So you think…?

On playing Kaddish

Mira Amiras’ blog “and this part is true” had a recent post entitled “war stories” about translating the Kaddish, the traditional Jewish mourner’s prayer.

She asks, “What does this really mean?”

It’s a good question, because the Aramaic text doesn’t say a thing about mourning. It’s a pretty generic prayer, in fact. Here’s the basic mourner’s Kaddish text in English:

May the great Name of God be exalted and sanctified, throughout the world, which he has created according to his will.
May his Kingship be established in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the entire household of Israel, swiftly and in the near future; and say, Amen.
May his great name be blessed, forever and ever.
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, honored elevated and lauded be the Name of the holy one,
Blessed is he, above and beyond any blessings and hymns, praises and consolations which are uttered in the world; and say Amen.
May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life, upon us and upon all Israel; and say, Amen.
He who makes peace in his high holy places, may he bring peace upon us, and upon all Israel; and say Amen.

For those wanting to be thorough about it, Wikipedia offers a summary in its usual exhaustive, unsatisfying style and includes the full text in all its variations in parallel columns of English, Aramaic/Hebrew, and transliteration of same.

But I say, don’t bother. Just go off and read Mira’s post, “war stories,” because it’s far more interesting, and then come back here to read the rest of my post, which is a response to hers.

Research

For my senior recital as a horn performance major at St Olaf College, I decided to open my program with a hauntingly beautiful piece for solo horn by Lev Kogan, “Kaddish.”

I’ve always been annoyed by people borrowing religious practices and/or beliefs without understanding them, and this irritation was particularly relevant for me while I was in college. College is a time that many people go through a phase of what I call “religious tourism,” suddenly embracing new religions—the more exotic the better—without having a clue about their cultural contexts and philosophical underpinnings. They just read a few pages or go on a study abroad program, they shave their heads, and poof!, they are suddenly Buddhists.

I didn’t want to do that.

I also think it’s annoying when musicians study and perform music without learning anything about the music. I was also a music history major, so some of my attitude comes from that training. Music has a context. It was written in a time, in a place, by a person, for a reason. Performers need to know these things about the music. I’m not saying performers have to be slaves to composers’ intentions—far from it—but we at least have to struggle with those intentions. We need to know them, to the extent possible, and we have to try to understand them. And then we can—must—make our own decisions about what we ourselves will express in the music. The degree to which we are deferential to what we know of the composer’s expectations is an artistic decision we must make responsibly and consciously.

So, I took responsibility. I researched the Kaddish.

I was particularly concerned about making sure it was appropriate—or at least not inappropriate—to say, and by extension, perform—a Kaddish during Pesach, because my recital was scheduled during Passover.

This point checked out fairly easily. Traditionally mourners should say Kaddish for a year, at least weekly at synagogue, or daily at a minyan—details vary among communities—and especially several times on the Yahrtzeit or anniversary of death. While I never found anything specifically addressing the question of saying Kaddish during holidays, I reasoned that since death doesn’t respect holidays, nor do Yahrtzeits, so it is inevitable that observant mourning Jews will end up saying Kaddish during Pesach.

I also wanted to learn the text of Kaddish and its significance. I was playing horn and a priori not singing any text, but Lev Kogan made clear by his title that the piece was a Kaddish. That text was implicit. How could I play a melody with implicit text without knowing that text?

(Some perspective: when instrumentalists accompany singers, they have a responsibility to know the text and play accordingly, for technical reasons at the very least. For example, when words continue over notes, those notes should be slurred, not articulated. The number of syllables per beat might change from one verse to the next; if a beat has one syllable in the first verse but two syllables in the second verse, then in the second verse, the instrumentalist should be playing two notes on that beat, e.g. two eighth-notes rather than one quarter note. The phrases should line up with the text, which means breathing only between sentences or at appropriate punctuation points. Et cetera. The point is, text matters, whether you’re singing it or not.)

So I researched the text, in translation of course, and I reached the same frustrated puzzlement as Mira: “What does this really mean?”

Why is this a prayer of mourning? Why would mourners say these words—these words?

Answers vary. I like the explanations Mira cites and offers. If you didn’t follow my instructions to read her post, here’s a key point:

Turns out that the Kaddish began to be used for mourning in the 13th century during Crusades and pogroms, as a public affirmation of faith in the face of pogromic annihilation. That is, instead of using the Shma for that purpose. Thus, the Mourner’s Kaddish was a public display of adherence to one’s faith, and that’s why it doesn’t say one damned thing that might comfort someone’s terrible loss.

This makes sense, and I wish I’d known it back then. At the time I just concluded that it was a generic prayer, with the usual blessings and hopes uttered by the religious at any occasion. So, I decided that my affect in playing the Kaddish would be mournful but restrained, not sentimental or overwrought—sad, yes, but a prayer for the still living.

Stagecraft

I knew that “Kaddish” would be particularly dramatic as the opening of my recital. I decided that my stage craft should cue the audience that this piece was different, so that they would greet it appropriately and expect contemplative music—not some flashy barnstormer. I also wanted to prevent an unseemly kind of applause; we don’t usually clap during religious services, and we especially don’t clap joyously after prayers of mourning.

Therefore, I opened the recital with the house lights fully down and with a single bank of stage lights brought up just enough so that I could be seen. I walked out not quite as briskly as I normally would, smiled and bowed my thanks for the applause, and then drew my body to attention, lowered my head, and waited for the audience to settle into complete silence. (That takes a long time, and the pause  is uncomfortable for audience and performer alike. I was counting on that discomfort.)

Then I lifted my horn, took a slow breath, and then played. I played from memory, so that there would be no music stand between me and the audience. I didn’t make eye contact while I was playing; I defocused my sight and looked vaguely into the house, so that the audience could make eye contact with me.

I took a lot of time with my phrasing, inserting pauses far longer than a normal luftpause, and I let the music breathe as slowly and methodically as I could. At the end, I deliberately took one final breath before the last note, so that I could hold it for a long, long diminuendo a niente—to nothing. (A long diminuendo to nothing is difficult; when you’re tired and especially when you’re nervous on stage, your lips quiver, which can cause an unintended vibrato, and you risk losing the note altogether. It’s also hard to pace the diminuendo so that it sounds like an even decay from loudest to softest.)

After the note finished, I closed my eyes and held still. I waited for the reverberation in the hall to decay to nothing. Then I waited longer, until I could hear the audience members letting out their breath. Then I slowly lowered my head and horn, to allow a moment of reflection for the listeners and me both. Finally I let out what little was left of my own breath, relaxed, opened my eyes, inhaled, and lifted my head to the audience.

The applause, so long delayed, was a relief for us all. After a suitable interval, I smiled, bowed, and exited, again walking not quite as briskly as I normally would.

Meaning

“Kaddish” by Kogan has always been exceptionally meaningful for me, and its meaningfulness has deepened and accreted layers over the decades.

At first I just loved the music. Its modal phrases meander freely, out of time. The intensity ebbs and flows, reaching several intermediate high points and an ultimate climax right in the last phrase, which drives to the highest note in the piece, holds, and then steps down a half step, then a whole step, and repeats that pitch four times, slowing down, diminuending in the last bar’s fermata to nothing.

“Kaddish” had personal meaning for me all along, also, and as I mentioned, its meaningfulness grew during the period of my preparation.

Initially, I was drawn to “Kaddish” because I was in love with a woman who I knew—although she didn’t yet—would become a rabbi. Debora was the first great love of my life, and part of our falling in love was sharing our fascinations with each other. For her, that was Judaica and all things Hebrew. As someone who was raised Lutheran but had always been agnostic, who was frustrated by the heavy Christian emphasis in St Olaf’s religion curriculum, who had a particular distaste for Christian dogma about faith and salvation, I was fascinated by what I learned from her. I found much to love in her perspective on Jewish practice, and on Judaism’s emphasis on ritual and practice over theology, faith, belief in the resurrection, salvation, and all those other problematic greatest hits of Christianity.

Naturally one of my big fascinations was and is music, and learning a little psalmody from this woman of beautiful voice who had learned at a young age to be a cantor from her father and her grandfathers, who had long since memorized their melodies, was intoxicating. So “Kaddish” was and is always, for me, in part a love song.

It has also been, for me, a crying out for meaning that I had never quite found in my own religious tradition. I described myself in those days as “a lapsed Lutheran secular humanist agnostic Jew-wannabe.”

