optimism in the face of reason, or: another kaddish for new orleans

Mira wrote about having a grudge against optimism recently in an essay that has left me wandering lost in my own mind. See, I agree with just about everything she wrote. I largely agree with her worldview. But I am a persistent optimist.

I am an optimist in the face of considerable clear evidence that optimism is irrational.

I am the most rational person I know. I am a skeptic. I am an empiricist. I do numbers. I annoy people who ask me what my sign is by responding with a lecture they find humorless (I disagree). Do I do this because I’m a Virgo, or because I have a second-grader’s grasp of how gravity works and can therefore deduce that astrology is horseshit? Yeah, must be because I’m a Virgo.

I think Mira’s right when she lists five faiths driving optimism and abandons each of them as hopelessly fluffy, along with hope itself. I have my own issues with faith. We’ve already been over this (see “on playing kaddish“). Faith is a pretty big deal for Lutherans, but I’ve never had any.

Yet I am an optimist, even though I should know better. The biggest heartaches in my life have followed in the wake of my unshakable certainty that people will do good, choose well, act honorably. I keep managing to forget somehow that healthy people who grew up bathed in unconditional love in functional families are a scant minority, and the far more probable case is that any given individual is too broken to recognize a good choice let alone find the strength to act on it in the face of adversity.

Perhaps this optimism comes from pragmatism. On some level I do realize that many people will disappoint me, frequently, and usually without good reasons, but does it help for me to assume that they will? Does it hurt for me to assume that they will not?

In my management career, I’ve seen people trying hard to meet my expectations, which are high. Yes, they disappoint me frequently, but when they fall, they get back up. They try again. They get better. They surprise themselves—and me—with success.

So, Mira’s #1, faith in others: nope. She’s right; I assume incorrectly when I assume people will do the right thing. I get better results from communicating clearly what I think the right thing is.

In #2, Mira dismisses faith in self in favor of preparation. I think she’s right. Her devastating essay yesterday about the water going out in New Orleans has had me thinking about this:

Chicago, where I used to live, was routinely brought to its knees by less than an inch of snow.

Minneapolis, where I used to live, was routinely undisturbed by a foot of snow.

Jane Byrne famously unseated the incumbent to become Chicago’s mayor for basically one reason: the other guy couldn’t get the snow plowed. He talked about it, though. He’d get on radio and TV and go on and on about how he had all the snow plows out and working overtime, and nobody was quitting until the job was done. And it was true.

The difference? Minneapolis had a lot more snow plows than Chicago.


Which costs money. Taxes are the cost of infrastructure we expect. Disastrous failure of infrastructure we ignore is the price of tax cuts. Minneapolis had a big bridge collapse a few years back, and we’re lucky we haven’t seen a lot more headlines like that one, because not maintaining our interstate highway system is one way we’ve been paying for all those big tax cuts. But I’m getting ahead of myself—this is my lack of faith in society, Mira’s #3.

Back to faith in self, #2: not really. I have a surplus of self-confidence in most of what I do, but that’s only because I either see to it that I’m well prepared or I avoid having anything to do with it. I can walk out on stage and play horn because I’ve worked ridiculously hard at horn since I was nine. I’m not good at sports, so I won’t even watch other people play them. Right—preparation.

Which brings us to #4-5, faith in the planet and universe. Where do I even start? Let’s just say my nocturnal insomnial hours look a lot like Mira’s.

So why am I an optimist?

Let’s go back to Minnesota. And New Orleans.

Thomas Friedman has probably the most depressing beat in journalism, the Middle East, with side trips to economic globalism, and yet he describes himself as an optimist—a description that anyone who follows his column in the New York Times would be hard-pressed to refute. The guy even managed to find cause for hope in Dubya’s plan to get back at Osama bin Laden by bombing Saddam Hussein to kingdom come. I may be an optimist, but that plan had “insane” and “quagmire” written all over it.

Friedman’s explanation for his optimism? He says he grew up in Minneapolis. He describes Minneapolis as a city that works in a state that works, and he thinks that is the source of his enduring optimism that places can work, that politicians can lead, that policies can do good.

I think there might be something to this.

I grew up in the snow belt, too, and I went to college in Minnesota about an hour south of Minneapolis. I found Minnesota politics more interesting, but I always voted absentee in North Dakota, because North Dakota needed my liberal vote a lot more than Minnesota did. Mind you, North Dakota is practically a socialist state, with its own bank and its own mill and elevator (a farm thing—don’t worry about it). At the time it was also the world’s fourth largest nuclear power, or would have been had it seceded from the union, so don’t tell me Reagan wasn’t worried about us liver-lilied liberals up there. But compared to Minnesota? Republican enclave.

Perhaps you’ve forgotten. Reagan was reelected in a “landslide” with all but thirteen electoral votes. I’m not sure how a 59%-41% split of the popular vote could be described as a landslide, or how a candidate that almost half the population couldn’t stand could be considered universally popular, but this isn’t supposed to be an essay about why we need a third political party and ranked-choice voting, so never mind that.

But those thirteen electoral votes that Mondale got?


