40 by 40 Update: #39 Sing in a Choir

(Back in May of 2007 I noticed that a bunch of people in the blogosphere had created lists of 101 things to do in 1001 days. I was intrigued by the notion but felt I needed to change the parameters. So I created my 40 by 40 list. 40 things I wanted to do before I turned 40. Well on August 17th I turn 40, and I need to give $10 to charity for every uncompleted item. So it is time to see how I did.)

39. Sing in a Choir – NOT COMPLETED
Running Tally: $190.00 to charity.

This is perhaps the most disappointing unmet goal. My interest in singing in a smallish choir that does a mixed bag of repertoire with lots of variety was overwhelmed by my disinterest in giving up Sunday mornings. I wish I could just rehearse with a choir during the week and not have to get up on Sunday. For other, non-church, choir options the problem is that they tend to focus on big symphonic choral works. They spend months preparing a big concert of one or two big works and then they get dressed up and sing. That isn’t the kind of choir singing I like. This is one that I need to work on, it has been too long since I sang in a choir.

40 by 40 Update: #21 Hear Mahler’s 8th Symphony Again

(Back in May of 2007 I noticed that a bunch of people in the blogosphere had created lists of 101 things to do in 1001 days. I was intrigued by the notion but felt I needed to change the parameters. So I created my 40 by 40 list. 40 things I wanted to do before I turned 40. Well on August 17th I turn 40, and I need to give $10 to charity for every uncompleted item. So it is time to see how I did.)

21. Hear Mahler’s 8th Symphony Again – COMPLETED
Running Tally: $90.00 to charity.

I had a few Mahler Eights I could have chosen from in the U.S. I ended up choosing the New York Philharmonic’s version at Avery Fisher Hall in June 2009. Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is also known as the Symphony of a Thousand because of the huge forces required to give it a proper airing. Larger than usual orchestra, organ, antiphonal brass, double chorus, children’s chorus, 8 soloists. The first part of the symphony is based on the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus and the second part is based on the end of Goethe’s Faust. It is a real barn burner. The first time I heard it was when I sang in the giant chorus with the Minnesota Orchestra and the Gothenberg Symphony under Neeme Jarvi.

Since then I have heard it performed again in Minnesota and by the National Symphony Orchestra here in DC. The second Minnesota performance, back in the 90s was the best one by far. The NSO’s was darn good, and well, New York’s this past June was really disappointing. Conductor Lorin Maazel took the first half too slow. The chorus was not up to snuff. The hall itself has terrible acoustics. And the electronic organ sounded ridiculous. Overall it was murky and lacked the punch it should have had. The New York Phil played well in most places, but not well enough to make up for all of the other deficiencies.

40 by 40

Some of you may have seen on the blogosphere people posting lists of 101 things they would accomplish in the next 1001 days. As my 38th birthday approaches, I am putting my own twist on that challenge by making a list of 40 things to do by the time I am 40. I need to finish the following things by August 17, 2009.

(Updated 5/30/07–had too many travel related tasks, sadly not enough vacation time…)

1. Quit my job (completed 10/12/07 and again on 12/01/08)
2. Get another job (completed 10/13/07 and again on 2/5/09)
3. Go to my 20 year high school reunion (completed 7/28/07)
4. Pass the TAP Exam (completed 8/10/07)
5. Make four new friends (1 down, 3 to go)
6. Write a blog tribute to the
Womenfolk (completed 6/9/07)
7. Finish my first novel
8. Submit novel for publication
9. Outline my second novel
10. Finish my business plan
11. Take a cruise (completed 1/18/09)
12. Become a homeowner
13. Reduce my cholesterol below 200
14. Make a timpano (see the movie Big Night)
15. Volunteer during the next Presidential election cycle (completed Oct and Nov 2008)
16. Get a letter published in the New York Times (completed 7/18/07)

