, not the infection in my chest or the temperature in this new city. Yet even as my diamond mind breathes in patience, monkey shrieks and looks to pick the lock on the cage. Let me out, help me stay.

Long term projects are my specialty. I know I can hang in there, suck it up, stay strong. That's been my goal as long as I can remember. But is it right? Where is the strength that doesn't do violence? 

More coughing rattles me like punishment. That's a crazy and cruel thought all by itself. My heart's soft enough, maybe it can still teach my mind.



Tuesday, November 2, 2010

the wit and wisdom of Rock 92

I always forget that the radio station in my home town is no longer classical, a serious fault when you consider that the changeover is at least five years old. One of the colleges here was home to a great classical music and NPR station, and now it's one of those corporate "college" channels, The Man embarrassing in a Che Guevara T-shirt. I flipped it on reflexively in my rented Chevy Aveo and heard something about a young man seriously lacking in vocal energy having a dyslexic heart. It's because he can't read his girl's signals, see? Aaaaarrrrgggghhhh. This from the same place on the dial where I first found music that bonded to every molecule in my body. I cursed quietly but with inappropriate passion and pressed "scan" twice, seeking public radio, but this was a few days before the election and the lyrics there were even sadder. No more Beethoven, no more Democratic Farmer Labor party, my hopeful early Minnesota life lost forever and the airwaves full of twaddle.

Scan, scan. If it had to be lame, let it be the lame I remember, the tinny lame from the transistor radio out in the yard on the hot summer days that Annie and I laid out together covered in pre-Live Strong baby oil. Let it be the lame I heard my uncle striving for in the garage with his shirtless friends. Summer of the late seventies, I summoned you to my car, calling up days whose enormous frustration held enormous promise.

somewhere along the lonley road I had tried ta find ya

The old house is one of the few old bungalows from the twenties, shakily standing in a neighborhood full of lot-straining new construction. I climb in bed with her, spooning as the TV preacher bellows. She likes him because he is so intelligent. I have learned so much about the old testament! she tells me. My uncle brings soup. He's set up high-speed so he can work from the house, and when she decides she wants to get dressed, I go set up Skype. Her green sweater is a beautiful color for her. She tells me stories from her trip to Sweden and she dozes off on my shoulder. I look at a picture of her just after the war on the steps of the house, strong and tan in a halter top, smiling at whatever lover holds the camera.

we gotta get outta this place
if it's the last thing we evah do yeah yeah

He watches me put up pictures in the new room. This OK? Nails in my mouth as I re-center the framed photograph. Sure, honey, whatever you think. But I ask with each picture, still expecting exactitude, criticism, disappointment. They never come. He watches the Vikings and thinks Favre should have retired. Since August he's lost half of his hair and his teeth hurt him, so he falls asleep without them. His mouth is tiny between steroid-swollen cheeks.

I'll just sit tight through the shadows of the night
Let it ring forever more

The difference between the fifth grade band and the sixth grade band is huge! Half the town is in the bleachers of the high school auditorium to hear all the middle and high school bands play. Fifth grade is all a Dudamel-inspired version of Twinkle Twinkle, no music, with different sections standing and sitting to take their turn in the spotlight. By sixth they're all white-shirted behind their stands, the conductor has a baton, the pitch has begun its long process of detente. My nephew is cool in the enormous sax section, true to his Scandinavian roots, no swaying in response to the percussion of Fiesta Time! or counting unconsciously with his head.

they say the sea turns so dark
you know it's time, you read the signs

My retired choir director sits behind me. I remember the night in 1979, right before we moved to Arizona, when we did the best choir concert ever in that auditorium, when I cried at the thought of leaving that choir because I couldn't imagine one finer, couldn't imagine music outside of the college on the hill with its amazing radio station, couldn't imagine a better piano teacher than mine. My heart was full of sorrow as we headed away from town. How I wanted to stay, how I wanted to flee. How music lifted me, carried me away, keeps bringing me back.

My sister-in-law (also standing in a fateful place, having blown out her knee in Lady Raiders basketball a few feet from where the band now sits) holds her youngest up to the rail to see his brother. My niece slips her hand into mine.

'scuse me while I kiss the sky.


Sunday, October 17, 2010


Vienna doesn't get the riot of fall color that either of us grew up with in the midwestern US. Only occasional bursts of dullish red and orange vary the tired yellow of the trees, fool's gold indeed, drained even further by the leaden skies. The air contains a warning edge that spurs me toward my bike; how many more Sundays before snow makes a ride impossible? I pump up my tires and pedal, legs and heart working against a variety of dragging weights.

North along the Donaukanal, I'm not paying attention to much. Bridge. Subway station. Riotously colored utility plant, yellow tree, yellow tree, yellow tree. Familiarity is turning this part of the ride invisible. I start to ascend a ramp that will take me across two bridges to the long island in the middle of the Danube. Over the water now, the wind is colder, bracing, and I lean into it gratefully, happy to push into something that pushes back. Lean men in tight spandex rush past me on their light bikes, and I pass a couple jogging and talking leisurely together, running as though the sun is shining. Cars drive past us on the long bridge.

On the island, the mist starts to organize itself toward rain, and no one's around on the long paths but long-haul bikers and runners plus the occasional practicing skier with poles and rollerskates. We smile at each other in an uncharacteristic way, a small congratulations for freezing together. The sky seems content to fall down on us slowly, one small drop at a time. Yellow tree, yellow tree, yellow tree. But then, a startling long canopy of yellow, burnished, lovely. From the heights of mid-island hills are expansive views of the admirable buildings of several centuries across the river on either side, big spired churches and hotels like ships and structures of glass reflecting the water and vice versa. The wind blows sharply, and the smell of the dying leaves struck by the new cold rain surprises me. The wind brings water from my eyes, my eyes take in the majestic city, my legs work at the bike pedals, my heart works.

