A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Still twinkling

Davis Concert Hall is packed.  Next to me, my two ten-year-olds settle themselves into plush seats.  Lizzy wiggles.  Her legs dangle.  She lets the seat fold her up like a fetus, then unfolds it again.  Molly peruses the program -- thick, shiny, color-printed.  Her brow furrows slightly over the long lists of musicians as she parses the multi-syllabic ethnicities of America.  The house lights dim, and the stage brightens, highlighting a tidy array of black and white, skirts and trousers, gleaming curved wood and resting bows. The seat reserved for the concertmaster – the principal player of the first violin section -- waits, portentous.  The podium is as yet lacking the dash and verve of its black-tailed conductor. 
In the anticipatory hush, a lone figure scuttles out, thoroughly un-conductor-like, from stage left.   There is no way for a tardy performer to cross this expectant and unforgiving expanse unobtrusively, but he tries.  He scoots into his seat, which is tucked away at the back, right of center. 
Nine hundred people giggle at the late violist.
Q: What do you call someone who hangs around with musicians?  A: A viola player. 
Giggling at violists is a long and revered orchestral tradition. The instruments themselves are awkwardly large for their shoulder-held position, acoustically too small for the deeper tones they carry, and utterly unfamiliar to the general public.  Those who take up the viola are relegated to reading the obscure alto clef, playing mid-range harmony, and sitting behind the bulky cellos.  As such, they are often suspected of being a pack of underachievers – perhaps failed violinists who snuck into the orchestra for the free cocktails and Brie appetizers.  They are the odd ducks and the orphaned cousins.
Or should I say… we? 
I played the viola from age eight to fourteen – long enough to demonstrate no particular innate talent, but not long enough to gain mastery through brute determination.  As such, I’ve spent three decades assuming that the viola didn’t make much of a dent in either my musical knowledge or the clay of my character.  But is my violist nature something that could ever be obscured by the dust on my battered black instrument case?
Q: Why don't violists play hide and seek?  A: Because no one will look for them.
The stage lights in Davis brighten a bit more, and the concertmaster appears.  He leads the tuning – an effort that seems more ceremonial than indispensable – with flourish and aplomb.  Lizzy leans toward me to whisper: “He sits at the front because he’s the best, right?” 
Lizzy is often anxious about who is the best.  When string lessons were first offered last year at University Park Elementary, Lizzy took up the violin. 
“Yes”, I tell her.  She jiggles her legs some more, nodding.
Lizzy’s twin is more likely to compete with herself than to compete with others.  She is he kind of kid who wants to create a science fair project that no child has ever created before, and select a birthday party theme for which no company has ever dreamed of printing napkins.  She is not jiggling.
At my own elementary school, budding violinists and cellists abounded, and at least three kids were drawn to the impressive upright bass.  But no eight-year-old wanted to be a violist – except for me.  The orchestra teacher seemed perplexed, albeit willing to accommodate my peculiar choice.  Lacking any actual small violas in the school’s limited collection, she restrung a three-quarter-size violin.  The tone was poor, but not as terrible as it would have been if she’d tried to do the same thing with one of the half-size instruments the other kids were playing.  “It’s a good thing you have long arms,” she remarked, assessing my scrawny frame.  It was true; sweaters invariably crawled up my wrists, leaving gaps of pale skin and blue veins.  I was perfectly suited to apelike brachiating on the monkey-bars – and to the viola. 
The conductor takes his stand with satisfying pomp and emotionality.  He, like the principal violinist, receives applause just for existing.
Q: How do you tell when a violist is out of tune?  A: The bow is moving. 
A college friend of mine knew dozens of viola jokes, all of which made himself the butt of his own intensely nerdy humor. I didn’t fully understand the context for this until I met his equally musically talented but much more self-consciously-cool identical twin. The viola can be a state of mind.
I chose the viola for reasons that were obvious, and reasons that were not.  My dad played the cello.  My big sister played the violin, and although I admired her, years of being accidentally called “Sarah” had made me wary.  The viola lacked the high E string of the violin.  Having listened to Sarah’s efforts, I saw that as a plus.  The bass seemed both too unwieldly and too attention-grabbing.  That kind of difference – the class-clown kind of difference -- was merely another kind of sameness.  I was differently different.  I was a seemingly innocuous eight-year-old who occupied a mental island all my own.  I was a violist.