17. Spend a long weekend in Vienna, Berlin or Barcelona
18. Start and finish the “Write Now” better handwriting program
19. Release 25 books into the wild through BookCrossing (abondoned 7/29/07)
20. Make pudding from scratch (completed 7/7/7)
21. Hear Mahler’s 8th Symphony again
22. Read at least the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time
23. Finish the rest of the Modern Library’s list of 100 top novels of the 20th Century (except for Faulkner and Joyce-I just can’t do it)
24. Go back to the house in Italy for 2 weeks
25. Get the maximum Roth IRA for ’08 and ’09 (I got one for 2007 thinking it was part of the challenge, oh well, now I will be able to retire a week earlier than expected.)
26. Go a month without TV
27. See every best picture Oscar nominee
28. Go to the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum near Dulles (completed 3/08)
29. Go back to
Ithaca, NY for a long weekend (completed 8/08)
30. Finish organizing my recipe files
31. Don’t curse for two weeks
32. Go to the Museum of Television and Radio (completed 12/08)
33. Streamline my wardrobe (completed 10/01/07)
34. Have a vegetable garden
35. Go to a BSO concert at Strathmore
36. Go to a concert at the Library of Congress
37. Find an opera/orchestra/concert buddy
38. Go to a concert at the Peabody Institute
39. Sing in a choir
40. Give 10 dollars to charity for every item not finished by August 17, 2009

Somerset Maugham and my Addiction to Spreadsheets

Back in 1994, after getting through about 30 pages of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel Cakes and Ale, I realized that I had read it before. As a result, I began keeping a log of all of the books that I finished. I had a blank journal where I kept track of the title, author, and the date I finished each book. I loved watching the pages fill up and comparing what I was reading at the moment to what I finished a year earlier. Looking back at the titles on the list conjured up memories about where I was and what my life was like when I read a particular book. I finished Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone on a gorgeous sunny September afternoon in 1997 while lying on the grass in the Place des Vosges in Paris. Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto was finished on a frigid January day in Minneapolis while I was on winter break from graduate school. I finished Love in the Time of Cholera while I was lying in a hammock overlooking the Pacific on the island of Kaua’i. These are welcome associations I doubt I would make if it weren’t for the list.

As much as I love this handwritten log, over a decade of entries made it hard to gather information from the list quickly. I had a devil of a time trying to figure out which of Anita Brookner’s many novels I had already read. So I decided to enter all of the data into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. And so the mania began. Once the information was entered into a spreadsheet I could instantly sort the list to figure out which of my favorite author’s still have books out there that I haven’t read yet. Sadly, I have already read all of Maugham, Forster, and the late Carol Shields and almost finished Iris Murdoch’s prolific output. Happily, I have a whole lot of Trollope to go and Ward Just, Anita Brookner, Ann Patchett are still alive and writing.

I still keep the handwritten log–there is nothing I like more than adding a title–but now I also add each book to the spreadsheet. In fact, I actually get pleasure from the act of adding data to the spreadsheet. It is busy work that I find deeply satisfying.

Since I started the book spreadsheet I have also created one for every concert and opera that I have been to, one that lists every work of music contained in my 350+ classical CD collection, one that organizes music festivals I want to go to, and even one that indexes all of my favorite recipes by category and tells me which cookbook contains the recipe. Perhaps my magnum opus, is the spreadsheet I created when I was trying to decide which city to move to once I finished my planing degree at Cornell. That spreadsheet has 13 cities and about 22 categories of ratings. Everything from weather, to average airfares to Europe, to the quality of each city’s symphony. Each category was weighted by priority and totalled to give me a city ranking. It was a joy to behold, helped me make my relocation decision, and has proven accurate five years later.

This weekend I plan to create a spreadsheet of all the places I have travelled to.

It’ll be a hoot. You should give it a try.

Oh, the Buskers I’ve Known (or Death to the Peruvian Pan Flute Mafia)

A good busker can turn the crankiest of commuters (me) into the happiest of humans no matter what the time of day. A bad busker can drive me to fantasies of instrumenticide. For me the difference between a good busker and a bad busker is not always related to level of talent but has much more to do with the artistic honesty of the performer and the performance.