The map in 1984 showed the entire United States in red except for Minnesota, wearing a lonely coat of blue up there in the frozen north.

Minnesota is the state that sent Paul Wellstone to the US Senate, may he rest in peace. He was a poli-sci prof at the college across the river from mine. A rumpled tweed sportcoat kind of guy—probably with the elbow patches, even—a thoughtful liberal who made sense, cared about doing good, and quietly stole the election from the shoo-in who paid for it fair and square.

What does all this have to do with optimism?

There is an essential optimism to this kind of consistent progressivism. Linguist George Lakoff argues that progressives lose a lot of elections because conservatives frame politics in selfish, fearful terms where a strict father protects his family against the evils of the outside world. By contrast, progressives frame politics in empathic, positive terms where a nurturing parent teaches children self-discipline so that they can realize their potential and be responsible for others. That second worldview is a whole lot more optimistic, and optimism just doesn’t play as well on TV. Fear sells. Nurturance is wimpy.

Minnesota was a place, though, where that optimism crowded fear out. Perhaps I’m an optimist because I, like Thomas Friedman, grew up in that place that worked.

I think long winters and all that snow had something to do with it, too. You don’t get through six months of below-zero temperatures on your own. As Mira knew to share water in the Sahara, I knew that “neighbor” is the person whose sidewalk also needs to be shoveled out before you go back inside to warm up, and whose car might start when yours needs a jump.

As for New Orleans—well, I almost moved there.

Eighteen years ago, I won the assistant principal horn audition in the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, which was the co-op struggling to rise from the ashes of the New Orleans Philharmonic’s bankruptcy. I was ecstatic. This was the first audition I’d won for a real job—the job I’d been preparing for since I was nine, playing horn full-time in a symphony orchestra. And it was in New Orleans, a city I’d spent the weekend exploring and falling in love with. Where I’d enjoyed staying with a role model-turned-friend, whose company I could now have regularly.

I didn’t expect this, but within a few minutes of winning the audition, I knew I had to turn the job down. I asked about details of the wage forecast the job announcement had left vague and got grim answers. I asked about the schedule and learned details that ruled out any hope I might have of continuing my software work on the side. I asked about teaching work and chamber music work and learned that there was little demand in town for either.

I asked about the LPO’s financial situation and the factors that had led to the previous orchestra’s collapse and didn’t hear anything that had changed. I thought about the city I’d been enjoying and how I hadn’t seen one speck of classical music. For that matter, I hadn’t seen any music that was being produced for anyone but tourists, and I knew that tourists aren’t known for keeping orchestras in business. I hadn’t seen much of a local population that could afford symphony tickets. I saw an awful lot of people who couldn’t afford lunch. I saw an awful lot of dilapidation.

I knew what all these things meant: New Orleans was not a city that worked.

So on the long flight home, I had a big argument with myself, trying desperately to find any reason whatsoever to believe that I should take the job. All I could come up with was a variety of story-lines that all ended with me too poor to buy a plane ticket to an audition for a better job. (I also got a bit hung up on knowing I’d never be able to afford air conditioning.) The next day I phoned and mailed my decision.

Thing is, I didn’t give up the job out of pessimism about the LPO or New Orleans. I kept my job in Chicago out of optimism that I was on my way to winning a better horn job somewhere else and appreciation that the situation I had in the meantime was a good one.

A few years later I moved to San Francisco with the optimistic plan of trading software for freelancing—a plan that lasted only a few weeks, until a Rottweiler bit me in the face and I couldn’t play horn for the next four years or, for all I knew, ever again. I made the optimistic—and pragmatic—decision to carry on with software. Which is how it came to be that I watched Katrina on a big TV in a house I own in the beautiful Oakland hills.

I was heartbroken along with everyone else. It took me a week to reach my friend. And I couldn’t figure out why anybody was surprised that a town that was known for tourists and poverty fell apart when a big storm blew through. The only surprise was that it didn’t happen sooner.

About New Orleans I have no optimism. I never never, as much as I loved what I experienced in 1992—as much as I’d like to visit again now. A city that makes its money by being a place for tourists to get drunk isn’t spending any of that money on its infrastructure. Nobody’s flying in and buying tickets to see levies. New Orleans’ news-making entrepreneur post-Katrina is a guy who dispatches big, shiny black trucks to the tourism centers every single night to pick up the garbage and hose the vomit out of the streets with a pleasant-smelling detergent, and anybody who doesn’t find that depressing is delusional.

Nano-art criticism: Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, and Beyond

Today Mom, Victoria, and I went to Part 2 of the de Young Museum’s big exhibition of art on loan from the Musee d’Orsay, entitled “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay.” It was much the same as Part I: an amazing exhibition but too damned crowded to be enjoyable.

I do, however, have several takeaways that Victoria likened to my “nano-opera” posts, the nano-scale opera plot synapses I write from time to time. She said, “Now we have nano-art!”

Here you go:

  • Georges Seurat invented LCD displays.
  • Paul Gauguin invented paint-by-number.
  • The Nabis invented the pattern-fill in MacPaint.