I couldn’t deny my Lutheranism any more than I could deny my tall, Norwegian-German, blue-eyed, blonde-haired appearance. I had always been a part of a Lutheran community, with its endless coffees, tuna noodle casseroles, Jell-O salads, sermons, and music—oh, the music! Jews may have great psalmody, modal goodness passed down through the millenia, but Lutherans have J.S. Bach, and Beethoven, and organists, and four-part hymn-singing. (I recently mentioned to a church-organist friend that I mostly don’t believe in the church, but I believe fervently in the church music. He said he felt much the same way.)

Yet for all I might be Lutheran, I never quite believed in G-d or the Jesus mythology. I was in high school when it occurred to me that it was perhaps unusual that I’d begun doubting G-d and Jesus years before I got around to doubting Santa Claus. With my own inability to believe going way back to toddlerhood, I’ve always thought that the essential Christian doctrine of salvation by faith—that we will either go to heaven or hell based solely upon our ability to believe something inherently unbelievable—made no sense. I’ve always thought that any god worth believing in would know better than that. The Christian G-d struck me as a petty god playing foolish games.

Raised Lutheran, I was taught that I was called to a life of purpose and meaning, so I sought purpose and meaning in what was left of Lutheran thinking after you take out the bits about G-d, faith, and mythology—basically secular humanism.

I was still Lutheran enough to be hung up on theology, because all the big names in Christian thought are theologians. It’s what Lutherans do. So even after dismissing the Christian G-d, I had to figure out some other G-d I could either believe in or at least disprove. It seemed to me it was a definitional problem. The Christian G-d I’d learned about in Sunday School wasn’t worth believing in. But what about the G-d of “Jewish theology”?

I put “Jewish theology” in quotation marks because it is practically a contradiction in terms. Judaism isn’t theological; it’s not about belief in god concepts. It’s an orthopraxis; it’s an historical set of practices, rituals, traditions; and it’s potentially a rigorously intellectual exercise in struggling with sources to determine proper behavior in everything from an overarching ethical framework of human morality to the prosaic habits of daily life.

So, as such, Judaism doesn’t waste a lot of time defining G-d. The purest expression of Jewish theology opens the Sh’ma: “G-d is one.”

One? One?!

I was also a math major, and in several mathematical logic classes, we’d spent a great many weeks trying to define one-ness. Let me just say that the more you contemplate one-ness, the more uneasy you will be about thinking you can do that; define “one.” One is at once the smallest number and a huge number. An infinitude of smaller numbers (points) fills one, fills the interval between zero and one. An infinitude of numbers from 1 to huge is a meta-infinitude of one-sized infinitudes. I love it that mathematicians refer to these two different infinitudes by a Hebrew letter—”aleph nought” or ℵ0 represents the infinity between 0 and 1, “aleph one” or ℵ1 represents the infinity from minus infinity to plus infinity.

So saying “G-d is one” is also saying G-d is infinite, G-d is everything. G-d is infinitely-dimensionally, infinitely-hugely, infinitely-everythingish.

I can’t deny everything, so if that’s what G-d is, then I guess that’s something I can believe in—something I have to believe in.

Meanwhile, the idea that we should live our lives dwelling on matters of impossible faith is unsatisfying compared to a life of thoughtful practice, and the reverence I had seen in Deb’s perspective on thoughtful practice was deeply appealing.

So there you go—I’d become a lapsed Lutheran secular humanist agnostic Jew-wannabe.

Only it turns out that the last hyphenated appendage, -wannabe, might not be necessary. It turns out that both my mom and I have long suspected that the same ancestor—her mom’s mom—was, in fact, Jewish. If we’re right, which we’ll never know, then we’d both technically be Jewish ourselves, which would make me just a lapsed Lutheran secular humanist agnostic Jew.

While I refused to play religious tourist and declare myself Jewish, “Kaddish” became for me an act of observance, a way of practicing something meaningful that wasn’t fraught with spiritual contradiction.

“Kaddish” also became for me, a few weeks before my recital, a connection with my beloved teacher, Boris Rybka. In my lesson that day, I rehearsed the piece with the stagecraft I’ve described above. After the long pause at the end, when I’d resumed breathing and was awaiting his comments, I saw that he was wiping away tears. When he finally began to speak, his voice caught, and slowly he told of how a rift had developed in the family of someone important to him.

She had married a professional singer, and because he wasn’t Jewish, her family refused to have anything to do with him. They stopped just short of declaring her dead. Years passed. A close relative—I think it must have been her brother—died. She and her unacknowledged husband attended the memorial service. When it was time to say Kaddish, her gentile husband walked up to the bima and sang Kaddish. Boris was also in the shul, and he said it was one of the most beautiful things he had ever heard. Tears overwhelmed the entire family. Her parents rose, walked to the bima, and finally accepted him into the family, embracing him, shaking with emotion, wailing their apologies—expressing their love, their new loss, their long loss—begging his forgiveness.

Boris explained to me that I had brought that moment of great emotion back to him, reconnected him with a part of his past that had mattered but faded with time. He thanked me. And as I tried to regain my own composure, he began to make some small suggestions about the music.

And “Kaddish” became a mourner’s prayer for me in the days before my recital.

Deb had lived in an off-campus house at Carleton College, across the river from St Olaf, and a close friend of hers and many of the people in Farm House had just committed suicide.

I didn’t know Judy well. I had met her, briefly, months earlier. But I remembered her, unlike many others I’d met that night, because there was something about her—something in her shy smile, her coiled energy, her shadow of sadness. I couldn’t have known how much sadness filled her life, but in the days that followed her death, I learned all about it from her many grief-stricken friends.

Judy was a phenomenal athlete. She had played professional soccer on a team in Germany, where soccer is a big deal. Judy was bipolar. The treatments available at the time were somewhat effective, in that they lifted her from the depths of despair, but they were unbearable to her, because they drained her of all her energy. This incredible athlete when deprived of her energy felt like an empty shell and when deprived of her medication felt she couldn’t go on. She finally took what she concluded was the only choice, to accept neither option. She killed herself, and none of her friends even at the worst of their grief could argue with her decision. Her great sadness filled the house, it filled her friends, and it filled me.

Three days later, I played “Kaddish” on my recital. Many of those friends were in attendance. As I played, I said Kaddish for Judy. I said Kaddish for her mourners. I said Kaddish for Boris. I sang a love song for Deb. And I sang a prayer of yearning for meaning.

Later

A year later, I opened my master’s recital at Northwestern University with “Kaddish,” and I closed the recital with another prayer by Lev Kogan, “Tfila.” I wished I’d realized a year earlier that my program needed both bookends.

The recital was a Yahrtzeit of sorts. In the year that had passed, I had matured a great deal as a musician. I had also let go of my love affair with Deb. We were still close—and still in touch today—but I grieved for what she had been for me but was no longer. I was in the early throes of a new relationship I should never have begun. I had a difficult relationship with my new horn teacher, and I grieved for the closeness and trust I’d felt with Boris.

The “Kaddish” I played that spring, just after Pesach, was a different Kaddish. It was the final letting go after a year without. I had more emotional control, and I had more musical control. I was no longer telling the story of my grief but telling the story of that story—the rehearsed words, phrases, dramatic arc that you repeat when you no longer can or need to place yourself back in the reality of the pain with each telling. Kaddish had for me all the emotional content, but those emotions were at an arm’s length. My connection with the place, the makom, of the recital, was weaker. My ability to connect with my audience was weaker. My audience’s attention to the sanctity of the piece was scant.

Musically it was a stronger performance.

“Kaddish” has stayed in my repertoire, and I suppose it has aged in me.

A few years ago, I had the privilege for the first time of playing “Kaddish” for a friend and her mourners at a memorial gathering. Anna Livia had died suddenly, mysteriously, young, healthy. An autopsy and long police investigation led eventually to an inconclusive finding of natural death. Her family and friends were in shock. Anna Livia wasn’t Jewish, but her ex, their children, and many of her mourners were. And many of the mourners were not, so before I began to play, I offered an explanation of Kaddish and its place in Jewish bereavement.

As I spoke, I saw tears forming in people’s eyes, I saw faces flattening, I saw postures drooping, and I became a bit undone myself as I struggled to state simply, calmly, my thoughts about Kaddish.

