Friday, October 30, 2015

Spatial Test Neurosis

My daughter was invited to take the tests for the talent search for the Johns Hopkins Center for TalentedYouth.

Yay – yikes! Holy projection of stress onto my child!

So, there is the Spatial Test Battery, and then another standardized test for ye old above grade level achievement whoza whatsa. It's the STB that's getting me all worked up.


Emile and Lucy and I constructed our own block manipulation problems with Legos

Wouldn't I have loved to take that test as a kid? 

Really. I would have. 

And, because parenthood is a constant losing crisis of not keeping my own feelings out of it, how can I make sure my daughter does well?




The spiral goes like this: we don't allow video games in our house because it always and inevitably leads to melt down hell in our children, which means she's undertrained by a decade of playing Minecraft, as all her peers will have under their belts, so we must prep, which requires much research on Mama's part...

Do you see my screws coming loose?


From the JHU CTY STB DSMV


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Golden Slippers

I just learned the D Major harmony (Cathy Clasper-Torch graciously allowed me to record it and put it up on youtube so you can see the fingering) on a song, but now I have mixed feelings.

You see, after poking around a bit (mostly on Wikipedia), I found out that what most of us call "Golden Slippers" (as played by Beth Williams Hartness) is actually a minstrel song, to be performed in blackface, and a parody of the song made popular by the Fisk Jubilee singers.



Fisk University (named after abolitionist Clinton Bowen Fisk), in Nashville, is an African-American institution, established in 1866. The Fisk singers were recorded, and you can hear them here - though I'm not sure when that recording was made. 

The Fisk Singers toured first the Underground Railroad path, and then Europe. Spirituals, including “Golden Slippers”, were their usual fare.

But they also sang minstrel songs written by Stephen Foster, a white musician from Pennsylvania - not the one responsible for the minstrel song in question, however.

The minstrel parody of “Golden Slippers”, the spiritual, was originally called “Dem Golden Slippers”, and was written in 1879 by James A. Bland, an African American musician, from Flushing, New Jersey, graduate of Howard University (another great African-American institution).


According to Wikipedia:

“Music historian Alec Wilder calls Bland the black writer who 'broke down the barriers to white music publishers' offices.' Bland was one of the most prolific minstrel composers of all time; he is reputed to have written over six hundred songs, though only about fifty were published under his name.”



So, hurrah! Right?

Except, blackface, minstrel, making fun of the group that toured the original spiritual along the path of the Underground Railroad...

What would Harriet Tubman say? That it's a great tune, with, as my fiddle teacher says, a checkered past?


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Toad versus Frog


At Starbucks, the guy ahead of me asked “Vous êtes Française?” and me, toadish look on my face, because I'm not always charming, n'est çe pas, replied, “Non.” 

“Then, part of the French American School?” 

“No,” I said, wearily. After just having had an argument with Laurent, I was totally not wanting to play “let's speak French.” Not that I ever enjoy that game much.

“And you speak French with your daughter, why?” 

I relented. “Her father is French.” Comprehension dawned. 

I even asked a follow up, “And you?”

“French. I teach at Brown.”

Honestly, I didn't care, but I liked him, felt bad that he'd had an interaction with such a crabby human.

Homework Question: how on Earth does an artist and writer have a successful life without applying some social grease?

Welcome to my tutorial on how not to get along...

Monday, October 26, 2015

Saved by the cushion

As a kid, my mother had taught me yogic meditation with a candle, as she understood it. And we did a lot of yoga, back in the late 70s and early 80s. Then she learned some kind of South Asian meditation practice, and had us repeating “Nam niyoho renge kyo” for a while. That stayed with me as a soothing thing to say when I was stressed (nearly all the time...)

When I went to Japan, I was studying many of the arts associated with the zen and shinto culture: tea ceremony, kyudo, calligraphy, kendo. I became obsessed with an English translation of koans – that brand of thinking felt like home to my atypical brain, much in the way of the works of Lewis Carroll.