And it’s criminal what the de Young is doing to the experience of viewing spectacular art. Ask me more about this if you don’t mind my ruining your day.

Opinionated computer purchasing advice (updated)

People ask me about which Mac to buy often enough that I thought I might as well post here a recent reply I wrote to a friend who is looking at a career change from corporate programming to consulting, possibly, or another corporate gig, or who knows what.

Caveat emptor: I am a software professional. A way geek. My everyday work is computing intensive. I usually have at least six applications running at once, and not because I’m not paying attention but because my work requires it. Some of my applications require fast processors and huge amounts of RAM. I need a big-ass disk or several. My extracurricular activities as a professional musician who does some recording and composing are also computer-intensive at times, and I read the New York Times online daily with a Times Reader subscription–yet another computer-based activity. My work frequently requires travel, and even during leisure travel there is the possibility that I will need to work on some code or something else where my iPhone or a netbook wouldn’t cut it.

Normal people do not have such extreme needs! Normal people would get along just fine with the computer I was using five years ago.

Oh–and I’m a Mac bigot. I truly believe that Macs work better and let you get more done with less hassle. If you need to some particular software that’s only available on Windows or Linux or whatever, then buy Parallels or VMWare or try one of the open source virtualization programs to run those programs–and only those programs–in a window on your Mac. That’s what I do, and many of my clients are Windows-only shops, so it’s not like I can afford to be without access to Windows myself.

Still, people ask me, because they know I care and have researched these things to death, so here goes.

I love laptops, and I think that in consulting and/or uncertain job futures it’s best to emphasize flexibility. You never know when you’ll need to give a talk, or demo something at someone else’s office, or fix something while you’re on vacation, or work while you’re on the road. You can’t do much of that on an iPad or iPhone (except correspondence and basic iWork stuff). You can do it all on a laptop, and you also have a built-in uninterruptable power supply (battery!) in cases of lightning knocking out the power just as you accomplish something important that you haven’t saved yet. You also have, in a laptop, a built-in free primary display, and when you connect a big-ass LCD as your external display, you have tons of real estate when you’re at your desk.

And anything the iPad can do, your laptop can do, except for being light, sexy, etc. But you’ll have an iPhone for that. Get an iPad later when you can resist no longer. (I plan to usurp the one my wife bought this afternoon.)

My friends with iMacs love them, and one friend in particular who lives in a one-bedroom apartment uses his as his computer, TV, DVD, DVR, stereo, virtual aquarium, and digital picture frame as well as computer. He uses his iPhone on the go. He’s delighted with both. He does NOT make his living in software, though, and he doesn’t travel for same. He’s a musician who does Mac stuff at his day job, sometimes works from home, does a variety of things at home, and just needs basic iPhone apps when away from home. That said, I doubt he’d say no if somebody offered him their two-year-old MacBook–and I also doubt he’d get rid of the iMac.

I like a big screen and as much power and as many kinds of ports as possible, especially when a fair amount of work-away-from-office is expected, but even just when reading Times Reader. So, for me the top of the line MacBook Pro 17″ will always be the no-brainer choice. Next best for me is last year’s version of same, from craigslist or a bargain Apple refurb unit. That said, 17″ weighs a lot more than 15″ weighs a lot more than 13″, and unless you use a backpack, you want to avoid unnecessary weight. (And don’t forget it’s not just the laptop–it’s the cables, the camera, the books, the banana, the carrying bag itself, and everything else you schlepp around in your purse^H^H^H^H^Hbriefcase or backpack.

If you’re bent on an iMac and an iPad, maybe a good compromise would be an iMac for your desk and a refurb Air for travel, and a Dropbox account to be sure that the most important things are always on both. See the Apple store, lower right corner for refurbs etc.

Craigslist rocks. For retail, see if you have any friends/family with access to academic discounts, then check refurb, then check:



Did I mention craigslist?

Nobody pays me anything for blogging about this stuff. Or rather, companies don’t. My friends and family repay me amply in ways too numerous to count. Thank you, all of you–you probably don’t realize who you are, but I do, and I’m grateful to be blessed with such an embarrassment of riches.

Update: iPads rock!

So I finally got an iPad a few months ago, and yes, I love it. For me it’s not a computer replacement, but it’s a wonderful new thing altogether. I haven’t gotten as far into it as I know I will eventually, but I already love it for:

  • reading ebooks
  • reading the New York Times
  • the NPR app
  • Epicurious for recipes
  • replacing bags and bags of dance music with a lovely, self-lit electronic screen, with tons of PDFs and the unRealbook app for putting tunes together into set lists on the fly
  • email, Twitter, and Facebook
  • online video (e.g. Google Videos for movies that aren’t available on Netflix or any other way)
  • Netflix streaming!
  • iPod

I’ve since encouraged a dear friend who doesn’t have a personal computer (only a work computer on which she isn’t allowed to do anything except work) to buy an iPad. She didn’t want to deal with paying for and learning how to use another computer, and she gets enough of staring at computer screens in her job as a high-powered attorney. In about an hour, I had her set up with wifi and a personal email address and showed her how to get around. It has changed her life. She says she absolutely loves it and has no idea how she ever got along without one. She’s playing with digital photos, email, videos, music, ebooks, and all kinds of other things. She carries it around with her all the time.