I told them that Kaddish is a generic prayer that doesn’t say one damned thing that might comfort someone’s terrible loss.

So why is it the mourner’s prayer?

I offered my observation that death never makes sense and is rarely bearable, yet we must go on. And so the rituals of bereavement prescribe a way of doing that, in practical terms. You go on living, so days go on ticking by, and you mark those days by doing regular things. You also do special things, to mark the loss, like saying Kaddish in minyan regularly. This means that you haul your weary self to a place where you can find a minyan; you get out of bed, you get out of the house, you move, you speak, you are with your people.

Together, regularly, you repeat a prayer that doesn’t say one damned thing that might comfort your loss, but you keep doing it. Doing it takes time. You keep doing it over time. You repeat rituals and time passes. As time passes, your pain begins to fade, and the repetition of words that don’t say one damned thing that might comfort your loss become a comfort. And as your pain begins to fade, you yet mark your loss by repeating these words, these particular words that you repeat among a minyan in a place outside the place where your pain lives most vividly, that don’t say one damned thing to comfort your loss.

And the words comfort your loss.

I also spoke about how these words that don’t say one damned thing to comfort your terrible loss change over time. At first the words are filled with your terrible loss, and the words express the grief that rends your heart even as you rend your garment. Gradually the grief drains out of these repeated words, and you just repeat the words because you do. You tell the story of the story of grief. When the Yahrtzeit arrives you have repeated the words through the entire range of emotions, you have infused them with hundreds of engaged and preoccupied thoughts and all kinds of thoughts in between. The words that once meant nothing now mean everything, because they are infused with the memories of your entire process of healing.

At first we wail the Kaddish in despair. Eventually we mumble it dutifully. And during that year, and over our years, we come to say Kaddish in all the different ways of our beings.

And so I played “Kaddish” once more, another new way. This time for the first time, seeing pain in the faces and feeling my own, I had to struggle to calm my breathing. I struggled to quiet the quivering in my lips. I struggled to keep my knees from crumbling under me. I struggled to read the music—no longer secure in memory, especially under stress—as my contact lenses blurred with tears. For the first time, my phrasing was uneven. Certain releases were jagged. I didn’t play with the same musical control.

Many of the people in that room had kept their composure all afternoon and finally released it during the Kaddish. I had to hold my pause after the last note much longer than I ever had before, so that they could compose themselves—so that I could compose myself.

Musically this Kaddish was not as strong as other performances, but playing it felt more important. Useful.

Now

In June the second great love of my life fell to ovarian cancer. Nanc was Jewish, and our falling in love included epic discussions of thorny bits of Jewish thought. She left behind a husband and daughter.

In October, a high school buddy several years my junior, Richard, fell to intestinal cancer. He left behind a wife and twins.

In October, my wife’s therapist and as Victoria puts it, “the Jewish mother we all wish we had,” a lung cancer survivor, learned that she had multiple inoperable brain tumors. She went into hospice care the next day, and the end will be soon.

So far I can’t say Kaddish, because the words don’t say one damned thing to comfort my loss. I can’t play “Kaddish” because the notes don’t say one damned thing to comfort my loss.

Yet I must.

Answer key for the Nov 2010 ballot

Here, for the benefit of my fellow left-leaning progressive egalitarian voters in the Montclair District of Oakland, is the answer key for Tuesday’s election. For the rest of y’all, this is an opportunity to learn why you should be glad you don’t have to vote here, where democracy is not a sport for amateurs.

If I’ve made any factual errors, please correct me in the comments. If you have any insights on the issues where I’m perplexed, please enlighten me. If you’re a right-leaning regressive bigot, don’t bother to comment, because we won’t persuade each other. If you have a reasoned disagreement and are interested in respectful debate, then by all means, comment away!

We have three freaking ballots!

Holy crap! Between state offices, state measures, and local ranked-choice questions, we have not one, not two, but three tests to fill out!

Ballot the first: from Jerry Brown to “Who the heck is Katy Foulkes?”

Governor: Jerry Brown.

C’mon, folks, this one’s easy.

Governor Moonbeam did a great job thirty-some years ago when California was the land of opportunity that drew Meg Whitman to come earn her ill-gotten fortune here. And he dated Linda Ronstadt. Who can argue with his taste? Linda Ronstadt is not, by the way, Rosanne Cash.

Mayor Moonbeam did wonders for Oakland, with most of the benefits of his sensible leadership only now becoming visible to people who didn’t pay attention and thought he was an evil pro-business Republican in disguise. He’s not; he’s a sensible guy who understood that if you want scary areas to get scarier, you make them unattractive for business, and if you want scary areas to become nice, you attract businesses and make them places people would want to live.

Attorney General Moonbeam had the dignity not to defend Prop H8. In fact, he saw to it that his office gave Prop H8 the discredit it deserved.

We need Governor Moonbeam again.

And he’s my neighbor! No kidding—he lives about a mile from here, along my jogging route. Every so often, I run into him and his wife while I’m walking Kjersti the chocolate lab in Redwood Park. We exchange nods and smiles, I pretend he’s just some ordinary guy, and he pretends I’m just some ordinary woman with a ridiculously cute dog.

As for Meg Whitman, she’s got hideous politics, she made a ton of money by doing a bad job as eBay’s CEO, and she treats her domestic help as disposables, not as people. I don’t even want to have a beer with her, and I love beer.

As for the others, I imagine the Green candidate is fine, but we need Jerry to win. Don’t waste your ballot; this one’s too close for comfort. Anything but a 99-point margin over Meg is too close for comfort.

Lieutenant Governor: Gavin Newsom

I wouldn’t have voted for him for Mayor of San Francisco, either, but once he took office, he turned on his wealthy supporters and started doing the right thing all over the place. He legalized gay and lesbian marriage in San Francisco, and the pictures of crowds of happy people in love changed the conversation. For that alone, Gavin deserves some more time in politics.

Yes, he appears to be a slime-ball, but he’s our slime-ball.

Et cetera: vote for the Democrats

Unless they have such a huge lead that you can safely vote for the Greens. I’m too lazy to figure out which ones those are.

Attorney General: Kamala Harris

She’s the real thing, and she prosecutes crimes that matter instead of BS that’s good for headlines, and there are some cretins spending serious money to smear her. Don’t be fooled.

United States Senator: Barbara Boxer. Repeat, Barbara Boxer. Repeat, Barbara Boxer.

A lot of politicians who are on the right side nevertheless make a lot of weaselly votes, pander to idiots, and generally fall shockingly short of acting on even their own convictions. Not Babs. She’s one of the few who actually speak the truth and bring up the issues that matter.

Carly Fiorina has a lot in common with Meg Whitman: she was a lousy CEO, her politics are hideous, and she doesn’t treat her inferiors with respect. About all I can say in her favor is that she’s a lot better looking than Meg Whitman. I’m happy for her about the cancer thing. I wish her well, but she needs to pay a lot more taxes, and the idea of her replacing Barbara Boxer as my Senator scares the bejesus out of me.

I once performed at a Barbara Boxer benefit event, and not only did she give a great talk, but when the event was over, she and the headliner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, came right over to thank us musicians and stand with us for several pictures. That’s before either one of them shook a single wealthy hand, mind you. They said thank you. To the musicians. The hired help. The nobodies.

Class act, Barbara Boxer.

And she’s WAY shorter than you can possibly imagine, even when she’s standing in some high scary-ass heels, as she was. The mere fact that she can walk in those things should earn her your great respect.

US Representative: Barbara Lee. Barbara Lee speaks for me!

Barbara Lee was the only dissenting vote in the appalling, embarrassing, unworthy, unamerican rush to blow Iraq to hell and gone because a terrorist organization in Afghanistan attacked the United States again. She was the only person in all of Washington to say no to Dubya and Cheney’s blood lust. One person in Washington voted with integrity. It was Barbara Lee.

Member of the State Assembly: Sandré Swanson

Even though he robo-called me more than once. Haven’t we proven to ourselves enough times that not having a majority in the Assembly leads to absurd stalemates over basic things like passing budgets and writing reasonable laws?

Judicial Yes and No people: I have no clue

I have absolutely no idea how to vote on these justices. Never have. There are no reliable resources that I know of that are of any help whatsoever on figuring out who, why, or why not. The only voter guides that we pay attention to that say anything say yes for all of them. Okay, I guess.

