Archive for August 2008

The 7 Ingredients of Caring

August 30, 2008

Humans are social creatures. We spend our lives interacting with others, giving and receiving. We were not designed to be alone, yet too often, when presented with the opportunity to reach out to another, we find ourselves holding back because we are unsure how to move forward. Whether we are caring for family or friends or complete strangers, we can act with assurance by breaking the concept of caring down into its essential parts.

• COMPASSION. The first step is having compassion for someone other than yourself. Too often, compassion is confused with pity, but they have completely different starting points. Pity is a fear-based response when we look down on someone else (as if into a pit) and treat that person as less than ourselves. We are so focused on the differences between us and them that we separate ourselves from them, holding them at arm’s length. Compassion, on the other hand, stems from the realization that we are all members of the same humanity and, therefore, equally merit love and concern. We are able to reach out to others (coming alongside them), look them in the eyes, and open ourselves to the opportunity to share life with another in all its joy or sorrow.

• ACCEPTANCE. We can only care for others if we accept them for the whole of who they are. We can’t pick and choose the parts we’ll help and disregard the rest. Acceptance doesn’t mean we compromise our beliefs. It gives us the responsibility to see without judging, to give without expecting repayment. When we can show every person we encounter the same acceptance, it is a reflection of the unconditional love we receive from God, who celebrates every one of us even when we’re not perfect.

• RESPECT. To treat another person with respect is to preserve dignity and nobility even when those things seem to be impossible. Every person is precious and unique, whether they are male or female, rich or poor, young or old. We have so much to learn from the people who share our lives, and yet we often crowd them out because we are too busy looking for someone other than the person sitting next to us. When we stop to listen, to ask someone about themselves, we have the chance to glimpse God’s glory reflected in a singular and beautiful way that would be unavailable to us if we simply walked by.

• INSPIRATION. Because we are all connected, we are always drawing inspiration from some people and giving it to others. It is not something we consciously set out to do, and it is approached with humility. We often have no idea we are serving as someone’s source of strength or encouragement, and just as often, we don’t take the time to let others know that they are sources of these things for us. Inspiration can be a catalyst for change and self-improvement, since we are never a finished product. Just as importantly, inspiration by its very nature reminds us that, though we are the center of our own perceptions, we are by no means the center of everything.

• NEED. Often, it seems easier to give than to receive care. But if we never allow ourselves to be the recipient of others’ caring, we shortchange everyone involved. People use gestures of caring to express things that are difficult to put into words, such as how much they treasure our friendship, how we provide them with a sense of purpose greater than simple existence, or thankfulness for our own caring toward them in the past. We are not invincible, and being on the receiving end of care reminds us to be humble. If we are always giving and never receiving, we also shut out opportunities to witness miracles.

• GRATITUDE. Being grateful for whatever we have in each moment, whether we are giving or receiving care, is one of the most liberating aspects of caring. When we are the provider, we should be thankful for the chance we are being given to show God’s love in a concrete way to someone who might not be aware of it. As a recipient, we can rejoice in the knowledge that we are not alone. Gratitude springs from joy and is rooted in our conscious decision to live in each moment completely, without holding onto the past or worrying about the future.

When we can reach out with love and compassion, accepting each person exactly as they are; when we respect each other to maintain dignity and nobility and to listen to what we are saying, even if no words are spoken; when we serve as the inspiration for one another to grow beyond what we ourselves believed was possible; when we acknowledge our need both to give and to receive; and when we live filled with gratitude for every moment we are given breath, then we can begin caring for ourselves and, by extension, caring for one another.


Respecting the Dream

August 29, 2008

We live in a world dominated by fast media. Information bombards us relentlessly. If we’re not seeing images urging us to “Buy, eat, get, have, consume, spend,” then we’re being shouted at by those who want to convince us that, unless we use their product, watch their program, read their book, attend their seminar, we’ll never be happy.

We’ve become so conditioned by this endless flood of incoming data that we are beginning to have trouble dealing with two major components of the human condition.

