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08 June 2012 @ 07:59 am
Here's the second big event of this vacation: my 50th reunion at Northfield Mount Hermon School, which I'm grateful to for showing me I wasn't such a freak after all, and for raising my educational sights. The campus is beautiful as ever, and there's a full schedule of "Alumni college" seminars today. Last night was a lobster dinner, and not only lobster but steamed clams, shrimp and I think somebody said oysters too. What a pity I don't particularly like any of those things. But I made a good meal of crudites, salad, steamed vegetables, twice-baked potatoes (probably some sour cream and cheese there, but I limited myself to one), brownies and mixed fruit.

Getting here was quite a saga because of the French pickpocket who took my wallet, including the driver's license. I'll write about the odyssey later, since it's almost breakfast time, but I got several offers of rides from classmates, which was gratifying to find they were so ready to help.
It's almost 10:00 Saturday morning in France, but my computer is still on Eastern US time and says 3:53 am. I've had breakfast, seen Anne Marie off to her hair and female bonding appointment, said good morning to Juan Carlos, Andrej and others, and am enjoying one more piece of chewy French bread with Nutella. This fabulous chocolate-hazelnut spread is a luxury to us in the US, but we've seen huge jars of it here.

I'm harking back to Tuesday, when we went to Versailles. How I would love to live near Paris and have a season pass to the Louvre one year, Versailles the next. You can't do either one justice in a day, and getting good value out of your one-day ticket is exhausting. We tooThe line to get into the Versailles main palacek the Metro there, waited in line to buy our tickets, and waited again through a line that snaked from the temporary security-check building across the top of the forecourt outside the gold-topped fence, down the far side, back up and down again. This was the line to get into the palace. We saw many sumptuously decorated rooms, including the king's bedroom, the queen's bedroom and the famous Hall of Mirrors. All this is described and pictured in many places better than I can do here, so I'm going to write personal impressions and reactions. Such a palace could only have been constructed with the accumulated wealth of a nation that had been unified and centralized for centuries, unlike Italy and Germany, which were still collections of sovereign princedoms and duchies in the 17th and 18th centuries. The amount of gold alone, applied to walls, ceilings, furnishings, roofs and fences, would have bankrupted many a princedom.

The other thing that strikes one is that the monarchs lived always on display. The king's and queen's bedrooms had gilded railings between us and the beds, which were already there when they slept in them. The king went to bed and got up in the morning, not only assisted by servants, but attended by his most favored courtiers. Louis XIV had a sense of duty in showing himself to his people, and this apparently never ceased. One wonders when the royal couple had the opportunity to conceive the children they certainly had; and it's no wonder the king's mistress was officially recognized by the court, since there'd have been no way they could rendezvous secretly.

Having seen all we could appreciate of the palace interior, we bypassed the Grand Cafe occupying a space in one of the long side wings of the palace, and looked for lunch in the gardens. There are cafes here and there in the "boskets," the manicured mini-forests that occupy much of the garden, and we hied ourselves to one of these. The food was excellent, but we were a bit distressed by the young trio from Vanderbilt University who sat next to us. The young man, having made no apparent effort to learn the language of the country he was visiting, chastised the waiters for not understanding every word of the idiom he grew up speaking. He asked for "tap water," adding, "That's what it's called," though we had suggested he ask for a "carafe d'eau." He ordered flan, and at the waiter's incomprehension said, "It's on the menu, and that's how it's pronounced." He no doubt considers himself sophisticated.

By the time we were fed, Anne Marie and I strolled out to find the fountains playing; they had been still before, but run for a couple of hours in the afternoon. Later in the summer they have music and lights playing on the fountains in the evening, but we won't be here to see it. The gardens have the same "knock your eye out" effect of the state rooms in the palace, not just for the manicured plants and statuary, but for the sheer amount of space they occupy. I saw a sign saying it's an hour's walk to the far end of the cross-shaped Grand Canal, the central length of which recedes into the far distance from the Apollo Fountain, which is itself quite a hike from the palace. We rented a boat to go rowing on the Grand Canal--"We've come this far, who cares that it's 11 euros for half an hour?" Then we walked to the Petit Trianon, sumptuous and luxurious to our eyes, except that we'd just seen the main palace, in comparison to which this royal retreat is simple, almost humble. No wonder Marie Antoinette preferred living here to being on ornate display in the Grand Palais.