Seriously, though, WTF? If intelligent people who are willing to put some work into this voting thing can’t figure it out, then isn’t something broken?

Update! NO on Ming Chin! NO on Ming Chin!

With a tip of the hat to Zoe for supplying this helpful link: http://www.calitics.com/diary/12705/november-2010-statewide-endorsements

Superior Court Judge, Office #9: Victoria S Kolakowski

Most of the leftie voter guides are split on this one. John Creighton appears to be decent enough. Here I go with the advice of Alice B Toklas
organization and the local Green Party Voter Guide, both of which prefer Victoria Kolakowski for a variety of reasons. She’s progressive and transgendered, and I’m all for some diversity on the court. About darned time.

Good thing she’s not a write-in candidate.

By the way, even if you’re not a Green (I’m not, although I wish I could be), their voter guides are considerably more helpful than most. They actually explain their endorsements and supply facts that are helpful for weighing the fuzzier matters.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction: Yech

Even the Greens can’t figure this one out. They’re both pretty lame. Torlakson seems slightly less awful; at least he doesn’t harp on and on about test scores.

AC Transit District Director, At-Large: Joel Young

Thanks, Greens.

EBMUD Director, Ward 3: Katy Foulkes

Thanks, Greens. She’s decent on ecology and lousy on labor. She’s also unopposed. I guess we might as well vote for her.

Ballot the second: from legalizing marijuana to funding for the Oakland Police Department

Fasten your seatbelts. The propositions are where democracy is at its most challenging in California. Holy crap, I hate our so-called voter initiative process. Let’s face it, most of the propositions are so poorly worded that it’s hard to figure out how to vote even after you’ve figured out how you feel about the issue. Most of them address things our Assembly is too wimpy to do, more badly than even the Assembly could manage to do them. Most of them are heavily funded by massive corporations who do not have the needs of California citizens in mind.

So, my first rule is always: when in doubt, not just no, but hell no.

Now let’s struggle through each one of them.

Proposition 19 Legalize marijuana: yes

No, I’ve never smoked it myself, and the way the smell makes me want to hurl, that’s unlikely to change any time soon. I know some people who’ve messed themselves up pretty badly with the stuff, too, and lots more who haven’t, but here’s why I’m voting yes: because it’s time to stop wasting resources on treating its personal use, cultivation, and purchase as a crime.

Prohibition was a lousy idea, and it didn’t work either.

Proposition 20 Redistricting: No

I know, it seems like a good idea when you read it, but look who’s supporting it: big business. Who’s opposed? Everyone from the ACLU on down. That’s all I need to know.

Proposition 21 State park vehicle fees: Yes

It’s a flat tax, which is generally regressive, but the Greens make a good argument for why to vote yes, anyway. Short answer: the parks need money, and it ain’t coming from the Assembly.

Proposition 22 Confusing jibber jabber about moving money around: No

As theballot.org puts it, “Complicated & suspicious way to prevent state borrowing from local agencies.” The good guys all say no, the bad guys all say yes. This is a great example of “When in doubt, no.” Lots of propositions are just plain bad ideas, written as badly as possible so as to confuse people into supporting something they’d never in their right minds agree with.

Proposition 23 Postponing planetary health: No

Why on earth would anyone in their right minds postpone enforcing the environmental protection laws that aren’t strong enough in the first place? Because big bidness told them it had something to do with why they don’t have jobs, of course! Bullshit. Not just no, hell no.

Proposition 24 Repeal some tax loopholes: Yes

This one is basically about getting big bidness to pay more taxes by ditching some ridiculous loopholes. A rare example of a proposition we need. Not just yes, hell yes.

Proposition 25 Drop the supermajority budget thing: Yes

California can’t pass anything to do with budgets without a two-thirds majority, which basically means it can’t get anything done. When do the good guys ever have a 2/3 majority? That’s right. It’s a stupid, stupid, stupid law, and it’s time for it to die. Not just yes, hell yes.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a great proposition, but it’s a start.

Proposition 26 Create a new supermajority budget thing: No

See above under Proposition 25. The supermajority budget thing we already have is a disaster. The last thing we need is yet another supermajority budget thing. Not just no, hell no.

Proposition 27 Undo bogus redistricting scheme: Yes

This one goes with Proposition 20 but gets it right. It’s not perfect, but the Governator’s bogus system is a pile of crap. As theballot.org puts it, “Eliminates that sketchy redistricting commission (see Prop 20).” Barbara Lee says yes, as do most but not all of the good guys.

Oh, boy! There’s more! It’s county, school, and city stuff!

Measure F Paying $10 more to improve Alameda transportation: Oh, OK, I guess so.

Measure L Paying $195 more to do something about the embarrassment that is the Oakland school system: Yes, unfortunately

Measure V Raising taxes on medical marijuana. Sure!

Raise almost a million bucks? Yeah, sounds good to me.

Measure W Paying $15 more a month to keep Oakland from breaking off and sliding into the Pacific Ocean. Well, okay.

This is another sucky flat tax that hurts poor people far more than wealthy people, but we do sort of need to keep the lights on somehow.

Measure X Paying $360 more to do something about crime or something. Uh-uh. No. Hell no.

Uh-uh. This is another bogus “scare the people into passing yet another regressive tax measure that hurts poor people and lets rich people off easy by reminding them that their city is full of black people and implying that somehow this will do something to pay for more police somehow without actually doing so” measure. No. Hell no. And, no.

Sandré Swanson says he’s for this one. Seems like a good reason to look forward to Rebecca Kaplan filling his seat in a few years to me.

Measure BB Something about police something something. Yes.

I can’t for the life of me figure out what this one means. I can’t even figure out what the Greens say it means. I’m tired after doing the first, third, and all but this question on the second test. I can’t take it anymore. The Greens say yes and I’m leaving it at that.

Ballot the third: from Don Perata to “Who the heck is Gary Yee?”

Oakland Mayor: not Don Perata

That’s the most important thing. Yes, he’s got lots of name recognition, because he’s under investigation for corruption and he’s been a famously lousy politician for freaking ever. Even by Chicago standards, he’s too corrupt to elect to anything else.

After that, this one’s hard for me. Ranked-choice voting is a good thing here, because it means we actually get to vote the way we want, not the way we feel we have to. So for me it’s the Green guy first, Don Macleay, because he’s actually a smart guy with good ideas. What a concept!

Second, I go with Jean Quan. She’s earnest and basically on the right side of most things, but I also think she’s prone to some wimpiness for the sake of gathering votes, and she does lots of smarmy crap that makes it embarrassing to support her. Still, she’s decent, she’s on the right side of most of the most important issues, she’s kept her staffers busy doing good stuff for Oakland and its citizens, and she’s a credible candidate. Second choice.

My reluctant third is Rebecca Kaplan. I want to like her a lot more than I do. She’s smart, Jewish, feminist, lesbian, left, progressive, and lots of other good stuff. But she’s gotten a lot of criticism for temperamental behavior, which isn’t generally a recipe for effective leadership, and she’s got her sights on higher office; this run for mayor is widely seen as a grab for attention just to up her name recognition for the Assembly position when Sandré Swanson terms out. I think she’d probably push more issues that I care about than Jean Quan, but I think Jean Quan would get more stuff done. Let’s go with Jean for the executive position that needs to get stuff done, and let’s look forward to voting in a few years for a scrappy rabble-rouser to join the Assembly that desperately needs them. Yes, here it is, my 2013 endorsement of Rebecca Kaplan for State Assembly. She’ll be awesome there. She’d probably be a pretty good mayor, too. I won’t be upset if she wins.

Either one of them would be fine and a heck of a lot better than Don Perata. Did I mention that he’s under investigation for corruption?

Update: You know, let’s switch 2 and 3. I like Kaplan better. I just do. And see the comments below.

Member of City Council, District 4

My wife did the work on this one, and here are the answers according to her survey of the endorsements.

First, Libby Schaaf, because she worked for Jerry Brown, he supports her, and all the good guys endorse her. Second, Jill Broadhurst, because she’s a mensch and has started lots of good stuff. Third, Clinton Killian, because he’s the smart black dude who went to Stanford and UC-B Law School and he walked Montclair.

Just writing down what she says here, folks. My wife’s smart; you best listen.

Uh-oh. We’ve got an update—she says maybe it should be Daniel Swafford instead of Clinton Killian. Swafford does look good.