First of all, quietness and slowness are disappearing from our lives. Traffic is always headed somewhere on our roads. You can’t walk into most stores or restaurants or doctor’s offices now without hearing background music. Now, instead of just plain music when we’re put on hold, we’re either redirected to the local radio station of the call center we’ve reached or we’re reminded about the endless variety of products and services the company we’re waiting to talk to has to offer us.

We’re tethered to one another by BlackBerries, connected all the time by Instant Messenger. If we can’t be reached by someone at any time or for an extended period over a 24-hour cycle, people start to panic because we’re not responding, and therefore, “something terrible must be happening”.

The second result is that, because so much of what passes for culture and general knowledge has been condensed into the easily-digested, easily-edited soundbite, we have lost our tolerance for speech that contains anything unpolished.

A lot has been made about the gaffes and blunders of the Democratic nominees for President and Vice President. Of course, some situations can become extremely uncomfortable, even dangerous, because of what we say.

But I personally would rather have someone in office who speaks their mind, even if it means they have to go back and clarify or correct themselves later. I don’t say exactly what I mean in the best way the first time I open my mouth. If I don’t do this, why should I hold such an unrealistic expectation for the leaders I elect to run the government?

Because we’re being pushed to talk fast, we’re being pushed to think fast. There is less and less room for thinking in our daily lives. We are being reduced to the level of parroting the opinions of the sources of our information instead of creating our own.

Last night, Barack Obama became the first black man to be given the nomination for President by a major American political party. His acceptance speech took place 45 years after Martin Luther King, Jr. stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial and expressed his hope for the dream of equality and freedom for Americans of all colors and creeds that was and is a cornerstone of this country’s existence.

A lot of people are struggling right now with dwindling jobs, rising inflation, declining home values, soaring fuel prices, and uncertain health care. For any of them, to have hope is to make the difference between making it through and falling through the cracks. They may not have lofty dreams like “world peace” or “an end to suffering”. But their dreams, even as simple as they may be, whether they include having enough to keep food on the table or pay the mortgage for the next month, providing health care for aging parents, or being able to offer a child a chance at higher education, are just as precious as those wider ideals and no less important.

Regardless of the party I’m registered with, I’m going to listen to what both candidates for President have to say. I listened to Obama last night, and yes, I was swept up in the emotion of the whole event and got carried away thinking about the dreams we all have and how wonderful it would be to be able to see more people have a hope of achieving theirs.

But I will also be paying just as much attention when John McCain speaks next week. I may not agree with the policy proposals of a particular candidate, but I, as one person, am not America. If a particular path is better for the country as a whole but I personally don’t like it, I have the responsibility to respectfully disagree with the policy, even as I support the person or people that got elected to guide our nation into the next part of our collective journey.

Leading a nation is hard. Leading one as fractious and expansive as ours is even harder. Perhaps hardest of all is to lead our nation through the ever-shifting balances, alliances, and conflicts that surround us on all sides internationally. Whoever is elected in November faces a formidable task and brings his own unique perspective and set of skills to the task. Whoever he is, whether I voted for him or not, will have my respect.

Adventures of Harley the Cat

August 28, 2008

About fifteen years ago, my family adopted a cat. Actually, my Mom adopted her, and, since what she said almost always became law in our house, none of us could do anything except tease her about becoming an old cat woman. The cat was maybe a year and a half old, calico, and had extra toes. She also had the misfortune of possessing a naturally very round belly, so her previous owners threw her out their car window thinking she was pregnant.

The night the cat came home from the shelter, I took my 4-H club to a children’s concert by singer and storyteller Bill Harley. Later, when it came time to name the new cat, there were so many votes for “Harley” that Mom finally gave in.

So, Harley started her days on our dairy goat farm living in a crate, wearing an Elizabethan collar so she wouldn’t take the stitches out of her incision from being spayed. She lived in the same barn as all our baby goats, and she was very shy. You couldn’t pick her up, and we all were read the riot act about leaving the barn doors closed so she wouldn’t escape. Farms are tough places: You either survive, or you don’t. But my mother was going to give this cat as many chances as she could.