Just switch to Mac, already (updated for 2010)

We all have computer problems, and that doesn’t stop with Mac, but it sure gets easier. I find myself telling one friend after another to switch to Mac. Sometimes the objection is, “but I absolutely have to have Windows for my job” because of some Windows-only application or another.

If that’s the case, then you especially should get a Mac. Because face it, sometimes Windows goes south, and when it does, would you rather revert to the Windows machine you had yesterday that was running fine, or would you rather troubleshoot Windows for a week and still not know what’s wrong? Would you rather spend two minutes restoring yesterday’s virtual machine or two hours driving to a geek squad?

If you don’t need Windows apps, then you’ll be much happier on a Mac. If you do need Windows apps, you’ll still be much happier on a Mac, with Windows running as a virtual machine.

Meanwhile, just because you have one or two essential applications that are Windows only, that doesn’t mean you should have to put up with Windows software for everything else you do, like email, web, calendar, address book, photos, music, documents and spreadsheets, etc. Use your Mac for everything you can, and use Windows only as much as you absolutely have to.

You have at least two good choices: Parallels Desktop or VMWare Fusion. Both work pretty well and have roughly the same features. For me VMWare has worked a little better and the little problems I’ve had to figure out haven’t been as confusing on VMWare as they used to be on Parallels, but I’ve heard other people say the opposite.

If you want to try VMWare, I think this link will get you a discount. I’m not being paid for this blog post, but if enough people buy VMWare through this link, I get a $10 gift certificate to Amazon or something like that. But that’s not why I’m posting it–I’m posting this because I think people with Macs get more done.

My tech support policy for family and friends?

  • Mac: free, unlimited, anytime you can find me online or answering my phone. And since I can actually take over your machine and show you how to do things with screen-sharing in iChat, I can help you with your computer even if you live in New York. It’s a lot easier than the old, “Um, what do you see in the upper left corner, where it says File… can you click on the button that says…” routine, believe me.
  • Windows: you’re on your own, and next time please get a Mac.

So far my family and friends who have listened to me have sooner or later been glad they switched. Even my dad, who like me never admits when he was wrong about something, who fought this advice for years and finally got a MacBook Pro last year, who loves it. My mom was perfectly happy to make the switch and she loves hers, too. In a single year, you wouldn’t believe how many new things they’ve started doing (and enjoying) on their computers.

Why are Macs so much better? Because Macs make it so easy to do things—everything from basics like email to advanced tasks like photo manipulation and professional audio recording—that you will get more done. You’ll focus on your goals, not how to complete the tasks. Because things are easy, you’ll find yourself doing things that you never planned to do, like making custom calendars from your pictures. Like building websites. Like getting your finances organized. Like writing a book. Like making mix CDs for your friends. And on and on and on.

Still not convinced? Here’s my best argument. Go down the hallway of any office and look at the monitors on people’s desks. I bet you many beers that this is what you’ll see:

  • Windows displays that are covered with Post-Its with little reminders of how to do really basic things.
  • Mac displays that have at most one or two Post-Its, and they’re reminders about groceries to buy on the way home.

announcing beitmalkhut.org

I’m excited to announce a new blog, “kaddish in two-part harmony.”

If you’ve been following my blog lately, you’ll know that I’ve embarked upon a collaborative project with Mira Z. Amiras that we’re calling “kaddish in two-part harmony.” This whole thing started when I happened upon a blog posting Mira had written about Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer used for mourning, among many other purposes. Her post entitled “war stories” inspired my lengthy post “On playing Kaddish,” and the ensuing flurry of comments and email between us led to our starting this new project.

The project is introduced in our joint post, “about the project,” which appears on our new joint blog, “kaddish in two-part harmony” on beitmalkhut.org, Mira’s website. I’m deeply honored to be invited into Mira’s intellectual home for this collaborative project of ours.

What is this project, exactly? Go read that “about the project,” page! If you really can’t bring yourself to click one more link, here’s the gist of it: for a year and a day, I am recording Lev Kogan’s “Kaddish” every day, and Mira and others are listening to it. We’re a virtual minyan of sorts.

Throughout the year and a day, Mira and I are writing about the Kaddish, Kogan’s “Kaddish,” themes of death, dying, and mourning, the dynamics among text, composer, music,  musician, listener, and mourner. Much of the writing will appear on our joint blog, and some of it will remain private between the two of us. At the end of the year and a day, the entirety of the project will come together in some new form—perhaps a presentation, a book, a CD, or all of the above.

We are working on sharing the daily “Kaddish” recordings publicly in a podcast. We have gratefully received permission from the publisher, OrTav/Israel Brass Woodwind Publications, to use Kogan’s composition in our project. Now we are working with the publisher to secure the necessary mechanical rights with ACUM/ASCAP. In the meantime, if you’d like to listen along, please get in touch.

