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When neurons fire

It would be great if I could call up a neuron to fire on demand…

It would be great if I could call up a neuron to fire on demand; to connect its spidery ganglia to the axon of another neuron; and so on and on, until I could place and clearly envision a memory that I’d like to re-examine. For instance, I would love to be able to locate in the clutter of my home that old address book that I kept for years as we moved around the world.  I want to remember the faces and names of the wonderful people we have enjoyed.  Question:  what did I do with it?  Surely, I didn’t throw it away in one of my previous downsizing, de-cluttering binges.  And which was the CD I used to play while driving, the one that had the music that could make me pull over and just listen or sit in the garage until it ended?  It’s somewhere amongst the multitude of CDs I’ve collected over the years, but which one was it?

Well, there are things and then there are memories.  Certainly, they are usually connected, but things are, after all, disposable.  I may grieve the loss of my favorite pottery bowl, but I will always remember its associations and why it was my favorite.

What brought on this particular meditation was a neuron firing at some nearby neurons and producing an image of Mrs. Dorothy Grady.  All of a sudden, and apropos of nothing at all, the wonderful Mrs. Grady (who I could never forget) emerged from the murky depths of my memory bank.  Why Mrs. Grady?  Well, there is somewhat of a connection.  I had been contemplating the truly miserable job of packing, downsizing, perhaps even moving.  Now I’m no stranger to moving.  In the first 30 years of marriage, I had already moved 20+ times.  Do the math.  I had looked around my household at all my accumulated treasures (and more than some accumulated trash; at one point, I actually had the corsage I received when I graduated from college!) and tried to decide what things I really need and am willing to clean.  Some stuff would have to go to family, and some would have to go to the Thrift House.  Some – sob! – would have to go out with the garbage.

I had looked around my household at all my accumulated treasures and tried to decide what things I really need and am willing to clean.

If you’ve ever had to pack up and move, you know just what a heart-wrenching – no, soul-wrenching experience this is. You are, after all, dealing with memories:  Mama’s iron frying pan; the collection of carefully de-wrinkled Christmas wrap; the picture frame I made in 3rd grade Girl Scouts; a whole drawer-full of miscellaneous pens bravely advertising businesses that had folded 20 years ago; a dried and discolored corsage still attached to its college-colored ribbons; and my vast collection of coffee mugs and CDs.

(Aside:  in one trans-national move, I discovered that I had packed the bottom half of my artificial Christmas tree.  The top half was in never-never land, as in never, never to be seen again.)

So let me ramble over to Mrs. Grady.  I’m sorry to say that when I met her she was dying.  She had inoperable liver cancer, and there was really nothing further to be done except to keep her comfortable and listen to her memories.  But her daughter was worried:  Mrs. Grady had begun to drift away, entering into a state that was something between a deep sleep and unconsciousness.  She asked if perhaps Mrs. Grady was receiving too much pain medication, but no, liver cancer can cause periods of mental twilight.  Consciousness flickers in and out like a firefly, sparking little vignettes of memory and then winking out.  The poisons that the liver normally clears from the body begin to accumulate and the brain dutifully tucks them away in its cortex.  But unlike my de-wrinkled and soon-to-be recycled Christmas wrap, the brain can’t just toss out the poisons.

If you’ve ever had to pack up and move, you know just what a heart-wrenching – no, soul-wrenching experience this is.

Most days, Mrs. Grady was eager to chat, spinning stories of her grandchildren or of her long-dead husband.  There were times, however, now more frequent, that she seemed to drift.  When I asked Mrs. Grady if she was aware of these periods of disconnect, she told me something that is forever etched into my own neurons:  “Oh yes,” she said.  “I’m up here (pointing to her head) doing some cleaning.  I’m leaving, you know.  So now I’m just doing some sorting, deciding what I’m going to keep and what I’m going to throw away.”  She made it sound so simple.  God rest you, Mrs. Grady, and thank you for teaching me this lesson:  the really important things can be found, we hope, tucked away in the neurons.