The next day, May 30, we went to another royal retreat, the Chateau de Malmaison. The name means "evil house," and dates back to a much earlier residence on the site. This was home to Napoleon I and the Empress Josephine. Napoleon met with his councilors here, and after he divorced Josephine for not giving him an heir, it was her principal residence. Again, a large and luxurious house, beautifully decorated, but much simpler than the over-the-top decor of Versailles, which Napoleon also occupied. Josephine loved roses, and they grow very well in the soil and climate here. The gardens have been reconstructed to approximate the way they looked in the Empress' day. The result is very beautiful, with many different rose varieties as well as poppies and other flowers. There are no complete records of the hundreds of rose varieties Josephine collected, buying the best from all over and asking her family and friends to contribute from their gardens; and besides that, some varieties had multiple names; so the modern gardeners have to guess. Malmaison is a bit off the main tourist track--we had to take a city bus to get there--but it's well worth looking up.
Current Location: Versailles
Current Music: Francois Couperin
01 June 2012 @ 01:41 pm

I'm making a labored French pun, above: "tour" means both tour (as in tour bus) and tower. Since our first trip to the Ile de la Cite showed us how long the line to enter Notre Dame Cathedral gets in the afternoon, we didn't wait to go in that day, but saw other things instead. Today we got up as early as yesterday, I didn't leave my transit pass behind, and so we arrived at the St. Denis-Notre Dame stop a little after 9 am. There was no line at all to enter the cathedral, and admission is free. We walked around to where you can go up in the towers, saw a short line, read the sign that it: opens at 10:00, and decided to look at the church interior first. They're getting ready for an organ renovation too, in honor of the cathedral's 850th anniversary: construction began in 1163. The Great Organ is in the rear gallery as usual, a very high gallery. It's a 5-manual Cavaille-Coll with 20th century additions and an electric console that now needs replacing. The choir organ is at the left side of the chancel with its console among the choir stalls below. There are many side chapels, each with its altar, so many that there isn't much space for worshippers. Many have a large painting opposite the altar, with too little space between altar and painting to see such large, high-hung pictures properly. It was apparently the custom for various guilds to give a painting on the 1st of May in honor of the BVM, since May is Mary Month for Catholics. After Pope John XXIII shook things up with Vatican II, priests started facing the congregation across the altar, which has led to an ugly modern altar near the top of the chancel steps, since the beautiful high altar requires the priest to face into it, away from the congregation. Why couldn't all the gorgeous altars already constructed just be grandfathered in, if they couldn't be moved out? Everything else in the church is either old and beautiful, or inconspicuous enough that you can ignore its modernity.

When we got out of the cathedral, the line to go up in the towers was considerably longer, but by 11:00 am we could go in. They let in a group of 20 every 10 minutes and charge 8.50 euros (written 8,50 in Europe--they reverse American usage of commas and decimal points in numbers). We went up a story or two, bought our tickets, and were allowed the privilege to buy other things too. Anne Marie bit for a cool circular photo card of a rose window. Then they counted off our group of 20 and up the north tower we went.

Round and round you go, up and up a narrow spiral staircase encased in stone with an arrow slit for light in every revolution. Then you go up a few straight stairs, and up and round another spiral maybe 15' over from the first and narrower. Finally you come out onto an open gallery that extends across both towers and the space in between. It's open, but a loose mesh of stout wires makes sure you can't lean out to pet the gargoyles...and probably fall to end your fool life. But you can see plenty, from gargoyles close up at the same level, to a vista taking in 3/4 of Paris, to a view of the roofs over the nave and transepts. I never realized there was such large-scale ornament all along the ridgepoles of the nave and transepts--looks about man-height from the towers. You can take vertiginous wooden stairs further up to the big bell in the north tower (I did, Anne Marie didn't, not trusting her balance). There are stone stairs further up in the south tower, too, and as the attendant ushered us into the south tower after quite a satisfactory time on the gallery, she pointed out the steps going up and said, "Monter ou descendre." We descended, for I sensed that if I mounted instead it would be to leave Anne Marie to her own devices. Round and round, down and down, over on the straight steps, then round and round again, emerging at last into the forecourt.