Up another ramp onto another bridge, over the wide Donau. A barge of trash that says ГABAHA passes a barge of containers. The wind picks up, fighting the roar of traffic from the other side of the barrier. There is a collection of tiny houses and gardens at the west end of the bridge. A woman is covering some plants with a tarp, a man is bent over the open hood of a car. I steer into the Prater, right into some kind of race, people with numbers pinned to their raingear walking and running down the Hauptallee, rock music and laughter and tents and tables with water. There are suddenly families again, intrepid kids on tiny bikes, old people moving at a stately pace or jogging trim and clear-eyed, groups of parents and children or friends taking up leisurely amounts of space, insanely well-behaved Austrian dogs. Yellow tree, yellow tree, yellow tree.

The bridge back over the canal leads to some of the third district's prettiest houses, ornate balconies and turrets above a path suddenly ruddy. Die letzten roten Astern trag herbei. By the Urania, observe how the rain means business. I opt to stay by the water , under the bridges. My big and big-tired bike is good over the occasional cobblestones. My legs shiver under my wet sweatpants. The hydrofoils to Bratislava wait in vain for customers, and the sullen white-shirted waiters are smoking in the rain, scowling in unzipped jackets with the hoods pulled up. LESS! screams the graffiti on the Leopoldstadt side, big pictures of bloated red-white-blue zombies and an exploding globe. The Sunday morning exercisers in midtown wear Saturday night heavily as they pant past me, earbuds in place.

Friedensbrücke, last ramp, Glasergasse. I lock my bike in the rain and step into my warm house on slightly rubbery legs. The sky keeps slowly falling.


Sunday, October 10, 2010


The date seems significant, yes? One on which to take stock.

Our dearest friends from Seattle just left yesterday after a week's visit. It was, of course, remarkable to have them here, to add their eyes to ours looking at this lovely land, and our nearly 25 (25!!) shared years of friendship brought comfort and familiarity and joy to the week. It has also thrown our situation into sharper relief. This couple has been in Seattle since 1989, when MtMn and they were in law school together. Their rich life of career and friends and volunteerism and culture is more than two decades deep in that beautiful city. Thanks to the way we can communicate today, I have connection to them and to lots of friends from that many years. But sitting with these dear two for a few days puts me in touch with what the itinerant life makes impossible, or less possible. Not yet rooted in this new soil, something inside me reaches toward them, or maybe just out to some version of home I've lived, somewhere.

Sunday morning, six weeks into the Staatsoper and not quite eight into Wien, I sit on my couch with a cup of tea feeling unsure, foreign, alone.But I also feel accomplished, supported, and comfortable, because it's not hard to return to the joys and rewards of a life that includes many homes. A walk with a new friend, a few hours of Skype, and much MtMn time will make this a perfect day worthy of any city. I'll go put my feet on the ground, this ground, and try to feel myself standing.

I wish you could see the new production of Cardillac that we're opening next week. It's a very precise, expressive, non-realistic way of telling the story, and the singers and orchestra are in terrific form. What we can do with rehearsal time is extremely impressive. In the same week, we'll open a Barber of Seville without any stage or orchestra rehearsal, in which three young singers will make their Staatsoper debuts. At the same time, we'll have performances of Lucrezia Borgia, the premiere of a new ballet, and we'll rehearse Salome and L'Elisir d'amore. There are also a few performances of the children's opera. That takes us through next Sunday.

In the meantime, MtMn goes to the Shaolin Temple, trains, goes to jazz clubs, trains. Sometimes he plays in the street. Soon it will be too cold for that, but yesterday I could hear him in the pedestrian zone by the opera house as I finished up some paperwork. I closed up my computer and my office and went down into the street, setting my face against the chilly breeze, following that beloved sound.


Thursday, September 30, 2010


It's my first blog post from Italy! MtMn and I have made a short-notice trip to Trento, where I am filling in for my boss DM and representing the Staatsoper (addition for my Merkin friends: yo) at a competition for conductors. The situation is unreasonably comfortable: great hotel, jaw-dropping Italian food, fascinating company. The jury communicates in English, German, and Italian, and I'm getting to know the two non-smokers better than my other equally compelling colleagues who flee the concert hall at every conceivable break. And the competition is a real learning experience; I've never judged one for conductors before. The rep list was put together by a man who knows his stuff. Brahms 2 is there, but so are Zerbinetta's aria and the Sprecher scene from Zauberfloete. We get to see right away the depth of each candidate's training, listening, and curiosity. And then there's all that you can't explain, why the (very good) orchestra suddenly sounds warmer for one person, larger for another, edgy for the next. Often these results bear no relation to how the conducting (addition for my Merkin friends: carving) looks. We go out to pranzo and talk about the mysterious and totally unique combination of skills possessed by every good conductor. Today we will cut a field of eight (six men, two women, seven countries) down to five finalists.

But I wanted to tell you about last night, so let me back up. We were collected at the airport by the president of the association whose name is on this competition (which seems actually to be run by the conductor of the orchestra, and the relationship between the organizations is beautifully unclear). He speaks only a little English, so he had another friend along. This man is a retired banker capable of charm in three languages, and he switched effortlessly between them while regaling the president, myself, and MtMn with the history of Trentino and South Tyrol. We went down the autobahn at about 95 miles per hour, the Dolomites jutting on either side of us and the stars bright in the sky. In the middle of his stories about palace construction during the Council of Trent, our host mentioned that on Thursday night there would be a small concert in our honor, featuring the mens' choir sponsored by their association. Just a few traditional songs, nothing more.