So now as I look around at my own detritus, clutter left over from a life of many joys, I remember Mrs. Grady and think about what I will always treasure, my memories.  And sparkling there among those memories that I will always treasure is my music – an eclectic collection to be sure, but music that reaches those neurons that connect to the heart.  Thank you, Mrs. Grady.

– E Doyle

Oops!

Don’t you just love it when a dignified, serious person makes a blunder?  Com’on.  Admit it.  I mean as long as it’s not your surgeon who is doing some local-anesthesia work on your person.  “Oops,” is the last word – possibly literally – you’ll want to hear.  But nothing so dramatic here.  I’m talking about dignified, professional, serious musicians.   I collect these anecdotes and imagine others, so allow me to open my treasure chest of oops moments.

First, there’s the trumpet player.  He’s doing wonderful things, finding tones, hitting every note with clarity and verve and then – wait for it – his mute gets away from him and goes rolling gleefully across the stage for all the world to see.  Yes, there’ll be a few titters and giggles from the audience, but the musician, like the true professional he is, simply walks over and picks the damn thing up and carries on.  Now that’s class.

And there’s not a cellist alive who hasn’t had a string break in the middle of a concert.  Of course, if it’s one of the bass strings and goes ka-blooey, it can remove his glasses, scratch his face and cause a really awful moment.  He can’t just carry on.  He’ll just have to sit there or try to play on three strings or just forget the whole thing and walk off to find a replacement string.

…there’s not a cellist alive who hasn’t had a string break in the middle of a concert.

But here’s my own recurring nightmare:  I’m a timpanist in a big, important orchestra with a grand and renowned conductor.  Not permitted to thump the kettle drums or even rat-a-tat the snare, I am given the lowly triangle and told, sternly, to follow the music very carefully.  This I diligently do.  So there I am, standing up with my triangle shining elegantly in my left hand and my little wand in my right, counting carefully for my big moment.  And I’m off by one beat.  I’m off by one beat.  It can’t be.  I’m off by ONE lousy beat.  And everybody, I mean everybody knows.  The grand and renowned conductor shoots me a look that would knock a pigeon off an electric line and the timpanist standing next to me gently removes the elegant triangle from my hand so that I can do no further damage and I sit down and try to make myself as small as possible.   It could have been worse, I guess:  I could have dropped the triangle right into the horn in front of me.  It could have been worse.  It could have happened, and I’m just the person it would have happened to.

Of course, I am not a timpanist and I’ve never even been close to a triangle, but I was sufficiently musically embarrassed in my misspent youth to convince myself that I should find a career other than music performance.  I was a member of a folk group – remember those?  I know I’m dating myself, but really, it was a lot of fun.  I was also working at a local television station, writing what is called “continuity.”  That’s all the stuff that’s thrown in so that there is no dreaded “dead air.”  Anyway, the lady who was host of the daytime show invited me to sing on her show, demonstrating the desperation daytime hosts feel when trying to fill a time slot.  So, with my trusty Nuevo Laredo guitar in hand, I sat before the camera and launched into a piece I had done a million times.  You may remember it, if you’re old enough:  “In the jungle, the quiet jungle, the lion sleeps tonight…”  Well, the lyrics were pretty simple, the melody straightforward and I was on cruise control.  Until I got to the end and the song (and Peter, Paul and Mary, if memory serves), launch into “Wee-mo-way, wee-mo-way.”  So I launched into “Wee-mo-way,” but I couldn’t get un-launched.   Panic set in.  How am I going to end this?  What comes next?  So I tried to just kind of let my wobbly voice drift off into the void and bowed my head.  It was a brief career, but brilliant.

I was sufficiently musically embarrassed in my misspent youth to convince myself that I should find a career other than music performance.

