Wednesday, December 4, 2013

sow's ear to silk purse?

You can't turn a sow's ear into a silk purse.  It is arguable that Peter Warlock and Bruce Blunt did exactly that in 1927, when they took an alcoholic craving for a brain-numbing bender and turned it into one of the loveliest and holiest carols of the season, Bethlehem Down.

Philip Heseltine was born in 1894 at the Savoy Hotel, London, where his parents happened to be living at the time. His life pretty well exemplifies what happens when a narcissistic artistic personality is allowed free rein both intellectually and morally, and provided with plenty of money to indulge his every whim. With his Bohemian circle of friends, he explored magic and the occult; inspired by the invocation of demons, he changed his name to Peter Warlock. He achieved a certain degree of notoriety in the neighborhood by riding his motorbike stark naked; he was banned from numerous establishments when the wild parties he hosted turned destructive. He had extravagant affairs with partners of either sex, often more than one at a time.  If a pregnancy resulted, his habitual solution was to slip the girl a fiver (£5) for an abortion.

Read on, read on, the worst is behind us now.

In 1927, the money ran out; he and his long-time soul mate Bruce Blunt were looking with dismay at a "dry" Christmas Eve.  As Blunt recalled: "In December 1927, we were both extremely hard up, and, in the hope of being able to get suitably drunk at Christmas, conceived the idea of collaborating on another carol." (The Daily Telegraph newspaper, remarkably enough, ran an annual carol-writing competition with a substantial cash prize. Substantial enough, that is, to get two grown men absolutely blotto.)

Blunt continues: "So, walking on a moonlit night between the Plough at Bishop's Sutton and the Anchor at Ropley,  I thought of the words of 'Bethlehem Down'. I sent them off to Philip in London, the carol was completed in a few days and published in The Daily Telegraph on Christmas Eve. We had an immortal carouse on the proceeds and decided to call ourselves 'Carols Consolidated'."
 for Yeats, Robert Nichols (a friend), the Elizabethans (especially Shakespeare) and, at the end of his life, Bruce Blunt. A strong Celtic affinity caused him to study Cornish, Welsh, Irish, Manx and B   ton.  for Yeats, Robert Nichols (a friend), the Elizabethans (especially Shakespear and, at the end of his life, Bruce Blunt. A strong Celtic affinity caused him to study Cornish, Welsh, Irish,Here are the words:
"When He is King we will give Him the King's gifts:
Myrrh for its sweetness, and gold for a crown,
Beautiful robes, said the young girl to Joseph,
Fair with her first-born on Bethlehem Down.

"Bethlehem Down is full of the starlight,
Winds for the spices, and stars for the gold,
Mary for sleep, and for lullaby music,
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.

"When He is King, they will clothe Him in grave-sheets,
Myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown,
He that lies now in the white arms of Mary,
Sleeping so lightly on Bethlehem Down.

"Here He has peace and a short while for dreaming,
Close-huddled oxen to keep him from cold,
Mary for love, and for lullaby music,
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem Down."

 Gorgeous, are they not?
And here, sung to perfection by King's College, Cambridge, is the winning carol:

Sounds like a silk purse to me . . . how about you?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Philistines in the Kitchen

What would be the most frightening thing you could find in your kitchen first thing in the morning? For Andrew, the answer is simple: Philistines.

No, Andrew does not mean those who find Beethoven's late quartets impenetrable, or the poetry of Dylan Thomas; he means honest-to-goodness, armor-clad, heathen villains who threaten his family home, and must therefore be dealt with most severely. The intensity of Andrew's hatred is not in the least fazed by modern research suggesting that the Philistines were actually cultured and sophisticated—more so, some say, than their arch-enemies, the Israelites. For Andrew, they remain the archetypical bad guys.