After we chose the semifinalists yesterday, this was confirmed by the conductor. We had to do this to make some of the sponsors happy, he said. He'd never heard the choir before, but he promised there would be two or three numbers, and then we could eat and beat a hasty retreat.

This is not actually how it all went down. First of all, no matter how the music sounded, we would have stayed long for the food. A table in the center of the simple room (it turned out we were in the house of our driver's grandfather, the founder of the association) groaned under plates of sausage, prosciutto, grapes, breadbox-sized wedges of gorgonzola, liters of local wine and mineral water, and housemade cannoli. We were doomed, we were done for. But before we approached, of course, there had to be just a few songs.

You've probably already guessed that the choir knocked our socks off. They are not classical singers in any sense. They make their noise in a natural, untrained way, singing traditional songs traditionally (the brilliance of their beautiful, compact vowels is something I'd love to import). Of the 35 men in the group, three can read music.One of those is the leader, the brother of our driver, also a grandson of the founder, and he teaches each section (11 tenors, 9 leads, 7 baritones, 8 basses) by rote. They sing everything a capella, in Italian, French, German, and several dialects that are ear-bending combinations of all three. Pictures of the choir from 1926 onward fill the walls of the house, and I looked at them during the concert, at younger versions of the performers, at their fathers and grandfathers. The current group ranges in age from 24 to 77, young and old guys of all professions carrying the tradition forward, all of it dependent on staying in one place, preserving a language, a way of rehearsing, a set of shared relationships.

They stand in a half-circle, in two rows. Their leader, the grandson of the founder, stands at the far end of the first row, singing with the basses, and he conducts them with his eyes and the most minimal use of his right hand. A small widening and strengthening of that hand produces a huge, lusty sound that fades to a whisper when he turns the hand over and softens its gesture. He opens his blue eyes a little, and the music warms. He sharpens his stare, the rhythm solidifies.

The songs are about the bells in the valley, the way to the church, the young girl at the mill, the soldier marching off to war, and we ask them to keep singing and then after dinner they sing some more. The leader has his choir, his neighbors, his friends, hold the final notes for impossible seconds, and they stop on a dime when he suddenly closes his hand.


Saturday, September 25, 2010

smooth sailing

Why is my bike commute so awesome? It's partly my bike, which is a beauty. I went out to Cooperative Fahrrad in the Gumpendorferstrasse, a first-rate street name if I ever heard one, and bought myself a real cool old lady's bike. Like, if Miss Gulch one morning suddenly took a yoga class and got a mani-pedi, this is what her bike would look like: big and not fast and made for those rough Kansas rural roads (or the cobblestones of the Ringstrasse) and yet a snazzy white with unnecessarily cool leather handgrips. There's a bike path along the entire Ring as well as along the Donaukanal, so it's smooth sailing for me all the way to work. As the air gets cooler and the leaves start to change, the chilly mornings grow more precious, and the pedals beneath my work shoes and the wind in my face take me right back to Union Street and my first bike, my September path to Sibley Elementary, the thrilling freedom that came along with that first set of wheels, with getting there by myself. I feel giddy every time I ride, about twelve years old, tops.

No bike riding today, however, with the rain coming down and the gray fog of autumn beginning to settle over Vienna. Saturday started on the streetcar and continued in a morning of piano practice and an afternoon of "The Wire" episodes and Skyping with family. I looked at online pictures of the flooding in downtown Northfield, recognizing some familiar faces among the locals sandbagging a riverside bar against the rising water. I savored the memory of last night's dinner party which was full of great food, new friends, and lots of music (including MtMn). Tomorrow is my first recital at the Opera, with two young ensemble members.

Preparing to make music, taking a little leisure, keeping in touch with my faraway family, enjoying the company of engaging and warm people that generous fate puts unfailingly into my path. This could be a weekend at any time, in any city. There is sudden joy, sharp and unspectacular, in finding this familiarity.

The window is open to the rainy night, the wind in my face. Freedom.


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Time Slice #3

It's cloudy and quiet on a Sunday morning, not that early, but all of the 9th Bezirk still seems to be sleeping. Sipping on a huge mug of fragrant tea, I look out over another day of events both personal and monumental. Either I've entered some huge and rare cone of synchronicity, or this is just what life is like.

Today marks both the Staatsoper conducting debut of a friend and the memorial service of a mentor. I have the privilege of rejoicing in the friend's fine accomplishment and remembering the mentor's unforgiving brilliance. I also have to think on the association we all share with the San Francisco Opera. Friend and I both trained there at different times, mentor and I worked there.

Tonight also happens to be the final performance of our La Boheme, and that opera will always bring San Francisco memories to my mind. The piece is completely interwoven into my early professional life. It was the first thing I ever prompted, back when the aforementioned mentor was my reluctant teacher. It was my daily work and inspiration as I was discovering a gorgeous city, navigating a wholesale change in my life, and drowning in a challenging new job.

Sipping tea. Is this a memory?

Every professional relationship, every next step was born in that house. Friendships stretch back to those days. Life in three cities happened because of them. Friends who are sending congratulations toward the Vienna debut, friends who will stand in tribute at the War Memorial, all these threads stretch back that far, intertwine, fold in on themselves.

Today begins with these delicate threads. I can know about beautiful singing in Houston and exciting rehearsals in New York as the sun breaks through Vienna's morning clouds. It is delicious to sit here slightly unsure of where and when I am. Soon MtMn will wake up and we'll ride our bikes north for a bit, and I imagine that the activity and terrain will bind me firmly to time and place, but right now life feels vertical, all at once, a slice.