I have a friend who’s a clarinetist and had a reed break in the middle of Cole Porter.  Of course, he had another reed, but there in front of the whole world had to extract it from his pocket, run it through his mouth a time or two and then install it in the clarinet.  Maybe no one noticed, but I’ll bet they did.

I don’t think there’s a musician alive who hasn’t had an “oops” moment, and maybe they can laugh about them, but I’m certain that – just like my wee-mo-way moment – they’ve never forgotten them.

And speaking of forgetting things and oops moments, don’t forget to get your tickets for the stellar season of 2018-19.  You don’t want to find yourself on October 7, when the Brentano String Quartet performs with world renowned soprano Dawn Upshaw, slapping yourself on the forehead and saying, “Oops!”

– E Doyle

Of cakes, biscuits and – oh, yes – focus

Have you ever tried to make a really magnificent cake from scratch?  Well, have you?  And how did it turn out?  That bad, yeah.  Some years ago, I, master of the oven, regent of icing, genius of the cake pans, decided I could make a Black Forest Cake.  For company.  If you’ve never enjoyed this masterpiece, a Black Forest Cake is composed of layers and layers of wonderfully rich cake interspersed with fillings of chocolate and nuts and fruit and pure magic and the whole thing’s topped with this chocolate icing that becomes a shiny, beautiful glaze.  There’s just one small problem:  it helps to know what you’re doing.  Four plus hours into this project, I had gone through most of the pots and bowls in my kitchen, there was chocolate everywhere and I was no closer to the imagined masterpiece than I had been when weighing the ingredients (oh yes, did I mention that this was a European recipe and the ingredients were given by weight?).  Sorry, guys, it’s chocolate ice cream over Oreos for dessert.  To quote a celebrity:  “So sad.”

But telling the story of my disastrous cake brought to mind the memory of my sainted mother – she with a degree in mathematics, minor in Greek; she who could make the world’s best roast beef and fried chicken – she whose biscuits would be coveted by the NHL as totally indestructible.  So maybe it’s genetic (not the math and Greek part).  My mother and I were not destined to bake wonderful things.  Or maybe it’s just a matter of focus.

…I had gone through most of the pots and bowls in my kitchen, there was chocolate everywhere and I was no closer to the imagined masterpiece than I had been when weighing the ingredients.

I have become convinced over the years of listening to and thoroughly enjoying musical compositions that are truly works of genius, that the secret of that genius, much like the secret of producing something as magical as a Black Forest Cake or a perfect biscuit, has something to do with the ability to focus.  Consider, for example:  Beethoven became deaf but could still compose music.  How?  His mind was such that he could not only remember sounds, but he could concentrate, focus on what he wanted to write.  I’m certain that the ability to do this involved enormous effort and powers of memory.

As you know, a great genius of our present day has just died. Stephen Hawking is another example of my thesis.  In his lifetime, he progressively lost the ability to express his genius by usual means, and yet he wrote books explaining some of the most complex concepts of the universe.  He couldn’t test concepts with his peers in the usual back and forth of creative conversation; he had a means of communication, but it was limited.  How much of what he thought was lost?  How much of what Beethoven heard in his mind was lost?  How much genius resides, untapped and unspoken, in the brains of geniuses?

Focus is the power to concentrate, to bring the mental powers we all possess to a greater or lesser degree, to the problem of musical composition or the power to intellectualize the workings of the cosmos.  Focus is also the ability that allows us mere mortals to appreciate the genius of music, the genius of beauty, the genius of astrophysics.

Focus is also the ability that allows us mere mortals to appreciate the genius of music, the genius of beauty, the genius of astrophysics.

And how many Black Forest cakes are out there, just waiting for me to bring my sterling intelligence and focus to bear on the task of creation?

– E Doyle

Trees

Bear with me, please:  I’m off on yet another tangent and I ask your kind indulgence.  The subject is trees.  My dad loved his trees and I suppose, therefore, that there is something genetic about the love of trees because I love my trees, too.