When the stiches were healed, she started leaving Harley’s crate door open. Harley took a liking to the baby goats and would curl up with them, or just sit on a fence rail and watch them. We kids had a theory that Harley actually liked the heat lamp hanging over the newborns to keep them warm rather than the kids themselves, but …

One day, I went down to feed the kids their morning milk. I was bent over, a bottle in each hand and a third held between my knees to feed our newest set of triplets. Suddenly, I had something with claws and velvety fur on my head, yowling and hissing like a banshee. I screamed. Bottles dropped and spilled milk everywhere. The baby goats bleated in protest at an interrupted breakfast, and I stood up fast, expecting the worst, but only bonked my head on the heat lamp in my hurry.

It was Harley, and, in the fuss, she had leaped onto the nearest fence rail. Now, all I could do was laugh. We had a guard cat!

She took her guarding seriously from then on, although she soon learned I was the “Source of Warm Milk” and gave up her head-crashing tricks on me. That didn’t mean she spared others, though.

As Harley grew, we all fell in love with her. She soon figured out that I wasn’t quite like the other children. I didn’t always succeed in catching her when I wanted to, where the other kids always did. She must have also noticed that I never looked at her eye to eye.

When spring came and her babies graduated to the big barn, which was further from the house, she took to meeting me at our back gate every chore time and going ahead of me on the path, meowing and making soft trilling sounds in the back of her throat. If I didn’t come fast enough, she’d throw herself on the ground and roll around, making rustling noises in the grass or dry leaves until I almost stepped on her. Then, she’d scamper a little further down the path and do the whole routine again, leading me to the barn and her baby goats.

One night that summer, we had a huge windstorm. It blew so hard that a hundred-year-old grandstand at our local fairgrounds was blown down, then caught fire and was completely destroyed.

That night, we all ran all over the farm, closing up barns and securing some old cars in preparation.

In the morning, all was well. No trees had come down and we still had power. But Harley was nowhere to be found. She wasn’t there to greet me for morning chores, or for evening chores, or for any of my trips to the barn the whole next week.

After the second week without her, we all resigned ourselves to the fact that, as many barn cats do, she had gone off somewhere away from us and died.

Three days after that, I was cleaning stalls. The walk to empty wheelbarrows led me past lots of bushes and an old Volkswagen van that my Dad had closed up tight for the storm.

As I walked by, I heard something that sounded like “Meow”. I stopped. It was too soft to be a catbird.

“Kitty, kitty, kitty?” I called out.

“Meow,” came the reply. I thought I recognized the voice.

“Harley, is that you?” I could hardly breathe, and tears pricked the backs of my eyes.

“Meow! Meow! Meow!” She must have recognized my voice, too. I ran to the house.

“Mom, Mom, come quick! It’s Harley!”

She came, and we found her in the Volkswagen, very thin and dehydrated, but overjoyed to see us.

On a farm, you either survive or you don’t. Well, Harley had survived for seventeen days, licking water out of little cracks and crevices in the van, perhaps catching a mouse or two. Whatever any of us had initially thought about Mom going to the cats, we were all in love with the calico with extra toes now.

The winter after her ordeal in the Volkswagen, I got my second guide dog, Kiefer, and he began making all the trips with me to do chores. Harley didn’t take kindly to an intruder in her realm, least of all a DOG! If I was feeding baby goats in one of the front barns, which has a Dutch door, I’d have Kiefer sit and wait for me (he wasn’t very good at holding bottles). Harley would walk back and forth across the top of the door, easily in his view but just out of reach, daring him to chase her, teasing him mercilessly.

Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth she’d go, flicking her tail slowly. He never moved, but she was stubborn. For weeks she tried to tempt him.

He never gave in. Instead, he learned to find gates, show me where pails were in pastures so I could bring them in for washing, and even learned to keep groups of goats together when we went for walks in the field behind our house. What he never learned to do was chase Harley. She sulked for awhile and wouldn’t go to the barn until I was already out there milking. But when she realized that the dog wasn’t going away, she resumed her daily greetings, as well as her version of guiding a blind person.