Willkommen. My the angels lead you into paradise. Keep in touch.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

hearing voices

Walking through a large repertory opera house will probably always be one of my favorite things to do. I finished up a coaching last night at 6 and opened my office window. On the Herbert-von-Karajan-Platz below, the live video transmission of Tannhäuser began, and the first burnished notes floated up to me along with the combined music of steps, conversations, and streetcars. Somewhere around the beginning of the Venusberg music I closed my email and walked into the hallway, where that same music took on a new, ghostly timbre as it traveled up from the theater five floors below. It grew louder and brighter as I passed the half-open door to the catwalk and faded as I entered a rehearsal room to check in on Pique Dame. Under the brilliant, busy piano whispered important voices, saving their effort and tone for the theater. Back in the hallway, I heard the mens' chorus from the half-open door. In the corridor that leads into the house itself, I couldn't hear anything, and then in the lobby outside the top balcony there was just a hint of Wagner, as though from a distant radio. Into the Kinderzelt, a tent on the roof of the opera house, where the children's opera rehearses: tinny upright, dead acoustics, young singers working to be understood by the kids that will fill the tent come Sunday. It was intermission when I headed back to the theater, where I had intended to hear the rest of the opera from my usual seat in the company loge. But I kept wandering, up to the catwalks for Act 2 and the backstage for Act 3. I took such joy in this evening, hearing the various musics of the house from the shadows. The intimacy of it, the privacy, was balm for my overextended spirit. The paying guests were at the party and I was a servant listening in secret, and that meant the grand house was truly mine.

Late in the evening, MtMn went down into our street to help our visiting friends get the luggage out of their car. I leaned out of our window, five stories up, and listened to familiar voices floating up to me, and waited for our guests to enter our home.


Friday, September 10, 2010


MtMn has been felled by his first Austrian cold virus. He sleeps as I start my day perfectly thanks to his Naschmarkt trip and mad cooking skillz: homemade bread, cheese from Cheese Land, cafe au lait with cinnamon. It's a beautiful morning on a day of somber memory. Nine years ago, MtMn drove off to his stressful law office while I stretched out my morning in similar fashion. Even as I think on the large events, results, and meanings of that day, I also think of breakfast, the simple beginning of every morning, the way we help each other through that and then through the days and nights.

Yesterday was a day of simple but meaningful triumph; work got done, results were obvious, no drama was attached. If every day contains this, something wonderful will be underway, something definitely worth a certain level of exhaustion.

Maybe because today is today, maybe because of the small steps forward, but probably just because of Mozart (and the mad skillz of the Wiener Sängerknaben), this is what brought unexpected tears to my eyes at work last night:

Bald prangt, den Morgen zu verkünden,
Die Sonn' auf goldner Bahn,
Bald muß die Nacht, die düstre, schwinden,
Der Tag der Weisheit nahn.-
O holder Friede, steig hernieder,
Kehr in der Menschen Herzen wieder,
Dann ist die Erd ein Himmelreich,-
Und Sterbliche sind Göttern gleich.

Soon the resplendent sun on its golden path will announce morning's arrival.
Soon black night must disappear and the day of wisdom draw near.
Oh beloved peace, come down and return to the hearts of men.
Then earth will be a heavenly place, and humans like the gods.


Monday, September 6, 2010

These three days

The first time I ever saw a Schubert song, I was in the basement of a house in Nürnberg. I was on a high school exchange program, and my guest bedroom was sonically insulated by thick floors and located right next to a room that housed a harpsichord and many books of Lieder. I stayed up late into the night reading through that treasure, discovering that world.

Then Saturday, I played "An die Musik" in in the city of its birth.

The first time I ever saw the word "Prater", I was curled up on the floor between stacks of books in the Arizona State University library. I'd ended up playing rehearsals for the music school's production of Cosi, and, bitten hard, I was poring over every score I could get my hands on. This score was huge, and I had just recently cracked the code of the strange use of German articles (Er? Ihr? Euch? for one person?). But "Prater" I had to look up. Later, when I finally worked on Rosenkavalier, I practiced the weird vowel combinations and alien consonant alterations (I ho hoyt a...what?) that I heard the experienced artists using.

Then Sunday, I walked in that there Prater, and I heard that sing-song talk all around me.

My first opera house was, lucky me, San Francisco's. There I learned what life in a great company could be. I watched a great orchestra develop, watched the chorus morph into something different each day. I was part of a young artist ensemble that worked like dogs and soaked up lessons from the great visitors, singers and directors and conductors. Later, I was part of the music staff, and that transition was the first of many growing up in this far-flung, professional and personal family.

Then yesterday, I took the streetcar home, having seen three operas in 24 hours, all of which included people I am training, have trained, have worked with, have known forever, was happy to finally meet, whom I have admired for years.

The details of each day are overwhelming, frustrating - but the takeaway!


Sunday, August 29, 2010


Well, I'm about to start work at the Vienna Staatsoper. It promises to be the hardest job I have ever done. And here, where I've shared a lot of my mind and heart with y'all - well, there will be no sharing of the job. Can't be. Homey don't play dat. That will be strange, though, because the job and the dozens of people I need to get to know and learn to work with will take up the lion's share of my energy and brainpower.