We crossed the bridge to Ile Saint-Louis and walked around there for a while, then crossed to the mainland and wandered through the Latin Quarter. My French textbook back in high school said the name for that part of the city dates back to the Middle Ages, when the students at the Sorbonne or whatever it was called back then spoke Latin. It was probably tough on the common people for the church to have a monopoly on education and reading, but at least a scholar could go anywhere in the Christian world and find someone to converse with--in Latin. We found a cafe for lunch, had a very nice pair of salads, and went on to the Musee de Cluny. This is in the building of an old abbey, which was built on the site of the largest bath of the Roman occupation of Paris when it was called Latitia. (Spelling? Correct me if you know.) It has sculpture, stained glass, tapestries and other things from the middle ages, as well as what's left of the bath's frigidarium, the cold-water pool. (No comments on modern brand names, please.) I spent altogether too much time looking at the fragments of sculptures knocked down from Notre Dame after the Revolution and discovered by accident later. Anne Marie loved the Virgin and Child statue in one of the upper galleries that showed little Jesus tugging at Mary's neckline saying, "C'mon, Mommy, I'm hungry"; but when I wanted to compare the fabulously carved altar-pieces, Anne Marie was getting twitchy and impatient.We had to look around the gift shop, of course, and left the museum not too much poorer.

Anne Marie suggested we walk along Boulevard St.-Germain until we could turn south to the St. Sulpice Metro station, so I navigated while she inserted side trips to interesting shops. It was my turn to be twitchy and impatient. We eventually took the two trains and a tram home. We're getting fairly accomplished at finding our way around on the Paris transit system, and at making peace with each other's preferences in what to look at and how. Too bad our return is so imminent...

Back at the house, we found two of Gosia's Polish friends who visited the US while Gosia was with us 19 years ago. Or so they said, and recognized us from back then. I don't remember their visit, I'm sorry to say. But they're pretty and friendly and speak English well, so we don't have to suddenly learn Polish. Also here are Carolina and her little daughter Amanda, who live in Spain, and another guest named Markus whom I haven't sorted out yet. Then a family arrived who live in the US, Janet and Alfred and their sons Andrew and Jonathan. Gosia's brother Andrej came too; he visited us with Gosia after her year with us, and we recognized each other right away. Gosia went to work this morning and was going from there straight to a hotel, where she will stay the night with her friend and official wedding witness, Asia (pron. AH-sha). Anne Marie is to join her at the hairdresser's tomorrow at 10 am, and we all somehow show up in the afternoon at the Mairie for the wedding ceremony.

Current Location: Paris, France
Current Music: Guillaume de Machaut
31 May 2012 @ 03:22 pm
Being two days behind, I've decided to try writing each day's adventures the same evening, and then go back and fill in the days when I didn't do that. Hope I can remember what we did for the catch-up posts.

Today we went in early to get into the Louvre before the worst of the crowds. Not as early as we intended, since I left my weekly transit pass at home and had to go back for it. Weekly passes are always Monday through Sunday; it's great to be able to just go whenever you want. We went to the Place de la Concorde, walked the length of the Jardin des Tuileries, bought our tickets and went first to find the Mona Lisa. She's centered at one end of a large gallery "for convenience," separated from Da Vinci's other paintings which are in their proper national & period grouping. As Anne Marie put it, we "genuflected" before her, and then decided what to see next. I was attracted by the Egyptian antiquities; Anne Marie wanted to look at decorative arts and medieval stuff.

There are two separate series of galleries covering dynastic Egypt: the chronological sequence tracing through the different periods, and the thematic sequence on the floor below, arranged to give a sense of daily life. I decided to see the chronological sequence. I spent the most time in the Armana period, when the monotheist pharaoh Akhenaten instituted the worship of the one god Aten and moved the capital from Thebes to a newly built city, Armana. (Brazilia was not a new idea! Nor, for that matter, Washington DC.) The labels spoke of Akhenaten's "distorted" features, namely a long face and prominent chin; and those features are certainly evident in the sculptured portraits of him. Tutankhamen, succeeding Akhenaten at a young age, went back to the worship of Amon and other gods, and his successor removed Akhenaten's and Tutankhamen's names from monuments and buildings, substituting his own.

