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The Holiday Bowl

Here we are, just a few days before Thanksgiving and the official start of the Christmas season.  The River will soon be festooned with lights, downtown buildings will sport lights and decorations and cars will sprout antlers and red noses on their hoods.  In my house, there is a slight vibration, a humming sound coming from a kitchen cabinet – and I know what it is.   It is the atoms that make up the special, green pottery bowl; they are quivering with anticipation of their annual holiday turn.

You know there has to be a story here and here it is.  Years ago, I became the current keeper of a large bowl.  It’s an ordinary-looking bowl: made of sturdy pottery, a dark jade green in color and with a wide rim that allows a firm grip.  It holds about 2 quarts, I guess, although I’ve never tested capacity.  I suspect that it may have been one of a set of green pottery bowls, but I don’t know for sure.  Anyway, if it was, it is the sole survivor.

And why is it special, this rather homely green bowl?  Originally, it was in the care of my grandmother, a dairy farmer from Ireland.  Perhaps the color appealed to her, perhaps it was the heft of the pottery.  She was a lady known to be a superb bread maker, and the green bowl would have been just the right size and shape for dough.  Then the bowl came down to my mother.  In my recollection of home, the same home where my grandmother had lived, there was a large, walk-in pantry that smelled of spices and contained rows of mysterious glass jars and bins for flour and sugar.  There on a shelf was everything needed for holiday meal preparation: a big, black roaster oven, ample enough for an enormous turkey, the pot that was big enough for a dozen or more potatoes (not to be mistaken for the sweet potato pot); there was the colander you’d need for the green beans; the pie plates for that special pecan pie that only my mother could make; the cut glass dish for the cranberry sauce – and the green pottery bowl.

Originally, it was in the care of my grandmother, a dairy farmer from Ireland.  Perhaps the color appealed to her, perhaps it was the heft of the pottery.  She was a lady known to be a superb bread maker, and the green bowl would have been just the right size and shape for dough. 

In my experience, the green pottery bowl was only used to make dressing for the Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys.  (Some call it “stuffing,” but I think that sounds like something you’d put in a mattress.)   Three or four days before the start of the serious preparation began, slices of bread would be arranged on baking sheets and left in a sunny window to dry out.  Then we’d make corn bread that included a little bacon grease in the mix.  And then someone would be assigned to very carefully lift the green pottery bowl from the pantry shelf and wipe it with a dish towel.  In goes the cut-up bread, in goes the cubed corn bread, in goes the celery and spices, in goes the stock — and the magic begins.           

So now I have made holiday dressing in the green pottery bowl for more than 50 years.  It has traveled the world over with my dishes and pots and pans, but is only taken down from its special place for the creation of dressing.  I suspect that this bowl carries within its pottery some very special spices, some magical ingredient that three generations of women have ingrained into it.  It has a little bit of Ireland, a little bit of Texas farm, a smidge of Bolivia, a taste of Argentina and of Brazil and a cold, cold touch of Quebec stored away in its elemental clay.  This is a bowl that knows its place and its role, and always gives its all to every holiday feast.  It has not a chip or scratch, it has NEVER experienced a dishwasher and will be passed on to yet another generation in my family.  It’s probably not worth the pottery it’s made of, but in my family, it is a treasure.

In these coming days, I will carefully lift the green pottery bowl from its place in the cupboard, wipe it out with a dish towel, think of my mother and grandmother, and start making the world’s best dressing!

I hope you too have a treasure and a tradition to enjoy this holiday season.  And here’s to all the cherished green pottery bowls.  Best wishes from your friends, the San Antonio Chamber Music Society.

– E Doyle

Moving Day

I am presently surrounded by all of my worldly possessions: everything from a grade school picture to my mother-in-law’s best crystal candleholders; every possible-sized pot and dishes from at least 3 sets; hair brushes of unknown provenance, pots full of defunct ballpoint pens, 4 oriental rugs of varying sizes, and one forlorn dwarf bamboo in a moldering pot.  And that’s only what I can presently see!  As I relocate from my home of 25 years to an apartment (which I thought was spacious), I have learned some valuable lessons which I will impart to you.

Lesson 1:

The three most dreaded words in the English language are, “Have you seen…” followed closely by “Where is the…” and “It’s here somewhere.”

Lesson 2:

You know you’re getting old when you need more space for your medicine collection than for your makeup (and note that all your makeup, which has been hidden away for years, begins with some variant of “anti-aging”).

Lesson 3:

If you say to yourself, “Where did this ever come from?” or “Is this mine?” toss it!  If you haven’t seen/used it in memory, you don’t need it.

