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)


Thursday, June 17, 2010

where the heart is

On the plane home from Duesseldorf, I sat next to newly-minted Syracuse alum whose post-graduation trip had taken him to visit his sister in Germany. She's there on a Fulbright, the connection that started our conversation, and he's returning to an uncertain economy, job interviews, and the first undetermined period of his young life. I listened to him talk about his passion, working with emotionally troubled kids, about how his parents are teachers , about how jazzed he is that the future isn't pinned down. He was full of energy, intelligence, confidence, and kindness.

Perhaps it was the spirit of that encounter that sent me, despite my post-flight fatigue, sailing back into America. The passport control guy was chatty, too. I got a cab right away, and experienced a vintage white-knuckler down Liberty Avenue. At my destination, the driver tried to sell me a World Cup T-shirt out of the back of the cab. TR's downstairs neighbor, all 84 years of him in his shiny silver shorts and bathrobe, was unlocking the door and singing "Volare" when I came up the walk.

"Ya want me ta let ya in, dollface?"

Why yes I do.

TR gave me The Best Roast Chicken Ever along with the secret for making it, and I was deeply asleep before nine.

What a welcome, what a great conspiracy of circumstance as only NYC can provide! Now, watching the sun rise over Astoria, I am still buoyed by that swell of joy that started in the international terminal yesterday. I'm HOME. And the beautiful part is that I can't really say where home is. It is and always will be in this noisy, roiling city, but it's also, unbelievably, in Houston. It's on a variety of family guest beds, rooms we have been welcomed into for so many years that the "guest" part doesn't apply. It's in Northfield and St. Paul and Lake Orion, and now on the Glasergasse. It will be in our Mazda 3, starting at about 5 am on Saturday morning.



Monday, June 14, 2010

die heil'ge deutsche Kunst

As I sat tonight waiting for the Artemis Quartet to play, I heard three different people near me gossiping about where I work. Now, I haven't met everybody at the Staatsoper yet, but I don't think these were colleagues. They seemed like good, concert-going citizens of Wien, and  the opera a normal part of evening conversation. It was sobering! It doesn't take long for the whole city to be talking.  Der Rosenkavalier's world still lives, it seems, and Vienna remains a strange combination of sophisticated city and schwätziges Dorf. Cosima Wagner famously remarked that it would never be a true city of the world, a Weltstadt. She wasn't exactly charming herself, but she had a decent claim to an appreciation of elegance...ironically...

Today featured small-minded moments (one lecture and one lie courtesy of the unpleasant hotel manager, and one bald insult and one unbelievable serving of hubris at work) along with momentous events, some personal (we got our sweet apartment in the Glasergasse, and I survived four meetings in German) and some much larger (I nearly passed out from the beauty of the Phillies' playing of the prelude to Tannhäuser, and I got to look at Gustav Mahler's wierd, miniature travel piano). At one point, I was summoned, and had a conversation I will always remember. 

Then, tonight, in the Mozart-Saal of the Konzerthaus, I saw from afar a cellist I performed with 20 years ago. We played a memorable night in Bonn which ended with beer and political conversation, this shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall. We didn't keep in touch. He and his colleagues played Beethoven op. 127, and in the slow movement time did that tricky thing where it stops and goes in all directions at the same time. The quartet played, in all senses of that word, like they were breathing, like ancient children. The people around me were just like people at other concerts, some sleepy and some rapt and some quietly conducting, some coughing and some sighing. At the end, we wouldn't stop applauding.

Speaking of Cosima Wagner, the Konzerthaus is emblazoned with a quote of her husband's, from Meistersinger:

Ehrt euren deutschen Meistern
Dann bannt ihr gute Geistern 

Let most of it crumble to dust. The art remains, it remains, it remains.


Sunday, June 13, 2010

Close call

Yesterday evening, the end of a long week, was a weird salad of satisfaction and sorrow. Wonderful conversations with husband (who is finishing an important stonework goal on our house) and with sister and nephew (who reported on a new piano and their plans to visit Vienna) brought me joy even as they underlined the distance I'm choosing to put between myself and home. When will I see that beautiful Texas house again? What about the growing nieces and nephews, my siblings, my parents, my friends?

