Monday, January 29, 2007

Listening to Brahms

Over the weekend we traveled to Socorro, the Athens of the Southwest, for the Presidential Chamber Music concert. (The president in this case being Daniel Lopez, of New Mexico Tech.) For a college that specializes in science and engineering, Tech has an surpringly large footprint in the world of music.

Before the concert we dropped in on a wine tasting organized by Club Macey, and sampled three French and three Californian wines. The wines themselves were fairly forgettable--- indeed, a couple of them would be of interest only if you were intent on getting hammered--- but the talk that went along with them was interesting, and the company was pleasant.

For the concert, Bolivian violist Willy Sucre (founder of the Cuarteto Boliviano and veteran of the Helios Quartet) was given carte blanch to create his own ideal ensemble, and so recruited fellow Helios veteran Krysztof Zimowski on violin, Joan Zucker on cello, and the justly famous Awadagin Pratt on piano.

The theater was full, with spectators standing in the aisles and on the wings of the stage. It helped no doubt that the concert was free, but also there were quite a few music-lovers from Albuquerque and Santa Fe in attendance because the concert wasn't going to be repeated anywhere, any time.

Awadagin Pratt is a tall, cinderblock-shaped black man with dreadlocks to the small of his back and metal-rimmed glasses. He looks and moves like an amiable, middle-aged weightlifter, and he wore a colorful Africanesque shirt. His physical presence is considerable, and the keyboard actually seems a little small for him, like a child's toy piano.

He struggled throughout the concert to control his sheet music. You'd think he'd have mastered that by now.

The opening number, the Piano Quartet in E Flat Major, Op 47 by Schumann, was performed with considerable brio. The audience hooted, hollered, and applauded after every movement. I suspect the high spirits were not unconnected with the earlier wine tasting.

(And by the way, whose idea was it that you're not supposed to applaud between movements? Other than a stupid person's, I mean? I am trying to picture the Rolling Stones telling their audience they can't applaud till intermission. I am trying to picture performers saying, "Shut up--- it's art. I'm not interested in whether you like it or not.")

After intermission came Brahms' "Werther" piano quartet. I lack the musical vocabulary to actually explain what happened here, I only know it was extraordinary. The music is weirdly passionate, weirdly involuted, and weirdly complex, and dates from a period in which Brahms' mentor Schumann was confined to a madhouse and Brahms rushed to the side of Clara Schumann, who he loved but could not approach out of loyalty to Robert. (Got that? Okay.)

Pratt was amazing. He seemed to coil over the keyboard as if trying to possess it, and then at a moment of release would spring upright and throw his head back so that his dreads would fly over his back. He thoroughly owned the music.

Three curtain calls. No encore, damn it.

It was all too intense for the audience to leave right away, so everyone hung around the lobby afterwards and chattered like maniacs. Fortunately everyone we know in Socorro seemed to be there, so there were able to chat merrily away until it was time to walk out into the cold and dark and head for home.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Dinner Party

So who would you have over for dinner?

Assuming, of course, that you could have anyone from history and that there was no language barrier.

You can only have ten guests, though. That's a rule.

Here's my list:

Servilia (see "Chickpea," below, for her biography)
Benjamin Franklin
Frederick the Great
Catherine the Great
Oscar Wilde
Benvenuto Cellini

It's weighted toward the Enlightenment project, but then that's my bias anyway.

I went round and round about Samuel Johnson, but decided against inviting him because he wouldn't have let anyone else talk.

People like Cellini, Servilia, and Alkibiades are invited not only because they would make good company, but because they'd be able to tell us about a lot of other famous people. Cellini knew everyone in the Rennaissance. Akibiades knew Socrates, Plato, and practically everyone else in those stirring and tragic times. Servilia was Caesar's lover, Brutus' mother, Cato's half-sister, and knew everyone else in the late Roman Republic personally, from Cicero on down.

As for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, I'll have to represent those myself.

Near-misses included Mary Shelley, Tu Fu, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Li Po, Elizabeth I, Henry VIII, and Niccolo Macchiavelli.

If it were your party, who would you invite?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Miss Spankhurts

A timely reminder for all our friends with fragile minds.

All together now . . .

Monday, January 22, 2007

Kansas. Nebraska.

Lately I've had to write Kansas/Nebraska chapters.

Anyone who's actually driven through the American heartland will know what I mean by this. Kansas and Nebraska--- especially Nebraska--- are places the motorist must to suffer through in order to get to somewhere actually interesting.