Lesson 4:

If you and your significant other are still on speaking terms after a couple of weeks of this, you’re good for all eternity – or at least until one or the other of you walks out in disgust.

Lesson 5:

Keys.  If you have any idea of what all these keys you’ve accumulated over the years unlock, you’re a better person than I.  Corollary:  put tags on all keys while you still have some idea, albeit vague, of what they go to.  Another corollary: do you know how hard it is to throw away a key?  What if…?

Lesson 6:

Carefully label all boxes as they are packed.  That way, you’ll have a perfectly good reason to burst into tears when, unpacking, you find your good silverware at the bottom of a box of coat hangers.

Lesson 7:

When you just can’t take the sight of clutter as far as the eye can see, when your beautiful, light-filled apartment is pitch black because there are boxes stacked against the windows, when you find one more piece of something you know goes with something else but you can’t remember what and you don’t dare throw it away because you know that sooner or later you’ll find what it goes to, when it’s all just too much – well, it’s time to find a wine glass and a bottle of good wine, put the classical guitar music on and just try not to think about it for a while.  It will still be there when you’ve finished the wine, but you just won’t care.

I feel like a coral reef without the pretty fish!  Layers upon layers of boxes, paintings, pitchers and pictures, lamps and lamp shades, international things that I’m sure caught my eye in Bolivia or Beijing, Egypt or Copenhagen – what is it and why do I have it?  Or does it have me?

How did all this stuff accrete to me?  I feel like a coral reef without the pretty fish!  Layers upon layers of boxes, paintings, pitchers and pictures, lamps and lamp shades, international things that I’m sure caught my eye in Bolivia or Beijing, Egypt or Copenhagen – what is it and why do I have it?  Or does it have me?  I look enviously at refugees, carrying all their worldly possessions in bundles and, while I don’t wish to be in their number, I respect their ability to put all of their really important possessions in a sheet or serape, bring the corners together in a knot and sling everything over their shoulders.

I did miss one very important lesson:  if you can find some clean clothes somewhere, put them on and come to a concert.  November 11th, the American String Quartet along with Tom Sleigh and Phil Klay will be performing at our regular venue, Temple Beth-El, at our regular time 3:15.  You can come inside, shut off the clutter and confusion for a couple of hours and just relax, re-lax.  It will all be there when you get back, but I am a believer in escape, no matter how transitory.  And if you see someone with a serape full of possessions over her shoulder, well that will be yours truly.

– E Doyle

Goodbye, Summer

I know when summer’s about played out when the “end of season” catalogues begin stuffing my mailbox.  “Seventy percent reduction,” they scream.  All the wonderful merchandise the shop couldn’t peddle during spring and summer (and some left over from last summer’s sales).  There’s that suit I craved when I first laid eyes on it in the spring catalogue.   “New for summer!” the headline blared.  “Cool, well-styled, just the outfit for office-to-evening,” they promised.  But, oh boy, it wasn’t cheap.  Now it’s the perfect “transitional” suit – whatever that means – and the price is half what it was in the spring catalogues.  I’m not biting.  I’ve gotten this far without it; what’s a couple of months more.

Another catalogue that arrived yesterday was filled with merchandise for Halloween and, yes, Thanksgiving.

Another catalogue that arrived yesterday was filled with merchandise for Halloween and, yes, Thanksgiving.  Oh, pul-eeze!!  I’m sure the next one will be touting Christmas wares.  Can’t we just enjoy the waning and still beach-worthy days of August without the constant reminders that time is marching on?  I don’t know if I’ll even survive until Thanksgiving, let alone decorate my Thanksgiving table with themed placemats, napkins and centerpieces.  Ugh!

In the interests of complete disclosure and truthfulness, I used to write advertising copy for a long-gone department store (remember those?).   The challenge was to grab the attention of the newspaper reader (SALE! In 36 point letters would usually accomplish that) and then to convince them that this was an item he or she had to have.  Oh, and everything had to fit in the space allocated by the evil layout designer, Helen.  I still have my well-worn and thumbed through Roget’s Thesaurus.  How many ways can you say “exquisite”?

And while I’m confessing my sins, I might as well tell you that I voraciously read out of town stores’ ads, magazine copy and even catalogues for bits and pieces I could use.  My boss thought I was a creative genius.   If only she knew….

I recognize the challenges faced by a catalogue copywriter and, really, I sympathize.

So I recognize the challenges faced by a catalogue copywriter and, really, I sympathize.  But just as it was hard for me to gin up enthusiasm for Christmas copy in September, it must be murder for these poor hacks to rhapsodize over fall fashion sometime in April to make their mid-summer deadlines.  If you’ve just walked two or three blocks to your cubbyhole (copywriters don’t get real offices) in the blazing heat of July, it’s darn nigh impossible to switch your gears to contemplate the wools of November.  To write about ski gear in August, swimsuits in January and, gag, Christmas wreaths in September takes a very special kind of crazy.  I know.

