Music: Glenn Gould

Sunday mornings are sacred to me, but not in a religious fashion. Nearly three decades ago, the cable channel A&E had excellent programming, and I used to enjoy Breakfast with the Arts, hosted by Elliot Forrest. It was broadcast on Sunday mornings, and it offered varied viewing related to fine arts and performance. There were documentaries about great artists, writers, and musicians, as well as video recordings of live performances of plays, orchestral concerts, and operas. By the late 1990’s, the channel began its commercialistic devolution, and modern pop performers began to appear on the show before it was cancelled altogether.

With the departure of that program, I took up my own effort at home to listen to music or watch an opera while I made brunch. This lasted some years, then I would occasionally observe the ritual with a frequency of once every few months.

This morning, I felt the need to start again, and I had my breakfast in front of a fascinating documentary about the great Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould. I had first learned of this musician’s idiosyncrasies when I was in college, and my interest in classical music began to deepen. I would listen to recordings of Bach’s piano music, and when Gould was the pianist, I giggled at the humming and noises he made that bled into the microphones and made it onto the record. I remember reading articles about his eccentric habits, his hypochondria, and his wearing of coats and gloves in the summertime due to his fear of catching a cold. His genius, I concluded, came with the quirks that we hear of so often in connection with minds that make great contributions to the world.

The documentary I viewed this morning first aired on PBS in 2010. Entitled Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, it chronologically traced his life and career, intertwining his family experiences, his development as a musician, his friendships and collaborations, and his love life–all with commentary from people who knew him and worked with him. This included artist Cornelia Foss, who was married to Lukas Foss, a pianist and conductor whom Gould admired immensely. When the Fosses’ marriage ended, Cornelia and her children moved to Canada to live with Gould.

The film devoted considerable attention Gould’s intriguing and abrupt departure from live performance when he was only 31. He had experienced enormous success in North America and abroad, creating controversy along the way. In one instance, conductor Leonard Bernstein announced to an audience at Carnegie Hall, just prior to Gould’s arrival onstage, a strong disagreement he had with Gould regarding the pianist’s interpretation of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1. The difference between these extraordinary musical minds was amicable, however, and Gould even commented for years after that Bernstein had spoken in respectful terms in making a disclaimer to the audience that night. But Gould had grown tired of performing in front of audiences. After 1964, he spent the rest of his career in the studio, producing revolutionary interpretations of Bach and Beethoven, chiefly. He also wrote and presented numerous documentaries for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Gould’s defining characteristics of musical interpretation developed directly from the influence of Alberto Guerrero, who taught Gould at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Gould started with the mechanical techniques he learned from Guerrero and took them in revolutionary directions, creating opportunities for himself and all performers of his era to apply fresh and aggressive approaches to performance and to recording.

Sadly, Glenn Gould died in 1982 at the age of 50 from a series of strokes. This film, directed by Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont, brought me closer to a musician whose recordings I have long admired. Not a bad way to spend my Sunday morning.

Photo credit: Bryan Geraldo (Pexels)

Saturday Recipe: Shortcut Boeuf Bourguignon

Boeuf Bourguignon takes about four hours to make if you include cooking time.  I wanted to make it last Friday, but my workday ran long.  I could have waited until Saturday, but I wanted it immediately.  So I tried out a pressure cooker for the first time.

I skipped all sorts of steps critical to preparing the beef for stewing, but it came out nicely all the same.  I would not call that night’s dinner a true Boeuf Bourguignon.  That’s why I add the word “Shortcut” to the recipe’s title.

It all took 20 minutes to prep and one hour to cook in an Instant Pot.  The device required about 15 minutes to come to full pressure, so this recipe requires a little more than an hour and a half to execute.

Shortcut Boeuf Bourguignon

Ingredients:

2 pounds chuck roast, cubed for stew

3 potatoes, cut into cubes

2 carrots, sliced

8 white boiling onions (or 12 pearl onions)

1/4 pound string beans, trimmed and cut

1/4 pound button mushrooms or sliced mushrooms

3 slices of bacon, fried crisp

3 cloves of garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon of dried rosemary

1 teaspoon of dried thyme

1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper

1 bottle of red wine

1/2 cup beurre manié (equal parts soft butter and flour, well mixed)

Preparation:

Put all items except the beurre manié into the Instant Pot and cook on high pressure for one hour.

After cooking and releasing the pressure (be careful), remove all solid items from the pot to a large serving dish.

Transfer the liquid to a pot on the stovetop, bring it to a boil, and stir in portions of the beurre manié until the sauce is thickened.  Pour over the solid items in the serving dish.  Garnish with sprigs of parsley or chopped parsley.