I went out to the Internet cafe, watched some World Cup, made a blog entry and answered mail, and went back to the hotel. Celebrating football fans sang far into the night. This morning, underslept and sad, I thought about canceling the two appointments I had made. One was a professional thing which could easily be handled over the phone, and one was a lovely new acquaintance, an expat who would have totally understood the situation.

But I didn't.

I didn't, and so I didn't miss the train ride into the bucolic small town, and I didn't miss watching the blue-green foothills getting taller. I didn't miss the great homemade coffee or the friendly Weimaraner. I didn't miss the mind-blowing room with more than two dozen harpischords and fortepianos in various states of restoration, and I didn't miss the chance to play them, and I didn't miss looking at the beautiful antique furniture and finding out where to hunt for it. I didn't miss the adorable restaurant (that opened in a former butcher's whose name was Tomasch and so the new owners simply changed the letters around on the sign and named their place "Stomach") and I didn't miss the yellow gazpacho and the asparagus torte and the brilliant conversation. I didn't miss the gelato or the several miles of walking through the cooler but still sunny streets.

There is so much that I do miss, and will. But I'm so, so glad that I got up this morning and opened the door.


Saturday, June 12, 2010


I'm down the street from the hotel in the internet cafe with the weak signal.
I'm eating potato wedges and drinking mineral water.
Pouring rain is cooling Vienna down.
The cafe is full of English speakers watching the England/USA World Cup match.
The strangers who speak my language are screaming, laughing, drinking, and doing the wave.
I'm Skype-texting with my sister in Minnesota.
I'm writing, "this is lonely and fantastic all at the same time."


Friday, June 11, 2010

going Bezirk

Oh, I would very much like this to be the hallway I walk down at the end of each long, long Staatsoper day.

I may not have to work endlessly here forever, but I certainly will have to in the first few seasons. It isn't just that there are so many performances. I need to show up for my colleagues. They need to know: die Chefin ist da. Sie hoert zu, sie merkt was: she's listening, she's paying attention. She cares about what happens here. Talk and email all you want, what matters is presence.

My heart breaks a little as I type that...

So I made an offer today on an apartment. The picture is of the entrance hall (check out the ceilings!) The apartment is cute and clean and small but not too small for visitors. The district is beautiful and the streetcar is near and goes right to the opera house. The Donaukanal is a few blocks away and the new farmers' market is close.

I can imagine starting my days here, returning to this lovely place at the end of my long work, and walking down to the street on my day off to sip coffee and start exploring.

Maybe our offer will be accepted, maybe not, but I'm one step closer to it: zu hause in Wien.


Thursday, June 10, 2010

viel zu heiss

Ich sitze und schwitze hier im Hotel! Last week, a certain website, and by "certain" I mean "Satan's own weather(dot)com", mentioned that it might soar into the high seventies here in Vienna. Exactly one week ago in Vienna, the high was 60 degrees. Wow! I packed an umbrella and tights. TIGHTS! In case it was chilly in the evening! Now I'd kind of like to use those tights to slowly close off some forecaster's airflow as the temperature gaily heads over NINETY for the third day in a row. I admire the Europeans as they eschew air-conditioning, but on the other hand I am a weak little American about to start crying for my own meat locker to sleep in. There is an orchestra rehearsal of Tannhaueser this afternoon in the uncooled theater, starting at 2 pm. Whimper.

The weather is perfect for day five of the trip: oppressive, overwhelming, makes me want to take a nap (in the aforementioned meat locker). Now I've been here long enough to run into all the big city problems. Apartment hunting, building relationships at work, everything will take longer that I wish. At this point I must begin fighting off my usual demon, who in such cases hisses into my ear that things need to happen even faster than I planned. You know the one or two big lies that your head will always tell you? That's my best one.

So far I'd say I'm doing OK with what Thich Naht Hahn calls "smiling to your fear" - I just love that phrase and that image. You hold your fear in your arms like a child and smile at it lovingly - oh, little fear (or anger, or impulse to burst into tears in the Kantine, or desire to strangle the weather guy with your tights), aren't you sweet, don't you need love and attention! It's such a compassionate way to view the foibles of one's individual hardwiring.

So my fear is in my arms, I promise not to strangle it with my tights or anything else. I'll sweat through this day and try to remember that cooler weather will come. Och wenns jetz viel zua häääss iss.