The worst offenders are those guys with the Peruvian pan flutes playing their crappy, amplified garbage. They generally wear some kind of “native” dress to fool the unknowing rube into thinking that their craft is somehow genuine. It may have been genuine at some point, but the fact that they seem to be in every city in the world leads one to believe that somewhere there is an academy churning out pan flute trios to terrorize the world and make big bucks for some musical pimp. (Kind of like the time Homer Simpson went to Krusty the Klown Clown College…) Since 1989, I have seen these groups all over Europe and North America. The bland homogeneous nature of their music makes them the McDonald’s of the busking world.

And like McDonald’s, their omnipresence displaces a wide variety of performers that are much more original and life affirming. The most egregious example of this I encountered here in Washington DC. At the Dupont Circle Farmer’s market a few years ago, there was a group of three junior high-aged kids playing their instruments. No amplifiers, no CDs to sell, just three kids making music and a little extra money. The following week the Peruvian pan flute mafia showed up with their overly loud amplified garbage and drowned the kids out.

The beauty of busking is that it showcases variety, creativity, and oftentimes musical expressions that have roots in the local area. I have heard buskers that have moved me to tears or made me smile uncontrollably.

Some of my favorites have included:

  • an old blind woman in Lisbon singing traditional fado music in a haunting contralto with nothing but a triangle to accompany her
  • an accordionist playing on a warm summer’s evening who made Washington DC feel like Paris on the Potomac
  • two guys with acoustic guitars covering Indigo Girls tunes in Munich.

Some of the weirdest include a gorilla playing a trumpet on the London Underground and a bunch of shirtless guys banging on boxes singing “We’re Not Going to Take It”. Some of the more annoying ones (beside the pan flute mafia) include the guys who sit for hours playing the same monotonous rhythms on some old buckets (enough already, it was creative the first 82 times I heard it…) or the guy who regularly plays the trumpet really loudly on the street in DC.

I know not everyone feels the same way that I do. Most people really don’t care a whole lot about buskers. Recently the Washington Post did an experiment by placing the world famous virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell at a Metro stop in DC and no one paid much attention to him. I am not sure if I would have recognized Mr. Bell, but I do know that I would have stopped to put some money in his case. I alight from that very same Metro station every weekday and on the rare occasion that I hear a busker as I ascend the long escalator I am immediately drawn out of my morning funk. Unfortunately, I missed Mr. Bell’s appearance but I guess that means I have an extra dollar for the amateurs that are out there trying to make a buck by making me happy.

The Inaugural Post

[4/25/15: This was the inaugural post for my blog from 2006 to April 2015 called My Porch.]

In thinking about the kind of online discussion I wanted to initiate, I kept coming back to the idea of a place where people would engage each other. A place that would serve as an antidote to banal office conversation and the anonymous interactions that characterize most of our lives. Despite the absence of a physical location, the internet has done more to connect people with each other than anything else since television and suburban sprawl first disconnected us back in the 20th century. Sprinkled among the wasteland of post-World War II development, one can still find places like this–town squares, corner stores, and front porches–they just don’t get used much anymore.

Although I may end up ranting and raving from time to time, I want My Porch to be a place where the basis for every discussion is respect. I want us to disagree and argue like mad, but to remember above all that we are neighbors and have to live with each other. (Assuming someone other than me actually reads this…)

Topics of particular interest to me that will be featured in posts to come include, politics, urban planning, travel, TV (the great and the trashy), classical music, art, books, and about a million other things.

I take my inspiration from Samuel Barber’s (1910-1981) nostalgically beautiful Knoxville Summer of 1915.

“…It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds’ hung havens, hangars. People go by; things go by…”

Based on the opening section of James Agee’s A Death in the Family (which I haven’t read), Barber’s piece for soprano and orchestra opens in a rather peaceful, lilting way that never fails to remind me of some happy, yet undefined and fleeting moment from my childhood in small town Minnesota. A feeling rekindled during my graduate school sojourn in Ithaca, New York from 2000-2002. You know the feeling, one of those summer evenings at twilight with warm gentle breezes and crickets.

If you think I am living in a fantasy world you are partly right. It is a fantasy about living in a place where people care for other people and the world around them, and live honest, positive, engaged lives. It might actually be a great place. Let’s give it a whirl.