I sometimes wonder whether Andrew's sense of personal history isn't as open to figures from the past as the present; whether Howard Carter's astonished cry, "Wonderful things!" as he opened Tutankhamun's tomb in 1923 isn't as real to Andrew as the bus driver's cheery morning greeting.  For many years, his beloved companion was a book about the Terracotta Army, the collection of military sculptures designed to protect Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, in his afterlife.  Questioned about the figures, Andrew would put on his most terrifying fighting face, and vividly demonstrate "warrior moves" entirely of his own invention. Which, in retrospect, look a lot like his Philistine-fighting moves. Or his fury when a fork gets stuck in the silverware compartment of the dishwasher.

Few articles about people with Down's syndrome talk about teens or adults; they tend to focus on either how cute their less-than-ten-year-old is, or how brilliantly she is doing with her early intervention education.  Yes, the photos are adorable, and yes, it is remarkable that at six, she not only speaks English clearly but is learning Mandarin Chinese along with her kindergarten peers.

At the other end of the spectrum, yes, it's wonderful that your 30-year-old is a world traveler and has written a book (even if he did dictate it, I'm still impressed.)

By these criteria, Andrew (28) is nothing to write home about.  He doesn't speak clearly, seldom strings together a coherent sentence of even three words, and remains completely unimpressed by the need to clean his teeth, tell time, or keep track of money.  At Mass, he is noisier than all but the most vocal baby, with his almost infinite repertoire of clicks, grunts, and snorts. "Andrew," I tell him, "you need to be quieter.  People will think you're weird."   He looks stricken.  "Oh," he says, "sorry-sorry-sorry."  And keeps right on doing it, volume unabated. It's hardly surprising that most people do think he's weird.

But go with him onto his own turf, and it's a different matter. 

Not long ago, a friend visited from England.  Megan zoomed right in on Andrew's wavelength; the two of them got along like a house on fire. Next morning, we picked Andrew up from the Ojai Enrichment Center where he spends his days, and took him to get an Italian soda at the Bohemian Coffee Shop.  The second he walked in, the place lit up like a Christmas tree.  "Andrew! Good to see you!  How've you been? Is this your mom?  Hello, Andrew's mom! You say your friend's from England? Hello, Andrew's friend from England!"  His body language softened: he positively glowed. It was like being with a movie star.

Megan asked him to take a picture of us: the camera wouldn't shoot.  He handed it to Megan saying, as clear as can be, "The memory card's full." Blow me down, it was! Whether he had read the instruction book (as he later told his dad), or had simply overheard someone, somewhere  complaining about their memory card being full, didn't really matter; either way, it was a show-stopper. 

People who love Andrew aren't impressed by his knowledge, his vocabulary, or even his fighting moves. They simply recognize in him, as did Jesus in Nathanael,  "an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile".  It's who he is, not what he does, that matters.

But I'm still glad he's around most mornings—just in case the Philistines decide to show up.

(This is as close to a Philistine-fighting face as he could muster this morning.  There—is he not adorable?)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

In Praise of Ignorance

"A little learning is a dangerous thing." Widely attributed to Alexander Pope, this saying has been around for four hundred years or more; it is generally taken to mean that a small amount of learning can mislead people into thinking that they know more than they really do. It heavily implies that dangerous mistakes are made by the scantily informed, and that more knowledge is, by definition, better.

I beg to differ. More to my taste is another, equally popular saying: "ignorance is bliss." There are some things we are better off not knowing.  By this token, lack of knowledge is a precious resource (think of it as intellectual virginity) which, once destroyed by rakish learning—whether a Google search or a college 101 course—can never be regained.  Many a good word has been ruined for me when I dragged it into the relentless searchlight of objective truth and discovered what it actually meant.

Take, for instance, our family's preferred word for living it up a bit: mallemaroking. As in, "we're off to the pub for a quick mallemaroke. Don't wait up." The dictionary definition of this splendidly specific word is "the carousing of seamen on icebound Greenland whaling ships"—not just any old ship, mark you, but whaling ships, from Greenland, which are icebound. Now, a click of the mouse reveals that "Greenland" is mostly ice, while "Iceland" is covered in grass, and that my husband's illustrious ancestor Erik the Red is most likely to blame for this 10th century foray into deceptive real estate advertising. As to the rigors of whaling, our collective eyes were opened in 1851 by Herman Melville's epic volume, Moby-Dick. 

