The Day I Met Thelonious and Nica in Heaven

Nica and Thelonious
Nica and Thelonious

I was sitting in my music room the morning after the biggest snowstorm of the winter, alternately practicing my guitar and looking out at the snow piled heavy on the trees. My wife walked in with a late morning cup of coffee.

“I hate winter,” she said.

Not wanting to disappoint her, I gave my standard answer. “I love it. It’s pretty. Besides, we get to spend the morning drinking coffee and looking at the snow.”

“Some of us have to go out and run errands,” she said, sipping her coffee. “What are you working on?”

“A Thelonious Monk tune: Pannonica,” I said handing her the sheet music. “I can’t seem to get it right.”

She looked it over. She’d had early training on the piano and could read music easily. Sometimes, I felt envious.

“I’ve heard you practicing this,” she said. “You sound pretty good to me.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I can play the notes OK, but I just can’t get the feeling right.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s a love song, but I can’t seem to make it sound like one.”

“A love song?” she said looking over the music, her eyes narrowed in concentration. “It looks strange for a love song.”

“That’s Monk’s genius. He could make all those odd chord changes and dissonances sound beautiful. You see,” I went on, “it’s a song he wrote for a woman who literally saved his life. I just can’t seem to give it the feeling it deserves.”

My wife took another sip of coffee and sat down. She knew I wanted to talk. Continue reading

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Death and Spreadsheets

It has been too long since my last entry in this blog. This is not a result of ill health or other problems (in spite of the title of this posting), but comes from the very happy fact that I have finally started work on a long-planned novel. After finishing six chapters, I find myself wrestling with some structural issues in the plot, and thought it might be helpful to step back from the project for a Sunday afternoon, and share some other thoughts that have been on my mind.

I am retired, and fortunate enough to enjoy a pension from my former employer as well as Social Security (which I have paid for and expect my government to honor, Mr. Boehner). Still, I do depend upon my investment portfolio for a significant portion of my income. Being a computer scientist, I have constructed a number of spreadsheets using risk analysis, Monte Carlo Modeling, and other techniques to determine if I will outlive my money (certainly a blessing, but like many blessings, it is one that would create some degree of inconvenience).

death-and-the-miser
Death and the Miser, Jan Provoost (1465-1529)

 

I have done this for a few years now, and was happy to see that each year, the probability of my money lasting seemed to improve. At least I was happy until I realized the reason this was so. Each year I live means I have fewer years to pay for. Death, it would seem, has become a major factor in my financial planning. Continue reading

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What are the stages of a man’s life, and what the hell am I doing in this one?

This morning, as my wife and I were relaxing after our Sunday morning breakfast and enjoying a last taste of coffee and orange juice before starting a busy day of not watching the Super Bowl, she decided to play one of the Twilight Zone episodes she recorded from the New Years SyFy Channel Twilight Zone Marathon (NYSFCTZM). It was the episode with Andy Devine as Frisby, the doyen of a group of old coots whose lives centered on telling tall tales around the stove at the local gas station. I won’t go into details about the episode other than to say that Frisby’s tall tales result in his being abducted by space aliens, and his atrocious harmonica playing leads to his release. The story ends with all the other old coots throwing Frisby a surprise party on his sixty third birthday, and refusing to accept his sworn account of the abduction as anything other than another tall tale.

978px-Rembrandt_-_Aristotle_with_a_Bust_of_Homer_-_Google_Art_Project
Rembrandt: One old coot regarding the bust of another old coot

Unfortunately, watching this episode, and its implication that men of my age can legitimately be relegated to old coothood made me wonder about the current stage of my life. I am a few years older than Frisby, but hardly consider myself to be an old coot. I asked my wife for some reassurance on this note, and received an affectionate, witty, but disturbingly ambiguous response. As a result, I began thinking about this stage of my life, and what it all means. This is something I do from time to time, probably because I am at this stage of my life.

Part of the problem is that I don’t know of a clear alternative to old coot that I can use to describe myself. I don’t really feel comfortable imagining myself in the demographic group assigned to me by popular television news and entertainment shows and their commercials, which characterize men of my age as reinventing themselves with great vigor and creativity, in spite of being obsessed with golf, unable to make love to their sexy but age-appropriate wives without pharmaceutical assistance, and possessing an overwhelming urge to vote Republican.

So, I have decided to spend this Super Bowl Sunday in a pursuit even less productive than watching football. I have decided to develop an improved model of the stages of a man’s life, in the hope that it will help other men my age escape the stigma of premature old-coot-hood. I will limit it to the lives of males – actually retired, white, American, former professional, middle class males – since that is the only sort of life I have experienced. Continue reading

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Lou Reed Died Yesterday

On the day his obituary appeared in the Albuquerque Journal, an article appeared on the front page describing how a Republican State Representative challenged a physical education instructor for having her students stretch before exercising. Although the teacher referred to the exercises as “stretching or mat work,” and did not mention yoga to her students, the representative, Alonzo Baldonado, objected because he did not want his daughters exposed to non-Christian religious practices.

“You can’t depend on no miracle
you can’t depend on the air
You can’t depend on a wise man
you can’t find ‘em because they’re not there

“You can depend on cruelty
crudity of thought and sound
You can depend on the worst always happening
you need a busload of faith to get by.”

Lou Reed, Busload of Faith

Goodbye, Lou. You will be missed.

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The Tugendhat House vs. the Brutality of Abstraction

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the great modernist architect, designed Villa Tugendhat in 1930 as a home for Fritz and Greta Tugendhat in the city of Brno, in what is now the Czech Republic. It has since been recognized as one of the treasures of world architecture, and an elegant example of modernist design. I recently learned of this house through my informal study of architecture, but what moved me – as much as its beauty and the many innovations in its design and construction – is the history of its journey through World War II and the years that followed. The story of how the Jewish Tugendhat family lost their home when they fled the Nazi occupation, of the house’s abuse by German and later Russian occupiers, as well as the story of its restoration by the people of Brno have led me to reconsider old, possibly unanswerable questions about the recurring insanities that punctuate human history.

Villa Tugendhat, front view. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Villa Tugendhat – view from the street. Photo by David Židlický. © Vila Tugendhat.

From one perspective, it is superficial to worry about the damage done to a single house by the twin horrors of Nazism and Stalinism, when those horrors killed tens of millions of innocent people. Indeed, I have tried and failed to understand how people with an embodiment, culture, and education not unlike my own could have participated in such brutality. The scale of that cruelty is so great as to confound both reason and the emotional intelligence we normally rely upon to understand the tragedies of life. It is precisely because the story of Villa Tugendhat shifts our focus from the full scope of global tragedy to something more accessible to ordinary empathy that it may help us to find the understanding we need.

I also believe that this story may provide a deeper appreciation of the ways that great architecture and the simple, universal experience of creating a home can enlighten our minds and heal our souls.

Continue reading

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