The galleries were built as palace rooms, sumptuously decorated as typical of royal residences. So if you look up from examining objects from the later dynasties, you suddenly realize that there are bas-relief friezes high on the walls, panels on the cove with paintings surrounded by gilded carved borders, and a big painting all across the center of the ceiling. The labels are all about the Egyptian artifacts, with nothing to tell you whether the ceiling fresco is the Apotheosis of Moses or the Council of the Gods over the Knotty Problem of the Minotaur.

We met at the cafeteria off the big lobby under the pyramid, and Anne Marie said "Let's not eat like pigs." On the way to and from Napoleon III's apartments in the Richelieu wing, she had discovered an elegant restaurant, so we lunched in quiet and leisure on smoked salmon salad (me) and steak tartare (her). Then we looked together at northern European paintings until she flagged. So Anne Marie went to explore the gift shop and then go sit at a cafeteria table. I found her there after another 35 minutes spent pleasantly reading (in French only) the labels of the 24 paintings commissioned from Rubens by Maria de Medici, the mother of Louis XIII. Heroic in size, these paintings have a whole big room to themselves--and need it to be appreciated. The descriptions made me laugh. Maria obviously made it clear she was giving Rubens all this money to make herself look good, and Rubens obliged. Imagine Jupiter and Juno shown in parallel to Maria and her husband King Henri IV of France. When she arrives at Marseille to meet the king, as shown at right, she is greeted by personified France while Fame blows not one but two horns to announce her arrival. Below, Neptune and some voluptuous Naiads or Sirens (who knows which they're supposed to be?) pay her court, but also distract the viewer's eye from the queen. Did Rubens do that on purpose? Then at a later date, are we really supposed to believe the gods met on Olympus to decide that France and Spain should be allied symmetrically--the princess of each marrying the prince of the other. But there they are, Jupiter and Juno etc. in solemn conference to direct that very thing. In another episode, the twentyish Louis XIII is shown as Mercury, wearing the winged helmet and nothing else but a strategic drape. I don't know the history, but Maria was regent to her boy-king son, and I would guess she didn't want to give up the power once he acheived his majority. The paintings soft-pedal the quarrel they evidently had, and a proposed painting showing her retreat from Paris to Blois was replaced by one showing the prosperity of her regency, personified by appropriate classical allegorical figures. Their reconciliation is shown, and the last panel shows Maria and Louis as equals, celebrated by I don't remember what gods or personified virtues. The whole thing is a hoot. Maria can't have been subtle about indulging her ego and thirst for power.

We discovered there's a mini-mall underground at the end of the Louvre. Paris is blessed with a lot of free public rest rooms, but the mini-mall has one that's not free: 80 centimes to use. We paid. We strolled down the Rue de Rivoli, visiting a couple of shops along the way, then took the train from the Place de la Concorde back to the house. Passed a pleasant evening over dinner with Gosia, Juan Carlos, Rosina and Lourdes. Daniel and Lipsus, the Venezuelan buddies, were not there, having decided to go out drinking. They're fun but exhausting to have around, so the end of our day was more quiet without them. Time to post this and go to bed. Good night.
Current Location: Paris, France
30 May 2012 @ 04:40 pm

On Monday we took Juan Carlos's aunt Rosina and cousin Maria de Lourdes and went off to see Sacre-Coeur (Sacred Heart Church) and its neighborhood of Montmartre. We're gradually getting pretty good at navigating the Paris train system, and so we emerged from one of the famous art nouveau exits from the Metro. We looked around, discovered a view of Sacre-Coeur up a steep side street, and headed that way. On the way up are dozens of shops and street vendors, and at least five men doing a variation on the old shell game. Instead of shells with a pea under one, they use three black discs, one of which is white on the usually hidden side. They show you the white side, move them around quickly, and invite you to bet which is the white one. We didn't bite.

We took the tram which cuts the amount of climbing needed. The church amuses me, looking as it does like a quintet of wedding cakes on display in a bakery window, but it is exceedingly beautiful in an overblown way. The top of its central dome is the 2nd highest point in Paris (1st being the top of the Eiffel Tower, of course). You can pay to go up in the dome, but even the view from the terrace two sets of stairs below the portico is pretty impressive.