Books can have a similar geography. Sometimes, in order to go somewhere exciting, you have to drive through a dull patch. You can't have the big reveal unless you painstakingly set up all the clues, or time has to pass before the plot can play itself out, or your character has to visit Aunt Sallie in order to look at the photo album that provides the clue that solves the mystery. Aunt Sallie herself isn't very interesting, nor is the photo in itself. You can try to make Aunt Sallie a more rounded character--- you can give her amusing lines, and maybe put her in an interesting place, or give her an unusual relationship with your protagonist--- but then she becomes an interesting character who dominates a chapter and then goes away, never to be seen again. She's a bump on the highway guaranteed to wake you up when you drive over her--- or she's the World's Largest Hand-Dug Well--- but when all is said and done, you're still in Nebraska.

Writing Kansas/Nebraska chapters are dull and frustrating. You try to make them exciting or quirky, and you always fail. You end up doubting yourself and your talent. You drive in circles for ages, and all you ever see are fields of grain and the occasional silo. "Wait a minute," you think. "Didn't I pass that silo a while back? Haven't I already been down this road?"

Yes, you've already been down this road. And you're going to go down it again.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

"The Bomber"

My post on Roman nicknames ("Chickpea," below) led me to think about colorful nicknames and who uses them, and who doesn't but should.

Right now, the only people who use nicknames are gangsters, boxers, and mixed martial artists. For the latter, it seems to be a requirement. Everyone on the Ultimate Fighting Championship seems to require a nickname so that Ultimate Ring Announcer Bruce Buffer can drag out his name during the introductions: "Randeeeeeee 'the Naaaaaatural' Coutuuuuuuuuuuure."

Back at WFC 2005 (that's not World Fighting Championship but World Fantasy Convention), new writer Diana Rowland was lamenting the fact that there were already several Diana Rowlands who were more famous than she was.

I suggested that she add a boxer-type nickname, and become Diana "the Bomber" Rowland. I called her "Bomber" for the whole convention. I have to say that she took it well (but there's no mention of "the Bomber" on her web site).

It's clear that writers need some damn edge when it comes to clawing their way through the marketplace, and colorful nicknames are at least low-cost.

Would I be more famous if I were Walter "the Whirlwind" Williams? Would Heinlein have achieved greater fame if he were Robert "Squarehead Bob" Heinlein? Would "Honest Dan'l" Abraham make an impact on the marketplace?

Or do you think it wouldn't work without Bruce Buffer to make the introductions?

Monday, January 15, 2007


The new series of HBO's Rome is upon us, something I've been awaiting with great anticipation. But it brings again to mind the business of Latin names.

Say you are visiting ancient Rome. A bunch of men come up to you, and one of them says:

"Hi. I'm Stick. These are my friends Pretty-Boy, Piggy, Chickpea, Buzzard, Baldy, Big-Lips, Warty, Lefty, Curly, Gimpy, Hairy, Fatty, Squinty, Animal, Red, Stutters, and Dumb-Ass."

So who are these guys? The cast of the Roman production of West Side Story? Actors who failed in their audition for the Seven Dwarfs?

No. They're aristicrats from Rome's best families, and they're dressed in the red-striped toga of the Senatorial class.

The speaker is Scipio. His friends are Pulcher, Verres, Cicero, Buteo, Calvus, Labeo, Verrucosus, Scaevola, Cincinnatus, Crassipes, Caesar, Crassus, Strabo, Bestia, Rufus, Balbus, and Brutus. You see these names all through Roman history.

(And interesting, isn't it, that Caesar's last words can be translated as "You too, dumb-ass?")

These names are all cognomina, which is to say nicknames that got attached to branches of prominent families. Most Romans made do with two names, like Marcus Antonius ("Mark Antony"), but some got a third name attached. Sometimes the name was dignified, like Macedonicus, "Conqueror of Macedon," but most often it wasn't, and it was often intended to be insulting. (Ahala, say, meaning "armpit.")

So we have whole generations of rich, privileged people growing up full in the knowledge that they're from the Dumb-Ass branch of the Junius family. No wonder young Marcus decided to whack his mom's boyfriend--- or, as his friends doubtless called him, "Mister Hairy."

All those statues of solemn people in togas take on a new dimension when you start thinking of them as Gimpy, Warty, and Chickpea. It shows, I think that dignity came late to the Romans. They started as a bunch of cattle-raiders and escaped slaves camped on a hill above the Tiber, and however dignified they got and however much of the world they conquered, their origins followed them in their names.