No, I’ve never met Mira. She’s the friend of a friend. We will not meet face-to-face until after the year and a day.

This blog isn’t going anywhere, but my activity here will probably slow down a lot while I focus on my collaboration with Mira. Please follow us at “kaddish in two-part harmony,” and check back here for the latest in food, freelancing, cocktails, nano-scale opera plot synapses, geekery, politics, and the usual randomness.

on how a memoirist changes a musician


Where is the place that you get lost? Is it the stopped horn bit? The fourteen notes with a distant, pinched, buzzy sound, and then the normal horn tone returns? Then there’s a phrase, then a restatement of the second big line of the piece, then the climb to the ending?

I’m doing musicology on the piece now. I’m only partway there; it’s a draft that needs more time and thought.

I worry, though, that a musicological analysis will colonize your brain, as decades of musical training have colonized mine, and it will take something away from your way of hearing, seeing, feeling the piece on your own terms. But I also worry that if I don’t start capturing my present view of the piece, it will be lost to history, because the piece is already changing through this exchange with you.

Your first midrash—your words that sparked this whole adventure—has changed how I understand the ending of “Kaddish,” you know.

When I first learned the piece and researched Kaddish, I didn’t know what to make of these words that don’t say a damned thing to comfort our terrible loss. As I’ve written, I guessed that Kaddish was one of those generic prayers that was used by mourners perhaps by custom rather than apparent relevance or usefulness. God knows there’s a lot of religious behavior meeting that description. Having thus abandoned the text as being of much use to me, I decided to grapple with the music on its own terms.

I found a Jewish chant that was mournful, slow, free, and haunting. I went with that idea and explored ways to bring out those characteristics. What I found was modal music, free (additive) rhythm that was notated with Western metrical rhythm but probably not meant to be played that way, and dynamic and tempo indications that suggest a general pacing and structure for the piece.

Clearly it was mournful. Kogan wrote music that evokes grief in many of its forms, including numbness, sadness, anger, lostness, despair, confusion, and even strength—perhaps triumph, or more likely stubborn will to live. When I’ve played the piece up until recently, I’ve felt it wandering in the areas of numbness, despair, and confusion. Most of the piece works in those moods. 

But the ending—the last long phrase, building up to the highest note and then stepping down through five final notes—has puzzled me.

The ink on the page doesn’t necessarily confuse me—it’s just those notes, in approximately the rhythm you’ve heard me playing, with a crescendo (increasing loudness), a fermata (holding the top note for indefinite length), and a ritardando/decrescendo (slowing and softening) to the end. But the way that phrase naturally feels to me, as a trained musician with many centuries of (mostly Western) music steeped into the folds of my grey matter, who understands phrasal structure in both an oral tradition that is beneath conscious understanding, and the way my educated analytical frame of mind thinks about the phrase, is different from the phrases that come before.

Until this point in the piece, the phrases have been long, wandering, contemplative. They linger on points of pain, sorrow, tiredness. They move more quickly through fragmented statements of will, questions, wishes.

But here, they reach. They stretch into a full, declarative sentence. An imperative. They proclaim.

State what, proclaim what, I could never figure out.

So I did my best with it—I drove up through the line, to a loud, strong, long high g”, and then I stepped down slowly, tentatively, landing on the long final e” with finality but not much conviction. A stopping point only because eventually we stop, not because we felt done.

That made a certain amount of sense to me. After all, grieving is like that. We don’t stop crying because we feel better. We just stop, eventually, because we can’t continue forever. We tire ourselves out. We get interrupted. Someone else’s needs demand our attention. Some other need of our own interrupts and takes over. It varies, but we do stop. We grieve in intervals, we cry in intervals, and we carry with the other truths and feelings and thoughts of our lives in the time between intervals.

Now I understand it entirely differently, and it affects my understanding of the whole piece.

I quote you again, the passage of your midrash that kept me up all night writing my response, your passage whose aftershocks find us now here:

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.

Now I understand the piece differently. I still hear most of it as a wandering in the terrible loss. Seeking comfort, asking questions, inhabiting despair. And in the final lines, I hear the mourner gathering strength, taking a deep breath, deciding to live. Proclaiming—something. Making that display. Adhering to faith, or practice. Making a public affirmation, a show of strength, in the face of loss. That last line is the proclamation; it drives to the g” and holds onto it. This is me, affirming. The final five notes that follow are the period on the sentence, the “ve imru, amein” on the prayer.

Because I now hear the ending this way, I also hear the rest of the piece differently. Still a wandering in sorrow, yes; still asking questions, yes. But also gathering strength, drawing in breath, preparing emotionally to make a statement. Looking for the strength to make a statement. Finding it, or deciding to assert it anyway. Sometimes I hear those fourteen stopped notes as the last question: “Can I do this? Do I have the strength to affirm?” After that question, a final statement of the pain, with a gathering conviction. And then the affirmation, and the amein.

Your words have changed my music, already.

Thank you.


a kaddish for everybody i have eaten

A response to Mira’s latest, “of gummy-worms and larger creatures.”

Let’s start with the easy part: I love gummi worms.