Let’s talk about oak trees, those friendly stalwarts of the South Texas landscape.  They live to an incredible old age and faithfully tolerate tire swings hung from limbs, small children climbing where their mother’s expressly forbade (as in, “Don’t you dare climb up that tree and if you do, I’ll kill you!”), the pure beauty of Christmas lights and piñatas and the indignity of generations of cats, squirrels, raccoons and dogs with a death wish clawing their way up the trunk.  Standing close to an oak tree, you can’t help wonder how many people how long ago have enjoyed the beauty of this very tree.  How many storms has it weathered, how many droughts have sent its roots ever deeper into the earth?  How many generations of birds have called it home? This and more:  have you ever noticed areas of worn bark about 4 feet up on oak trees?  If the tree is very old, that comes from cows and horses rubbing against the tree, scratching what itches and smoothing the bark in the process.

Standing close to an oak tree, you can’t help wonder how many people how long ago have enjoyed the beauty of this very tree.

I grew up with oak trees and experienced their welcoming shade and shelter.  There was no better place to be when one needed to ponder the deeply serious problems of adolescence than at the base of an oak tree.  Being of Irish heritage, I was also pretty sure that “my oak trees” housed leprechauns in their roots.   I remember that, during droughts, my dad would carry buckets of water from the barn to the trees to help them survive.  In return, the oak trees gave my family never-failing beauty.  Now I live in a neighborhood that was once an oak grove; this land was once on the banks of a creek and, historians say, was part of the ranch that was home to the vaqueros of the missions and their herds.  There are huge oak trees lining our streets and gracing our yards and, yes, I’ve found the tell-tale signs of cattle and horses rubbing their imprints into the bark.

Developers tend to take down these wonderful, old trees and replace them with fast-growing intruders that can’t survive our climate for more than a few years.  It will take much patience and probably many generations of homeowners to see the results of a new oak tree.  That phrase doesn’t even look right; “new oak tree”?  What’s that?

But I’m not done, you’ll be so very happy to know.  Let’s talk laurels.  We call them “mountain laurels” in these parts, but they have nothing whatsoever to do with mountains.  Our treasured little laurel trees (aka, Sophora secundiflora) love our limestone-enriched soil and, with their wonderful flowers and scent, give us the hope of spring.  My experience with laurels goes back a few generations (it’s the old DNA thing again).  My grandmother planted laurels from seeds and nurtured them so that when I was a child, I knew them as a part of our home landscape.  As an adult, I decided to buy a house on the basis of a 30-foot tall laurel growing in the front yard with a grove of her children nestled around her.  (Did I mention that laurel trees are female?)  I wasn’t as concerned about the stability of the home’s foundation or the beauty of its design, but it was love at first sight for that laurel tree.  Years later, when I was terribly ill, I used to think that as long as that laurel tree was there to keep an eye on things, I would survive.  It did and I did.

…when I was terribly ill, I used to think that as long as that laurel tree was there to keep an eye on things, I would survive. It did and I did.

There’s another feature of laurel trees that, if you didn’t grow up here, you may not know:  laurel trees produce these beautiful bright red berries.  They’re not edible – in fact, they’re poison – but if you are a mischievous child bent on revenge, you could take the berry, rub it vigorously on concrete (think sidewalk) and then apply it smartly to the arm of your big brother who had been bullying you.  It burns like fury when properly prepared.

I haven’t even started on mesquite trees, pecans and chinaberries.  Perhaps a later walk through the woods?  But aren’t trees really incredible?  Just think about it:  shelter, beauty, sound, scent and a symbol of continuity and strength.  Poems, music and art have all praised trees and with good reason:  just like poems, music and art, trees are gifts to be treasured.

And speaking of treasures, there’s that music – you knew I’d get there, didn’t you?  There are two glorious concerts remaining in this our 75th season:  the American Brass Quintet (March 4th) and the Orion String Quartet (April 15th: at Laurel Heights United Methodist Church, don’t forget).  We are not quite as old as my favorite oak trees, but with your continued support and attendance at these delightful concerts, we may just endure.