Monday, June 7, 2010

mezzo (o soprano) del cammin

We  picked the single cheesiest place to sit on the Kaerntnerstrasse today, right at the edge of the Hotel Sacher outdoor tables where every camera-toting tourist and opera-bound Wiener/in could watch us eating things mit Schlagobers (Mom, if you're reading this? Vienna is where people who love whipped cream like you do go when they die). We only had an hour before her rehearsal began, so the intake of both dessert and information began in earnest. It was wonderful to catch up with a long-time friend at the top of her game in the central city of our profession. It was even more wonderful to see her happy and settled at this point in her life.

Friends have written me in the last week to give me props for the big transition, and I do appreciate the support. However, although nothing probably equals (emotionally) the thrilling and terrifying bungee jump from adolescence into adulthood, isn't middle age nothing but big transition? Now our own kids are doing the bungee jump - and our parents are doing acrobatics toward territory even more mysterious. Those of us not yet frail but no longer cluelessly vital are finding our bodies and minds shifting, not imperceptibly at all. Usually we don't say much, because of the kids and the parents, but also because of the friends who are free-falling through illness or job loss or job change or divorce or something they could/could not imagine. The big transitions that we get to choose are privileges. Sogni, lampi, giuochi.

I took big unabashed spoonfuls of cream and talked with my friend as we remembered some hard roads and relished this beautiful and easy time. Then I followed her to her rehearsal where she sang in perfect octaves with the mezzo, and the chorus answered in a slightly Viennese-accented whisper, and I walked out into the waning sunlight blessed by every single part of my life.


Sunday, June 6, 2010

Eine kleine Quatschmusik

Instructions for your visit to the Wiener Staatsoper:

1. the stage door "entrance" on Von-Karajan-Platz is locked most of the time. If you try and use it on Sunday after the children's matinee, try also to remember that it's locked before you let the door behind you (also locked) close.  If you do end up trapped in the small airless space in between the two doors, pound on the sturdy glass and rattle the inner door without fear. The alarm won't go off, and there's someone in the Garderobe who will hear you after a bit.

2. Remember that the matinee is based on a well-known and -beloved Austrian children's book. The following will therefore only be shocking to you, and not others:
        - the mother of one of the characters has cancer
        -the servants (one evil, one heroic) are completely dispensable and simply disappear at the end
        -the opera has a message about sharing, but the whole cast ends by singing a song about one of the kids' games, which is about discovering America, in which they get in a conga line and do an Indian "whoop-whoop-whoop" war cry complete with hand gestures, and stick feathers in their wigs. They opine that "we" should all share just like "the Indians" "shared" the potato with "us". Resist the urge to tell anybody about how well that actually worked out.

3. After lunch with the unbelievably cool friends-of-friends that you only know from Facebook, as you are praising the modern age in your head while walking down the gorgeous streets, avoid having too crazy a comedown when you go to the beautifully cast Wagner opera with the laughable production and screamingly bad conductor. Resist making jokes about the conductor although he looks exactly like Brahms and takes longer to walk to the podium than Brahms would if he was raised from the dead this very day and yes that would include the short stroll from his grave to the Staatsoper. For he will surprise you with his fleet, no, SPEEDY conducting of all orchestral music from this piece. If the fast pace of the grail theme is distressing, wait for the singers to come in, when everything from the pit will become slow and late. Regulate your breathing and sense of place in the world by watching the concertmaster fix this situation 75% of the time, occasionally fail, temporarily cease trying out of pique, then begin trying again due to the greatness of the music. When the poison yellow bunny statue appears, remember that custom demands you wait for the supers dressed as huge white gryphons and owls with neon tulips to come out during Elsa's procession to the cathedral before pleading jet lag and going home.

        4. No fewer than three Viennese women will reprimand you for draping your leg over the side of the easy chair as you type this blog entry in the lobby. This is normal, and you have to admit that es geht nicht. 


Saturday, June 5, 2010


I asked the Staatsoper portier this morning how long it had been sunny and gorgeous in Vienna, and he replied "seit halb zehn" - since 9:30. I've heard yesterday was lovely too, but evidently winter lasted right up until Thursday night. Today was crazy beautiful, however, the irresistible sun surrounded by unreasonable blue, everyone outside in shorts and skirts and tank tops and sandals, eating ice cream and taking pictures and getting sunburned and having brunch outside. I did that too, having strolled in triumphantly from the airport (pride checklist: easy conversation in German with a stranger on the train, strolling to my hotel with no map). The warm sun helped keep me awake through breakfast (the butter! the egg with the rich golden yolk! the grosser brauner! the tangy cottage cheese and tomatoes!). Then back to the hotel for one of those disorienting naps before Eugene Onegin. First there were reunions: unexpected, with a longtime Met colleague and a few singers, and expected, with beautiful SS who had Dienst up in the company box, where I sat.