She may have never had kittens herself, but her maternal instinct was strong. When Mom brought home a “house cat” from another shelter, Harley made daily deliveries of a freshly dispatched mouse, probably figuring the poor thing couldn’t do anything for herself, trapped as she was behind our big glass door.

The following year, when my Mom brought home two barn kittens, the yowling and tree-scaling and hissing that accompanied their forays into Harley’s domain were titanic. She made sure all the other cats knew who was queen. After that lesson was thoroughly learned (with occasional updates and reminders), she taught them to be formidable hunters in their own right. Now, there is a “guard cat” in all three of our barns, and one of the kittens even learned Harley’s grass-rustling and trilling tricks for escorting me to the back sheds where our male goats are kept.

Harley lived at least another seven years after that, and by the end of her life, she was almost completely deaf and toothless. But if you caught her on a spring day when she was feeling good, you could still follow her, meowing and trilling, rolling in the grass along the path to the barn and whatever crop of baby goats she was watching over at the moment.

Make Way for the Carrot Cake!

August 27, 2008

I’ve been on a cooking spree lately. Usually, my husband cooks. He’s really good at it, too. It’s not that I can’t, but when he was going to school and I was teaching, back when we first got married, he would cook because, if we waited until I came home after my last piano lesson, we wouldn’t have had dinner until something like ten or eleven at night! I realize this schedule works great in Spain, but they have a two-hour siesta right in the middle of their day, too, so …

Anyway, my friend Anne loves carrot cake. When I visited last year, she took me to a restaurant 30 miles from her house and said they had the best carrot cake she’d ever had. I tried it, and it was indeed really delicious.

Anne is a really good friend, probably the best I’ve ever had. So when I visited again this summer, I told her I would cook for her and would love doing it (although I wasn’t going to guarantee she’d love eating what I cooked).

One thing I did know, though, because I have a competitive streak. I was determined to make a carrot cake better than that restaurant!

I spent months searching in cookbooks and on-line for the best recipe. I don’t know what other people think, but I like my recipes fairly simple. Some cake recipes are really fussy. You know the ones I mean. They say things like:

“In a small bowl, sift the flour. Add cinnamon, baking soda and salt, and combine with a wire whisk.” (What other kind would I possibly be using? Or are they afraid I’ll just stop reading at “wire” and try mixing things up with an extension cord?)

“Make a well in the dough.” (I love this: Our nation’s addiction to foreign oil is solved, or maybe it’s just a shortage of water in the Southwest. Whatever it is, they never tell you whether to use copper or plastic for the plumbing.)

“Add flour mixture and milk alternately to batter, beginning and ending with flour mixture.” (So I just dump half the dry stuff in, then all the milk, and then the rest of the dry stuff. Hard to do when one hand is otherwise occupied with an unruly electric mixer.)

Anyway, this recipe I found is great. You take all the ingredients (except for the ones you use for making the frosting, of course), put them all in a bowl in no particular order, and then mix. I don’t care how many ingredients are on the list if I can do things like this.

The first time Anne and I made the cake, we somehow didn’t get started until something like eight at night. I’ve seen some well-stocked kitchens in my lifetime, but hers … let’s just say it’s so well-stocked, she knows she has whatever we could possibly need somewhere, she’s just not exactly sure where. If it’s not in the kitchen proper, it might be in the pantry, or the basement, or … the town hardware store! I’ve never in my life walked into a place that sells garden hoses and hammers and come out with two nine-inch round cake pans.

The first order of business was shredding three cups of carrots. Me and peelers and shredders have uneasy relations. But then again, if I was relegated to life in a dark, cluttered drawer where I was always being poked by potato mashers and sidled up to by spatulas, and my only excursions into the outside world involved rubbing up against cold, slimy vegetables or stinky cheese, I can’t say I’d be very soft and cuddly, either.

The recipe called for coconut, so we searched high and low. She thought she’d put it in the freezer, but couldn’t seem to locate it in there. The more she looked, the more annoyed she got. Finally, I convinced her to call off the search (they do this after dark when they’re in the mountains looking for lost hikers, so I figured it was OK to do it for coconut, too, even if it meant we’d find it in a few days, frozen and unresponsive).

