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Posts Tagged ‘personal’

Special Things

The other day I was driving up to San Francisco in the rain + early stages of rush hour. But instead of getting frustrated and impatient the way I normally do, I found myself being much more agreeable about the whole thing, and feeling much more charitable toward my fellow drivers.

Because I was listening to Christmas music.

Which led me to think, “heh, I should listen to this all year round!” Except . . . that wouldn’t work. I have other music that sounds pleasant or cheerful, whose lyrics urge (not necessarily in these words) peace and goodwill toward my fellow humans, and it doesn’t usually produce this reaction. Because repetition has dulled its edge. It’s precisely because I don’t listen to Christmas music all year round that it can affect my behavior.

Slacktivist (the blogger Fred Clark) has talked about the irony of “but it’s Christmas!” as an argument for why somebody shouldn’t be a dick. In theory, we should not be dicks to each other at any time. It’s easy to let that slide, though, as the stresses and aggravations of daily life accumulate; Christmas — and other holidays in other faiths — are a reminder to step back and try to see the people around you as people, to reconsider whether you’re being as patient and charitable as you could be. Training wheels for the rest of the year.

But not in the way retailers want. They start trying to push that “special holiday spirit” on you earlier and earlier every year — but theirs is the spirit of commercialism, not peace. They may talk about opening your heart, but it’s actually your wallet they want to see open. Buy, buy, buy. The problem is, by using these signifiers of the season to sell that message, they dull the edge. They rob the “special things” of their power to move us.

I can avoid it somewhat, thanks to the structure of my life. I don’t remember the last time I went to the mall, and I don’t even go into individual retail stores (apart from the grocery store) often enough to get fully inundated with Christmas carols in October. I don’t watch broadcast TV, so I’m not being deluged with commercials about Black Friday deals in mid-November. I can easily delete the emails that hit my inbox, and they don’t blare music at me. I can keep the special things special. Not everybody can, though.

Anyway, today we hung the garlands (which I’ve been meaning to do for a week), and our decorations are set up in their usual places. We don’t have a tree yet because it’s been raining near-constantly, but we hope to fix that in the next few days. Our house is getting dressed up in its fancy holiday clothes. The lights will remind me of hope in a time of darkness. And as much as I’ll hate taking all of that down after Christmas, leaving behind the dull, workaday appearance my surroundings have the rest of the year, I know the reason this makes me happy right now is because it isn’t constantly there. It’s only here briefly, and because of that, it has more power.

Forgotten fruits

Quince is one of those things I’d seen referenced in historical literature, but had never encountered in person. Although Wikipedia tells me it’s eaten fairly regularly in some parts of Europe, and there’s absolutely nothing preventing it being grown in the U.S., you’re not going to find it at your average supermarket here.

I suspect that’s in part because you mostly can’t snack on it raw, the way you can with apples and pears and oranges and bananas and all the other things commonly found in the produce section. You either have to cook it, or you have to wait for it to blet — that is, to go overripe and sort of (but not exactly) rotten. The same is true of medlars, another fruit we’ve largely forgotten. Also some varieties of persimmons; I suspect the one time I tried to eat ripe persimmon I may have been eating the wrong kind, as I found it unpleasantly astringent. But those I’m seeing around more these days — though still not at the supermarket. Persimmon trees aren’t uncommon in northern California, so not only the farmers’ market but possibly one’s neighbors may have their fruit on offer.

But if waiting for fruit to sort of but not exactly rot isn’t your idea of an appetizing approach, there’s always cooking. Which is why quince has come into my life: one stall at our farmers’ market sells it, and last year my husband (who makes jam) ventured to make quince paste. It’s very strong-tasting stuff — but if you pair it with manchego cheese (itself quite strong-tasting), a strange alchemy happens and you wind up with something amazing.

All well and good. But this year he wound up with a few extra quinces, not quite enough to make another batch of paste. So instead he decided to make quince-and-apple pie for Thanksgiving. It’s quite nice! Quinces are related to apples anyway, and they combine well. Which is good when your husband decides he’s got too much quince for one pie, but enough apple to fill it out and make two pies.

. . . during the Thanksgiving when your sister-in-law already has a store-bought apple pie and a small cherry pie, and is making a pumpkin pie. O_O Five pies (well, four and a half) for nine people. Um.

There are, of course, other things one can do with quince. Like poach them in sugar water with some spices. One might possibly suggest to one’s husband that this would have been more sensible than making a second quince-and-apple pie. One might not quite buy one’s husband’s argument that you really want larger chunks of quince for that, and he’d already sliced it all thin, so there was nothing to be done but make a second pie.