This space, however, belongs to a net of strategies designed to keep me from getting lost in all of that.  Kim Witman wrote something that scratched at me hard this week, and I hope you'll give it a look. Like her, I think that part of the reason my work is good is because I lose myself in it. However, I've also spent the last year and change getting significantly less lost. I don't want to make the mistake of forgetting to live in this city that inspired so many of the musicians who inspire me. Of course they came here for commerce, as I have done - but Vienna offers much more than that, as big-city culturally bored as it sometimes tries to appear.

For instance, in the morning when I open my window, this is what I get to see:

And today, within the city limits, we went on a stroll that looked like this:

So really, as hard as things over at Das Haus might get - how can I possibly forget to see these things? I hope I can remember if I take the time to show them to you.

So thanks for helping me live here.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

We're from Smoland

"Wir kommen aus Smoland" proclaims the poster at the Wien-Nord IKEA, and the smaller print goes on to extol the pragmatism of the place. Naturally, the sign seems to say, these frugal Swedes were bound to come up with the BILLY bookshelf and the ECKTORP line. The word Smoland hits me deep, because I'm from Smoland too, or at least my great-grandparents were. I stand in one of my era's great shopping emporia transfixed. Once Smoland was so poor that  it was hemorrhaging peasants - they come by their practical reputations honestly. Less than one hundred years ago it made more sense to Hans and Alma Larson to get into the belly of a boat than to stay home, and so they braved the three-week journey to Minnesota with their four tiny children. Somehow history makes a line from steerage to superstore, somehow I am standing here.

See, IKEA makes the way we are moving possible. Why pack up and ship your possessions, risking damage and loss, when you can outfit your apartment with new things for a fraction of the cost? So I'm walking around with a cart and a couple of yellow bags. Closet organization, bookcases, bedding, new measuring cups (because of the metric system....Royale wit Cheese...), rugs, towels - it's all here. Several hours, many steps, one VISA card and one cab ride later, MtMn and I are lugging our treasure up to our flat in the tiny lift. It takes four trips and four hours with an Allen wrench and a borrowed hammer (German word learned: ein Hammer. Srsly.), but suddenly our place seems more like home. We put stuff away, we sweep the floor, we eat chocolate as the moonlight pours in the window.

In the morning we take a stroll and he wonders: when was the last time that most construction was built to last for as long as possible? He's moved to that question by the neighborhood buildings, mostly erected 1890-1900. They are solid, standing sure after more than a century and confidently looking forward to at least another. Our age is the one that knows it can wipe itself out - or, seen from a less frightening angle, it's the age when anyone can go anywhere and do anything. Our buildings today reflect that. We won't be here long, we can't stay, we'll change our minds.

IKEA's part of that world, part of what makes it possible, within a week of your emigration, to put your shoes away in a place made just for them. It's the great displacement turned into pride and profit. I'm its eager fan even as I feel the tug of something lost. It's easy to sentimentalize a bygone era, especially living in a city full of its architectural and artistic legacy. But MtMn and I both know from our own families the hardship and heartbreak of that time, the rigorous journeys, the enormous risks. We're glad to make our moves by choice with relative ease, and we're amazed at how quickly a place can seem familiar. We've started to be proud of our ability to locate home anywhere we are. What a change from Zemplen or Smoland or Ballinasloe of a hundred years ago, when leaving home meant something so different.

Twenty years ago I visited Ha Hamneda, Smoland, with my mom and grandma, and we danced on Midsummer's Night and walked inside the farmhouse where my great-grandmother was born. A few weeks ago, my mom showed me the trunk that Hans and Alma carried to Minnesota; filled with their possessions, it was the only thing besides their children that they brought. It's still sturdy, and will still be when it becomes mine.


Friday, August 20, 2010

In der Fremde

I've been dying to write an entry here every time I sit down in a cafe with free Wifi, and each time I've been unable to begin. It's impossible to know where to start, and even as I write that sentence fragment I'm struck by how unoriginal it is, how universal this experience of displacement and search for equilibrium. I think of my many dear friends who have taken on the minstrel's life, and I'm grateful for their courage and humor and amazed by their patience.

My husband and my best friend are still asleep a few blocks away, and I don't want to stay away too long, but let me say these things:

Vienna is a land unto itself, imperially snobby and gracious down in the bone, calmly international (but not to the extent it imagines), not very German at all (in contrast to my expectations). We went down part of the Danube in a boat yesterday and the landscape's beauty caused me to gasp.

It is remarkable to live in a place that is proud of itself for its ability to provide a good quality of life for nearly all its citizens, where homelessness and hunger are seen as unacceptable. Of course, the Empire had to die and shrink to make this possible. Hm.

The operatic drama of customs and paperwork is a blessing, like having to make funeral arrangements - it keeps you moving and planning through the fatigue and confusion of your first foreign weeks.

Making dinner in a new apartment makes it home. But having Internet and a home telephone will make it even better.

I don't miss home yet, Texas or Minnesota or Michigan or New York, because I'm used to being away from all those places. It's coming, though.

Today we are going to look at Roman ruins, Biedermeyer furniture, and Nazi tanks. Tomorrow: IKEA.

Music is about to fill my days in a way it never has.

This entry sounds a little tired, which is fair enough.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Vienna so far

Beautiful apartment, flowers from the realtor, kind neighbors, helpful friends, nice bank tellers, easy Anmeldung, brutal jet lag, moody and nervous (Paul too! really!), eye feastin', necessity buyin', general amazement.

I promise the next entry won't be another list.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Coffee, Facebook, and the Military Channel: it's morning for me and MtMn, our last in the USA for many months. The bags are weighed, the papers are in the paper-carrying thing, and somehow we will get to Vienna less than 24 hours from now. It's hard for my racing mind to choose its words. I do know that I am humbled and grateful when I look back on our five months of nomadic life. Time to go home.