We didn’t have the right size pans, so the batter ran over and made a nice toasty, burnt aroma in the house and a crispy, crusty thing on the oven floor that I had to clean out the next day (after all, I planned to bake other things and didn’t want all my efforts to have an air of carrot about them).

By the time the cakes were done, it was midnight or close to it, and my sides hurt from laughing. I also had an intimate knowledge of where I could find just about any cooking utensil imaginable in someone else’s kitchen. Kitchens are kind of physical representations of our minds. I’m convinced that with Anne, I’m in the company of someone who is absolutely brilliant. She’s got a lot of knowledge about a lot of different subjects. Just don’t ask her to recall any of it in a hurry or in any way that might make logical sense to anyone other than her.

I made the frosting the next day. As long as I live, I will always cherish the memory of watching Anne’s surprise and child-like delight at getting to lick the beaters and the bowl.

But that was nothing compared to her reaction to eating the finished dessert, which was nothing short of ecstasy. She’d be reassured to know that, if she ate the whole cake in one sitting or even over the course of one day, she might be really, really sick, but at least she’d met the Department of Agriculture’s recommended daily quota of five servings of fruits or vegetables (three cups shredded carrot, one cup crushed pineapple, one cup raisins). Fortunately for both of us, she stopped at … I’m not quite sure how many pieces.

It was good enough that she asked me to make it again the next week when she had a group of people over at her house. This time, the pineapple and coconut made it in, and there were a few slight modifications to the frosting.

The day before I left for home, Anne admitted that I had succeeded in outdoing the carrot cake from the nearby restaurant. I’m not sure if it’s because so much laughter and love went into it, or because she got to lick the bowl when we were done.

I do know that I’ve made it for my own family now, too, and, in the words of my husband, “That’s some high-level carrot cake”. He’ll take his straight, no chaser (meaning without the frosting). My mom took hers in a nine by thirteen pan instead of the two-layer round version I’d made earlier.

However you eat it, it is a good recipe. I’ve had others in the past, but they’re all retired now.

Make way for The Carrot Cake!


2 cups sugar

1-1/2 cups vegetable oil

4 eggs

2 tsp baking soda

2 cups flour

2 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp salt

1 cup flaked coconut

3 cups (about 1 pound) grated carrot (more can be added if desired)

1 cup chopped walnuts (or more if desired)

1 cup raisins (or more if desired)

1 can crushed pineapple, well-drained

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

1 to 2 tsp. lemon juice

1 tsp vanilla (or more if desired)

4 cups confectioner’s sugar

Preheat oven to 350.

Grease and flour 2 8-inch cake pans.

Combine first 12 ingredients in large bowl and blend with a mixer just until a smooth, thick batter forms, about 30 seconds to 1 minute (do not overmix).

Pour into pans and bake 45-50 minutes or until tops are golden and toothpick comes out clean.

Cool completely.

For frosting: combine butter and cheese in a large bowl.

Add vanilla and lemon juice and mix well.

Gradually add sugar, continuing to mix until well-combined.

Place one cake layer on serving platter and frost the top.

Place second cake on top and frost top and sides of cake. Garnish with additional nuts and/or coconut, if desired.

Cover and chill until ready to serve.

Undiscovered Glory

August 26, 2008

We’ve just witnessed two weeks worth of athletics at its best, courtesy of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. From an American standpoint, there was much to celebrate (golds in men’s and women’s beach volleyball, men’s and women’s basketball, Michael Phelps’ eight golds from the pool along with his various world records, gold in the decathlon, a 1-2 finish in women’s balance beam). As citizens of the world, we could savor Uzbekistan’s first Olympic medal of any color, the joy and victories of Jamaican runners, and, of course, the Chinese successes. The Opening Ceremonies offered pageantry and beauty we will not soon forget, despite the not-so-pretty truths that surrounded it.

