08 December 2009

Minutes of the meeting, Thanksgiving 2009

Time: ~0800, the morning after Thanksgiving 2009

Place: The kitchen, 79 Rittenhouse Rd, Sergeantsville NJ 08559

Members present (in order of appearance): Peter Spellman, BBly, Deborah Spitalnik, John Weingart, Claire Spellman, Deborah Griffin Bly, Molly Weingart.


Old Spellman family joke:

What are we this year — Polish or Russian?
O thank God, I *hate* those long Russian winters!
— Peter Spellman

Deadly Medicine, Series at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington — Deb Spitalnik

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers: the story of a Muslim family of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. — Pete

Review in NY Times.

Also see Josh Neufield's wonderful webcomic, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, serialized in Smith magazine — BBly

"... this should appeal to their fans." — John Weingart, quoting the harshest criticism imposed by reviewers in the bluegrass magazines he reads.

Translation: Life's too short...

How is Your Brain Like a Zebra?, from a podcast Deborah Bly listened to last night as she was falling asleep.

Olivia Judson, every Wednesday in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times. — Pete

This week's post: An Evolve-by Date, on the importance of Darwin's On the Origin of Species.

Adam Gopnik, Angels & Ages — Claire Spellman

Review in Washington Post.

The Little Book (NOT Strunk & White!), about Vienna in 1890s, the height of civilization. — John

Review in January Magazine.

Bella Abzug's mock American Express ad. — John

We were talking about the existential questions young kids often ask their parents. Two of BBly's favorites, from his daughter Nelly:

Deb remembered one she asked her mother: What Do Black People Use for Band-Aids?

All agreed: Great idea for a book title.

Back in the day, Deb Spitalnik recalled, Bloomingdale's had a counter for Charles of the Ritz, where they would formulate face powder based on your skin tone, then mix it up out of big glass jars.

John recommends Stephen L. Carter's New England White, et. al., mysteries —

Review, excerpt, and reading at NPR.org


John's Picks for movies to rent from Netflix:

I didn't hear the beginning of John's story about a party he & Deb went to at a Harlem home on 144th St between Convent & Amsterdam, where the owner had set up a jazz club in the basement: the joint was packed, with a kitchen in one corner and a jazz trio in the other — and all the musicians were white.

Deb Bly regaled us with many a tale of her old boyfriend Sam's mother Mickey Hurwitt and Thaddeus McDowell. (Darling? perhaps you'd like to write them up?)

Claire recalled BBly's post-prandial Sermonette on The Five Real Things in Life:

  • sex
  • bearing & raising children
  • taking care of the sick & helpless
  • teaching
  • making beautiful things

Everything else is logistics.

Too many TLAs around here. — Pete.

John's favorite xmas tree ornament: Merry Christmas from the Savages

Last but not least, the poem BBly meant to read at dinner, but left at home on the dining room table:

The Landing Game (April 23, 1500)

As our longboats approached,
I can tell you now, each of us aboard
struggled with a thrill of terror.

We could see men coming donw to the beach
in twos and threes—naked, young,
their skin the reddish-brown

of mahogany, their heads tonsured,
like our monks—butt for the fringe
of straight, dark hair below the ears.

Watching us, they gathered on the sand,
so by the time we reached
the river mouth almost twenty of them

waited, bows and arrows in their hands.
And we, all along rowing slowly,
came unarmed—such pounding

in my chest—with caution
our only strategy, our only noise
the creak-and-splash we made.

But how to greet them? How to show them
courtesy? No one spoke.
It simply happened—one of us tossed his hat

into the gulf between our languages,
and the youth who caught it
threw his feathered headpiece to our boat,

so all of us let fly, until the air was full
of hats and feathers, full of laughter
at the useless trade.

Disembarking then, we waded
through the surf, breathing anew
like divers coming up for air.

And they advanced, putting down
their bows and arrows, encircled us to see
our strangeness—our clothes, our skin,

our bearded faces, especially those
of us with sea-tinted eyes. They wanted
to stroke our hair, like lovers.

Faces reading faces, hands gesturing, pointing
toward the land or toward our ships
anchored six leagues out, and all of us

so fully absorbed in mutual scrutiny how could we
have imagined—mingling that day
on the beach—the exchange we'd made?

— Jane O. Wayne, in River Styx 80, Fall 2009

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15 December 2008

Dispersit superbos mente cordis sui

This past weekend the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, of which I am a whisky tenor, performed the Vivaldi Gloria and Bach's Magnificat (the one in D). Both are magnificent, dancing works to sing, and I love the Magnificat especially, it being the first major work of his that I performed in my half century of choristing.

The tenor aria in that work, "Deposuit," is one of the most exciting, testosterone-fired solos in the repertoire, with its heroic text, "He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek." One o' these days, I'm gonna get up the nerve to try it in public.

But the best alternative for a choral tenor is the "Fecit potentiam," with its extended fireworks in the opening lines, which then spreads its contagious enthusiasm to the other sections of the choir. Again the text is not what you'd call reassuring: "He hath showed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts."

It's that last line that has been haunting me in the past weeks: at first, it was part of the refrain of my rejoicing at the "decisive victory" (love the sound of that!) my team enjoyed in last month's elections (along with the well-known parody of "Fascination" — It was schadenfreude, I know...).

Some weeks on, the giddiness has evaporated as abyss beneath abyss opens its maw our under economy, the days get shorter, the moon gets closer, the weather weirder, and somehow the idea that this one reversal in the political climate of my mother country will heal the world of hurt we're in right now seems remote.

Back in September, I read James Woods's bracing review of my idol Marilynne Robinson's new novel Home in the New Yorker, in which she diagnoses our peculiar malady: "Americans never think of themselves as sharing fully in the human condition, and therefore beset as all humankind is beset." For good or ill, that imagining of our hearts is in for a bumpy ride, and I doubt if negativity will pull us through.

My only consolation these days is poetry. As Octavio Paz reminds us in his magisterial book of poetics, The Bow and the Lyre, "Poetry changes, but it does not decay. Societies decay." Last week, as I read the chapter on Rhythm, I came across this prescient passage (the book was published in 1973):

[T]he real tradition of the United States, as is manifested by Whitman, was the future: the free society of comrades, the democratic new Jerusalem. The United States has not lost a past; it has lost its future. The great historical plan of that nation's founders was thwarted by the financial monopolies, imperialism, the cult of action of action's sake, the abhorrence of ideas. [67]

Puts things in perspective: sure sounds like the place I'm still living in. Maybe we can change (yes we can), but in the meantime, I'm signing up for Hugh McLeod's less Romantic take on the subject, "You are either a poet or a corpse."

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