But it was Sir Martin Frobisher and his short-lived ambition to discover the Northwest Passage that got me thinking about that little word, "icebound." No help from the dictionary: "surrounded by, or covered in ice." Thanks, I think I could have figured that out for myself. The encyclopedia was no help, apparently not covering adjectives, and left me safe in my assumption that icebound was the nautical equivalent of "snowed in." Temporarily stuck in ice, with nothing to do but indulge in wild mallemaroking till the thaw sets in, in a week or two. Worst case: you run out of rum.

I should have left it there. Had it not been for my English friend's well-meaning efforts to see me through the heat of a southern California summer, I probably would have.   

Thinking that there's nothing like reading about people dying of extreme cold to make one forget about being extremely hot, Christine sent me a copy of Endurance, the story of Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated 1915 Antarctic exploration. A key player in the "Heroic Age" of Antarctic exploration, (never mind that to most of us, any polar exploration is heroic, especially in those pre-Goretex, pre-polar fleece days,) Shackleton was a man who knew first hand what being in an icebound ship was all about. Here is how his biographer, Alfred Lansing, described it:

She was being crushed. Not all at once, but slowly, a little at a time. The pressure of ten million tons of ice was driving in against her sides. And dying as she was, she cried in agony. Her frames and planking, her immense timbers, many of them almost a foot thick, screamed as the killing pressure mounted. And when her timbers could no longer stand the strain, they broke with a report like artillery fire.

So the tone of a mallemaroking session plummets from the convivial camaraderie of an evening in a country pub, past the most frenetic drinking binge of a frat party, to a scene of drunken, desperate sailors haunted by the fatal question: should we strike off over the pack ice in the faint hope of finding some outpost of civilization, or just stay and go down with the ship? Professional seamen rarely learned to swim; once they were in the water drowning was inevitable, not something they had any wish to prolong. In any case, in the frigid waters of the Antarctic a protracted death was hardly a concern: death would be swift and sure.

How much more user-friendly the word was before I knew what it signified.

When it comes to mallemaroking, ignorance definitely is bliss.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sir Martin Frobisher and the sink plunger

The dogs were rather miffed at me for having neglected to include one single picture of them in my last post.  So to make amends, and without kow-towing too much to their egos, I agreed to reveal in this post the origin of Frobe's name.

Sir Martin Frobisher was an endearing sort of chap, for an Elizabethan.   He cut his sailing teeth, as it were, trashing French cargo ships in the English Channel—"privateering," he and Her Majesty called it:  we would know it as piracy.

Call it what you may, the prestige of piracy is notoriously short-lived.  Surely, Martin mused, there must be something more enduring to which to attach the Frobisher handle than a yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum. He listened carefully to the after-dinner chatter of his nautical chums, and heard a note of disgruntlement.  Specifically, they were not gruntled about having to go all the way round the southernmost tip of South America to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.  Time-consuming, and the weather round Cape Horn was almost guaranteed to be desperate. There must be a better way.

Our hero had found his mission:  discover a sea route through the Arctic islands north of Canada, and thereby attain immortality.

He got as far as Baffin Island, landed in the bay that to this day bears his name, and seemed all set to discover the Northwest Passage . . . but hang on a jiffy, what's this . . . here in this chunk of black rock . . . it looks like . . .  GOLD!

Great was the excitement as he hastily sailed back to England, dismissed the concerns of the naysayers (who refused to believe it was gold, and outnumbered the yaysayers by three to one,) and talked some credulous investors into funding a second voyage from which he returned with 200 tons of ore.  Never one to be left out of a good thing, Queen Elizabeth insisted on a third, even more ambitious venture, which yielded no less than 1350 tons of . . . well, that was the problem.

What exactly was the stuff?

Alas, to Martin's acute embarrassment, it proved to be nothing more than iron pyrite, good only for surfacing roads. Some wag trenchantly observed, "Only a fool would think this to be gold!" and Martin had found his place in history—as the man who put the "fool" in fool's gold.  Elizabeth knighted him, possibly to save face. He might still be a fool, but now he was SIR Martin Frobisher, Fool to Her Most Sovereign . . . etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

The connection with a sink plunger may not be crystal clear; allow me to make it so.