Recommended wine: any hearty Burgundy (or even Bordeaux, as pictured).

This recipe serves four to six people.

Sweet Are the Uses of Adversity

This historical moment presents challenges to all of us.  For many, the economic implications will mean a significant change in the course of their lives.  Apprehension and despair loom.

For some, this comes in addition to the suffering that comes with being a human being.  Struggle, desire, addiction, abuse, frustration–we wonder sometimes why such things must happen to us.  And sometimes, as Pema Chodron tells us, sometimes we find ourselves drawn to the very sources of our own suffering.

I am a teacher of literature, and I adore poetry.  That said, I have never felt particularly drawn to the Fireside Poet John Greenleaf Whittier.  I have admired, however, his sincerity and his humanity.  His personal story inspires.

As much as the poem below has become a cliche, as much as sentimentalists would threaten by their continual trotting out of it to turn it into a collection of platitudes, the trials of life can wipe away the waxy gloss and reveal the the profound message of this piece.

I hope it restores strength to any whose spirits are heavy.


Don’t Quit
John Greenleaf Whittier

When things go wrong as they sometimes will,
When the road you’re trudging seems all up hill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest if you must, but don’t you quit.
Life is strange with its twists and turns
As every one of us sometimes learns
And many a failure comes about
When he might have won had he stuck it out;
Don’t give up though the pace seems slow—
You may succeed with another blow.
Success is failure turned inside out—
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell just how close you are,
It may be near when it seems so far;
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit—
It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.

The Importance of Nothing

Years ago I took up the concept of “nothing” with students, challenging them with a question that philosophers and scientists have pondered for years: Is nothing really nothing?  Or is it something?

Over the course of about two decades, students from grades 3 through 12 have enthusiastically engaged in debate on this topic.  Their profound insights have plenty of corroboration from sources ranging from Parmenides to Taoism to scientists studying quantum theory.  As a practice, I end these discussions by telling students how long the discussion has lasted–usually over half an hour–and I tell them how funny it will be when parents ask what they talked about in school that day, and the children say, “Nothing.”

With the volume of thoughts continually flooding our minds, with the rush of images we process as we walk through the world, with the torrent of content we take in through media, nothingness–whatever we determine it to be or not to be–serves as a critical counterweight.  We need to seek our own forms of nothingness if we can ever hope to balance our minds and spirits.

Some of us meditate.  Some of us go for walks.  Some of us take up pursuits that have nothing to do with our responsibilities, nothing to do with making a living, and nothing to do with furthering our material goals.

For all of the rich, frenetic, and concentrated interactions we have with each other as human beings, we need significant doses of nothing to prevent time from running away from us and carrying our humanity with it.  Much confusion results from the pace our world would set for us.

The more we ponder nothing, the more we understand how much we need it–even if an understanding of it forever eludes us.

Friday Poetry: Cupid, to Ulysses

A few weeks ago, I started a series of sonnets inspired by an old story of Cupid accidentally scratching himself with one of his arrows and falling in love with Psyche.  Here, he is in such a state that he consults Ulysses–whose life is past and is living in the Underworld–about how he survived after hearing the Sirens’ song.

Cupid, to Ulysses

Ulysses, I have come to seek a word
With one once harrowed in his earthly soul:
You broke the bounds of flesh in having heard
The Siren’s song, your form emerging whole.
Then anguished ever after by the strains,
Your yearnings, longings to and of no end–
Your mind’s fell echo raking you with pains,
Soul’s fabric torn, no seamster then to mend.
In human pride you sought this of free will.
But I, immortal, happened on my charms.
Of my own poison comes to me this ill,
No antidote–nor mortal end to harms.
Heroic shadow–counsel, please! Or hope!
This passion scores my spirit beyond scope.

Pink Sequel, Part III

A continuation of Part I and Part II

“So,” said Officer Chris, “what seems to be the problem?”

“The problem,” I said, “is readily apparent. Please…look in their laps, look on the floor. You’ll find all the evidence you need for an arrest.”

“Really?” Officer Chris responded. “Seriously, Paul? I mean, uh, Mr. Fornale? That’s what you brought me over to this room for?”

Mrs. Casazza smirked.

“I never liked you!” I sneered at her.

“C’mon, Mr. Fornale!” the officer continued. “I know this entire story. Officer Goldstein has told it for years!”

“No!” I exclaimed. “I demand an investigation!”

“But this was laid to rest years ago!” Officer Chris continued. “Officer Larry came to the school and settled everything.”