While I was running along Skyline with Kjersten tonight, I got to thinking about how I’m actually thinking about taking a pheasant-hunting lesson in November.

I don’t hunt. Never have. I trudged alongside my dad once after pheasants. It was a cold fall morning, and my six-year-old stride couldn’t keep up. He didn’t slow down for me, nor did he explain much of what was going on. The only punctuation in the long, hard, all-day march (he probably remembers it as a few hours, but this is my story) was a lunch that was too brief and featured not nearly enough hot chocolate. And a moment when a weird flapping sound to our prompted him to grab up his gun and point, only to drop it again. The pheasant had flushed too quickly.

I don’t have any desire to hunt. Never have.

I don’t know if I could actually pull the trigger on an animal. Never have.

And yet.

I eat meat. My hunting dad still stocks my freezer with wild game, and I love cooking it, eating it, sharing it with friends. Recently I served our mutual friend a beautiful Viennese-style pheasant, seared off and then roasted in little bacon boxer shorts, disassembled into parts over wild rice, and drizzled with a gravy made from deglazing the dutch oven with chicken stock and thickening with roux. Her pleasure at the new flavor tasted even better to me than the pheasant itself. I enjoyed her delight at hearing it was a bird that Flicka, the dog Mom and Dad got after Candy retired to live with us in California, had helped hunt.

Kjersti is an exquisite young chocolate lab in the tall, athletic, high-spirited, intelligent Canadian labrador retriever style. This is not to be confused with the English lab style that we mostly see around here: dopey, mellow, short, pudgy, block-headed barrels with paws. Kjersti comes from a long line of field trial champions. She was bred to hunt, and I see her hunting intelligence every day—how she freezes into a quiet point at the sight of the wild turkeys that wander through our neighborhood, and holds it until I acknowledge them and she knows I know. How she tears after a fallen tennis ball, carries it back to me at top speed, and drops it at my feet. How when I walk her off-leash at Redwood or Sibley, she fans the area, running quietly ahead of me and sweeping from one side to the other, looking back frequently to check my progress. How she holds our youngest Siamese cat’s head in her mouth, ever so gently—dampening her fur, but not frightening or injuring her—not mangling any fur or feathers, not bruising any meat.


I eat animals all the time. I don’t mind cleaning and butchering them, when they’re already dead. But can I hunt them myself? Kill them myself? I doubt it. But because I love my dog, my beautiful brown animal who works the brush ahead of me with such intelligence and enthusiasm, I’m actually considering it. It almost feels like an obligation to her, my animal, to go kill animals with her. I don’t begin to know how to unwind this conundrum, so I am likely to convince myself that I’m too busy even to consider it and then move on quickly.

I suppose it should be an obligation of my carnivorous ways to join in the violence of my reality. Dad always talks about the sacred connection he feels with the game as he kills it. I have spent much of my life thinking that’s a creepy, horrible cop-out, but when I buy my meat already dead, nicely sliced and wrapped on hygienic-looking white styrofoam trays, my complacency is shaken. If I’m even paying attention. Usually I am not.

My Japanese friends are good at mindful reverence at the table. They say “itadakimas” before starting to eat. Translations vary, but the way my favorite translators, Masako and Tomoko, explained it to me, it means thank you to the animals and plants, the farmers and ranchers and fishers and butchers, the truck drivers, the grocers, the cooks, and everyone else who brought the food to us. At the end of the meal, they say “gotso sama deshita,” which thanks the food directly, using the same respectful particle, sama, that is used for addressing the Shinto gods.

A kaddish for everybody I have eaten. Gotso sama deshita.

on ritual’s tyrannies and blessings

Yesterday’s post will no doubt make one thing clear: keeping my promise yesterday was a pain.

It was also richly rewarding, in ways I didn’t expect, in ways that took time to realize.

When I walked into my studio, I was eager to reach a modest, specific goal: to solve a few of the technical problems and get the notes more under control. I was thwarted almost immediately by annoying technical problems. My recording software is several versions out of date, and working around that seems to require getting the Mac booted, the Mbox 2 plugged in, certain files deleted, the Mbox drivers connected, and Pro Tools launched in a specific sequence. I thought I’d figured out that sequence this weekend, but yesterday it took an hour and several uninstalls, reinstalls, and reboots to get it running. I’ve already ordered the upgrade, and now I have to wait for it to arrive. Nine days for shipping! It might as well be nine years.

During this frustrating hour, I warmed up and worked on a few etudes in brief interludes while installers ran and my Mac restarted, with repeated interruptions to click things and type things and ponder things. Each time I picked my horn back up, it was cold and full of water again. By the time I had Pro Tools running, I was nearly out of time—in twenty minutes, I needed to be out the door, meeting a friend for dinner.

My heart was not in it. If I had made this promise only to myself, a Kaddish a day for a year and a day, yesterday I would not have kept my promise. How much time can I sink into it, when I have a life full of responsibilities besides this one? Sooner or later you have to move on, address other things that are also important.

But I had made this promise, so I forged on. I made the recording, which as previously described was not an entirely pleasant experience.

And now the rewards begin.