I am sitting in the tub with my brother; our combined ages are barely into double digits.  Egged on by my brother, I am making rude noises with the sink plunger on the side of the tub, just above the waterline.  The wall above the tub has just been replastered, and painted a shiny turquoise green. The surface is invitingly smooth and glossy.

 What noise will the sink plunger make on the wall? Squish it on . . . pull . . .  that's funny, nothing's . . . OH! A perfectly round chunk of wall plops into the water.  Refusing to believe that this flimsy piece of rubber can wreak such havoc, I do it again.  Same result. And again . . .

To this day, I can recall my outraged disbelief as I watched chunk after chunk of our bathroom  wall plop into the tub.  I can also recall my mother's outraged disbelief as she asked that most difficult of questions: Why did you keep on doing it?

I like to think that Sir Martin was asked the same question. Perhaps he stuttered something like
 If gold is so highly valued, surely this that glisters so like it must be worth something? Maybe he importuned his detractors, I see it now, the true gold was on the other side of the bay. One more voyage and I'll have the real thing, by the ton. May I interest you in this 'golden' investment opportunity?

Alas, he had no success: he faded into oblivion, where he died in 1594His name endures, however, in a desolate, barely inhabitable, Arctic bay.  And now in Frobe, an oversize Great Dane, who assures me he has no seafaring ambitions whatsoever.

Friday, September 6, 2013

the cooling power of words

In retrospect, I could hardly have chosen a worse day for my historic first blog post.  September 1, 2013, was not only the day our youngest son Evan, my technological lifesaver, returned to college; it was also the day that the weather here in Ojai took off its gloves, and revealed that it was wearing knuckle dusters.  In other words, it turned h-o-t.

Hotter than 80º. Hotter than 90º.  Hotter, even, than 100º.

To put this in perspective, shortly before I left England back in the late 70's, the south western corner where I lived was visited by a heatwave.  A serious heatwave. Brutal, even. The headline in the Bristol Evening Post screamed, SEVENTY DEGREES AGAIN TOMORROW: NO END IN SIGHT!
Above 70º, my brain simply checked out.

Two weeks later I arrived (late) to register at UCLA. It was a nightmare. When I went to Oxford I just showed up, found my room, and presented myself at the Music Department the next morning.   In the sweltering corridors of UCLA, I stood obediently on the blue, red or yellow line as directed, and invariably found, when I finally reached the head of the queue, that I had mis-heard, and should have stood on the green one.  I had first met these lines in the GRE exam I had taken in London earlier that summer, and I had assumed they were fictitious. I was flabbergasted to find they were real. I couldn't have been more surprised if I'd rounded a corner and bumped into the Three Little Pigs.

 The campus was unusually hot: 104º, to be precise.  My brain lacked any receptor site for 104º; so when a fellow student remarked conversationally, "it doesn't get hot in England, does it?" I summoned the most impressive statistic I knew. "Oh yes it does," I assured him.  "Sometimes it gets as hot as seventy degrees!"

I never did live that one down.

It was the following April that I took a train to Washington State and promptly lost my heart.  After the brilliant pinks and reds of the bougainvilleas, the chemically intense green of weed-free lawns, and the unrelenting blue of the Los Angeles skies, the subtle colors and dappled light enraptured me.  How many shades of brown there were! How tenderly the deciduous trees were brushed with the palest of spring greens! The trees are coming into leaf / Like something almost being said. Philip Larkin's poem rolled around my brain: The recent buds relax and spread / Their greenness is a kind of grief.

I said it out loud: "If there's one place in America I want to live, this is it."

My wish came true, and five years later we moved to Everett, some 25 miles north of Seattle. There, my brain learned to function in temperatures as high as 80º, and I set about recreating some of my favorite botanical corners of Oxford. I loved it all: the rain, the clouds, the way the rays of the setting sun would peek out from beneath the cloud layer and illumine the Magdalen College-inspired red and gold dahlias with breathtaking intensity.