The music swells around us, well balanced.  Lizzy is now avidly watching to see whether any of the violinists mix up their bow strokes.  She is the arbiter of synchronicity. 
Molly has put aside the program and is leaning back in her seat.  I have no idea what she is thinking. 
All through third and fourth grade, my odd instrument set me apart only in that nobody could share my music stand.  My version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” sounded precisely as bad as everybody else’s. We played “Lightly Row” and “Christmas Songs I” and “Israeli Songs” and “Americana”.  We played our fourth fingers painfully flat and our F-naturals erroneously sharp.  We played slurs as staccato and staccato as slurs.  We let our wrists slump, let our bows slip miles from the bridge, and got hopelessly lost on the sixteenth notes.  With the exception of two small virtuosos, Hannah and Atara, we were unequivocally dreadful -- violins, cellos, basses, and lone viola alike.
Q: What is the range of a viola?  A: About thirty feet, if you kick it hard enough.
In fifth grade, though, I found myself with a stand-partner: a boy named Ray with a sweetly unassuming manner.   Ray went to a different elementary school, but he and I ended up sharing a stand for four years.  We were cautiously friends, across the treacherous divide of gender.  My partnership with Ray was not due to any increased interest in the viola among the diminutive local population, but rather the result of an unearned promotion.  The All District Orchestra was primarily comprised of sixth graders.  The precocious young Hannahs and Ataras were invited to join -- and so, it seemed, were Ray and I.  Because, talent or no talent, real orchestras need violas.
Q: How do you get two viola players to play in tune? A: Shoot one of them.
Brahms’s German Requiem is a complex piece of music for an orchestra and choir to tackle in Fairbanks, Alaska.  I will not be surprised if there are a few flubs, a few squawks, a few off-key notes.  I also know that, barring someone outright dropping their instrument, I probably won’t notice.  I never learned to tune my own instrument by ear alone.
If I was out of my league playing with slightly older kids from five different elementary schools, I was even more misplaced the following year when I was tapped to join the elementary section of the Long Island String Festival.  The combined population of Nassau and Suffolk Counties in 1984 was 2.6 million people.  From this population base, the directors of the event were able to pull children of astonishing experience and talent – pigtailed starlets and freckled prodigies with shiny instruments and proudly hovering parents.  They were also able to scrape up a few violists. 
I did my grade-school best to practice the music in advance.  I stared in confusion at different keys.  I tapped my foot to different time signatures, got lost, and started over.   Playing repetitive rest-laced harmony, I wondered what the songs actually sounded like.   
I showed up, quaking slightly, for our single day of rehearsal.  It was easy to identify the violists; we were the awkward little bunch who didn’t recognize a soul – not from private lessons, or recitals, or invitations to entertain foreign dignitaries.  Out grubby instrument cases bore rental codes etched by public elementary schools.
Even when tested among my mediocre peers, I merited only the ninth seat out of eleven.  I knew that this made me, officially, the third-worst musician in the room, but I was glad to be at the back, safely hidden. At the ripe old age of eleven, I was one of the oldest people present, and my long right arm would no doubt flail away on the upbow when I should have been on the down. 
As our conductor led us into the first piece – as, at the wave of her hands, the music poured from beneath the deft little fingers of the doe-eyed people around me – she started crying.  I’m not talking about a slight glint in her eye; these were full-on mascara-smearing tears.  “It’s so beautiful” she wept.  “You’re all so little… and it’s so beautiful!”
This, of course, was totally weird and embarrassing.  For one thing, adults weren’t ever supposed to cry, and for another, who the heck cries because something is lovely?  But even as the tears of the conductor were horrifying, so too were they magical – so magical that I remember them, thirty-three years later, with a strange luminosity.  Perhaps I hadn’t known, prior to the sixth grade, that beauty could be so intense that it could overflow -- but I learned it that day.  I saw artistry running in rivulets down the face of a stranger.  And, although I did not deserve it, I was part of that exquisite joy.  I was part of the music.