Check your personal stack of newly-arrived catalogues, though.  Lurking amid all those incredible bargains and must-have merchandise, I hope you’ll find one that reads (in 18 point), “2018/19: A Stellar Season.”  That’s doesn’t qualify as a “screamer,” as we say in the trade, but I hope it speaks to you.  That’s the season offering of the San Antonio Chamber Music Society and the subscription form.

Lurking amid all those incredible bargains and must-have merchandise, I hope you’ll find one that reads (in 18 point), “2018/19: A Stellar Season.”

If you have to say goodbye to summer, what better way than starting off the concert season with the Brentano String Quartet plus soprano Dawn Upshaw on October 7?  “Glittering clarity” is how The Strad described their music.  Man!  I wish I’d written that phrase!

The season gets better and better and, really, you won’t want to miss one concert.  Just look:

Reverting to my copywriting days – Only $100 will buy a season ticket PLUS 1 bonus ticket that can be used at any concert!!!  AND  any ticket may be used for any of the 5 concerts!!!  And students and active-duty military attend our concerts FREE!

Just call 210-408-1558 to reserve your season ticket or order online.  I will recognize you, you know:  you’ll be the one in the “transitional” outfit, right?

– E Doyle

The Pipes

Lucky me!  I’m just back from a trip to Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Hebrides and France. The music that remains swirling about my poor, jet-lagged brain is the evocative, mysterious and moving music of the bagpipes. I know you’ve heard the joyful music of “River Dance” and the mournful music of “Danny Boy;” but have you heard the magical music of the Galician pipes the gaita?

Let’s talk pipes, shall we?  There’s a matter-of-fact and altogether boring description in Google:

“Bagpipes are a woodwind instrument using enclosed reeds fed from a constant reservoir of air in the form of a bag.”

Does that even begin to describe the lump in the throat caused by a solitary Highland piper playing in a cathedral?  There’s no explanation there either of the effect on the feet of a rousing Irish pipe melody played in a pub where the beer flows and the dancers twirl and tap.  And then there’s the smile that appears on the listeners’ faces when a well-loved tune like “Amazing Grace” is played on the pipes.

The bagpipes have a long and glorious history, you’ll be glad to know.  Evidence of pipes goes back as far as 1000 BC:  the Oxford History of Music, no less, says there’s a Hittite sculpture showing bagpipes at Euyuk in the Middle East.  The Greeks, too, had pipes and it’s entirely possible that Nero (more famous for playing violin) could play the pipes.  I wonder, was he actually playing the pipes while Rome burned?  Doesn’t sound quite right, does it?  By Medieval times, it seems as though everybody had taken up the pipes.  They get a mention in The Canterbury Tales (1380):

A baggepype wel coude he blowe and sowne, / And ther-with-al he broghte us out of towne.

At the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh 1547 (surely you’ve heard of that), the bagpipes were used to bring the Scottish troops to battle and, they hoped, frighten the bejesus out of the English.  For a’that, the Scots lost and the Duke of Somerset won the day.  T’was a terrible waste of the music.  But this period saw the creation of the ceòl mór (great music) of the bagpipe, which reflected its martial origins, with battle-tunes, marches, gatherings, salutes and laments. [J. E. A. Dawson, Scotland Re-Formed, 1488–1587 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), ISBN 0-7486-1455-9, p. 169.]

Through the years, the pipes have become increasingly associated with the military – there were pipers in Afghanistan – the police and firefighters.  Could you ever forget the heartbreaking pipes playing after 2011? But I’ll bet you didn’t know that the bagpipes provide the “official music” of the sport of curling!   I haven’t quite figured out curling, but I’ll enjoy the music nevertheless.

So regard the bagpipes, in all their forms and nationalities: Scots, Irish, Spanish, French, Asturian, Portuguese and everywhere they’ve traveled with armies.  The proud music swirls, the pipes with their banners, the bags with their clan plaids lend their special lilt and flair to parades and commemorations.  The wonderful peals of bagpipes are music to the ears of so many people in so many countries, but I can guarantee that there’s nothing like the Great Highland bagpipes as they’re played in the Scottish highlands.

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “Piping in” someone or something.  You’ll be that happy to know that we’ll be “piping in” our 76th season at the San Antonio Chamber Music Society.  And if you wish to be piped in to the first performance on October 7, you’d best make haste and buy your season tickets online at sacms.org.  And give a wee listen to the Merry Ploughmen of Dublin.

Have a wonderful summer, one and all.

– E Doyle

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

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