City Auditor: Courtney Ruby

She’s the incumbent and has been doing a great job. No second or third choice.

School Director, District 4: Benjamin Visnick

Thanks, Greens. No second or third choice.

Mandelbrot and music: on listening in fractal dimensions

[This is a cross-post from my business blog, Global Pragmatism. I posted it there because of all the math-geek tie-ins, but since it’s about music, it belongs here, too.]

Benoit Mandelbrot died this month. He was the guy who came up with fractal theory, which led to all those gorgeous computer graphics like this one:

A Mandelbrot set

Last week, my friend and contradance bandmate Tina Fields wrote an essay about Mandelbrot’s ideas on her blog, Indigenize! I found it quite thought-provoking, and it surprised me how much I learned from her post, since I’m the one with the math degree. My next surprise was how Tina’s thoughts on this mathematician inspired me to think about listening to music.

This essay is in response to ideas she raises in her essay, so go read hers first and then come back here!

First I’d like to amplify her comment about coastlines by quoting this passage from Mandelbrot’s obituary in the New York Times, about how coastlines played a role in the genesis of his theory:

Dr. Mandelbrot traced his work on fractals to a question he first encountered as a young researcher: how long is the coast of Britain? The answer, he was surprised to discover, depends on how closely one looks. On a map an island may appear smooth, but zooming in will reveal jagged edges that add up to a longer coast. Zooming in further will reveal even more coastline.

“Here is a question, a staple of grade-school geometry that, if you think about it, is impossible,” Dr. Mandelbrot told The New York Times earlier this year in an interview. “The length of the coastline, in a sense, is infinite.”

In the 1950s, Dr. Mandelbrot proposed a simple but radical way to quantify the crookedness of such an object by assigning it a “fractal dimension,” an insight that has proved useful well beyond the field of cartography.

To me, that’s the real genius of his discovery—viewing scale as a dimension. If we measure the coastline or the surface of the broccoli from a mile away we get a much different answer than if we measure it from close up and far different still if we measure under a microscope.

So what is scale, really, but a matter of perspective?

Let’s consider the metaphorical potential: if perspective is a dimension, how does it change the way we view truth about our world? You have some truth, I have some truth, and the differences are not necessarily contradictions but spectral variations along the perspective dimension.

Tina’s big gift to me in her essay isn’t so much her point about Mandelbrot’s focus on verbs rather than nouns, although I enjoy that, too, but her encouraging us to think about new things fractally. The first thing that comes to my mind is Beethoven. (Perhaps I should explain that besides working in statistical software and facilitative leadership, I’m also a professional horn player and hold degrees in music performance and music history.)

Beethoven leads my pantheon, and here’s a bit on why: his compositional technique is extraordinary, and the more you know about musical composition and performance, the more you hear in his work. In addition to doing all the usual classical things—the usual structural designs (four-movement symphonic architecture with movements in sonata, menuet or scherzo, sonata-rondo, etc. forms, linked in a progression of related tonalities, yada yada Haydn, blabbety-blabbety Mozart, blah blah Bach), German-Italianate phrases, symphonic devices of his environment and era—he throws in a few more tricks all his own, chief among them his idea of motivic development.

His every melodic gesture is built up from the smallest motives, e.g. his Fifth Symphony‘s four-note “ba-ba-ba-BOM!” opening. That simple four-note figure is sequenced, layered, mutated, and warped all throughout the first movement, each phrase a new assemblage of basic building blocks, each harmonic gesture arising out of layers and layers of sequences of this tiny musical block and several others.

Here’s an mp3 of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony if you’d like to remind yourself how it goes, but I’d recommend buying yourself a great recording if you don’t already have one. There are many excellent options; one I’d particularly recommend is Bernstein’s with the New York Philharmonic, on an album that also features Bernstein and orchestra members discussing the symphony. They do a much more eloquent job than I will here of bringing the symphony to life.

All the composers of Beethoven’s time (and throughout most of history, with differing vocabularies, of course) have adhered to various conventions from the largest possible scale (the arc of their developmental style through their lifetimes) down through the structure of each opus, each movement within, etc., down to the smallest-scale assumptions about harmonic structure, idiomatic styles of individual instruments, and so forth, but Beethoven brings it all to a whole new level, honoring all those formal rules while also constructing everything both melodically and harmonically, both vertically and horizontally in each case, out of these tiniest of musical blocks.

(We later see Wagner up Beethoven’s ante with his Romantic adaptation, the leitmotiv, where each character, event, place, and even philosophical concept is represented by its own fragment of musical DNA, all these leitmotivs swirling in a pan-theatrical operatic swamp of continuous through-composition, rejecting while also embracing formal conventions in a megalomaniacal Gesamtkunstwerk.)

Struggling valiantly now to pull back from this tangent to return to fractal theory, I might suggest that we appreciate Beethoven and indeed all music along fractal dimensions. For many, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is, simply, its opening four notes and the loud romp to follow. The scale of observation is large; the perspective is simple. “Fun music!”

Indeed, who wouldn’t appreciate it on such simple terms? When I was hospitalized with pneumonia as a second grader, my parents brought me the best of all possible get-well presents: a portable cassette deck, including a cassette of the first movement of my favorite symphony, which dad had recorded by sitting next to the phonograph (mono, of course) holding the mic near the cabinet speakers while the needle rode its groove. I listened to that tape over and over during my several weeks of long days alone in a hospital room. I’m not sure what I heard, exactly, but I know that by the time I was discharged, I could have sung the whole movement. (I wish he’d recorded the whole symphony for me, because I’l never know the rest of it nearly as well.)

As I’ve developed as a musician, I’ve lost touch with how I used to hear music. I often wonder what normal people hear, and I like to ask people to tell me why they like certain music or what they noticed in a concert.I know that I used to hear the pretty music, and while I can tell you to the minute when it all changed, I can’t for the life of me remember what I used to hear.

It changed the summer after eighth grade. I was at orchestra camp, sitting in a muggy auditorium on a hot summer night, and probably intoxicated by the pheromones of my new friends. We listened to a piano quartet recital. First I noticed that I was hearing a group whose intonation was so tight, they made the freshly, expertly-tuned Steinway sound out of tune. All pianos are out of tune, but it was the first time I heard it for myself. Then I realized I was hearing four virtuosi playing the crap out of their instruments as both individuals and as a collective.

Then my trumpeter friend leaned over and said, “You know, we’re never going to hear music like normal people again,” and for only a moment I wondered what he meant. I spent the rest of the concert hearing, seeing, feeling the compositional structure, the interplay of themes, the exploration of key areas, the work of the individuals and their ensemble, and on and on. The only limits to the depth of scale in my listening were my musical intelligence and attention span.

That night was my awakening as a listener. In the decades that followed, my musical intelligence has evolved tremendously, but I still find that the richness of what I hear is limited only by my abilities and attention span.

So, locating my metaphor in the area of musical perception, I might suggest that our listening has a fractal dimension. Anyone can hear the sounds. But our perspective—the granularity of our musical knowledge and the intensity of our focus—determines in how large a range along the fractal dimension we perceive the music; how much we hear of the infinite possibilities depends on how large or small is the scale of our listening.

How do you hear?

As I said, I’ve long since forgotten how I used to hear music. How do you hear music? What do you hear in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? Do you have any musical training? How does this affect your listening (or not)? I’d love your answers, reactions, ideas—please comment!

Tuna noodle hotdish

My recent Multilingual column mentioned tuna noodle hotdish. For those readers who aren’t familiar with this snowbelt classic, here’s a recipe.

This is an old standard for Norwegian-Lutherans in the USA snowbelt—it’s what we make when our neighbor’s recovering from surgery, or when a friend has just had a death in the family, or when we need to bring something for the church potluck, or if it’s a cold night and we’re hungry.

It’s not a fancy recipe—and that’s the whole point. It’s cheap, easy comfort food.

  • one can of tuna
  • one 12 oz bag of egg noodles
  • one can of cream of mushroom soup
  • a few slices of Velveeta
  • salt
  • pepper
  • oregano
  • potato chips

Prepare one package of egg noodles in boiling, salted water according to directions on the bag. Drain. Add tuna, cream of mushroom soup concentrate, about half a soup can of water, Velveeta, salt and pepper, and oregano. Stir, return to heat, and heat through. Correct seasonings. Top with crumbled potato chips. Serve with kosher dills, preferably made from your gramma’s recipe.