But hey. There’s always next year. And maybe I’ll find some medlars for him to poach instead.

Back to Square Two

I mentioned before that I’m trying to get (some tiny fraction of) my embouchure back so I can play in the band’s 100th reunion next month. Unrelatedly — you would think — I also recently did bo kata for the first time in a couple of years, having stopped doing weapons for a time because of wrist problems.

In both of these cases I am profoundly out of practice — French horn obviously more so, just on a sheer time scale, but my bo skills are hella rusty, and were never all that great in the first place. But it’s interesting to see how I’m actually not all the way back to square one, not even on the thing I haven’t done in more than fifteen years.

Even when the muscles aren’t there, even when the movements are stiff and the endurance craps out in record time, something remains. Deep memory still has some recollection of the target I’m aiming for; getting to it may be easier said than done, but at least I know where I’m going. I’m not having to map out terra incognita as I go. Which means, I think, that even a small gain in strength or endurance is a bigger gain in overall skill than it was the first time around, because I partially remember what to do with it.

I find this really encouraging, not just in these specific contexts, but overall. You know how they say you never forget how to ride a bike? That can apply to lots of different things — and probably not just physical ones, either, though it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s some particular neuromuscular thing going on where movement is concerned. (So-called “muscle memory.”) Even when we feel reluctant to go back to an old activity because we’re so out of practice, we may very well not be rank beginners all over again. And there’s a real pleasure in having that moment of “oh, right” . . . even if three seconds later some part of you says “aaaaaaaaand now we’re done for the day.”

It begins . . .

(Really it should have begun about six months ago, but best intentions, etc. etc.)

The Harvard Band has a long tradition of crusties — former band members — coming back for certain events. Every five years, there is a formal reunion.

Next month is the 100th.

So naturally I’m going. And when I filled out the questionnaire, I checked the boxes that said yes, I intend to march, and yes, I would like to play while I do so . . . in the full awareness that I haven’t played horn since, uh, 2002. Seventeen years is more than enough time to lose one’s embouchure.

Which is why there’s now a small silver mouthpiece sitting on my desk. While I read things online, or otherwise dink around doing things that don’t require me to be typing, I’m tootling away with the mouthpiece, reminding myself of exactly how fast those tiny little muscles in your lips can tire out. The goal is to be able to at least vaguely acquit myself as something resembling a former musician by the time of the reunion in the middle of next month. I’m hoping that remembered skill will mean I do at least slightly better than I did after a month and a half of practice the first time I picked up a French horn. I probably won’t have anything resembling a high range anymore, nor much in the way of breath control, but I’m successfully producing arpeggios in a variety of different keys, so that’s a good sign, right?

This is absurd. And I know it. But I’m doing it anyway.

What a difference technology makes

I’ve spent the last two days holed up in our den, which the lowest part of our split-level house and rather cavelike — therefore the coolest room we’ve got. Our thermostat caps out at 84 degrees Fahrenheit, so I can’t say for sure what temperature it’s been in our dining room, but whatever the answer is, the top floor — which holds both my office and the bedroom — was hotter. Much hotter.

I grew up in Dallas. Highs in the high 90s were a totally normal feature of my childhood summers. But that was a place where nearly everybody has air conditioning. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area? Not so much. And living in a house without A/C means that when our temperatures spike, the experience is very, very different.

The extent of that difference got hammered home to me yesterday, when I’d been at the (air-conditioned) chiropractor’s office. When I walked outside in the late afternoon, it felt . . . not nice, exactly. But familiar. And pleasant enough. Yes, it was very warm, but my subconscious said “that’s okay.” Which was very different from how I’d felt leaving my house an hour and a half earlier; then I was going from a sweltering indoors to a sweltering outdoors, barely any contrast at all, and vastly more unpleasant. I know I’ve lost soem of my heat tolerance (I used to do marching band in Texas, navy blue wool uniform and all), but a lot of it is also just the artificial environment. Give me A/C, and I still don’t mind the heat all that much. Without it, though . . .

Let’s just say I’ve learned a lot about low-tech measures against the heat, from keeping blinds closed that we normally open for light (and angling them upwards to reduce the amount of direct sunlight that enters the room), to occupying myself with books instead of heat-emitting laptops, to the dance of opening windows and turning on fans once the temperature outside drops below the temperature inside.

On Tea

I’ve never been much of a tea drinker.

. . . but I’m getting there.