– E Doyle

The Kings and I

I was enjoying myself in France the other day and while in the Loire Valley happened on some of the most gorgeous chateaus in all the world.  They had been the property, in the XIV Century, of two remarkable regents, their queens, their favorite ladies and an assortment of friends, progeny and others to whom was owed vast sums of money. The chateaus are filled with crystal chandeliers, tapestries and precious furnishings – and cold.  Really, it’s no wonder that progeny were so numerous:  everyone was just trying to stay warm!

In France, you could start in the 13th Century with Louis IX and work your way slowly (and painfully) through all the Phillipes, the Charles, the Louises and the Henris, but it is très confusing!  So for clarity’s sake, let’s begin with François1ierAn imposing person, he stood a smidge over six feet tall – and remember, s’il vous plait, this was the Fifteenth Century, when you were considered “tall” if you measured about five feet six.  How do I know this?  Well, about the fourth time I banged my head on a castle lintel, I figured it out:  either people walked around all bent over or very bruised; in fact, one of the French kings smacked himself on a lintel and died of brain injury.

 

Anyway, back to Francis I.  He was born two years after Columbus touched the shores of what would become the New World.  He married Claude of Brittany, his cousin, when he was 20 and upon the death of his uncle,  Louis XII, her father, became King of France.  Now ponder this:  here’s a very young man with very limited knowledge of his world and his times, not even raised to be a ruler, and suddenly, he’s one of the most powerful people in Europe and, arguably, much of the rest of the known world.  Furthermore, he may have been one of the first true “Renaissance Men.”  As he matured – and fathered seven children – his interests ranged across a wide spectrum:  art, architecture, poetry, foreign relations, philosophy and letters.

His dearest friend was none other than Leonardo da Vinci who accepted Francis’ invitation to come to Amboise, bringing with him a few paintings he had dashed off:   the Mona Lisa, Saint John the Baptist and The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.

His dearest friend was none other than Leonardo da Vinci who accepted Francis’ invitation to come to Amboise, bringing with him a few paintings he had dashed off:   the Mona Lisa, Saint John the Baptist and The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.  Leonardo received 1,000 gold crowns each year, but his true worth during those years at Blois was the counsel and friendship he provided to Francis.  Leonardo may have been the mastermind behind one of Francis’ most extravagant projects, the magnificent Chateau de Chambord. He died at Amboise in 1519, leaving us to wonder what other marvels were percolating in his fruitful brain.

Francis died at the age of 52, and again one can only wonder what this most interesting man could have accomplished had he been given a few more years.

But on  (or, a continuer, as we say in France) with my new friends, the Kings of France.  Francis’ son, Henri II, succeeded Francis in 1547 – and here was another most interesting person.  As a child, Henri and his older brother were held hostage in Spain for four years in exchange for their father who had had the misfortune to lose a battle to Charles V.  His older brother, the Dauphin, purportedly died after a game of tennis (I’d love to know who he was playing, wouldn’t you?) and so Henri was crowned in 1547.  He was already married to Catherine of Medici – yes, one of those Medicis.  He spent a great deal of his reign in wars, intrigues and your basic 15th Century turmoil, but still found time to initiate a patent law to protect inventions, produce 10 children with Catherine plus three children with three mistresses.  But his long-time and most famous favorite was the beautiful (if a touch greedy) Diane de Poitiers, 15 years his senior, to whom he gave the Castle at Chenonceau, among other properties.  He also raised the future Mary Queen of Scots at his court:  at 15, she was married to Henri’s son, Francis Duke of Anjou.  So, you see how all of these fabulous people lived intertwined lives and politics and wars, marriages and liaisons make our own era seem a little anemic?