At about 80 minutes, his German Requiem is the longest piece of music Brahms ever wrote.  Toward the end of the concert, Lizzy is half asleep in her overlarge seat.  I glance over at Molly.  Her head is not nodding, but she mouths, “How much longer?”  I grin, and indicate that it won’t be long now.  Molly nods, phlegmatic.  Molly can wait.  Molly is not one to demand excessive attention.  Molly is, as of the inception of her orchestral instruction last year, a violist.
Q: Why are viola jokes so short?  A: So violinists can understand them.
Spurred by a properly parental instinct to encourage my kids, I took my viola out of hibernation last year.  I tightened the loose pegs, tuned it up with the crutch of a digital tuner, and sat down to share Molly’s music -- in the alto clef.  I played.  My fingers fumbled, remembered, fumbled again.  As I sawed my way through “Happy Birthday” and “Country Dance” I felt duty falling by the wayside and happiness overtaking me.  Not tear-soaked joy, no – but perhaps the shadow of the memory of it.
Violists don’t get many solos, but they are nonetheless in the thick of things.  The heart of things.  They are the subtle undertones, the harmony, the fabric of the music.  They do not soar, they do not trill, and they do not boom.  You may not have noticed them, but that’s okay.  They are part of the music.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Getting a few things sorted

“I kind of think I might be a Ravenclaw.  But I would be fine with being anything except a Slytherin.  I mean, I know Slytherins can sometimes be okay, but…”
But, yeah, exactly.  Who would want to be assigned to the Hogwarts House with the You-Know-Who-related PR problem?  Clearly, it would be better to be labeled a bookish Ravenclaw or even a loyal Hufflepuff.  Of course, best of all would be joining Gryffindor, the house of Hermione, Ron, and Harry himself.  Gryffindors not only save the world from unspeakable evil, they also manage to be funny, dashing, and charming as they do so. 
I have two ten year-olds.  I live in a world in which Quidditch is a topic of serious discussion, ethics are debated in terms of Draco Malfoy’s moral compass, and being Sorted is a Really Big Deal.  For the past four months, I’ve been working my way through all 4,224 pages of the Harry Potter series with the twins – a pleasure for which I had to wait an irksomely long time.  Although their closest friends weathered the terrors of the Forbidden Forest and Godric’s Hollow as early as kindergarten, my kids were unified in their fear of Scary Stuff – including all things Potter -- until very recently.  I now relish attempting to make my voice as somber, as mirthful, or as Snape-y as each sentence requires.  They hang onto my every word.  Often, Molly also hangs onto my arm, my knee, or my entire body.  As soon as I’m done reading each book, Lizzy seizes it and squirrels it away in her bed for rereading – a feat she usually accomplishes in one tenth the time needed for the original oration. 
This past weekend, just as we embarked upon the seventh, final, and most wrenching book of the series, the twins’ older-and-wiser middle-school friend introduced them to the wonders of Pottermore – the official J.K. Rowling-approved website that not only allows aficionados to wallow in such details as the significance of wand-flexibility, but also provides the opportunity to be Sorted into a Hogwarts house via a quirky, thought-provoking personality quiz.  Since then, I’ve spent more time than a grownup ought to admit to spending, thinking about Hogwarts houses. 
Yes, of course I took the quiz myself.  I was Sorted into Gryffindor. 
Gryffindor!  The crimson-and-gold lion-emblemed home of House Cup winners and troll-slayers!  The manifestly BEST house! 
Or… is it?  Are boldness and bravery – even if combined with honor -- truly the best qualities anyone could ever wish for in themselves?  In their friends?  Their lovers?  Their children? 
Rereading the series, this time as a parent, is seems more obvious that courage has a few downsides.  In every single book, our heroic trio -- even brilliant Hermione -- leap into drastic adventures with a marked lack of foresight, logic, and concern for their own skins.  Gryffindors’ bold spirits sometimes trump not only good sense, but also their own good natures – and I’m not just talking about that obvious rat, Pettigrew.  James Potter, Harry’s father, was more than a bit of a bully as a teenager.  Fred and George Weasley are hilarious in print, but in real life I definitely wouldn’t sample their licorice twists, if you know what I mean. 