Real efforts at meditation started out after college, with Vipassana, following the recorded talks of S. N. Goenka. I was 22 and in England, and my American friend, Clare, wanted to go to do a meditation retreat in Wales. Luckily, for once my lack of self determinism was useful!

For those who don't know it, Vipassana is hard core. 11 days of sitting 11 hours a day, silent retreat... 

But finally I had great food every day, and at that time on the fair isles, it was Vipassana or the Krishnas for edible food...

That much sitting was not fun, and it was the season when the lambs are separated from their mothers, so those Welsh lambs cried. However, the green landscape was heavenly to me, even in March, and I have retained a desire to live there.

Sitting hurt. We started at 4 in the morning, and went to bed at 9? 10? Enough sleep for some, but not for me.

I appreciated the brutal sit or die so much that I did it again five years later, nearish Fresno California.

It was like going to an eye exam, click click click progressively clear lenses applied to my life and my motivations. That first time was really a massive revelation. I tried to sit two hours a day after that, but after each retreat I only managed to keep it up for a few months. The sitting always made me feel more relaxed in social situations afterward, which was huge.

For a decade or so after that second Vipassana retreat, I used to practice Tibetan Buddhist meditation, in the Shambhala lineage

I currently practice Japanese Zen as taught by Sokuzan Robert Brown, student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Kobun Chino Roshi

I sit down on a cushion or a chair, far enough from the wall, which I'm facing, to touch it with an outstretched arm. I sit with my hands just above my knee, in line with the leg. I look at the wall with soft, but not unfocused, eyes, like one has while riding a horse: I know where I'm going, but it would be unnecessary to hone in like a hawk on one point. 

Observe, all of the six (yes, six) senses: hearing, tasting, seeing, smelling, feeling, and thinking, but be careful not to give over to the primacy of the thinking sense. In other words, make sure that the more sensual senses are given more attention, without closing any of the six down. I want to enlarge my awareness of mind, not reduce it. Sit for an hour every day, and for a four hour block once a week – well, okay, that's an aspiration...

My experience in that hour often feels like this: first fifteen minutes – where the hell am I? What am I doing? Next thirty minutes – thinking stuff thinking stuff thinking stuff oh, smell, sound, sight, etc, thinking stuff thinking stuff thinking stuff. Next ten minutes – awareness. This feels good, bucolic, calm, ahh how nice now I've got it. Next fifteen minutes – glower grumble distraction oh yeah other senses I should know what I'm doing now oh well it's over.

* * *

Before I started to meditate I felt like a colossal cracked pinball machine, each ball more the size of a cannon ball. Wham, crash, soorrreeeee! (That last is meant to be the banshee sound of a screamed apology without stopping to check. ) It is possible to be careless of others, a bully even, and still be destroyed knowing that I was the cause of any pain. 

I was haunted, even up to recently, by “bury myself, hit myself, blow myself away” verbal/mental perseverations. I tried to seek comfort, to replace those words with the memorized poems, “Jabberwocky”, “The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock”, to go and look at beautiful places, to eat good food and follow around the few people I felt more sense of belonging with.

I couldn't see myself, except as a hateful caricature. The only inner eye I had was a cruel one, and dishonest.

Sound bleak? I had some fun, in my blunt and blind way, but yes, miserable is the right general adjective.

I am so grateful to Clare for dragging me along to Wales, and to all my teachers along the way. You have made this a life.


Friday, October 23, 2015

Haapavesi Waltz

Another obsessively played fiddle tune these days: the Haapavesi Waltz.

Here is the version my teacher, Cathy Clasper-Torch, taught our class at the Blackstone River Theater.

Unlike the version below, the version she played starts on A, but in all other ways is a direct transposition, no change in fingering.

I know nothing about Haapavesi, Oulu, Finland, other than that it maxes out at about 61 degrees Fahrenheit in July, but in other ways looks a bit like Northern Minnesota.


About the waltz, I found out not much more.

It appears to have been written in 1991 by Keith Murphy, a distinctly unFinn name, and yet it reminds me of the Varttina music I have grown to love.