After I record a take, I have to convert it from a Pro Tools track to a normal audio file, a process called, mysteriously, “bounce to disc.” It’s a simultaneous convert-and-save operation that takes place in real time while sending playback to my headphones. Then I have to convert that big .aiff file to an .m4a file that takes about half the size, and finally I upload that to a DropBox folder where Mira and others can get it.

While I’m doing all this, I might as well listen, right? So I do.

And no, this is not as obvious as you might think. Usually when I record something I’m working on, intending to study the playback, I have many excuses for why a take didn’t go well, so rather than pause to listen and learn, I jump right into another take. I might do four takes before I get something that seems worth listening to, and only then do I discover what I should have learned listening to the first take. Or worse, I’ll wear myself out on repeated flawed takes. This is inefficient, but it happens. I would be surprised if this isn’t what most musicians do. We’re perfectionists by nature, and when we already know that many things were unsatisfactory, we can’t stand the thought of hearing them—we just want to move on immediately to working on those things and trying again. I have actually gone weeks making recordings and never quite listening to them. It is embarrassing to admit this.

But since this process forces me to work differently, I do listen, and I hear things I don’t expect to hear. I hear phrasing that worked better than I thought, and I hear rhythms I thought were right that were not. In general, my sense of time is inaccurate, even within the context of this piece’s rubato. I hear breathing that is more obtrusive and less effective than I realized. I hear notes that are consistently out of tune. I hear a shift in my timbre where the music drops down to a and D about two-thirds of the way down the page. I have an idea about what’s causing me to keep clamming in the phrase at the end that goes up to g”.

[I refer to pitches in the key of F, as written for horn, using the octave designation system recommended by The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, ed. Don Randel (1986), viz. c’ for “middle C,” c” for the octave above, c”’ for two octaves above middle c, C for the octave below middle C, and C<sub>1</sub> for two octaves below middle C, etc.]

Mostly what I hear is a work in progress—a musician in the early stages of working a piece back up to performance standard. I do not hear the music yet—not really. I hear the notes, and I hear the music beginning to take shape, but it’s not there yet. I get a little lost in the wanderings of the phrasing. I realize I need to figure out the structure better.

What I really do not hear is what I’m amazed to read in Mira’s reply (see her comment on my previous post, “in which the musician…”).

The memoirist is hearing music. She is having physical responses. She is seeing and feeling the music! She is having visions. She is wandering, lost, disoriented. She is wanting to ground this in the words—the familiar text of Kaddish. I am unsure how to reply to this right now. I could probably give her many pointers on how to understand the music and find her way around in it, but I want to hear what she hears—not some version of what I teach her to hear.

She is hearing music!

And she is giving me the tremendous gift of her words, telling me (and all of you who join us in this project) what she’s hearing. My earlier post, “Mandelbrot and music: on listening in fractal dimensions,” explored how I hear music and how I can no longer remember how I used to hear, before my musical training colonized my brain. I have asked her to use her dazzling ability with words to help me with this. (We ask this of our readers, too. Please share your experiences with us in the comments.)

She’s also seeing porn pop-ups. I don’t know what that’s about. Evil gremlins prowling the intertubes?

I had dinner with “the mutual friend who sits at the fulcrum, giggling” last night, and as we walked from dinner to a nearby pub, I shared with her my delight and surprise at my quotidian recording having had such an impact on the memoirist. I had just read the comments—they beeped in while I was in the loo—along with subsequent private comments adding further detail that is to remain private for now.

I was, frankly, blown away. Immensely gratified that my playing was beginning to work as music. Moved that she uses her words—her remarkable ability to articulate the ineffable—to give back to me what it is that I have given her.

The mutual friend is a singer. As we walked, we compared thoughts on how music works sometimes through or despite the musician. I’ve found that I am most able to reach listeners when I am completely on top of my game—in physical and emotional control, playing a piece that I have analyzed, practiced, and planned. I need to spend a certain amount of time playing it only for myself and later a few trusted colleagues, in different spaces, in different moods and times of day. A process of discovery unfolds. Eventually I am ready and I know how to play it so that others will receive my intentions. She agreed that her experience has been similar.

But we’ve also both had experiences where we ourselves were not at our best, and our listeners heard the music anyway. Sometimes the listener is so receptive to the experience that the musician’s performance almost doesn’t matter. It can feel as though I am only a medium for the composer, or even for the music itself. When this happens, one might become mystical enough to ponder whether even the composer is unimportant, that the music comes through the composer as much as through us, the performers. She would probably have no reluctance to describe it this way, but I’m an agnostic and skeptical math/stats geek. Acknowledging that music can have power so far beyond my ability to understand does not come naturally to me.

I came home and talked further with my wife, about how ritual and a promise had already served me. I was willing but not especially motivated to make the day’s recording, and then all the technical problems drained what little momentum I had. I was running short on time. I pushed ahead only because I had made a promise and knew Mira was waiting for her recording. The take went a little better than I had any right to expect, and because I was bouncing it to Mira, I listened to it myself and appreciated what the playback offered me. The promise Mira has made to me to hear each recording each day meant that she made herself available to experience the music, and she further entrusted me with her astonishing reaction right away—so that I then had her words and my experience to compare in conversation with our mutual friend, whose spiritual dimensions are so much richer than my own.