We went inside and found they channel us tourists up the left aisle, around the ambulatory behind the altar and back by the right aisle. There is a set of posters begging for contributions toward the renovation of the great organ, a 4-manual Cavaille-Coll, so being a sucker for organs, I dropped a 5-euro bill into the box. Anne Marie figured praying for others is always a good idea, so she did the Catholic thing and lit a 2-euro candle. The great organ is in the rear balcony as usual, and there's a smaller organ in the right transept gallery, which has room for a choir, whether they use it for that or not. The smaller organ has its pipes divided into 2 cases so as not to cover the row of stained-glass windows across the center of the gallery back wall. The poster about the great organ renovation promises not to interrupt the liturgy, which may be the reason for the small console at main floor level beside the chancel with speaker cabinets mounted on the pillar above it. We didn't hear any of the three instruments.

We decided not to pay to see the crypt or climb to the dome. We had seen people looking out of the openings around the dome's base, which reminded me strongly of the pictures of people in the head of the Statue of Liberty. We took the tram back down the hill and found a cafe for lunch. We sat at sidewalk tables, waited for the waitress to bring us menus, decided what we wanted, and waited a longer time without her coming back to take our orders. At last we decided enough is enough, abandoned our menus and tables, and went to a pizzeria across the street. I'm convinced we got our food there sooner than the waitress at the first place would have brought us as much as a carafe of water. (Gosia had advised us to ask for a "carafe d'eau" which means a goodly amount of tap water to fill our glasses for free, rather than expensive bottled mineral water.)

Tummies filled, we looked around Montmartre, saw many lovely things we can't afford, and found our way back to the art noveau Metro entrance, tired but happy.

Next up: Versailles.

Current Location: Paris, France
28 May 2012 @ 01:31 pm

I'm writing from Paris, France. This is my first visit to France and the first time Anne Marie and I have visited Europe together. We're here to attend the wedding of Gosia Derewianka, the Polish girl who stayed with our family for a year on an exchange program in 1993-94. She made it clear that the honor of our presence was ardently desired, so thanks to Air France, here we are.

We landed in Paris on our 37th wedding anniversary, May 25. Gosia and her soon-to-be husband Juan Carlos recently bought a house in the suburb of Bondy, with a tram station a reasonable walk away, and we are staying with them. Juan Carlos is from Venezuela, and he and Gosia have been living and working in Paris for over 10 years. The house is beautiful and charming, with 3 bedrooms upstairs, a small walled garden in back and a garage down a steep ramp in the basement.

Saturday we took a jaunt into the city for sight-seeing. We had lunch at a sidewalk cafe facing Notre Dame Cathedral from across the Seine, walked around the Ile de la Cite on which Notre Dame stands, saw the inside of Sainte-Chapelle, and ended the day with a boat tour around the Ile de la Cite and Ile Saint-Louis, down the Seine to the Eiffel Tower and back. The sights we passed were described by a crew member over a PA system in French, English and Spanish. On the way back, Juan Carlos' Venezuelan friend caught up with us on the Metro, and Juan Carlos with his newly arrived aunt, cousin (female) and friend (male) soon joined us. Gosia cooked for the crowd, and dinner conversation was a combination of French, English and Spanish, sometimes all in the same sentence.