Variation: instead of heating on stovetop, top with potato chips and heat in oven-proof casserole at 350˚F for about 30 minutes.

Nano-opera: Evgeny Onegin

Pride and Prejudicesky.

Nano-opera: Gounod’s Faust

In Act I, a geezer wants to off himself because he’s a geezer. Handsome bass devil who sings better and is several feet taller talks him into sticking around, exchanging youth for some dubious duties later on. Spotting a beautiful, young woman who is actually just a soprano and neither of those things, he agrees, drinks a potion and becomes a handsome, young man who’s actually just a tenor and neither of those things. The soprano’s brother sings goodbye for a long time before marching off to war. A crowd has formed so that the devil has an excuse to sing some more, the crowds get revenge by bursting into singing of their own, and finally our unhandsome tenor fails to woo our unbeautiful soprano.

Before Act II, the audience members adjourn to Pauline’s for pizza and beer.

Nano-opera: Die Walküre

(If I’m any good at this, it will be obvious that my nano-operas owe a great debt to Anna Russell. There’s no point trying to outdo Dame Russell’s great analysis of the Ring of the Nibelungen, which you must immediately view here, here, and here if you haven’t already. My own humble effort here is just a summary of the recent San Francisco Opera production of the second episode of Wagner’s famous soap opera about gang warfare and a dysfunctional family.)
In Act I, twins separated at birth find each other in a forest, but the female twin’s husband doesn’t take kindly to sheltering the guy who’d done in a bunch of his gang before the opera and suggests they take it outside the next morning. Said guy is weaponless and figures he’s a goner, but then he falls in love with his twin sister, they pull a magical sword out of a tree, and it’s not looking good for hubby.
Between acts, the twins do the nasty.
In Act II, Al Gore is wearing a pirate-style eye patch and flirting with his daughter from Security in the penthouse boardroom while instructing her to help his son kills his twin sister’s hubby so that junior can get busy saving Valhalla Inc. Daughter’s all over it, until Tipper arrives and asks, “WTF, Al? Incest and infidelity between the kids? I don’t think so. Junior’s got to go.” We can tell she’s pissed, because she doesn’t even bring up the thing about the masseuse. We can tell Al’s worried about an expensive divorce, because he doesn’t even bring up the thing about global warming. He makes nice with Tipper and calls off the hit-daughter, explaining he made a bad deal a couple operas ago and Valhalla might be going belly up—something about a ring, some giants he’d contracted to build a subdivision until one of them got killed and the other became a dragon, and a lot of nonsense about needing to hire a whiz kid he doesn’t know to save Valhalla, without getting HR involved or anybody writing a job description. Daughter’s not buying it, though, so she belays Al’s belay. Al’s stuck doing his own dirty work, so he whacks Junior’s magical sword with a spear, then whacks the ungrateful hubby while Daughter makes off with other daughter.
In Act III, still more of Al’s daughters are staffing up Security for Valhalla Inc. Daughter stops by with other daughter, now preggers from that quickie between acts, hears Al’s still pissed, and sends her preggo sister off to play with her broken sword in the dragon’s ‘hood. Al reads her the riot act, fires her, and gives her a heavy-duty date-rape drug. She whines about the unfairness of it all, so on his way out he staffs out setting a ring of fire around her to protect her until her nephew’s old enough to leave dragonville and come rape her.

In praise of neti pots

A few years ago, after seeing a character in Six Feet Under use a neti pot, I mumbled something to my wife about having always been curious to try a neti pot. A few days later, she brought one home from the store for me, and I’ve been a neti pot fanatic ever since.

I’ve spent my entire life dealing with various hay fever-like symptoms, just like my mom, brother, grandfather, and numerous other relatives. Since it was normal in my family, I thought my way of life was universal, but it turns out that normal people do not, in fact, always have at least one Kleenex in their pockets at all times. I was in college before I realized that some families don’t even buy Kleenexes unless someone has a cold. Everyone in my family keeps a box of Kleenex in nearly every room of the house!

Apparently it’s also not normal to wake up in the morning so congested that you can’t wait to take a shower, because that’s where you keep your neti pot, and after using your neti pot in the shower, your nose is cleared out enough that you can breathe through it again.

I’ve never been sure why I’m so full of snot, exactly. I was treated for allergies during my teen years by several allergists whose methods are scoffed at now, and allergists I’ve seen since then have all told me I have no allergies. The last one I saw told me I have “non-allergic” or “mechanical rhinitis,” which basically means that my body reacts to just about any foreign body as if allergic to it, indiscriminately. So, I’m not actually allergic to dust, molds, mites, tobacco, smoke, smog, pollen, dander, or any of the other hundred typical allergens that they tested me for, but my system freaks out and puts on an allergy party for all of them anyway. The basic hay-fever symptom is for your immune system to detect an allergen, trap it with mucus, and evacuate it. My system does that, and how exactly this is different from actually having allergies to all those things is beyond me. One difference seems to be that if these were actual allergies, then somebody would have a clue how to help me.

It wouldn’t be that big a deal if my system would evacuate mucus efficiently, like it’s supposed to, but it doesn’t. Apparently there are several reasons for this. One, rhinitis patients’ snot is thicker than normal, so it gets stuck. Two, there’s more of it, so the body gets behind in clearing.

Three, until last week I had a deviated septum. The septum is the thin bone that divides right nostril from left. It’s a tongue-and-groove kind of thing, and mine had gotten derailed from its groove so that the front tip was off the rails toward the left, and the back end was off the rails toward the right. It was basically diagonal, which is why my nose has always looked a little curved if you looked closely. My ENT knocked it back into the groove and then shaved it down on one side until it was even. This is bones we’re talking about, people. Mine were seriously out of whack. They’ve been that way since 1994—therein lies a story.

I was walking from the Dempster train station to my apartment by the lake in Evanston, IL. I was coming from a gig downtown and had my (heavy) horn backpack on, and I was hurrying home to eat and change for a gig I had to drive to, so I was pitched forward and walking fast. As I walked past a coffee shop (Café Express, which most of us nicknamed “Café Repressed”), I kept walking fast but turned to look in the window to see if anyone I knew was there. Another pedestrian, also moving fast but toward me, was doing the same thing. We slammed into each other, the right side of my nose striking her left cheekbone. We hit so hard we both fell backwards. We helped each other up, made sure we were both okay, exchanged apologies, felt stupid, and continued on our ways.

My nose hurt like hell and soon I had a pounding headache. While eating my hurried dinner, I tried to remember what the checklist for concussion was and concluded that if I was coherent enough to be working on that problem, I was probably okay, although my head pounded, my vision was blurry for a while, and my cognitive functioning was off kilter. I drove to the gig, navigating Chicago and operating my vehicle successfully but was completely unable to comprehend “All Things Considered” no matter how hard I tried to focus on it.

I got through the gig somehow, and by the time I drove home, I was better able to understand the radio.

Remembering (I thought) something about not taking pain meds or sleeping when you have a concussion, I held off as long as I could on both but finally gave up and did both. I spent most of the weekend with a headache, and my nose was sore and creaky, but I seemed to be okay, so I made a non-urgent appointment to see my regular doctor that Thursday.

By the time I got to my doctor on Thursday, something else had come up that took over the visit (boring story) and it was literally as an afterthought that I said, “Oh! The reason I came here in the first place was…” and then I told the tale of my nose injury. She checked it out, confirmed that my nose was creaky (gosh, thanks!), and said she just saw a little swelling but that it was nothing to worry about.

And now I know–it was creaky because I’d banged it off the rails and made it diagonal! Sheesh! (In my 1994 internist’s defense, my ENT didn’t realize it was deviated until he saw a sinus CT, and I got the impression in talking with him about it after the surgery that he didn’t even know the details of how it was deviated until he was performing the surgery, but I could be mistaken about that.)

Four, until last week, I had oversized turbinates. Turbinates are bones on either side of the nose covered with fleshy material, and they function as humidifiers. Mine were too big, which meant they were narrowing the passages that are supposed to handle drainage. In March my ENT had done a less invasive procedure (zapping them with a small RF probe) to reduce them, which had helped but not enough. This time he used sharp tools to cut them down to size, and on the right side he actually had to shave down the bone, which apparently was way too large–just bad genetics there.