We’re really fortunate. In this age of technology, we are no more than a click of a mouse or the pointing of a remote away from seeing the best athletes in the world put four years (or more) of lonely, grueling, dedicated preparation on the line. For some, their chance at glory lasted only a few seconds. The panorama of human emotion that this evokes, from the thrill of achieving the thing you’ve sacrificed so relentlessly for, to the bitter disappointment of having that dream elude you by a fingertip or a toe clipping a hurdle … well, it doesn’t get any better than that.

But if there is a time when our eyes should be on China, it’s now. After the grand spectacle of the Olympics, there is something else that happens in sports. It’s just as riveting, and the prowess of the participants is just as worthy of our respect. It’s the Paralympic Games, the Olympic-level competition for athletes with physical disabilities.

Unfortunately, our society is very much fueled by money. Many athletes wouldn’t be able to pursue their quests without the support of government-sponsored training programs or corporate backers. So if someone is highly skilled, it doesn’t hurt to be photogenic, well-spoken, and, most of all, in the right place at the right time so you can make the personal and professional connections that will further your road toward success.

Disabled athletes, for the most part, don’t have sponsors. For them, if they want to be the best in the nation, let alone the world, it requires endless creativity to find a way to make a living and pursue their goal simultaneously. Energy spent trying to cover expenses is energy they can’t put toward training. Say what you want about whether it’s just a mental thing drumming up financial backing. It’s energy.

Based on discussions I’ve had with disabled and non-disabled friends in Asia, there’s an uncomfortable tightrope that is walked when it comes to how the disabled are perceived.

For parents, there is still a great stigma to having a disabled child. So, the conflict for them of the idea that disabled people are helpless and useless and need to be taken care of, and their resentment at having a “non-productive” person in their household can make for immense levels of tension.

In the U.S. and Europe, we pride ourselves on the idea that, even if we still harbor some of those same suspicions, we’ve at least attempted to legislate our way beyond them. Discrimination and marginalization are apsects of life for disabled people everywhere, both here and abroad. We just tend to be a little less obvious about it. We don’t generally disown our disabled kids and send them out into the streets to beg, or relegate them to state institutions. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying.

But, as I said earlier, there’s no big money in disabled athletes, so the Paralympics are just a footnote following “the real Games”, if they get mentioned at all.

This is too bad. People are too often mired by their discomfort when faced with close interaction with a disabled person. Fear of difference, fear of what we would do if we were handed the same fate, fear of having to face the fact that human beings are, at heart, fragile and impermanent and, yes, mortal. There are many other emotions that come up, but those are a few biggies.

Yet, just as the Olympics brought us stories of hardships overcome and reassured us of the endurance of the human spirit, the Paralympics offers a similar opportunity, with the added benefit of showing that disabled people share the same dreams, shortcomings, strengths and weaknesses as the rest of us. They may use wheelchairs or crutches, have artificial limbs, not hear or see, but they’re human beings, deserving of the same respect and responsibilities as everyone else.

I was a runner in high school and college. I never ran for my school, but that didn’t stop me from doing it independently. The first statewide meet I attended was quite an experience. For three days, Hofstra University on Long Island was taken over by kids of all shapes and sizes, with all kinds of physical limitations, all pursuing sports with the same enthusiasm, energy and passion as any able-bodied kid.

The track events were held Saturday. The first race was the 1500 meters, which I ran and won in my division for the totally blind (classified, in sports terms, as B1). Since it was the first event of the games, the stands were packed. It didn’t matter that no one knew who I was or who any of the other athletes, who were in wheelchairs or on crutches, were. They cheered for all of us, and they had the same roar of support for the one who finished last as they had for the one who finished first. Whether they were parents or volunteers, they knew what we all knew: sports is a unifying experience, and everyone loves watching someone try to push him- or herself to new heights of stamina, skill, or sheer willpower.

I ran the 60 meters and the 100 meters later that afternoon. The last race of the day was the 800 meters. By the time it started, in early evening, the stands were empty. The only people still left at the track were those competing, a few parents, and the officials doing the record-keeping.