Yesterday Gosia made herself available entirely to Anne Marie and me. It  was Pentecost Sunday, and I prevailed on Anne Marie and Gosia to start our day of sightseeing by attending the 10:30 am mass at St. Sulpice Church so I could hear the organ. (See the photo above: that's the one!) This massive late baroque church has the 5-manual Cavaille-Coll organ played for most of their careers by the composer Charles-Marie Vidor and his successor Marcel Dupre. Aristide Cavaille-Coll was the greatest French organ builder of the late 19th century, and of his several surviving organs in Paris, St. Sulpice is one of the biggest at 102 ranks of pipes. That's a honkin' big organ. Cesar Franck, Camille Saint-Saens and Louis Vierne also played Cavaille-Coll organs, and Maurice Durufle undoubtedly wished he did. Typical of big French churches, St. Sulpice has the great organ in the rear balcony with a smaller organ behind the altar to accompany the choir. An American church would want to connect them electrically so one organist could play both from the same console, but French churches do not; so they need 3 musicians: an "Organiste du Grand Orgue," another organist to accompany the choir, and a choir director, who at St. S. also acted as soloist or cantor. The choir was weak and ill blended, but the choir organ sounded fine, and the Great Organ was magnificent. I smiled in delight to hear buttery flutes, brilliant but smooth strings, and many gradations of ensemble sounds including layers and layers of brilliant, fiery reeds. These are the sounds generations of French organist-composers wrote for, and I couldn't bear to visit France and not hear at least one of C-C's fabulous organs. Oh yes, I also recognized enough of the mass text in French to join in a few of the responses, and to recognize the reading of the story of Pentecost from Acts, and the list of fruits of the flesh and spirit from (I think) Galatians. I got nothing out of the Gospel reading or the homily, I'm afraid. After the mass there was a half-hour recital (called "l'Audition" in French) with two works by Tournemire and another French composer of the appropriate period, plus an improvisation by their excellent organist.

We left the church as the 12:05 mass was about to begin. We walked through the Jardin du Luxembourg, which is beautiful enough to deserve its fame, and lunched on crepes from a stand that's been at the same location in all the years Gosia has lived in Paris. Gosia took us by the Sorbonne, through some narrow alleys with very high-level shopping, and by the Louvre, including its much reviled glass pyramid entrance. After a lot of walking, much of it in the sun, we were relieved to find a train home.

I have to stop and see about replacing my driver's license, which was taken Saturday by a pickpocket. He got a trivial 10 euros, a credit card and an ATM card, but they were easy to deal with. Now I have to change all my ground transportation plans after I fly back to the US; Hertz won't put me in the driver's seat without a license, so that's the biggest nuisance. Later I'll tell you about today's visit to Sacre-Coeur and Montmartre.

Current Location: Paris, France
Current Music: Outbursts of Joy (Messiaen)
18 September 2011 @ 05:45 pm
Me (librarian) to graybeard watching Internet video in clear defiance of the posted rule: “I’m sorry, sir, we have to keep these computers for the library catalog only.”
Graybeard: “This is on the library catalog.”
Me: “No it’s not. Close the window, please.” (Wait a few seconds for him to start moving. He doesn’t.) “You can get up and leave now, or I can call Security and have you removed from the building.”
Graybeard, plaintively: “You do this every time I come in here. How do I call security and have you removed from the building?”
My coworkers, who have dealt with this man’s infractions repeatedly, all thought this was hilarious.
The other funny thing needs a little background. My church, bucking the trend toward guitars and drums for worship, plans to enlarge its organ, and the first step has been to replace the worn-out 38-year-old console. (The console is essentially a large cabinet full of electric switches. List the 38-year-old electric appliances in your home that are still functioning. There probably aren’t any.) The new console has one more keyboard than the old one and dozens more stop controls, which are in the form of knobs out at the sides instead of tablets over the top keyboard. All these changes make the new console look much bigger, but until the additional pipes are installed in about a year, it plays the same sounds as before, no less, no more.
A week ago was the first Sunday the new console was functioning. The top of the partition that normally hides the console and organist from view was removed, “so people can see what they bought,” as the organist told the choir.
Lady to me (choir singer) after worship: “Have your ears recovered from that new organ?” (Being Southern, she pronounced it “ah-gun.”
Me: “It’s the same organ, it’s just a new control center.”
Lady, shaking head: “Well, it’s something else.”
I didn’t explain that the antiphonal division (pipes in the rear balcony) wasn’t even connected yet.
10 December 2009 @ 02:30 pm
As an aspiring novelist, I keep hearing that editors and agents are looking for certain qualities in writing today, and that world-famous authors of the past couldn't get published today. Dickens? Too wordy, takes too long to build up to the action. Austen? Too much conversation about inconsequentials, not much happening. Jumping from one character's point of view to another will get you rejected right away, but lots of classic authors do that.