It was a good performance. The orchestra is just mind-bending on a night like this, all impossibly warm strings and pristine winds, horns like a sound directly from someone's heart and mind. KP conducted with a light, lithe hand, and for the first time in my limited experience, there were no balance issues. The cast was mostly good, with several ensemble singers giving impressive performances, and with the great FF stopping time in his aria.

In the seat I'll occupy so often in the next three years, directly above stage left, I have a compromised view of the stage but a remarkable view of the house, and I had to keep myself from too often staring openly out at my fellow audience members. Hey, everybody, I wanted to say. For the first time, that room began to feel like home.


Friday, June 4, 2010

under the rocks and stones

Stop #1 on the OMG Look At The Blessings tour was reached yesterday after travel that begged to be a metaphor in this entry but was probably just travel. I had to check my beautifully packed carry-on bag because there was no room left in the overheads (because no one wants to pay for checking their bags and IT'S LIKE THE GODDAMN GRAPES OF, anyway). We started late in bad weather, enjoying turbulence all the way from IAH to PHI that halted beverage service and made it impossible to read. I massaged my thumb and tried to stay with the discomfort. We landed late, 15 minutes before my connecting flight, which was in a turboprop, which I hate, and I ran all the way there. However! The short hop to LGA featured a spectacular sunset through the calming yet still dramatic clouds. There were Germans sitting next to me and we had a fun, shouty (hello, turboprop) Unterhaltung. And at the airport, there was my bag!

On to the Astoria apartment of TR, Cookbook editor and webgoddess. TR sang in the first opera I ever played. Arizona State, the Reagan years: she was a talented undergraduate and I was accidentally playing rehearsals out of a need for cash. I had to learn Cosi fan tutte in some crazy short amount of time, and after locking myself in a small room to be ravished by Wolfgang and Lorenzo, I was forever changed. TR and I lost touch with each other after school, but life in NY brought us back together (like it does). We have a great serendipitous/random/surprising web of connecting artist friends (like you do), and we checked up on most of them as I devoured a plate of her signature roast lamb with a salt potato, perfect salad, and a cucumber soup shooter. Extra bonus surprise friend MS was there too, as was TR's superhero husband when he came home late from his cool job making bad television. That, my friends, is a bona fide travel day.

Six hours of dead sleep later, I was wide awake on my Aerobed, wishing for more shuteye but knowing there'd be none since, oh, I'm flying to Austria today. So I'm up drinking TR's heavenly coffee and writing out at another serendipitous/random/surprising web of connecting friends. Good morning/Gruess' Gott. It's a beautiful sunny morning in Astoria, and it was beautiful to see the Manhattan skyline come into view last night, and it is heart-opening to sit in my friend's living room surrounded by all the parts of a New York life.

time isn't holding us
time isn't after us
same as it ever was
same as it ever was


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

makin' copies

Today I went for a walk in my new shoes. That isn't a metaphor. I have new shoes. Luke's Locker, people - limp there for the fitting of your life. I just ran a mile without heel pain!

This week, things get checked off the list fast, the last grains flying through the slim neck of the hourglass: coffee with AO, doc appointment, an afternoon at the office bogarting the copy machine and hopefully taking some girls out for ice cream, and a highly anticipated dinner with DH and LW, newly minted Pollan freaks (this bodes well).

Some of the many things I'll copy this afternoon are census reports from, things I want to take home to my family and in-laws as conversation starters (more on that later - there are some interesting mysteries to be solved!). This was a generally weepy weekend, so take what's coming with a grain of teary salt - but I found myself unexpectedly and deeply moved by the early 20th-century census reports from Milford Township, MN, and Mount Pleasant, PA. There on a few sheets of paper in neat (MN) or scrawling (PA) handwriting, the future lies in wait, my four-year-old grandmother on the farm and her six-year-old husband-to-be in town, other children who will become connected in wonderful and terrible ways.

The enormity of our move from Texas to Austria is hitting home, but when I look at these ancient documents, I realize that it's all transition, all the time.