I’m not expecting NBC to provide the extensive coverage on-screen and on-line that it afforded the Olympics. The disabled, after all, are a small minority. It costs a lot of money to suspend your usual programming for two weeks. To do it for another one or two beyond that would be crazy.

But, if you’ve never heard of the Paralympics, or even if you have but think you have serious misgivings about how you’d respond to anyone with a disability because of your own fears or misperceptions, I encourage you to use that powerful technological tool, the Internet, and see what you can find coming out of Beijing now that the Olympic flame has been extinguished and the mantle of host has been passed to London.

We may not run as fast or jump as high or throw as far (in fact, some of us can’t run, jump, or throw at all!). We might need a guide running beside us to finish a race, or lower nets so we can play volleyball while sitting down.

But we can provide the same glimpses into sportsmanship, national pride, and spirit that you have come to expect from the Olympic Games.

Shaquille O’Neal has said, “Real knows real. You don’t teach that extra something someone has inside their chest. Leaders come in a variety of ways, but you always can see it when it’s really there. At the end of the day, it’s not just all about you. It’s about your ability to pull the max out of someone else, to inspire them to be all they can be because they are around you. Any true champion at some point has done it.” (ESPN the Magazine, July 14, 2008, Volume 11, No. 14, PP.14-15)

So search, discover, celebrate … prepare to be inspired.

Beginning to Take on Beethoven’s “Tempest”

August 25, 2008

Two days ago, I began listening very seriously to Beethoven’s Sonata No. 17, Op. 31, No. 2 (“The Tempest”) I’m going to play it, although right now, it’s kicking up quite a storm of doubt because there are a lot of technical things it will inevitably teach me.

Before, when I heard something, I’d think, “Oh, I want to play that,” and off I’d go, without much consideration of what lay ahead until I ran smack into some challenge at the keyboard I didn’t have the equipment to handle. Then, I’d jury-rig something to pull myself through.

Not a good method, especially if the goal is improving as a player to the highest level possible.

So this time, probably spurred on by the lessons and deep discussions I’ve been having lately regarding the art of piano-playing, I listened several times at a really intense level and consciously thought, “How will I do this?”.

Two-note slurs and shaping phrases by using wrist motion; broken octaves; the overall tone quality demanded to create the contrasts between those rich, sonorous bass chords (distant thunder?) and bell-like single notes in the treble (scattered raindrops?). Say what you want about romanticizing it and making it more programmatic than I should. But if the ideas make it so the technical aspects become automatic and I have nothing to worry about except interpretation, musicality and expressiveness, then who cares?

Opus 31 contains three sonatas. The first, in G Major, doesn’t do all that much for me. It reminds me too much of Mozart, who wrote inarguably beautiful music but, at least by my lights, wasn’t quite as emotionally involved as composers of later generations.

What I really want to play is the third sonata of the set, in E-Flat Major. But it’s even more technically demanding than No. 2, and I’m no fool. If I want to learn something instead of just making circles at the same level I’ve been at, then I’ll call “The Tempest” a stepping-stone. In moments of upcoming frustration, I may be calling it something else altogether, but this morning, the Braille score is sitting on my music rack, beckoning me.

The lessons begin …

When the World Gives You Lemons

August 24, 2008

I’ve played the piano pretty much my entire life, and I’ve had great teachers who have left indelible marks on my playing, teaching, and the way I think about music. But I’ve also had my share of challenges, perhaps not the least of which is that I can’t see the keyboard, and I use Braille music to learn new pieces.

This is not going to be a rant about how rough I’ve had it, or how everyone should feel sorry for me. Actually, pity from other people makes me squirm. I was raised to do the best I could, as much as I could, before asking (without expecting) other people to help me.

I’ve fought a long time to try and convince myself that, yes, even though I have to do everything at the keyboard by touch, I should be able to take the same approach to practicing, learning and performing as all the pianists out there who can see. Great idea in theory, but not quite true in practice, and now that I’ve begun to accept that and work with what I’ve got instead of the illusion of what I wish I had, things are really starting to move.

In 2006, I played an audition tape for a national prize. I thought, “What do I have to lose?” It was the first time I’d done anything like that.