It started with my sister introducing me to what she calls “tea of life” — more properly known as Kirin’s Gogo no Kocha Lemon Flavor. It’s a cold bottled black tea sweetened and flavored with lemon, and lemme tell you, on a hot day, it’s glorious. Then I started drinking Oi Ocha, which out here in California is mainstream enough that you can buy it at CostCo, because on the whole I tended to like green tea better than black. From there I branched out into a few others — genmai cha, Ayataka, mugi cha (which isn’t actually tea if you’re pedantic, but I’m going to lump herbal infusions in under that term for the purposes of this post, so just deal with it) — which all shared one thing in common.

Well, two, but the Japanese part isn’t that significant. No, what they had in common was that I was drinking them all cold and pre-bottled.

I mentioned to Marissa Lingen in email that part of the reason for this was, I find the drinkability range of hot tea to be very narrow. They’re too hot to drink; then they’re cool enough that I could drink them but if I do they’ll mostly register on me as hot water rather than any flavor; then there’s the drinkability zone; then they cool off too much and get unpleasant to me. And even when they’re drinkable, they often taste . . . thin? If that makes sense?

Marissa recommended a particular herbal mix to my experimentation, so I thought, why not. I bought some. And then, when I went to put it into our cabinet — well.

My husband used to drink hot tea every so often. But he fell out of the habit years ago . . . except there was a span of time where he hadn’t quite accepted that yet, and kept buying tea. Plus I had bought a few, or had them bought for me, during previous stints of experimentation. The result was that, for a household which doesn’t drink tea, we sure did own a lot of it.

Thus began the Great Tea Craze of 2017-2018. I decided to taste-test my way through the cabinet, and my husband decided to resume his old habits. And I’ve learned some interesting things.

  • MY GOD was some of that tea old. We celebrated when my husband finished off the box of cinnamon apple spice that had expired in 2009, and could move on to the box of cinnamon apple spice that actually dated to this decade. (Still expired. But only by a few years.)
  • Mostly we’re drinking the old tea, because it’s just weaker and less nuanced, not actively gonna hurt you. But the untouched 48-count box of Lipton that, judging by the packaging (featuring a message from Mary Lou Retton), probably dated back to the ’90s? Yeah, that went in the compost.
  • Joulies, which we’d received as a Christmas present years ago, are really helpful for keeping tea in a drinkable range of warmth for a longer period of time.
  • Although one of the reasons I’m interested in drinking tea is because I like having beverages that aren’t sugared . . . well, I like tea better when I apply a moderate amount of honey.
  • Also milk. In fact, I like many teas better with milk, not because that obscures the flavor, but because I can taste the tea’s flavor more clearly when there’s milk to give it body. It helps address the “thinness.”
  • I’m fine with English breakfast, Irish breakfast, Ceylon, maybe Keemun (just started on one that’s Keemun and a bunch of other things, so it’s hard to say for sure), rooibos, and some herbal things.
  • I don’t like darjeeling (too astringent) or Earl Grey (too floral). Also, contrary to what I had thought during previous tea stints? I don’t like fruit teas very much. Most of them are much too sour or tart for me.
  • My husband, however, likes Earl Grey. Or at least, he decided that he did, because Captain Picard likes it (“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”), so that should be good enough for him, right? We own a *lot* of Earl Grey, much of it untouched.
  • . . . yeah, I can see the appeal in the whole ritual of the thing. Heat your water, get your tea bag or infuser, pour the water, wait a few minutes, add the various things (honey, milk, joulie), go back to your desk with the cup.
  • Also, hot tea = very nice in the winter for somebody like me who gets cold easily.

The most interesting thing will be to see whether this truly becomes an ingrained habit. Right now it has the energy that comes from I HAVE A PROJECT as we drink our way through the Cabinet of Ancient Tea. At this point we’ve disposed of most of the boxes and bags that had actually seen activity in the past; now we’re into the things that were basically untouched. Deprived of the feeling of progress that comes with clearing things out, now we’re going to find out how much I actually enjoy drinking hot tea for its own sake. More than I thought I did! But enough to do it habitually, especially once winter ends? We’ll see.

I know I have tea drinkers among my readership. Share your own preferences, your thoughts and suggestions for a novice in the comments!

Concentration

I’ve lost my ability to concentrate.

I think a lot of us have. We live with countless electronic devices that are constantly demanding our attention, beeping alerts and notifications and even without that there’s a little niggling part of our minds that wonders if we have any new email or anybody has posted something to that forum or surely we ought to take a look at Twitter, don’t pay attention to that thing, pay attention to me. But only in bite-size doses, because there are a hundred other things you could be checking and probably should.