And me?  Yeah.  Me.  I’ve done a few headlong or headstrong things that I’m far from proud of.  Sometimes audaciousness has served me well.  Sometimes it has sent me to the emergency room.  And sometimes it has sent me into a moral tailspin.  Gryffindor can be a mixed bag.
Of course, Harry will always be the ultimate Gryffindor, and our hero -- with good reason.  He’s incredibly stalwart, and yet somehow still lovably real, even in the face of the insurmountable, the improbable, and the unthinkable.  Just the same, Harry is also the kid who had to whisper to the Sorting Hat, “Not Slytherin.  Not Slytherin.” 
Until I started reading the series for a second time, pausing to discuss it with my children, the significance of that “not Slytherin” didn’t fully impress itself upon me.   In concordance with other modern-day sagas, Rowling’s books illuminate the peculiarly fine line between the dark side and the light, between the boldness of the crimson-and-gold lions and the ambition of the green-and-silver snakes, between the Snape we love to hate and the Snape we hate to love. 
 “Why do people follow leaders who are evil?” 
Apt question, kiddo.  Too, too, apt, in this season of our discontent. 
Indeed, why?  Fear?  Cynicism?  Arrogance?  Morbid fascination?  Denial? Fake news?  Bigotry? Thrill-seeking? Saving face? A sycophantic love of bullies, because they seem “tough”?  Kudos to Rowling for digging deep into all of these issues – all without dulling the excitement of a damned good kids’ story.  The discussion that swirled from this question alone has been timely, difficult, and deeply important enough to more than justify my cramped forearms and sore larynx. 
Kudos, too, to Rowling for resisting simply black-hatting every Slytherin, and instead creating characters like Horace Slughorn, the mildly repellent good-enough guy, and Severus Snape, the deeply repellent hero. It’s obvious to the reader that although the world needs its Slytherins – with all their cunning – the world also sometimes needs to tell them to shut up and sit down.   It is less obvious, perhaps, that sometimes the brave, bold, glowing heroes of Gryffindor need to be told the same damn thing. 
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still in love with Minerva McGonagall.  She’s fierce as hell, and I’ve been having way too much fun, during all my impromptu voice-acting, in providing her with a take-no-shit-from-anyone Scottish accent.  Likewise, part of my heart will always belong to the fiercely tortured soul of Sirius.  As for Dumbledore… oh, Dumbledore, you had me from your very first “Tweak”.  Nonetheless, it is only when the Gryffindors momentarily pause in their headlong tumult that we begin to notice those other, quieter folks.
The intellectual Ravenclaws have their bookish merits and quirky Luna-ish sweetness, despite their supposed aloofness and occasional dalliances with the more serpentine side of magic.  Filius Flitwick is notable among Hogwarts teachers for… just teaching Charms.  He, you know, teaches.  Like teachers do.  On the other hand, Gilderoy Lockhart.  Yeah. Ravenclaw.
And this brings us – last, as they always seem to be – to the Hufflepuffs.  The gentle, cheerful, loyal, hard-working Hufflepuffs.  The Hufflepuffs that everyone forgets about, and no one seems to want to actually be.  But why not?
No.  Seriously, people, WHY NOT?
This past weekend, I learned that I am raising a pair of half-blood Hufflepuffs. 
Since then, I’ve found myself considering HuffIepuff.  A lot.  Much of this consideration has consisted of considering why I’d previously failed to consider Hufflepuff much at all. 
Looking at my two young witches, I found, somewhat to my surprise, that I was thrilled with their new labels.  Hufflepuffs!  Yes!  They’re kind!  They’re loyal!  They’re equal-opportunity!  They play fair!  Hufflepuffs embody every value we claim to want in our children, our friends, our lovers, and ourselves.  A member of the House of the Badger will never hit you with an unprovoked pimple jinx.  Nor will he call you a mud-blood -- even though, let’s face it, you’re totally a mud-blood.
In truth, I was completely sure that Molly would be a Hufflepuff before she sat down to take the quiz.  I was less sure about Lizzy.  She’s not bold, although she can rise to a challenge.  She’s ambitious only in the sense of setting her own high standards.  Intellectual?  Yes, she is that.  As she herself suspected, I might have placed my money on Ravenclaw – and when she took the similar Ilvermorny quiz, she indeed ended up the house most suited to “scholars”.  But Hufflepuff made sense, too.  I have, after all, been closely acquainted with my kids for a decade now.  Other people who know them fairly well have given me feedback too, via informal anecdotes and printed report cards.  The words are different every time, but the news is the same: “Ma’am, your child is a good student.  Also, she’s totally a Hufflepuff.”
This is meant as a compliment.  Teachers like teaching Hufflepuffs.  Other kids don’t mind being seated next to Hufflepuffs or being assigned to their kickball teams.  A Hufflepuff will not copy your test answers, leave gum on the bottom of the desk, or mock you for wearing the wrong brand of sneakers.
So… why the decided lack of enthusiastic cheerleading for the house with the fuzzy-bumblebee colors?  And why our blatant hypocrisy?  Because, even as we earnestly tell young children to act like good little Hufflepuffs, we systematically overlook and denigrate their adult Hufflepuff counterparts.  We talk over them.  We fail to promote them.  We refuse to date them.  Especially if they happen to be male, Hufflepuffs are derided as “wimpy” and “lame”.
Bullshit.  Kindness is not wimpy.  Equality is not lame. 
Besides, it’s not as if Hufflepuffs can’t possess the virtues of the other houses in addition to their wonderful, kind-hearted, egalitarian defining characteristics.  Cedric Diggory was hella brave. Tonks took “bold” to new levels.  Pomona Sprout, puttering away in her greenhouses, was not without her own formidable intellect and powers.  We tend to forget about this Head of House, not because she isn’t competent, but because she is.  She refrains from spiteful, spurious, biased, or melodramatic additions or subtractions to house points.  She doesn’t set up hazardous contests, bait students into misbehavior, play favorites, try to adopt baby dragons, or harbor dark secrets.  She doesn’t define herself by her bad-assery.  But let there be no doubt: Hufflepuffs, when the situation calls for it, are capable of being brilliant, cunning, epically badass, and brave AF. 
Don’t believe me?  Okay.  But when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows reached its desperate denouement, who stepped up to fight in the terrifying, corpse-strewn Battle of Hogwarts?  The Gryffindors, yes.  They fought with valor and with heart-rending “Not my daughter, you bitch!” passion.  Even though I hadn’t read the series in a dozen years, this was still etched in my memory.  But it was only through stumbling upon an interview with Rowling online that I re-learned who else fought: some of the Ravenclaws, and all of the Hufflepuffs.  All of the Hufflepuffs.  ALL OF THEM. 
The fact that I’d forgotten this essential point says as much about who the Hufflepuffs are as does their valiant participation.  This is how Rowling wrote them.  They faced the Death Eaters from within their own quiet place of non-glory, and I, arrogant bastard that I am, barely noticed.  And yet, without them, how might the battle have spun?
Maybe I’ve been fired up by a cute little quiz on Pottermore.  Maybe I’ve been fired up by the simmering don’t-screw-up-their-future wrath of parenthood and politics.  Either way, this time around, I won’t forget.  Indeed, I’m really looking forward to getting to that scene with the kids.  Not just because it’s an awesome culmination to a fabulous story, and not just because it carries fodder for layer upon layer of philosophical, discussion about good, evil, life, death, and love, but also because it addresses one particular question: what happens when the loud and the brave are joined by those who know what is right, and are willing to go to the wall for it? 
My kids are not particularly bold.  As such, although they can easily handle 4,224 pages of text on their own, they want me to guide them through the wrenching psychological torments of this fictional world.  They want me to help uncover those dark complexities.  And I couldn’t be more glad.
Even if the Dark Mark reappears in the sky, it’s not all over.  Teach your Hufflepuffs well.