Liebe macht die Herzen krank. Thanks for that.


Monday, August 9, 2010

Family Fragments

You might mean the other one who looks like a guy.

I'm not a hero!! I'm not a savior!!

You will not believe what they are selling at Target. 

Nobody else there approved of drinking,  of course.

(Which superhero are you?) All of them put together.

Dad, did you know that the Dark Knight is....Batman?

I knew things were different when he asked to stop at the gas station.

Ridegate 2010!

(texting) OMG Stacy and Clinton were right!

I'm hoping for school board because of Ice Cream.

Are we going to see them never again?



Saturday, July 31, 2010

What I remembered the first day after leaving

The arresting laryngeal damage of the woman who calls Po-Ke-No at the Three Links Care Center.

The pull-apart cinnamon bread.

My mom trying bubble tea for the first time.

Purple phlox and tiger lilies.

That the pastor was so much younger than me.

Dairy Queen is never worth it.

When I asked her why and she said, "well, what alternative do you think I had?"

The conversation in the minivan.


The trunk they came over with.

It is always and never the last time.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Art and Thusnelda and Fritz and Alice

Well, Witte was the name for him, that's for sure. Smart. Smart like a, like that animal...
(sharp exhalation, gently irritated. Eyes close momentarily)
...that one. I didn't trust him. But they were "in love" (eyeroll, exaggerated hand dance), so what do you do? Thusnelda was my best friend.
(coffee taken, mouth delicately wiped. Blue knots under white paper.)
They thought she was going with Fritz, and that was fine with them. He was so good-looking, and smart, and he had a car. And he was sooo kind to take his little sister to the dances too! (sideways glance, sarcasm noted). Except I was his partner, of course. They didn't know... that we were picking up Art at the next farm!
(short laugh, slight wheezing, brush of my knee. Translucent teeth and angel hair.)
Her parents would have fired him On. The. Spot. They had big plans for Snelda because she was the only girl. They dressed for church like they were really something special.
(Laugh, wheeze, cough. Eyes close. Deep breath from a shrinking chest.)
And all that time Snelda was with a hired man! (pleasurable laugh, wheezing, this time a knee slap). It lasted until Fritz met Donna. She's in a home, you know. Anyway, he wouldn't drive Snelda after that, and one night they came home and her parents were waiting.
(dramatic pause, that young devil's smile up at me)
What were they thinking, locking her out of the house? They knew he had money since they were paying him to work, see? And so of course they left and got married. It was such a scandal! (gleeful grin, pause to sip coffee)
Can you tell me how to get on that Facebook?


Saturday, July 24, 2010


I first traveled to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in the seventies, shortly after the government named the place in an attempt to preserve the landscape while still encouraging tourism. Mine was the experience of practically all Minnesota Lutheran children of the era: we piled into huge wooden canoes in July or August and paddled over the rainy lakes on the way to campfire singalongs (I still remember the entire descant to "Pass It On" - hey, world!), pancakes, fish cleaning, unsuccessful firestarting, and hideous swarms of insects. The sheer discomfort of the bug bites and the damp clothing and the hard labor did their work and broke down our complacent little souls, if only for that week. We were temporarily free of our schoolyard reputations. We helped. We complained less. We had moments, sometimes breathtakingly long moments, of living with a new understanding of our place on the planet. We were awed and terrified by the raw, ancient beauty of the place.

I came home and forgot all about it.

Truly, I didn't think of northern Minnesota for decades. The Mountain Man and I have been avid hikers together, but I always required a place with a shower, a bed, and someone else's cooking at the end of the day. Certainly nothing about any other majestic location brought the BWCWA experience back to the surface of my memory; I looked on a whole host of overwhelming peaks and valleys and never revisited that locked-away place. Then I turned forty, and the challenge of it all reasserted itself, as ridiculously typical as my pink cell phone.

MtMn prepared for our first sojourn with wary enthusiasm, and thanks be to God he had plenty of wilderness experience. I didn't know what I was in for, and that first trip was both harder and easier than anything I imagined. My body ached but was stronger and smarter than I had ever believed - my mind, too. The world was big and beautiful and I was just a small, joyful part of it, and I saw the mad perfection of giving myself over to its every move. Life could be all hard work, patient acceptance, no plans. I can still smell the air that rushed past us as we paddled back up the river at the end of the week.

I can also remember forgetting all about it. Same thing the next summer, learning and unlearning. Clearly one needs to keep returning.

It's too far away to be easily accessed, which keeps the place pristine but keeps the local economy hanging by a thread. We borrowed and rented all our equipment this time, our camping gear all in Houston storage, and promptly encountered all the glorious hardships and rewards of this remarkable place: mosquitoes like fighter pilots, thunderstorms that forced us off the lakes, muddy portages, stiff wind, bright sunshine, calm waters, blue skies, bright stars, big fish. We took naps on the granite cliffs and pumped lake water through filters, swam in the still-icy water and played cribbage in the tent with our headlamps on.

In three days, it's still possible to forget (or at least smile at) all the controls we (I) try to place upon this wild existence. As we walked the last portage out, we passed a group of high school campers, possibly Lutheran and definitely Minnesotan, all blond hair, misery in their blue eyes as they strained under their Duluth packs and swatted at the swarms.

Oh, children, you are saved by grace alone. Look around you, plan to come back, try to remember.


Saturday, July 17, 2010

time slice #2

When I pick him up there is only the cane at his side. The bike sails past us under his strong legs.He says he doesn't need the walker to go to breakfast. The amusement park is swallowed by his long strides.He won't take my arm as he shuffles into the pancake house. He sees her look and slowly presses the accelerator.