Keeping my promise to Mira and to the ritual itself has already brought blessings I didn’t realize I needed.

A few hours ago, I recorded, bounced, and heard today’s “Kaddish.” The take went fairly well, although I’m still struggling with roughly the same issues. Ironing them out will take a while.

I have temporarily reverted to a lower-fidelity recording method while I await the arrival of my Pro Tools upgrade. I’m disappointed by the murkier sound, but I imagine Mira will appreciate how much faster today’s file downloads.

Our mutual friend and a friend of mine have requested the private link to join us in listening, and to them I extend my welcome and thanks.

if you want to listen along with us

Yes, you are welcome to listen along. We would like to make this available as a podcast and also put links in the blog timeline. However, until we secure permission from the publisher to record and podcast, we can only share the recordings privately.

If you would like to listen in the meantime, please do this:

  • Send Erin email or send Mira email. One of us will reply with a DropBox sharing link.
  • Each day, click that link to get the day’s new recording.
  • Recordings come out daily, sometime between midnight and midnight. Usually before dinnertime.
  • Please also sign up for your own free Dropbox account and install the software. (Do not skip the second step, please.)

Getting your own (free!) Dropbox account and installing the software is not a requirement of listening, but your doing so from this referral link will earn me more free space in my Dropbox account, and for this project, I’m going to need it. Before long, you will wonder how you ever got along without Dropbox.

Using the best headphones you have is a good idea. Computer speakers don’t reproduce the horn’s distinctive timbre well.

This is a process, not a product

The musician has not worked on “Kaddish” (by Lev Kogan, published and copyright by Israel Brass Woodwind Publications in 1982) seriously for over twenty years, and she starts this process fairly out of shape, having not practiced horn at all for several weeks. Each daily recording is done in one take, with no editing, and with no practicing of “Kaddish” beforehand.

This project explores, among many other things, the process of a musician working up a performance from the beginning, including the challenges along the way. As such, the recordings are not final productions of a complete artistic expression; they are a journalistic record of a process.

kaddish in two-part harmony

mira z. amiras, ph.d.
Erin Vang, BMus, MMus, PMP

The Memoirist and the Musician.  The memoirist immerses all night in midrash on the Kaddish.  The musician spends all night in her own midrashic response.  And making the music of kaddish.  Making music kadosh.  A flurry of emails ensue between the two.  They blog.  Their blogs lock horns, as do the writers themselves.  They try to live the life they are given — with now a new ingredient.  A project has begun:  a kaddish in two-part harmony.

The cast of characters:

  • the musician writer who must play and record “Kaddish” every day for a year and a day
  • the listener writer who will hear it for a year and a day
  • the pair of writers who will write, not always by blog

The rules:

  • one take, no editing, no practicing Kaddish before recording it (practicing yes, Kaddish no)
  • one Kaddish every day, and multiple Kaddishim on all Yahrtzeits
  • the music is allowed and expected to evolve
  • the writer and the musician will not meet during the year, neither face to face nor by phone
  • the writing must not be allowed to become a daily tyranny for either party
  • the writer and the musician must not fall in love; to wit, the focus is on the material at hand

The supporting cast:

  • the musician’s wife
  • the dog and the cats of both, who sit patiently (mostly) next to the writers and who will inevitably be heard on the musician’s recordings
  • the mutual friend who sits at the fulcrum, giggling (yes, what have you done?)
  • the musician’s rebbe, who will provide the words, the voice, and the rebbeness
  • the musician’s dad, who has requested the impossible
  • the healers who have left us
  • the tzaddik—lamed vavnik—in the world to come
  • the heeler who died
  • all those who have departed, in one way or another
  • disease, misfortune, and the woes of the world
  • malkah, the shekhinah herself, if she so wills it

The Memoirist is not required to listen to Kaddish. She must hear Kaddish. The ear is an involuntary muscle.

A wise woman has defined rebbe thus:

rebbe — (to be distinguished from rabbi) — a wise rabbi we consider as our teacher and treat with reverence, which everyone else we know thinks is misplaced.

Commitment to a yearlong process together, to becoming a minyan of sorts.

An exploration of how the playing of “Kaddish” and the saying of Kaddish transforms throughout the year.

Immersion in the dynamic between mourner and musician when they are the same woman.

Immersion in the line between Memoirist and Anthropologist—where the mourner seeks to escape the process of mourning, by means of the comfort of analytical process.

Celebration of the dynamics between text, music, musician, listener, and writers.

Some of the (best) writing will be privately transmitted and not appear here in the blogs.

The entire enterprise—both private and public—will make an appearance after the conclusion of the project.

Only then will the Memoirist and the Musician greet each other for the first time face to face.


Memoirist’s blog: and this part is true

Musician’s blog: So you think…?

New, joint blog for this project: to be announced soon

If you want to listen along: href=https://erinvang.com/?p=417