But I digress.  Excusez- moi.  Henri II also experienced an interesting leave-taking from this earth.  He was to joust with a Scottish knight and, in a show of disrespect for the Grim Reaper, he decided to do so without using the armor that covered his face.  Score one for the Reaper:  the knight’s lance went into his eye and a few days later, Henri II was no more.  And furthermore, Catherine de Medici extracted her revenge on Diane de Poitiers, turning her out of Chenonceau, but “awarding” her Chaumont, an estate heavily in debt.

Walking through these fairy-tale castles in the Loire Valley, I thought I caught a whiff of very old wood smoke every now and then.  It was probably my imagination, but there was also a very faint sound of viola de gamba and footsteps on the stairs.  As the chandeliers glistened and danced in an unfelt breeze, it occurred to me that these great homes are haunted – I certainly hope so!

On January 21st, as I enjoy the ethereal sound of Chanticleer, I am going to think of my kings and their lavish homes, their incredible lives that have resounded through the centuries and enriched imaginations for 500 years.  I think Chanticleer’s voices echoing through the Temple will fit right in, don’t you?

– E Doyle

Female Guitarists

Try Googling “female classical guitarists.” You will find a few dozen citations of people you’ve probably never heard of. I wondered why. There are female pianists and violinists by the score, but classical guitarists? The citations sooner or later descend to pop icons. It’s not that Janice Joplin wasn’t capable of playing, say, an andante, but the washboard style of playing is not really conducive to cantatas. I looked through the names and photos and found that many of the women were also composers, lauded for their talents during their eras, but not particularly well known now. For example: Have you ever heard of Ida Presti? Neither had I, I am ashamed to admit. She was that vanishingly rare person, a female classical guitarist. She was 10 in 1935 when she played her first professional concert at the Salle Pleyel in Paris; she continued to perform and compose music for the acoustic guitar until her death in 1967. When she was 16 years old, she had the singular honor of playing Paganini’s guitar in a commemoration of his death in 1940. She appeared in films and was widely known for her prodigious talent. Do you recognize the name yet? No?

When you check out lists of classical guitarists, you will find not one woman’s name until you come to Catherina Josepha Pratten, identified only as a German guitar virtuoso, born in Mulheim in 1821 and laying her guitar to rest in 1895. Certainly you’ve heard of Mme. Pratten?

In the early 20th Century, we come to Maria Luisa Anido, better known for her compositions than for her performances. She was born in Morón, Argentina in 1907, and died in the “mid 80’s” in Tarragona, Spain. The only concert mentioned was her debut in Wigmore Hall in 1952.

At last, in this century, we begin to see a few female names among the listings of classical guitarists, but the vast majority of names are male.

The guitar is the quintessential musical instrument for a woman to play. It can shade emotion, it can soothe or scream. It can express a range of feelings that go far beyond six strings.

Makes you wonder. Are women not able to play an acoustic guitar? Perhaps their fingers are not strong enough – but have you ever watched a female harpist at work? Perhaps they constitutionally have trouble focusing on two hands doing different things at the same time. Ever seen a female pianist – or, for that matter, a mother with two-year-old twins? Perhaps the violin is more suited to female musicians. After all, the movements are graceful, the music is sweet. But the guitar is an instrument of passion, an accompanier of flamenco and wild Gypsy dances. The guitar is the quintessential musical instrument for a woman to play. It can shade emotion, it can soothe or scream. It can express a range of feelings that go far beyond six strings.

So I hope you remember, as you listen to Sharon Isbin, a modern guitar virtuoso, that this particular woman understands the guitar. You will hear an instrument singing unlike any you have heard before, an instrument capable of expressing connections between the artist and the audience. And that’s the whole point, don’t you agree?

Don’t miss Sharon Isbin, multiple GRAMMY Award winning guitarist, in concert with the Pacifica String Quartet on Sunday, October 15th, 2017, 3:15 p.m. at Temple Beth-El. You will wish the concert never ends.

– E Doyle

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