As coordinator of a fiction critique group for the Village Writers Group, I wonder how a famous author (submitting incognito) would fare among us. So I offer this critique of a famous literary work:

Reviewed by Anthony Miller for the Village Writers Novel Critique Group, December 1, 2009

This is a heart-warming story, full of warm fuzzies, and I feel certain that with a little tweaking, it will find an enthusiastic if limited audience. It’s an interesting conceit to tell a story entirely in rhymed verse, and this will appeal to the novelty market.
You put the main character’s name in the title as “Saint Nicholas,” and use this form of the name repeatedly in the story. One wonders why. Do you see Roman Catholics as your main audience? There are far more Protestants, not to mention Jews, Muslims, agnostics, and others who just prefer to keep their faith private. Such readers might be looking for a nice holiday story, but are sure to be put off by all this talk of “saints.” Would it work as well to make the mysterious visitor an angel? They’re very popular in inspirational titles. Even better in today’s market would be a vampire, but it’s hard to see how to work one in.
I understand you may have been stuck for a rhyme with the word house, but is there some reason the narrator might expect a mouse to be stirring? If this is a reference to the recent visit by an exterminator, that should be made clear.
One wonders why the narrator found it necessary to open the window wide in order to see outside. Such an extravagant waste of energy resources on a winter night is shocking when we are all having to cut back. Be that as it may, once your narrator can see properly, “I saw in a moment it must be St. Nick.” This use of the nickname (no pun intended) is an excellent choice, a good if belated attempt to attract the twenty-something reader, especially as it comes soon after the confusing reference to “the breast of the new-fallen snow.” The “miniature sleigh” plays well to the current need for fuel-efficient vehicles, but the eight enslaved reindeer will get you in trouble with animal rights groups.
When the protagonist finally speaks, you needlessly introduce eight named characters. This serves to give the reindeer greater dignity, though one wishes he did not shout at them. However, expecting the reader to process these eight names in quick succession is questionable, considering that you do not treat the reindeer as individuals again. His speech seems not only peremptory, but irrational. After “To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!” one expects a logical conclusion to the progression in height, such as “Okay, now land on the roof.” Instead, he tells them three times to “dash away,” which is more likely to get them away from the house entirely. It’s a tribute to the intelligence of reindeer that they go up on the housetop in spite of being misdirected, but is it necessary to portray the driver as witless and incoherent? Furthermore, he chooses to enter the house by the filthy, sooty chimney, when the narrator has already opened the window—and apparently left the fireplace damper open as well, a profligate waste of energy resources.
The physical description of your visitor is especially disturbing. He seems obese and shows signs of alcohol abuse, and is specifically shown using tobacco with no apparent concern for the effect of second-hand smoke on the narrator in his own home. All this makes him a terrible role model for today’s youth.
The method your protagonist uses to get back up the chimney is unclear, but at last he exits the domicile he entered (without permission, be it noted) and departs with an expression of good will, at least. But even there, he gets it wrong: “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!” It’s “Happy holiday,” or if one must stick with sectarian tradition, “Merry Christmas.” One just doesn’t hear, “Happy Christmas,” does one?
Despite its minor flaws, I found your story charming overall, and with just a few alterations, I do believe it will find an audience. I look forward to reading the corrected version, and hope you will also share with the group your marketing plan.

25 May 2009 @ 09:50 pm
It's crunch time for my choir's Piccolo Spoleto trip. Director Matt had us sing the most challenging piece on our concert program, Alleluia Psallat by Peter Aston, as an anthem Sunday morning. Wednesday night I wasn't sure we'd pull it off. Matt said, "I'd like to sing this Sunday," and a tenor called out, "Be my guest." But instead of Matt singing it, the choir did, and it went well. The rhythms are tricky: a lot of 7/8 measures, notated as 3/8 + 2/4. Go figure. At the choir retreat back in March, the piece started to make sense after 15 minutes' work in the morning. Then when we went back to it in the afternoon, it didn't make sense again. Now in May, at last, it makes sense each time we start in on it. Once a group can sing it fluently, the rhythms are catchy. Best Beloved not only was impressed that we did it so well, she even liked the piece. A lot of contemporary music doesn't suit her taste.