As always, he chats up the waitress and brags on the grandchildren.

He orders bacon (steak, alfredo sauce, ice cream) and a large cranberry juice (beer, vodka, scotch) and waits for the argument. 

"Well, I had two outta three good eggs, but the one nurse (board member, councilman, manager) treated me like I was one of those Alzenheimers (college idiots, tokens, women), like I don't know how to manage my own illness (account, business, conflict). I told 'em I wouldn't participate in their bullshit."

As always, he brings the crisp grocery list, pushes the cart, folds the bags just so.

We drive to the dialysis center (concert, restaurant, coast) and he tells me about the harebrained scheme of the new town library (sidewalks, senior center, hospital). 

As always, he jokes with the techs and accepts their needles with bravado.

 Shooting from the hip. Whistling past the graveyard.

He sleeps, his blood flowing out of him and back in.


Friday, July 16, 2010

Beginner's mind

I'm up early in St. Paul on the day we all leave the house, sister and family bound for the Black Hills as we head south to my mom. Everything is still quiet. I'm watching the British Open with the sound off. Golf isn't my favorite thing, but St. Andrew's is such a sight, a stark and unforgiving beauty. The whole world lines up to take the test, and everyone tastes frustration and triumph on that earth.

I'm nursing an aching shoulder this morning, the result of overexertion last Wii Tennis. What was I saying? - frustration and triumph. Nephew and I played one set too many last night, and I was rarely able to answer his blistering serve. In all such games, I (along with most of my generation, I imagine) am used to being bested by tweens, confronted with a whole set of skills I can't seem to learn. The turbocharged hand-eye coordination is the least of it. How small children come to understand the rules of Super Mario is beyond me (paragate, parasamgate).

He was working out his own frustration during the game, having been reassigned Bach and Chopin preludes for another week at his piano lesson. It's the hard transition from little-kid piano books to real repertoire, and his teacher is upping the ante as well. He is trying to understand the new things being asked of him, and feels the loss of a habit of easy achievement.

I watch master after master humbled by the wind and rough. St. Andrew's, Bach, Wii Sports, name your Everest: we gain expertise only to be turned back into beginners, again and again.


Saturday, July 10, 2010

Nick's tips for enjoying the Tigers game

8:00 AM is not too early to begin dressing for the game. Nothing says "Tiger fan" like wearing your cap while eating your cereal.

If your aunt says she is a Twins fan, do not take her seriously. She has not so much as a towel with a "T" on it. However, when you sit behind an entire row of people from Minnesota, you are allowed to die a little inside. Boredom is the best choice when choosing your outer attitude. Close second: get very involved with eating your ice.

 Your team is winning, and the game is a little boring, so point out your dad's office building to the visitors. Don't act too interested when they ask questions about what you want to do in high school next year. Enthusiasm is for the lame. Save it up for when you kick their butts at both hearts and Rock Band later in the evening.

You can allow yourself a smile or two during the day, as long as you're not like totally obvious about it.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Maggie Rose's Guide to Beginning Photography

You have to ask first. You say, "Oh please may I use the camera please? Thank you!" Don't say it loud because you should ask like a lady. I promise to be very very careful. If you drop the camera it's bad because it can break and then all the pictures will fall out.

I'm gonna take picture!
(careful aiming, pressing of button)
Gooooood picture!


Tell everybody, "Say tscheeeee I'm gonna take a picture!" If they don't listen you can say it again real loud.

                                                  Charlie is too little to take pictures.

The lake is really really good! I drived the boat all! Bahmah! Seff! (spreads hands wide)

Can you take my picture?


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

things in my in-law's basement

fabulous typewriter
anonymous computer cables
original packaging for many of the plastics we used over the weekend
more tablecloths
very old washer and dryer
dressers with drawers that get forced open with random tools
sheet music from 1914
light of my life


Sunday, July 4, 2010

train of thought

The trail goes for twenty or thirty miles along the old rail line, and it's hard to imagine that train cars ever fit through the canopy of elm and maple that shades the path now. These days I like to run a mile, walk a mile, do that all again, and then walk two miles back to the house. That's just the latest pattern, and I had a chance to remember others on this quieter than usual Sunday. The story of my life that this trail knows is wildly inconsistant, a patchwork of ambitious half-marathon training, daily post-surgery recovery walks, the distressingly difficult jogs of early sobriety, and long strolls with or without company, a continuous alteration of care and neglect.

Today's route is easy, feels good. Everyone at home is still asleep, worn out from the people, food, noise, lights, conversation, and poker of the night before. There's another yearly story in the 4th of July gatherings, a shifting kaleidoscope of family alliances and altercations, and this year's version is also easy, feels good.

Step after step after step. Can it remain? Can I keep on, slow and steady but for the occasional muscular twinge, the inevitable mental chatter, the changing of the weather?


Sunday, June 27, 2010

time slice #1

My first glimpse of him: Christmastime almost thirty years ago, an old lakeside house. He's just back from U of M, wears his radicalism lightly, is shorter than his brother but just as strong. They adore each other in the standoffish way of some men, and their loyalty to each other is palpable even to a stranger like me.

My first glimpse of her: coming out of the old blue house as we wait in the car that hasn't warmed up yet. Her breath crystallizes as she slides into the cracked back seat beside me. "Hey there, mystery lady!" She's a sprite who already belongs to the strange clan.

My first glimpse of her: a hotel room in Tempe. Her exhausted young parents have strained all resources to make the journey to see us. She is tiny, red-haired, alert, big-eyed. She looks up from the blanket at us and wails.