Alas for me, we could not stay: twenty-two years later found us back in S.California, dealing with days, even weeks, of 90º plus. Even, at times, 104º. In Seattle, people become depressed when they don't see the sun for weeks on end; it's called SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder.  My SAD, on the other hand, is Sunshine Affective Disorder, and I have had to find my own personal way of coping with Too Much Sun.

Here's how I do it: I find a fan, sit close beside it, and rejoice in the amazing fact of physics that moving air, simply by virtue of its moving, feels cooler than still air. I make myself very, very small (reduced surface area seems to help,) and keep absolutely still. I all but stop breathing. It's a lot like hibernation, except that it happens in the aestas (Latin for summer) instead of the hibernis (Lat: winter.) Hence the name: aestivation.

Aestivation. What a helpful word. I rather doubt, however, that the concept will catch on.  California red-legged frogs do it, but they're a threatened species. Snails do it—they ascend a grass stalk, construct a membrane of dried mucus across the opening of their shell, and pretend that all that heat out there just isn't happening. But among mammals, not so much—I suppose there are limits to what dried mucus can accomplish.

My husband's grandfather in North Dakota used to wear long underwear year-round. He swore it kept the heat in during the winter months, and kept it out through the summer. My mother's father did the same thing on the east coast of Scotland.

Perhaps there's a word for that too: I wonder what 'long underwear' is in Latin . . .

Sunday, September 1, 2013

my first blog

Let's begin with the obvious. After years of listening to me insist that "it's not an empty nest, it's a successful launching pad," my children have proved that it really doesn't matter what I call it, the result is the same: an empty house. The birds have flown, Entropy Academy is no more.

Actually that's not strictly true: Andrew, our second-born of six, is still at home.  He lives in the guest house with a pool table, a really basic sound system, and kind people who come every weekday to do his laundry, make sure his personal hygiene is up to snuff, and take him on bus rides to Ventura.  Usually, he eats with us. Andrew is 28 years old, and has Down's syndrome.

The irrepressible Percy
The fact that I home schooled all six of them makes the silence all the more poignant. The house is no longer subject to quite the ravages of entropy that gave our school its name . . . oh, but how could I forget those power houses of chaos, our two rescue Great Danes!  Frobe (two syllables please,) named after the illustrious Sir Martin Frobisher (about whom more anon,) and Persephone of Greek myth, shortened to Percy.  Imagine two enormous toddlers, combined weight 200+ lbs, laying waste to your living room with total abandon, and you'll get the general idea.
Frobe pushes the limits of looking noble

I came to America when I graduated from Oxford, on a teaching fellowship in the music department of UCLA, with the firm intention of spending absolutely no more than one year maximum away from home.  That was in 1978.  In the immortal words of Rabbie Burns, "the best laid plans o' mice an' men gang aft agley" - that's Lowland Scots for "don't work out terribly well."  I did get my Master's, in the history of Mediaeval music.  This means that I once knew a tremendous amount about the clausulae of the 13th century Notre-Dame School.  It also made the choice between career and family most excessively easy: there were no more jobs for mediaeval music historians in the early 80's than there are today.  So I poured all my creative energy into homeschooling and converting to Catholicism, and for over twenty years I was fulfilled.  Driven more than halfway to insanity, to be sure, but fundamentally, deeply happy. 

Then came the thing that would forever set me apart from most "successful launching pad-ers" (no, I'm not expecting it to catch on either): I developed a neurological problem of uncertain origin, "atypical Parkinson's" being about as close to a diagnosis as I can get.  This is why all my typing is one-handed, why the piano stands silent (I graduated from the Royal College of Music in piano, and  was looking forward to long hours practicing when the children grew up.) Virtually housebound, I have to find ways to keep the old grey matter from atrophying.  

I have lengthy conversations with the dogs, have been known to read aloud to the hummingbirds, but there are still hours of every day to fill. It is my newest, and greatest, challenge - physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual - and I invite you to join me: to keep me company, share a good story, and crack a joke or two along the way.