Vampire Kitchen (2)

Due to popular demand, we present these photos of the authentic Vampire Kitchen, taken by our friend Scott Denning.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Vampire Kitchen

Kathy's university sends her home for the period between Xmas and New Year's Day, so that's the time we often devote to a major Home Improvement Project.

This time we decided to repaint the kitchen. Followed by the master bath, if there was time and if we were still speaking to each other.

The kitchen is this high-ceilinged room with skylights and blonde wood, and it was painted an off-white enhanced by many layers of kitchen grease. Twelve years of looking at it convinced us that we needed something more exciting. More colorful. Something more like those folks on Changing Rooms might put on a complete stranger's wall.

We went to the library and checked out a lot of books from House Beautiful and Modern Living, hoping to find some interesting ideas. Every kitchen in every book--- I mean every kitchen--- was high-ceilinged, with blonde wood and off-white walls. There wasn't even the slightest inkling of a suspicion of a clue that someone might want a kitchen that looked the slightest bit different. So, from the design standpoint, we were on our own.

We have a new Turkish rug of a madder-red color, and the nearby living room has dark red Venetian blinds, so we thought a dark red accent might be just the ticket. We decided to paint the walls above the cabinets a dark red.

So off we went to Home Depot for paint. We looked at all the paint chips and decided that something called "Cranberry Zing" was just the ticket. So with a bucket of Cranberry Zing, and another of eggshell white, we motored home along with a full supply of dropcloths, brushes, and so forth.

I figured the whole project would take a day once we got started. But Day 1 was taken up just with preparation: we had to scrub down the walls and ceiling with trisodium phosphate, and then scrub off the TSP with water, and then mask everything we didn't want painted, and drape plastic and paper dropcloths on all horizontal surfaces, and some of the vertical ones. I also had to climb up a ladder and scrape off old, damaged wallboard tape and joint compound ("mud") where cabinets had separated slightly from their moorings, then slap on more mud and wallboard tape and more mud, after which I artistically dabbled the mud with a sponge so it would look as unnaturally blotchy as the surrounding areas.

So that had to dry for a night.

Day 2 we painted. I figured it was best to start with the ceiling and work our way down, since any splatters could be corrected as we went. The ceiling went well enough, though I don't enjoy ladders much--- but during a cold snap a few days later, the metal casings of the skylights shrank and just shrugged off the new paint, which fell in long strips to the floor below.

Okay, so they're now bare metal. Big deal.

The big problem started with the Cranberry Zing. It was, well, unnaturally bright. It was, in fact, the color of fresh arterial blood. It looked as if vampires had been holding an orgy in the upper levels of our kitchen.

We decided that maybe we didn't want to paint everything above the cabinets in that color. Maybe half would do.

I put on another coat, but it didn't seem to get any less bright. We mulled this over for a night.

On Day 3 I returned to Home Depot, my can of Cranberry Zing in hand. "This is not the color that was on the paint chip," I pointed out.

"Oh, yah, well that's yer problem with reds," said the Paint Guy. "You need at least four coats."

I recalled that my Uncle Monty, who lived in the country, owned a classic red barn. "If you'd told Uncle Monty he had to put four coats on that barn, he'd have told you where to put your paint," I said.

The Paint Guy was unimpressed by my argumentum ad Monteius Advunculus. He declined to sell me any barn paint. Home I went, to put on another couple of coats.

Well, Reader, it worked. The shade of red darkened considerably. While it's still a lot brighter than the color on the paint chip, it no longer looks as if a pressure cooker full of beets exploded on the stove. We can temper the red's exuberance somewhat by putting up plates or hardware or stencils or something in contrasting colors. And fixing this problem meant we could get on with painting everything else.

Which took two more days. Which we didn't mind that much, because the largest blizzard in New Mexico history was howling around our eaves during those two days, and we weren't going anywhere anyhow.

We never got to paint the bathroom. But we are still speaking to each other--- we got along quite harmoniously in fact, possibly aided by the fact that I spent my time being mad at the Paint Guy and the Glidden company.

And our kitchen is now quite pretty, leaving aside the strips of paint that are still being shed from the skylights, and which tend to land in our cookware.

As Home Improvement goes, this was fairly carefree.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Gold-Plated Nanobombs

Laser-activated, gold-plated nanobombs are being used to fight cancer.

I mean, how cool is that?