“I beg to differ. He never took up the matter of Krista–the cousin of little Harlynn here–”

“Hey!” protested Harlynn, “I’m not little!”

I went on, “Her family has it in for me!”

Just then, Ava tugged on Officer Chris’s arm. He bent down as she whispered into his ear.

“Stop that!” I said. “That’s obstruction of justice!”

Officer Chris responded, “She’s only telling me that you’ve been teasing them as much as they’ve teased you.”

“Ha!” I responded. “I resemble that!”

“Yes,” added Mrs. Casazza, “he resembles that all the time!”

Et tu, Brute?” I asked, indignant.

Sic! Et ego, Domine Fornalete! Et ne voca me Brute!” she responded.

She must’ve studied Latin in high school.

“What are you two saying?” Rebecca asked. I forgot she was behind me.

“Aha! Here, Officer Chris! Here is my witness! Now Rebecca, put your right hand up and promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and–”

“Mr. Fornale,” the officer interrupted, “this isn’t a courtroom. Rebecca, does anything this man is saying make sense?”

“Yes!” she responded, sneering at her classmates. “Every day, Mr. Fornale comes to talk to students in the lunchroom, and these girls start teasing him right away–before he can even say hello.”

“How well do you know these girls?”

“They’re in Mrs. Holmes’s class with me.”

“And you don’t like them?”

“I like them; we’re friends! I just think they tease Mr. Fornale too much!”

“You see? You see?” I blurted.

Jolie spoke up: “We like you, too, Rebecca, but you know how Mr. Fornale comes into our classroom every day…”

“And steals Isabella’s water bottle…” That was Ava.

“And winds the class up…” That was Harlynn.

“And comes to the cafeteria and tries to take cookies off our trays!” That was Ava again.

“He’s just making a joke, you know!” Rebecca protested.

“Right,” Jolie returned, “and so are we.”

“Too much!” Rebecca protested.

“Too much? Too much?” Harlynn asked.

“Yes! Too much!” I jumped in. “Everybody knows my aversion to cute things. Stuffed animals, the color pink, Hello Kitty!”

“And puppy dogs!” added Harlynn.

“Puppy dogs?” Officer Chris put in.

“Puppy dogs,” Harlynn repeated. “One day I was on Safety Patrol, and I asked Mr. Fornale if he likes puppy dogs and he said no ‘cause they’re cute.”

“Right,” the officer said, rubbing his eyes with fatigue and impatience.

“And then I said how can he hate puppy dogs and then he said something…something terrible about puppy dogs.”

“This I gotta hear…” Officer Chris was regaining his stamina.

“He said, ‘No, I like puppy dogs if they’re cooked properly.’”

“Gross!” Harlynn, Ava, and Jolie all exclaimed.

“And mean!” That was Mrs. Casazza.

“I was joking!” I offered.

“Yes!” said Rebecca. “He was joking.”

Ava broke in, “Are you sure. He eats all sorts of weird stuff, you know. Like anchovies…”

“And cow’s stomach…” added Jolie.

“And escargots….” put in Ava again.

“Escargots?” Officer Auriano looked at me, poking his head forward. “You eat those things? How are they?”

“Really good,” I responded. “You put them in their shells with garlic, parsley–and lots of butter; hot oven for about ten min–”

“What are escargots?” Rebecca asked.

Mrs. Casazza answered, “Snails.”

“What? Ewwwwwww!” Rebecca exclaimed, clearly disgusted. “You eat snails?” She was looking at me as if she didn’t know who I was.

“Well,” I ventured, “Don’t knock ‘em till you try ‘em.”

“Guh-ross!”

“Mr. Fornale,” Mrs. Casazza broke in, “What about foie gras?”

“What’s that?” Harlynn asked, completely puzzled.

“I don’t know if I want to hear this…” Ava started to plug up her ears.

Jolie pulled on one of Ava’s arms to remove the finger, then whispered in her ear.

“Ewww! Goose liver?”

Rebecca strode around to be in front of me and stared up. “You eat goose liver? Ugh!”

She then walked over and stood next to the table where her classmates were sitting.

“Hey,” I brightened. “I’ve got an idea. We could have a club, and everyone can try these different kinds of foods.”

“No way!” Rebecca shot back. “That stuff is too weird.”

“It’s better than chicken fingers and fries. We should all expand our horizons.”

“Nuh-uh, not me.”

Harlynn tried to bring us back to the topic at hand. “Hel-LOOO! Why are we talking about this?”

“You didn’t like what Mr. Fornale said about puppy dogs,” Rebecca reminded her.

“Puppy dogs,” I muttered. “Cute…don’t like ‘em.”