Besides Alleluia Psallat and a mass by Widor (which is why I'm using the picture of the organ Widor played at St. Sulpice Church in Paris), we're doing Salvation Is Created by Tchesnokov (this year, for the first time, we're singing it in Russian), and to my delight, "Thou, O God, Art Praised in Zion" by Malcolm Boyle. I think of this anthem as a concerto for organ and choir, since the elaborate accompaniment forms such a partnership with the voices. Oh yes, and some other short pieces including yet another newly learned spiritual, but those are the ones that stick in my mind. I wish I could pack you all in my suitcase and pull you out in time for the 12 noon concert Saturday at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church, but it would get stuffy in there and the car's going to be crowded enough with Gus Godbee's long legs and his wife too in the back seat. Gus grew up in our church, had a gorgeous treble voice as a boy, and now he's a new UGA grad in music and our paid tenor soloist.

Best Beloved and I had a quiet but satisfying 34th anniversary today. I proposed lunch out, and she let me pick after a couple of eliminations. We went to Eagle's Landing, a newish Cajun place nearby which we've never tried, but it was closed. "How about the Blue Rooster Cafe?" I said. That's a place we drive by now and then, and we'd talked about going there, but it closes at 4 pm and we're seldom both around at lunch time. So we went by, it was open, and we had a nice lunch. We split a grilled Cuban sandwich and a salad with chicken, both of which were very good and left room for dessert. The cherry pie (not too sweet--intense flavor!) and strawberry cake (rich) were enough to bring some home. I finished my portion of both after supper (plebian beans and a hot dog); Best Beloved wants to polish hers off for breakfast.
Current Mood: satisfiedsatisfied
12 May 2009 @ 08:50 pm
The Saturday evening recital was mostly fun. It was like members of a large circle of friends playing and singing for each other, and nobody expecting perfection as if they'd paid $50 a seat to hear you. The lead act was a soprano older than I, who began a Bach aria somewhat shakily. She stopped after a few phrases, saying, "I'm sorry, my voice isn't up to this," and left the stage to friendly applause. Several other vocalists sang, including the Elijah soloist and another baritone performing solos from Elijah that were not included in the Sacred Concert program for Sunday. Jennifer Davis, an alumna who helped a lot with the weekend arrangements, sang a Handel aria in a glorious soprano. A singer-songwriter sang two cheery, folkish songs she'd written, accompanying herself on the guitar. An alumna and her son, a current student and choir manager, sang a hymn in the Dakota language (they have Dakota ancestry, I believe) in lovely harmony. A baritone who is active in a Gilbert and Sullivan company performed two G&S solos quite comically. I was the only alum to perform as a solo pianist, and my pieces were about midway through the program.

When I told the audience about studying these pieces with Mr. L'Hommedieu, I heard the "Awww" sound people make when they see cute puppies or hear sweet endearments. I felt nervous and stumbled again in the E major Song Without Words, less seriously than the preceding Sunday. The audience was most kind. Many fellow alums thanked me and complimented me on my performance. I got points for playing at all, for playing from memory, and for recovering and finishing the piece after the stumble. One alumnus praised my "aplomb" for going on after such an obvious flub, and an alumna said she sat next to a piano teacher who remarked, "He has a really good hand position." If that were the only compliment I received, it would be enough to make me glad I played. This must be something like the Schubertiads and other musical salon gatherings of the past.

The second part of the recital featured the NMH Jazz Ensemble, which took first place in the Western Mass. regional competition this year, and second in the statewide. There were four saxophones, three trumpets and a trombone, guitar, bass guitar, drums and steel drums. Sure enough, they were terrific, both the ensemble and the several students who played solos. A professional group would be lucky to play that well. I went up afterward while the girl who played steel drums was packing them up, and told her, "You should get a solo next year." I said I'd long been intrigued by the ingenuity that turned waste metal (used oil drum halves, originally--hers were too shiny not to be made from new material) into an acoustic instrument that could be heard several blocks away. She seemed gratified that anyone (especially an old white guy, I suppose) actually knew that much about her instrument--most Americans don't, apparently.
Leaving the Arts Center, I saw the boy who'd soloed on tenor sax, and said, "You guys are terrific--and I'm not even a jazz fan."
"Neither was I, when I came," he replied.
I nodded. "When you get into something good, it can do that for you."

When I went to the Musicians' Weekend, and 49 years ago when I went to Mount Hermon, I definitely got into something good.
Current Location: Mount Hermon, Mass.
Current Music: "Night Train" by Oscar Washington