Once I’ve finished recovering from all that, my nose should work much better. I’m looking forward to it!

Anyway, back to the neti pot…

A few tangents and years ago, my wife had bought me a neti pot. She’d gotten me one of these little guys at her favorite hippie-dippy pharmacy in Berkeley: http://www.healthandyoga.com/images/progalleryimg/neti1.jpg

I procrastinated figuring out how to use it for several weeks. Like most people, I was afraid. I’ve had those awful swimming pool experiences that make you dread getting water up your nose.

Then one morning, I heard a story on Morning Edition about neti pots and decided to get over my bad self. I googled up some video demonstrations like this one and then got to work. Five minutes later I was triumphant but unimpressed. It wasn’t that bad, and I did get some crud out of my system, but it didn’t feel revelatory.

About an hour later, though, I could feel things unplugging, and gradually everything opened up like never before. My voice even sounded different. It was great.

A few days later, I left on a business trip to Tokyo, and to save luggage space, I decided not to bring my new neti pot along. What a mistake! I’d forgotten that the Great Dust Cloud of China hasn’t been very good about staying inside China’s borders. I spent the entire week in Japan looking for neti pots or anything else that could possibly work as a temporary neti pot. Toward the end of our visit, my colleagues and friends Trish and Katja and I visited Kappabashi Market, a neighborhood famous for its restaurant supply stores. All three of us dropped far too many yen at a particularly nice ceramics store, and my browsing was considerably slowed down by my quest to find a small teapot or soy sauce pot or some other kind of pot whose spout would have the right fit for my nostrils—without actually testing the spouts on my nostrils, of course. I did not succeed. I also was unable to find a bottle of water with a sport top, something I’d seen pressed into emergency neti pot stand-in duty on somebody’s blog. Nor did I successfully purchase plain old salt, mistakenly thinking it was called “aji no moto,” which is actually MSG. Oops. (Fortunately I figured that out when I got back to my hotel room and tasted it before attempting to use it in my nose.) Nor, in short, did I figure out any other strategy during my visit. I made many puddles on my hotel bathroom’s counter trying, though.

When I got back home to Oakland, I had one whole day to unpack, do laundry, and repack for the next business trip—to China. My wife and mom were coming along on that trip, and Mom actually flew into SFO from Montana the same day I did from Tokyo. On our day-in-between, I told Mom all about my neti pot and how much I’d missed it. She was curious (you might recall from about a page ago that I inherited my useless nose from her), so I gave her a demo, and then she tried it herself. She was impressed right away, so later that day, she insisted we visit Victoria’s hippie-dippy pharmacy. She bought several extras to give to other members of our phlegm-plagued family.

I also told Mom about how the Great Dust Cloud of China and its awful pollution meant we’d definitely want our neti pots along. We did not regret allocating luggage space to them, and anyone who saw the heinous black crud that came out of my nose twice a day would need no further persuasion to buy themselves a neti pot before visiting China. We coudn’t persuade Victoria to give it a try, though—early in our visit, she’d tripped on an unexpected curbstone and broken her shoulder while trying to stop her fall, and that pain had her full attention.

It wasn’t long before I decided to upgrade to a larger stainless steel neti pot, which is what I strongly recommend. A number of my family and friends got these for Christmas last year. I like this kind better because:

  • I’m a klutz. It was only a matter of time before I would drop and break the ceramic one.
  • I travel a lot, and fragile stuff in luggage breaks sooner or later.
  • It’s a lot larger. I needed to measure and mix salt four times with the other kind to complete my routine, and I can get it all done with one batch in this one.
  • Its shape is convenient. With a little effort, you can find a nonbreakable container that will hold several weeks’ worth of salt and fit inside the neti pot for compact packing.

About a year ago, Victoria finally got on the neti pot bandwagon. She’d bought herself one but kept refusing to try it, but sooner or later she decided that if Mom could do it, so could she. Also, her internist recommended trying it, and later her internist recommended using it twice a day if once a day was helping but she was still having trouble. It’s now a part of her morning shower routine. She says, “I like it! And I have to say, I like the big stainless steel pot that you got me much better than the little plastic jobber I started with. It fits well, and you can get a lot of salt water in it. It’s a good tool!”

So how do you get started?

  1. If you’re not convinced yet, read why this is such a good idea at WebMD or the New York Times.
  2. Buy, borrow, or steal a large stainless steel neti pot.
  3. Buy, borrow, or steal the biggest nonbreakable container you can that will fit inside it. I use the container some chocolates I bought in Korea came in. It’s perfect!
  4. Fill that container with kosher salt or uniodized sea salt. I use Diamond brand kosher salt because that’s what Barbara Tropp used, may she rest in peace. (Other blog posts will harangue you on why you should throw away your other salt and start using kosher salt in the kitchen.)
  5. Optionally add some baking soda to your salt and shake it up. Supposedly baking soda gives your nasal passages a bacteria-hostile pH. Mom adds just a spoonful to her salt container, but a little googling reveals that other people believe in a one-to-one mixture of baking soda and salt. I’ve just begun trying Mom’s method after years of using just kosher salt, and I haven’t formed any opinions yet.
  6. Find a cheap teaspoon or 5ml measuring spoon and do a Uri Geller number on it so it’ll fit inside your neti pot, too. I find that a heaping tablespoon per pot is about right for me, and too much salt is far better than too little, but decide for yourself.
  7. Keep all this stuff in or near your shower. Shower-temperature water is perfect, and if you do your neti routine in the shower, you don’t have to worry about dribbling on your clothes or needing to rinse yourself or the sink.
  8. Read and watch how to do it.
  9. Give it a try. You will not die. It’s not even uncomfortable.
  10. After you’ve been successful for a few days with the basic technique, learn how to do “jala neti stage 2” and give that a try. If you suffer from postnasal drip, this is awesome. I typically do a quarter pot stage 1 for each nostril then do a quarter pot stage 2 for each nostril.

If it hurts, then you’re doing it wrong

If it’s the least bit uncomfortable, you’re doing something wrong:

  • Stinging: the salt level isn’t right. Either too much or too little is bad, but if you ask me too little is worse than too much. Get in a habit of tasting your water before you use it each time, and you’ll quickly develop a sense of the optimal salt level for you. It should taste pretty salty—about like your tears.
  • Aching: the temperature isn’t right. It’s probably too cool. A lot of people recommend body temperature or room temperature, but I like it warmer than that. To me, my regular shower water temperature is perfect.
  • Burning: the temperature is too hot.

Keep it simple

You can buy special salts and pre-mixed packets of salt and all kinds of other crap, but don’t bother. You’re just making things fussier and more expensive for yourself.

You can also buy various neti pot “solutions,” where you’re typically supposed to add an eyedropper full to your salt water. Don’t bother. I tried one that was recommended for sinus infections—some kind of homeopathic or herbal junk, but I can’t remember the details—and it actually made things worse for me.

Have you tried using a neti pot?

I’d love to hear about your experiences. Leave me a comment!

An original cocktail: Montmartre

Montmartre is a hill (the butte Montmartre) which is 130 meters high, giving its name to the surrounding district, in the north of Paris in the 18th arrondissement, a part of the Right Bank. [Wikipedia]

A few years ago I was staring at the lovely bottle creme de cassis in our liquor cabinet I’d hand-carried home from Paris and thinking what a shame it is that I don’t like Kir Royales all that much.

Kir Royales (Kirs Royale?) are fine. It’s just that if the Champagne or sparkling wine is good enough, I don’t want to ruin it with sweet black currant flavors, and if it isn’t good enough, sweet black currant flavors aren’t going to help much. Another worthy option is to use it in a Rouge Gorge–add a dollop of creme de cassis to a glass of red table wine that needs some help. But here again, same problem.

I decided it was time to develop a new cocktail that would take the creme de cassis out of the back of the cabinet and put it on proud display. My starting point was a sweet Manhattan: bourbon, sweet red vermouth, Angostura bitters (or as our friend Jane calls them, “Agnostic bitters”), and a maraschino cherry. A lovely drink.

My concept was to substitute creme de cassis for the sweet red vermouth, but the combination of sticky cassis and sweet bourbon is just too much–I knew that without needing to taste it. My solution: rye! An under-appreciated cousin of bourbon, rye is basically the same stuff, but it’s made with a bigger proportion of rye than corn or other grains. If you don’t like members of the brown liquor family, you’ll think rye tastes the same as bourbon, but if you do like them and are paying attention, rye has a much brighter taste. The perfect foil for cloying cassis, I thought.