“I’m gonna buy you a puppy dog poster,” said Jolie. “For your birthday.”

“See?” I protested to Officer Chris. “They’re starting again! Right in front of the law!”

“Yeah,” said Harlynn to Jolie. Then to me, “We’re gonna buy puppy dog posters for your office. When is your birthday?”

“February 30,” I said.

“Hey!” grumbled Harlynn, her brow furrowed. “That date doesn’t exist!”

“Are you saying I was never born?”

“I’m saying there’s no such date.”

“So I don’t exist? See this, Officer? They’re merciless. Now they are trying to wipe me off the calendar–and the Earth!”

“All right! All right! This has gone far enough!” Officer Chris said, trying to impose an air of finality.

But there was no finality to this. Our struggle had passed through to a second generation in Mr. Paltjon’s family, and no one was about to let it go. Certainly not Harlynn!

And certainly not Ava, smirking at me. And most definitely not Jolie. I knew that look!

“Listen! Everybody!” Officer Chris exclaimed. “No one is getting arrested here. This is a ridiculous misunderstanding.”

“”But, Chris! Look at those stuffed animals!” I protested.

“That’s Officer Auriano to you, Mr. Fornale!” He was becoming very officious.

“Fine,” I conceded. “Listen–”

“No, my dear friend and esteemed principal, you listen! Officer Larry Goldstein was here seven years ago on a matter similar to this, and all he saw fit to do was give you a parking ticket!”

Jolie looked to Harlynn, and they both smiled. They had heard the story. They knew Officer Goldstein had written it in pink ink because he had borrowed the pen of my nemesis, Krista. And Krista just happens to be the cousin of Harlynn.

Coincidence? I think not!

“Then,” Officer Chris went on, “he came back to the department and told us the whole story! We’ve been laughing at this for years. Please–cut your losses, and let it go.”

Mrs. Casazza struggled to suppress a laugh, but I scowled at her. I took a breath before an attempt to express my indignation, but then I was clapped on my shoulder,

“Mr. Fornale, How long have I known you? Two years? I’ve seen things, you know? Lots of bad things. Pink T-shirts and Hello Kitty and Beanie Boos and puppy dogs are nothing. There’s real suffering out there.”

Ava waved a magenta Boo at me.

“That isn’t pink, you know!” I exclaimed as I turned and pointed to the objectionable object. “It doesn’t count!”

She snickered. “But it’s cu-uute!” she crooned.

“So you’re not going to do anything about this?” I appealled to the officer.

“Nothing except wish you all a wonderful day. I’ve got to get back to my patrol.”

He nodded goodbye to us all, then strode out.

I scowled at everybody who remained.

“All right,” said Mrs. Casazza, “everybody out. I’ve spent enough time on this for today. I’ve got other work to do, and so does Mr. Fornale. Right, Mr. Fornale.”

“Right,” I muttered as I started out of Mrs. Casazza’s office. “But this isn’t over.”

“That’s right,” I heard Harlynn whisper to her friend. “It isn’t.”

The girls giggled as I left. I think I heard Mrs. Casazza giggling, too.

To be continued…

Should Anything Else Concern Us?

As a brief follow-up to my post yesterday attempting to add perspective to the COVID-19 pandemic, I would like to urge a slightly different sentiment today as it would pertain to other health concerns.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 48,000 Americans died by suicide in 2018. Over 24,000 people under the age of 65 died of complications related to diabetes. Over 45,000 between the ages of 25 and 55 died of heart disease.

Standing by my assertion that the current restrictions on our lives are necessary in order to prevent Coronavirus from causing a public health catastrophe, I would submit that the annual total number of deaths from the causes cited above–over 115,000–represents a catastrophe in its own right. This might warrant fear and media attention on a scale at least as great as what we’ve seen over the past two weeks.

In the name of slowing the spread of COVID-19, our nation and others are making wise and worthy economic sacrifices, the pain of which we will feel keenly for years and which will affect millions of lives to a significant degree.

We may never know how many lives we will save due to our current effort.  But as its restrictions offer us time to reflect, perhaps we would do well to consider the human cost of over 100,000 lives per year, largely the result of misaligned, disharmonious patterns of life that are just as pervasive and deadly as any pathogen. We might also ponder the elements in our society who become rich while our humanity and our economy bear the costs of unnecessary loss.

Interestingly, we might discover that we can feasibly minimize the despair that leads thousands of people to take their own lives; we can diminish the internal emptiness that make so many of us indulge ourselves toward slow deaths over decades. The solutions might seem at first like more sacrifices, but truly, they would be investments–with incalculable returns.