My first glimpse of him: a Polaroid picture, already three weeks old when we take it from the expensive package with all the stamps. Half a world away in a dank German apartment, we see his little face in the white blanket, sleeping in his mother's arms in the same room where I first saw his father.

In between: years of summer visits in Michigan and in Germany, winter visits in New York and Texas. Brother and nephew helped gather stones for the hearth. Niece came to a concert at Carnegie. Sister-in-law shared shopping trips, lattes, long conversations. Boys played games and made up rules for them, girls plotted the future and sat up late. We joined hands in a few large moments of crisis or celebration. We didn't tell each other most things that happened.

Today it's raining in Chicago and almost all of us are watching the World Cup in the new house with the bedrooms for the kids who don't live here. Tomorrow we'll travel through Ann Arbor and lay our eyes on our studying niece. And then we'll move on to the next family visit.

Three decades of love, adventure, and play with this family, who have invited us along and included us so generously. Sunday morning, rain falling, coffee brewing. Then and now, and with luck again, and again.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

this couldn't wait

Everything is Waiting for You

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

(by David Whyte - thanks to JW for this gift.)

summer school

So the unexpected thing that happened was this: I got nervous. After we unpacked here in Chicago, after the first good night's sleep post-Austria, after all the agenda items were checked off the list and vacation had begun, I got nervous. I watched the US soccer team win their group and those two tennis guys play all damn day and felt the whole time like a hamster was sitting directly on my adrenal glands. Yeah, I know, solar plexus, seat of personal power, indicator of uncertainty, und so weiter. GOT it - except that perhaps I don't exactly, as I notice my breath not quite making it down into my belly.

The other feature of yesterday was a lot of blog discussion on the nature of teaching and learning, all inspired by news of the evil super-capitalist movement in Texas that is turning student evaluations into employee evaluations. I've spent a lot of time thinking about the greatest teachers in my life and about how important it was for me to learn to turn myself over to them, even when they demanded ways of learning or behaviors that were not easy for me. Even when I disagreed. I was not naturally good at this, and now when I have a student that kicks or talks too much or contradicts me or does whatever he or she does to avoid walking a particular path, I have to smile - payback time! My way of handling this is gentler than some (I'm thinking of you, SDG. RIP and thank you for kicking me out of your studio, ya bastid - it was rough but right), but so often it's necessary to lead someone down an unexpected, undesired road. Very often. OK, always.

In trying to explain this, I've run into more than one skeptical reaction, even full dismissal. To some, such talk smells of guru worship, an abdication of personal power or responsibility. And fair enough - it's demonstrably possible to cross the line from saying yes all the time into, shall we say, over-agreement (bedding the teacher, ignoring the instincts that might keep you from physical harm). I was shocked the first time I saw a martial arts class of my husband's, where the only allowable response to the master was "yes, sir!" It violated everything in my little American heart. What if I don't want to? What if I'm too tired? What if I have a good reason?

It's just that none of us need to be taught what we already know. Fact accumulation is simpler than ever. Why do we go to teachers?

O wad some power the giftie gie us
to see oursels as other see us

Isn't that it? The shift in perspective, the chance to look from a different angle, the chance to find out what we are avoiding by announcing what we will not do? It's not that you, the student, have no idea of what you need...but you might not know it up in the front of your brain, you might not know how to find it, and hell, you might really not have the first clue.

Typing, I think of a thousand acceptances and a thousand refusals of exactly this gift, the journey out of my own head, my own comfort zone, my own well-disguised laziness, and I'm filled with gratitude for all my teachers, past and present. Today I'll go to the keyboard, get on the mat, all those things I burn to do and look to avoid. Because that's what we do. We know and we don't know, we see and we are blind, we want with all our hearts to reach to the new place and we lie back in comfort.

Watch your back, hamster.


Monday, June 21, 2010

Is Chicago, is not Chicago

Suitcases for the car, for the closet, for the shipping company. Grilled meat, pot luck, three era's worth of love. Sweat, coffee, sleepy friends in the humid dark.

(Time stopped, flowed, and twisted in a beloved's kitchen, around friends I've known since we were younger than the beloved's son.)

Breakfast tacos, gas, and slow trucks in Nacogdoches. Roots radio, short naps, and language lessons in the car. Conversation, silence, and joy on the road.

(We were taken in for the night and hosted generously by musician friends we are just beginning to know well, given a glimpse into their rich shared lives)

The laughter, the embraces, the stories. The new house, the surprising mariachi, the patio breeze.
The city in sunlight, the crowd in the park, the chocolate on the train.

(Our brother and his family, still adjusting to their new home, offer their shoulders to us in transition, and we lean as we so often have before)

Sportscenter, Johnny Cash, liar's poker. Thunderstorm, ceiling fan, couch. Sorrow, elation, peace.


Friday, June 18, 2010

That would be waving and that would be crying,
Crying and shouting and meaning farewell,
Farewell in the eyes and farewell at the centre,
Just to stand still without moving a hand.
In a world without heaven to follow, the stops
Would be endings, more poignant than partings, profounder,
And that would be saying farewell, repeating farewell,
Just to be there and just to behold.
To be one's singular self, to despise
The being that yielded so little, acquired
So little, too little to care, to turn
to the ever-jubilant weather, to sip
One's cup and never to say a word,
Or to sleep or just to lie there still,
Just to be there, just to be beheld,
That would be bidding farewell, be bidding farewell.
One likes to practice the thing. They practice,
Enough, for heaven. Ever-jubilant,
What is there here but weather, what spirit
Have I except it comes from the sun?

(thank you Wallace Stevens: Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu)