Monday, May 19, 2008

Brian's Herb Garden Volume 2 and a picture of some turtles

Today I worked on my herb garden, which is nothing but a few small or medium-sized containers that I place on the railing of my rear entrance.  This is really the only spot that I can call mine that gets any sort of sun. And it still might be a bit shady for a couple of the choices I made, such as big-leaf Italian basil.  But who can resist basil?

I tried to vary the lineup from last year, though a couple favorites snuck back in.  As I said, I've got some basil going this year, to marry off to tomatoes later in the summer and to pair with the occasional piece of fish.  Next is the sole entry in the vegetable category, an habanero pepper plant, well-known as the 'hottest' chile pepper around, with a fruity zing.  Then a trailing bunch of creeping thyme, probably my favorite all-around herb after parsley.  This is a perennial, so if I can keep it going, I can use it next winter in roasts and soups.  Next, dill, a magical herb with fish and salads.  Eggs too.  Oregano, which I actually don't use that much but had an impulse to plant.  I'll find something to do with it.  Chives, for salads, eggs, spring pasta dishes and mushrooms on toast.  Flat-leaf parsley, for anything and everything.  Mint, for tea and tabbouleh.  Finally, a small bunch of sorrel to add a lemony bite to salads and creamy soups.  

If everything goes gangbusters, I just might make back my investment.  But it's nice to have a few living things to care for and a little kitchen garden to put a bit of earthy improvisation into my cooking habits during the summer.  

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Death and the Maiden

My quartet performed last night in a small recital at my friend Joan's house.  We played Schubert's 'Death and the Maiden' string quartet, a piece he wrote near the end of his life, at a time that he probably knew that he was dying yet was still composing at a phenomenal rate, creating possibly the most beautiful and moving music of entire career.  It is a dark, turbulent piece, with short interludes of serene joy popping up here and there amidst the ongoing existential arguments of death and beauty.  It was a favorite of mine as a teenager, and I was greatly attracted to its melodramatic metaphors and almost gothic storytelling.  Later on, some of that sensibility tired on my ears, possibly through overfamiliarity, and it lost some of its attraction, but I fell in love with it again through working on it these past months.  As usual, working on a piece from the inside out gave newer, older, and deeper perspectives on this wonderful and one-of-a-kind piece of music. 

 I felt that we really gave the piece a good run for its money, in particular the frenzied last movement, in which we seemed to get caught in the cascading, out-of-control momentum perfectly, balancing just on the edge of falling apart in just the right way.  It was exhilarating.  Playing music like this, in this intimate, telepathic kind of arrangement with a small group of musicians and friends, provides...I don't know.  Something unique, important; I was going to say the greatest high of my life, but that's not quite right, and a little trite.  There's certainly nothing else quite like it, and it provides one of the few avenues to some kind of transcendent state of mind that I truly don't understand.

Unfortunately,  I have a something of a love/hate relationship with performing, and every time I get through a performance like this I wish it was more of a love/love relationship, but it's not.  Leading up to a performance, especially one of chamber music like this, difficult and exposed, I worry and fret and suffer large bouts of anxiety, yet also excitement and a visceral, unpredictable anticipation.  My stomach grumbles (shades of Charlie Brown) and I don't eat.  At performance time, my left hand shakes and my vibrato goes wild, my right hand shakes and my bow bounces, skittering across the strings of my violin.  Nonetheless, at the moment of performing, my heart leaps even as I continue to fret about my technical reaches, and I find myself giving more of myself to the music than I ever had during practice, almost effortlessly, yet with enormous expenditure of energy.  It's a strange state to be in.  And each piece, in its own different way, finds you a different zone to drift, swim, struggle and fall apart in.  Today, the day after, I was happy and relieved, still exhilarated yet tired, and sad that it was over and anticipating next season's music-making, projecting greater diligence than I showed this year (and probably more than I indeed will show next year).  

I love my quartet, and I think that the way we approach our repertoire, by working extensively on one piece at a time for a season, is very rewarding and important for the purposes of giving a good performance and really getting a good grasp of the music.  I do often wish, though, for another outlet where I could explore more music, more playing and exploring, and encounter more of those great masterpieces I've listened to and loved throughout my life.  I've still never played any of the late Beethoven quartets, I've done only one of Mozart's six that he dedicated to Haydn, none of Bartok's (though these might well be beyond me and any quartet I could ever join), only one of Shostakovich's, only a couple of Haydn's...there's such a big world of this music, so much I know and love as a listener but not a player.  I would like to get a reading quartet together, not worry about perfection, just go through music and enjoy it.  Maybe I'll work on that next year, or some year.  

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The second law of thermodynamics and frustrated, abrupt endings

I just finished reading a biography of one of my favorite writers, James Tiptree Jr., called James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips.  As you can tell from the title, James Tiptree Jr. was in fact a woman, a fact she hid for several years in the seventies while writing her most important stories and carrying on a dizzying array of correspondence (as J.T.Jr.) with many other writers, editors and fans.  

A biography, of course, always tells the story of a life, and a good one places that life within the context of the subject's time and place.  A great biography lends unexpected insight and characterization into a particular milieu through the lens of the subject's life, work and thought. The John Adams biography I recently read framed the unusal opportunity that our founding fathers had to create a new government from scratch through the actions and ideas of a man who even more unusually fully undertood the unique position that he and his fellow patriots were in.  James Tiptree, Jr. explored the disquieting complexities of our modern century, from the horrors of war, the immense leaps of technology and the social battles over gender and ethnicity through the incredible, troubled life of Alice Sheldon, who was known in her youth as the first western child ever seen by the African Pygmies and grew up to be an artist, a photo-interpreter during WWII and later in the fledgling CIA, a doctor of psychology and eventually a writer of some of the most groundbreaking science fiction of the 70's.  

Her best work is all shorter works, short stories and novellas, and is exciting, confident, startling, shocking, empathetic, imaginative, detailed, fast-paced; superlatives abound.  And she provided the small science fiction community endless fodder for speculation as to who James Tiptree Jr. really was; most felt it was the pseudonym of some young stud in the intelligence field, though from her unusually insightful stories on gender there were some who suspected that he was a she (or that he was gay).  

I don't really know where I'm going with all this.  It's a great biography, read it.  Her fiction is even better, read it.  Most of her best work is collected in a collection called Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.  What I kind of wanted to talk about was the connection I felt with her while reading the book.  Ridiculous, I know.  She was so different.  From a different age and place entirely, she had a life full of travel, several wildly divergent and ambitious careers, two marriages,  a life as a woman, before modern feminism; she was brilliant, mercurial, with wild mood, I'm not like her at all. 

But I just kept coming across little things that resonated so strongly.  I'll mention three.  She was obsessed with the idea of negentropy, which is the concept of a system or process that moves against the ongoing entropy that is slowly but surely pulling the universe apart into a cold, mostly empty shell of drifting bits of matter, as elucidated in the second law of thermodynamics.  From page 186: "She began to explore a theory that could reconcile her pleasure in learning and making things with doing good for others.  If her enemy was time, she argued, then it ws also the second law of thermodynamics.  That law, sometimes called 'time's arrow," states that the universe is entropic: it tends to lose energy, become disorganized, move toward death and decay.  But earth supports a local condition of negative entropy: its life has evolved from lower to higher states of organization.  Mathematician and cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, among others, had suggested that negentropy, and perhaps life itself, could be defined as everything that adds to information or organization."  

What a concept!  At the risk (in fact certainty) of being indulgent, I'll quote from a journal entry of mine, from a couple of years ago: 

Well, apparently, I can't figure out how to cut and paste text from a word document into a blog post!  When I do it, the text I wanted appears outside of the text block, and doesn't show up if I save it.  Frustrating.  I don't have the energy to re-type all that stuff from my journal.  It's probably just as well; I should save myself the embarrassment.  And now I'm just going to stop.  I shouldn't really post this at all, but I can't stand to have written all these words and not put them up here.  Maybe I'll fix it someday after I figure out how the cut and paste thing.

Have a good day!

Friday, May 09, 2008

Cyclone Nargis

If you haven't already, please go to my sister Meghan's blog at and see her first-hand account of Cyclone Nargis and its aftermath. It must have been an incredible experience, and of course is still not over as the country tries to get back on its feet and deal with the ongoing, catastrophic effects of the storm. Keep the people of Myanmar in your thoughts and prayers!

Friday, May 02, 2008

INFP - What, me worry?

Some of you may be familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality types, derived, I believe, from theories of Carl Jung. There are sixteen different types, based on four preferences that each individual's personality corresponds to - Extroverson/Introversion, Sensing/Intuition, Thinking/Feeling and Judging/Perceiving - and everybody ends up with a four-letter code for their personality type, such as INTP, ESFJ, etc.

I've always been curious about this system, if slightly skeptical, and have taken numerous tests out of books or through the internet over the years. I invariably end up coming out INFP: Introverted, intuitive, feeling, perceiving. Stated baldly like that, it seems odd and not that accurate, but most of the more lengthy descriptions of that type that I've read have had more than one grain of truth, as best that I can tell by looking at myself.

Anyway, I don't want to go into it at any real length, and you can easily read up on this stuff at wikipedia or any number of other sites if you wish. But I wanted to comment on one thing I read lately that I found interesting, which pertains to the extrovert/introvert dichotomy. I've spent a lot of thought on this over the years, wondering at how different people can be in this way and why, and how little, sometimes, the extrovert understands the introvert and vice versa. They're almost like two different species. Speaking as a serious introvert, I'm often struck by how extroverted friends of mine will see other introverts as cold, aloof and/or arrogant, while I just see them as shy. And sometimes I'll see an outgoing person as an almost pathological busybody, yet they're most likely just being friendly and inclusive.

What I read recently characterized this dichotomy in terms of energy gain and loss, which totally made sense to me and seemed true to my experience. To explain further, extroverts gain energy from action and interaction, whereas introverts expend energy during action and interaction. Speaking again as an introvert, this doesn't mean that there are no rewards or pleasures in social interaction, just that it always has a cost in energy: it is tiring, and if it involves a lot of heavy emotional lifting and decicion-making, can be nearly debilitating. From personal experience, I can say that I've rarely walked away from a social engagement at the end of an evening, even one that I enjoyed very much, without a sense of relief that I was finally going home and back to the space in my own head. And in extended stretches of activity, during holidays and such, I need regular breaks of down time with a book or a solitary walk to keep my sanity and recharge. I've often envied those who don't have such issues, who so easily embrace or look for whatever social interaction might come their way or be available, and have wondered that if I could just persuade myself to do more of it I could reap great rewards - girlfriends, career opportunities, etc. And it might be so. The energy expenditure either/or might be a little simplistic as an explanation, and indeed sometimes (despite my previous statements) I can go either way myself, but it also goes a long way towards explaining how people can be so different in this way, categorizing it as less of a simple preference or sliding range of attitudes and as more of a fundamental difference in how we process information and experience.

I'm not trying to make excuses (maybe I am just a little bit - I do feel guilty and defensive of my solitary nature from time to time, and I do think I hurt people on occasion with my inattention), and I do think people can change in very fundamental ways, through perseverence and mindfulness and experience, but, well, it's an interesting idea.