Even without that, we’ve got a society that encourages multi-tasking — despite the mounting pile of evidence that it isn’t good. Multi-tasking does not, contrary to what we’ve been told, make us more productive. It makes us less so, because we’re devoting less of our attention to each thing, and we pay a cognitive cost every time we switch our focus. And part of that cognitive cost is that not switching gets harder, even as it drains us.

(True fact: just now, my phone rang a soft little alert. It’s taking effort not to look and see what that was for.)

I can tell this is taking a toll on me because I can feel it in my work. Writing is not, in its ideal conditions, something you do for five minutes here and ten minutes there. It benefits from sustained attention, from getting myself into the state psychologists refer to as “flow,” where I stop thinking about the world around me and instead sink into the zone for an extended period of time. I can’t get there if I’m tabbing over to look at my email every time I pause to consider my next sentence, if I’m keeping a portion of my mind attached to the discussion I’m having on a forum or whatever and breaking away to update that. It’s an exaggeration to say I’ve lost my ability to concentrate . . . but I know it has declined, and substantially so.

That’s why I’m taking steps to fix it.

My steps are twofold, at least so far. The first is to get back to meditating: I got into the habit of doing that for a while in 2015 (true fact again: I made myself just drop some square brackets there and check the year after I finished typing this post, because I needed to check my email to find out which year it was, and that threatened to distract me from this), but I fell out of it after a while, and now I’m working to make it regular practice again. Meditation, mindfulness, learning to let go of all the little dancing monkey thoughts that want my attention NOW NOW NOW — that helps.

The other, weirdly, is to watch TV.

TV as a tool of concentration? Yes — when you put it in the context of what I was doing before. See, I’ve gotten into the bad habit of only really listening to TV, while I play solitaire or sudoku or something on my tablet. The result is that I only give the show maybe half my attention.

But when I started watching the Chinese drama Nirvana in Fire, the combination of subtitles + intricate politics meant I couldn’t get away with that. If I tried to focus on something else at the same time, glancing up to catch the subtitles as they skittered past, I wound up not even knowing who half the people were and what was going on. The only way to understand that show, let alone appreciate it, was to put things down and devote my full attention to the screen.

Subtitled shows are great for this, but I’m managing to extend that habit to English-language TV, as well. And you know what?

I’m enjoying it more.

And it’s getting easier to leave the tablet closed.

What other tricks do you all have for encouraging yourself to pay attention to one thing at a time? What helps you keep your ability to concentrate? I know some people shut down their internet connection entirely while writing, and there are lots of programs out there which exist to block other programs so you can work, but I’m also interested in the non-technological tricks — the things that are just about structuring your life in ways that help you focus.

Eyvind Earle (and Jumanji)

This weekend I went to an exhibit of art at the Walt Disney Family Museum up in the Presidio, on the art of Evyind Earle — a man most of you have probably never heard of (I hadn’t), but who did the backgrounds for the 1959 Sleeping Beauty. I had no idea what I would think of the rest of his art, but I figured, hey: if nothing else, I’ll get to see some of his work from that movie, which I knew was lovely.

The rest of his art is gorgeous.

He worked in a number of different media, ranging from black-and-white scratchboards to oils. As with so much physical art, reproductions don’t do it justice; the tiny images on that website don’t even do it a tiny fraction of a shred of a shadow of justice. His oils and serigraphs often use very intense color, coupled with a strong chiaroscuro effect, and he had a fascinating knack for combining clean, geometric shapes with fine detailing that makes some of the images almost seem to glitter in person. One of the signboards had a quote from when he was working on Sleeping Beauty that really summed up both his approach and why it appeals to me so immensely:

“I wanted stylized, simplified Gothic. Straight, tall, perpendicular lines like Gothic cathedrals . . . I used one-point perspective. I rearranged the bushes and trees in geometrical patterns. I made a medieval tapestry out of the surface wherever possible. All my foregrounds were tapestry designs of decorative weeds and flowers and grasses. And since it is obvious that the Gothic style and detail evolved from the Arabic influence acquired during the Crusades, I found it perfectly permissible to use all the wonderful patterns and details found in Persian miniatures. And since Persian miniatures had a lot in common with Chinese and Japanese art, I felt it was OK for me to inject quite a bit of Japanese art, especially in the close-up of leaves and overhanging branches.”