And a touch of the tight, odd rhythm of the Steve 'n' Seagulls version of AC/DC's “Thunderstruck”.



I get a huge smile every time I listen to this. I was never an AC/DC fan, but now...

Here is more on traditional fiddle in Finnish music.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Orbit

Understanding Orbit

Ball bearings are shucked from the hub
There's an escapee.
I'll tell you how the others feel
They turn away, watching their cycles of disbelieving love
Lapped and doubled by stunted lack
They respected their bothersome pact.
Sometimes.
When choice wasn't there.
A gob of grease is applied, and I think it will spin.
I can't afford a replacement.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Pooh sticks, fairy songs, and the sound of aurora borealis

Brown and beige haired heads on Catholic school blue uniforms turned toward me – only one other redhead in the sixth grade.

I was proud that my work had been noticed, that I had been seen as worthy of standing up in front of the class to read what I'd written.

Also, dread.

Two paragraphs in, my nuclear reactor nervous system started overheating, my face lit emergency red. Too much high soaring language. I felt I wasn't supposed to write words like this – it was not fitting in with my peers. And too, I'd been taught this was “purple patching”. I'd written one typed page, maybe two? Two would've been worse.

But the teacher, Old Dragon Breath, made no critical comment when I finished, and no one said anything mean.



I'd read my class a description of something strange at my grandparents' farm house, in the northern third of Minnesota. Their nearest neighbor was a mile away, the nearest town many more. 

While grandparents slept – for farmers late is after 9pm – I kept company with velour couches and thick carpeting, and the “brother” electric typewriter lodged under a small wall light.

(Who else used that maddening machine? Why did my grandparents have it?)

There was singing. The sound waves weren't localized, not like a radio. I don't know when I noticed it – maybe it started out resonant, like Mozart's Requiem in D Minor – Kyrie – or maybe softly. But like the Requiem, it was a large chorus of voices, and beautiful singing, male and female.

I looked out the kitchen window, down the towering row of evergreens edging the quarter mile driveway. Black trees against gray sky, nothing else. I wondered then, in my memory now, if it was the sound of the trees, but I can't recall if there was wind.

I don't know how long it lasted. It left me shaking with excitement. A little afraid, when it was gone.

* * *

I've told the story many times. I told it to my daughter, when she asked about whether I had ever seen fairies. “No, but –”

My daughter recently recounted the story to my sister, who said she'd been there, too. Parallel games of Pooh sticks: drop the twigs in the water, run to the other side of the bridge – “That one's mine!”

On the web I found the theory about the sound of aurora borealis, and I like that. I don't need to know what it was. Explanation doesn't make it smaller, or worse, or better.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Spinning Cogs

How interested am I in Alan Turing?

My library fine and fifteen tabs open on my web browser would seem to say he is very interesting to me. Or, alternatively, that I am working very hard at making myself interested in him, and failing.

I asked myself, "What would the world of computing look like if Alan Turing had lived?" I quickly found that others had already asked this question, wrote Quora posts about it, and published books on the subject (fantasy by Rudy Rucker, imagining the writer William Burroughs and Turing in a relationship...)

But it turns out that I am most interested in an idea not everyone agrees upon: Turing as someone on the Autism Spectrum.

Steve Silberman pointed at the irony of so many people on the spectrum being the source of the Nazi defeat in WWII (think Manhattan project), even while the Nazi's began their massive Eugenics machine by killing autistic children.

Maybe the might of the Allies was already on the spectrum, with Alan Turing, in WWI? Impossible to know, now, surely.

I'm also twisting around the complementary ideas of the Imitation Game concept, which was the first heading in Turing's great paper on computing. Three ideas float in my head:

1, those endlessly turning cogs of the bombe, Turing's machine for decoding Enigma;

2, that Dr. Asperger thought that only boys and men were affected by the autism spectrum;

3, that the imitation game is the perfect analogy for how so many women describe the experience of being high functioning and on the autism spectrum.

images copyright Julia Gandrud 2015