I won. After the initial shock of the idea that fifteen minutes of music had garnered me something like that, I got another surprise. I was invited to play at the national convention of the organization that gave the award, the National Federation of Music Clubs.

I’ve traveled a lot, and I love doing it because I love the chance encounters you can have with people. You never know if the person you talk to for five minutes in the airport will become a lifelong friend or be just another star passing through the galaxy of your existence.

So when I sat down next to Anne on a bus in Minneapolis and we had a hearty laugh at the expense of my very large guide dog, Ecko, I couldn’t have imagined what was instore.

It’s now 2008, and I’ve just returned from two weeks in Kansas, the place Anne calls home. Over the past two years, I’ve discovered that she has a keen mind, fierce determination, a musical mind honed over the years to a razor’s edge, and, most wonderful for me, a seemingly boundless desire to pass what she knows on to me.

She graduated from Julliard, and while not every person who comes out of the famed school is a world-class performer or has the aptitude for teaching, I can’t help but think that you can’t pass through a program like that without picking up something along the way.

I don’t have any regrets about the path I’ve taken. I’ve gone a lot further than I ever imagined I would when I was pounding out immature Rachmoniov to get into college, and I’m always learning, no matter what crazy detours I seem to be following.

But for two weeks, I had someone who was pushing me in one direction: up. She took my technique apart and showed me not only what I needed to fix, but all the steps I needed to take in order to achieve results. She talked about how to practice, not only from the physical and musical perspective, but from the all-important mental perspective. After all, you can spend a lot of time moving your fingers and memorizing notes, but if your mind’s not in the right place to demand excellence, with all the hard slogging and merciless repetition that entails, you’ll get nowhere, or at least nowhere close to where you might be.

Since college, I have been a fairly independent player. I chose music based on what I wanted to play and then tried to will myself up to the standard necessary to play it, not always successfully.

Now, I have someone who is saying, “Learn this piece because it can teach you something about phrasing,” or wrist action, or repeated notes, or whatever.

Practicing is lonely business. Everyone sees the end result, the glamorous concert gown, the after-recital reception. They might have a vague idea of what goes into making all that happen, but they don’t live it. Even in my own family, it’s pretty mysterious to most people the amount of time and effort that has to go into it. It’s the artistic pursuit in a world where artists are in the minority.

My husband is a martial artist, so he understands it. But our temperaments and mental makeups are very different, so we don’t always see eye to eye. He’s given me countless good suggestions and recommendations. It just takes me years to get over my stubborn resolve (“I’ll do it my way or no way at all!”) and concede the fact (“He does have a point.”).

To have someone who has a similar outlook, a similar psychological process, and who also is coming from the same artistic background is a wonderful thing, and a tremendous relief. With my other teachers, we were always chasing some other dream or pursuing some other goal. Whatever it was, it was important at the time, and I gained immense wisdom from those endeavors.

But now, this far up the mountain, to have someone take me aside and say, “You know, you may want to change the way you’re walking so you can climb farther and faster” … I don’t have any words to describe how that feels. Sometimes, frustrating, but more often, it’s just really reassuring because, at last, I’ve been given the teacher I’ve needed, although I didn’t realize I needed her until she appeared.

There’s an old saying: “When the world gives you lemons, make lemonade”. Lemonade is refreshing, but there’s always an underlying bitterness to it. It implies that you grab the lemon and squeeze it until it’s forced to become something it wasn’t before.

Me, I’ll look up at those lemons on the tree. If the light is just right, and I come at them from the right angle, they become golden spheres that fill my mind’s eye with beauty. I’m not putting a lot of effort into changing them, just letting them appear.

I’ve taken a long and roundabout journey in search of my art. Two years ago, that journey included a bus ride in Minnesota. Two weeks ago, it included a whole string of revelations on a piano bench in Kansas.

Two years from now? How knows? I only hope I can make the most of what I’ve been blessed with. Anne is an invaluable teacher, but also a priceless friend. But I had to be ready for her to appear in my life. Now that I am, I’ll savor every lesson she passes on.