Mashing all those influences together explains the balance of simplicity and detail that runs through so much of his work, not just the material for Sleeping Beauty (which I liked, but wound up being eclipsed by his independent work, at least for me). We liked it so much that when we’d gone through the whole gallery, we went back to a few of the rooms just to look at our favorite paintings again — and then I went straight to the shop and dropped fifty dollars on an art book of his ouevre, because I wanted to be able to look at it again. I would have bought prints if they’d been selling any, apart from a couple of framed images priced at a thousand bucks apiece. I wish his estate was selling anything in the price range of normal mortals, but they don’t appear to be. (The guy at the museum shop admitted it was their mistake not to sell the concept art of Prince Philip facing off against Maleficent in sizes larger than schoolchild: how did they not realize that was a thing adults would throw money at???)

And then we had lunch followed by an exhibit at the De Young on Teotihuacan followed by Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle followed by dinner. It was a busy day. Jumanji was even better than I hoped it would be, and I have to give massive kudos to the big-name actors for channeling the mannerisms of their young counterparts; Jack Black in particular committed 110% to playing a self-absorbed teenage girl in the body of, well, Jack Black. Karen Gillan did an American accent well enough that I didn’t even think until after the movie about the fact that she’s not American, and I cannot imagine anyone other than the Rock in the lead role, because the number of actors who can pull off both the over-the-top machismo of a video game character named Dr. Smolder Bravestone and the neurotic twitchiness of a weedy teenaged nerd is fairly small. I recommend it to anybody who could use a few hours of laughing their ass off right now.

Radio semi-silence for a while

I’ll be having surgery on my wrist tomorrow, which means I won’t be typing large quantities for a little while — not sure how long. I’ve got a couple of posts scheduled already, but apart from that, I may be scarce around here until I’m able to use that hand again.

The Tale of Tiana, the Neurotic Stalker Cat

In the time since we’ve moved into our new house, I’ve seen a little black-and-white cat around a few times. Being a very cat-friendly person, of course I immediately set out to make friends with her — which wasn’t too hard; she’s skittish in the “can’t sit still” sense, but didn’t seem to be very afraid of people. According to her collar, her name is Tiana.

So yesterday evening I go into the backyard and see her at the far end. She makes an immediate beeline for me, which I take as a gratifying sign that Operation Befriend Tiana has been a rousing success. I pet her for a while, go fetch the thing I intended to fetch, pet her some more, and go inside. This last is a bit of an enterprise, because Tiana seems exceedingly curious about what’s in my house, and I have to time my escape so she won’t follow me in (my husband is allergic). But okay, that’s fine.

That was at 6 o’clock.

A little bit later, I notice she’s still hanging out at my back door, peering in through the blinds. This is a little odd, so I shut the blinds . . . which doesn’t shut out the sound of her meowing plaintively to be let in.

When I leave for the dojo at 7:15, she’s still out there.

I come home, have dinner, go downstairs — and at 10:30 she’s still out there, now up on the roof, behaving as if she’s not sure how to get down. My sister and I go out with a stepladder and try to lift her down, in case she’s stuck; she’s having none of it, roving back and forth with the same nonstop restlessness she’s been showing this whole time. We finally get her to jump down to the fence and then, with much encouragement, to the ground; her body language strongly implied she was nervous about making that last jump. But okay, cat off roof, mission accomplished. I go inside (she tries to follow me again), blinds shut, and do my best to ignore the cat yowling outside my door and literally scratching at it to be let in.

At 1:30 in the morning, SHE’S STILL THERE.

I read once that cats meow at the same frequency as a crying baby, which is probably an adaptation to make us want to take care of them. After three hours of Tiana outside my door, I believe it, because each tragic sound makes me feel like a terrible person. She’s got a collar and is well-fed and well-groomed enough that I don’t think she’s a stray, but this isn’t like her previous behavior, which makes me wonder if she’s gotten lost or been abandoned or something. So finally — after much debate with myself — I let her in, scoop her up and close her into the bathroom, with everything she might trash safely removed and food, water, a towel to sleep on, and some makeshift kitty litter.

Now, in the light of day it turned out that there were phone numbers on her collar, engraved so small that I when I looked the previous night I didn’t even realize they were numbers. So I called them and discovered she belongs to our neighbors a few doors down, and to make a long story short (too late), she isn’t lost or abandoned; she’s just Tiana, the Neurotic Stalker Cat. Her owner told me she was a feral adoptee, and has on one previous occasion decided that a person is her NEW BEST FRIEND and tried to move in — so her behavior, while odd, is not unprecedented. By bringing her inside, I’ve probably just encouraged her. But I couldn’t listen to that for hours on end, wondering if something was wrong, and not at least try to make her more comfortable. In the future . . . well, the last person she latched onto apparently resorted to squirting her with a water bottle to make her stop begging. It remains to be seen whether I’ll do the same. I love cats and am delighted to make friends with them, but having a crying-baby imitator outside my door gets really hard on the nerves.