I kept the dash of Agnostic bitters, and I added a dash of West Indian Orange Bitters, again for brightness in contrast to the cassis.

But now the dilemma: what to do about the maraschino cherry? In early versions of the Montmartre, I attempted to keep them, but they’re a hideous color, and they taste as artificial as they look. They were horribly outclassed by the cassis.

I tried a few variations on the citrus theme, but they were all too bright, losing the specialness of the cassis and burying the subtle brightness of the rye.

Eventually I hit upon the ideal garnish: sour cherries. Whole Foods sells a brand called Zergütt that are, despite the name, pretty good. However, their syrup is too sweet and thick. My solution? Pour off about half the syrup (save it for Old Fashioneds–trust me on this), replace it with rye, and stick it back in the fridge for at least a few days. Use a splash of this rye/juice in the cocktail, too.

So here it is, the final draft. This has become a favorite at our house and also at our friend Jane’s house. Jane’s much better about writing things down, so every so often when I forget a detail on one of my cocktails, I call her to ask. With thanks to Jane for her service as cocktail archivist, here is:

Montmartre

  1. Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with crushed ice.
  2. Add an 8-to-1 ratio of rye whiskey and creme de cassis, i.e. 4 shots rye to 1/2 shot cassis. If you like your drinks sweeter, go 4-to-1.
  3. Add a dash each of Angostura bitters and West Indian Orange Bitters.
  4. Garnish martini glasses with three sour cherries soaked in half the syrup and half rye.
  5. Splash a little of the rye/syrup from the cherries into the cocktail shaker.
  6. Shake well and strain into the cocktail glasses.
Notes:

Blood Orange bitters or Regan’s Orange Bitters are worthy substitutes for the West Indian Orange Bitters, but there is no substitute for the Angostura Bitters, which are essential.

Many people would tell you cocktails should be mixed with large, hard, super-cold cubes of ice. They are right in many cases. Harder, larger, colder ice gives you a colder cocktail with less water diluting the spirits. However, some drinks benefit from some ice-melt, and in my opinion, the Manhattan family and the martini family are two such categories. Both gin and whisky can keep their flavors buttoned-up, and adding a small amount of water unbuttons their shirts and reveals glorious cleavage and alluring scents.

“Bruising” is the term some people use, and although it sounds pejorative, bruising is in some cases exactly what the liquor needs. When you add a few drops of water to the room-temperature spirit and you see oily swirling reactions taking place, what’s happening is that certain oils and esters are being disturbed, releasing their aromas (thus flavors) to your noise and tongue. Scotch whisky afficionados intentionally add a very few drops of “branch water” to their single malts for this very reason.

For the Montmartre in particular, using crushed ice accomplishes several things: it increases the surface area of ice available to the liquid, thus cooling it faster or further; it increases the melting and dilution, thinning the potentially goopy texture of the creme de cassis; and it reveals the subtle flavor dimensions of the rye whiskey.

Santé!

A Bloody Mary recipe for people who think they don’t like them

Here, by popular demand, is my recipe for a Bloody Mary that even Bloody Mary-haters are likely to like. I should know, because I was one of them. I thought the Bloody Mary was a pretty disgusting drink, but I had friends and for a time a partner who liked them, so I tried to accommodate their requests but also create something I could enjoy with them. I succeeded a little too well–now I crave them myself from time to time, I’m disappointed when other people’s still suck, and I end up having to recreate my recipe for a lot of people. Some people have described this is an alcoholic cold tomato soup or a pureed gazpacho with a kick, and those are pretty valid descriptions.

My usual recipe caveat: I don’t use or write recipes. I have a vague method that changes a bit each time, and I’m probably forgetting a few things. I’ll try to post corrections if I figure out what, and please feel free to raise your concerns in this regard in the Comments section below!
The most important thing is to recognize that a Bloody Mary is not V8 with vodka in it. It’s also not Mr & Mrs T’s with vodka in it. It’s spicy tomato juice with a whole bunch of good stuff and gin in it. Trust me on this–if you do your research, you will learn that the traditional Bloody Mary is made with a London Dry-style gin, not vodka–that’s a later variation, same as martinis.
Now, I suppose you could start with V8 if you happen to like it, but I happen to hate it–the carrot flavor is way too dominant for me. Yuck. I start with a quart jar of spicy tomato juice, and a brand that I’ve found to be pretty good is Knudsen’s. There are others, I’m sure, and Spicy V8 is a reasonable choice if you do actually like V8. Whatever you get, taste it before you start, so that you have a sense of how salty and spicy it is already and you can adjust the rest of the process according to your taste.
Next, an essential, traditional ingredient is–believe it or not–beef stock. Yes, indeed. Sorry, but this is not a drink for vegetarians. You could experiment with vegetable stocks, or maybe a good dashi without the miso, though; the goal is an umami (savory, meaty) flavor, and for my money, beef stock is where it’s at. I like Farmer Brothers “Special Soup Base Beef Flavor,” which comes as a glossy brown goo in ginormous tubs and has a lot less MSG than most options. I take a heaping tablespoon of that goop and mix it in a 2Q mixing bowl with just enough almost-boiling water to dissolve it, no more–say, 3-4 tablespoons.
(The plan here is to mix up a one quart batch of Bloody Mary base that you’ll store in your refrigerator. To serve, you’ll shake some of it with booze in a cocktail shaker.)
To this I add several hefty squirts of every kind of Tabasco sauce and similar product that I can find in our refrigerator. Currently we have:
  • red Tabasco
  • green Tabasco
  • chipotle Tabasco
  • Frontera Grill Red Pepper Hot Sauce
  • Cholula Hot Sauce
I’d be happier with a few more. Now add:
  • several cloves of garlic, crushed (and “several” could be a lot, really)
  • a hefty scoop of fresh grated horseradish, or a heftier scoop of the pregrated stuff that comes in a little jar
  • a dash of Liquid Smoke if you have it (or an extra squirt of chipotle Tabasco, if you don’t)
  • a squirt of extra virgin olive oil (because most of the flavors are fat-soluble)
  • kosher salt (you get what you deserve if you substitute iodized table salt–feh!)
  • ground cumin (really can’t overdo it here)
  • ground coriander
  • ground cayenne
  • ground Spanish smokey hot paprika
  • oregano
  • celery seed (not too much)
  • ancho chili powder, if you have it
  • any other chili-esque variations on the theme that you can think of
  • a dash of the brine in your jar of green olives (see below)
  • juice of half a lime
  • freshly ground black pepper (I like Telicherry)
Mix all this up and then add it to your spicy tomato juice. Now taste, adjust, and add what you think is missing. If this is way too strong for you, then you’ve made enough base for two quarts of your favorite tomato juice.
Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with crushed ice. Add a shot or two of a good London Dry gin (I like Beefeater for these, but there are many good choices. I think Tanqueray is too fruity for a BM). Add your tomato juice mix. You want approximately a 4:1 juice-to-booze proportion. Shake well, because these liquids have very different viscosities and they need to be persuaded to play nicely with each other.
Strain into a highball or lowball glass half-filled with more crushed ice, several stuffed green olives, a hand-squeezed lime wedge, and an optional narrow, leafy stalk of celery.
An excellent alternative to gin is a good akevit, preferably with strong caraway flavors, such as Ålborg’s standard akevit in the green bottle. (The Jubilæum is good too, but I don’t think it’s as good a choice here.) When you make a Bloody Mary with akevit instead of gin, it becomes a Danish Mary.
Another good alternative is Hangar One Chipotle Vodka. I know, I said vodka’s all wrong, but that stuff if so good, it’s the exception to prove the rule. I wouldn’t bother with any old brand’s pepper vodka, though–the Hangar One Chipotle stuff is a multidimensional, rich, savory, picquant, difficult vodka.
Please note a few things that you do not want to add under any circumstances, at least not if you’re planning to serve these to me:

  • Worcestershire sauce
  • celery salt
  • vodka
  • Clamato (Yech! That stuff is disgusting, and if you like it, the drink goes by a different name–for a reason! It’s a different drink!)
That’s my method, best I can remember. Please enjoy it, let me know what you think, and by all means raise an alarm in the Comments if you think I might have missed something.
Salut!