First Rehearsal, That Was Fun

That was fun. Tuesday night was the first night of rehearsals for me and Max with the Symphony Chorus of New Orleans. It was the chorus’s first rehearsal of the year, aiming towards a performance of Haydn’s “The Creation” in the spring. I’ve never heard it before but, let me tell ya, it’s got some snappy passages.

I learned a lot. For one thing, I learned I’m no longer a tenor 2 for the purposes of choral singing. I’m a bass. And while I can’t read music, I’ve still got a pretty good ear and can find my place with the other basses fairly well. But I’m going to have to do a lot better and spend at least an hour or so every day working on it.

When I was in musicals at Albany Civic Theater I was usually the lead or support – because I wasn’t a good enough singer to sing in the chorus. The chorus has to be able to sing the music as written, and mediates the tempo between what the orchestra is playing and whatever the lead has taken it in his head to sing. Now I’m going to have to get good.

Also, the music director has very, VERY clear ideas of how each word will be pronounced. I hate to disappoint him in advance, but while I plan to get that eventually, pronouncing the words his way is way down my list, well below learning what the words are and what notes I’m supposed to sing.

The people are all really friendly, and happy to see some new faces. I looked around the room, then leaned over and told Max that at 21, he is less than a third of the average age in the room. I, on the other hand, turning 65 next month, am probably right about at the mean. Anyway, it was a start.

A Resolution to Be More Musical, Even if It Annoys People

jb in porkpie hate
The author wearing the porkpie hat he received for Christmas. What does this have to do with the subject? I like a hat that makes me look vaguely like an old jazz guy,

Let me cut straight to the chase, then if you’re at all interested you can read the build up to it.

My new year’s resolution is to get more music in my life. Not just listening to the radio or cuing up tunes on my music library, although no doubt I’ll do that, too. But I want to sing more, perform a bit, whatever it takes.

One of the things I’ll do to achieve that is to finish the pirate musical I started last year, and then the other. I’m also going to try out for a chorus next week. I have some other things in mind as well, but those are the two big ones to start with.

Now, here’s the story behind it, in many unrelated pieces.

The story started about 10 days before Christmas. Or in September. Or possibly in 1965.

Ten days before Christmas Tori and I went to see Max and the UNO choir join with the Symphony Chorus of New Orleans to perform Handel’s “Messiah.” (I didn’t mention that? Check this video.) It was really great, and to Tori’s chagrin, I found myself singing along to the parts I knew – and I surprised myself with how many there were.

It reminded me of when I was fourth grader at Christ the King School in Nashville and a member of the choir. There was some big to-do we sang at in the Nashville cathedral, something to do with the bishop. Maybe his birthday, or funeral, or installation. I don’t know and I’m not sure I ever did. Anyway, it was a big deal, a full mass, and we practiced like crazy for a couple of months under the tutelage of our choir director, Mr. Guertz, a German choir master who seemed to be at least 400 years old. I was pretty sure he’d known Bach personally. Anyway, we were pretty good, got a lot of compliments. It made an impression. I can still remember parts of the service we sang, although I doubt I could sing it now, my voice was significantly higher in those days.

My dad was a singer. He sang everywhere, all the time. Especially in the car. Any family trip was a singalong. When he retired he joined SPEBSQSA (Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, now known as the Barbershop Harmony Society) and put as much time and energy into that as he had his professional career. He even wrote his chapter’s annual show once or twice, and wrote/edited the chapter newsletter for years until he died. God, he loved it.

So I grew up singing. Although, like dad, I can’t read music. Got a pretty good ear, but I can’t read.

In September I mentioned on Facebook that I needed some new vices. Tori and I had marked the 100th day since we’d quit smoking. (FYI, s of this writing we’ve marked 214.) I also have cut back on my coffee consumption, and we recently realized we don’t drink much anymore. We didn’t “quit drinking alcohol,” we just realized we hardly ever do anymore. So I need some vices. And my Facebook friends were very helpful. If by “Helpful” you mean mostly mocking.

Among the offerings were suggestions that I take up meth (a non-starter), knitting and/or crocheting, move back to the northwest “and ease into the CBD trade,” volunteer for some do-good group or agency, get a New York Times crossword puzzle book (I already have the NYTimes crossword a day calendar. Any more than that would lead to madness.) online gambling or becoming a regular at a casino poker table, or adopting several cats and posting daily photos of their antics. Oh, and someone suggested that to fill the time I used to spend smoking, I take up smoking. Still scratching my head over that.

Two of the suggestions, however, weren’t stupid. The first sounded odd at first blush, but hear me out. FB friend Steve Sanders said “Try writing poetry. It is highly addictive, horribly distracting, and you will never make a living doing it. The perfect vice.” Well, he’s close. As I said up above, I’m writing the book for a pirate musical. A friend is writing the music. With a little luck the first draft will be ready by late spring. So it isn’t exactly writing poetry – but I will be writing and thinking in rhythm and rhyme.
And my son Max suggested he could teach me to play guitar. So that’s gonna be on the agenda as well this winter. Oh, I don’t expect I’ll ever be much good at it, but I want to be able to pick up a guitar and tinker around, make a little noise that is recognizable as music, and please myself, if no one else.

That was September. Then this Christmas we saw “The Messiah,” and although it wasn’t a sing along, that’s what I did.

And Tori, afterwords said she wanted me to start singing again. I have a very special wife. She’s never been the, “Oh, behave yourself and be serious” type. She’s the “How do we make this work?” type, and often knows what I want better than I do myself. So we talked about different things I might try, and I agreed my resolution for the new year would be to find a way to get music back in my life. Then Max came home and said the Symphony Chorus of New Orleans, which he had just sung with, was holding auditions and he invited me to come try out with him.

So that’s what I’ve come up with so far, the musical, the chorus and maybe guitar.

At the front door of the Guitar Center there is a sign that says “We Sell the Best Feeling on Earth” and every time I see it I think, “They must all be virgins.”

But I’m willing to give it a shot and find out if they know something I don’t.

Just in Case

Max and I went out to the Bywater (the neighborhood between the Marigny and the Ninth Ward) last night to see a man about a guitar case. Turned out the case wouldn’t fit the Fender we got Max at the garage sale last month. Too bad, it was a solid case at a great price. So he still doesn’t have a case for the guitar, but it wasn’t a wasted trip. The guy was fascinating. We met him at his studio and it seemed like he knew most of the musicians who have ever played in town, had stories and advice.

The most interesting – and immediately useful – thing he said was about the case. It was a plastic shipping case, the kind you’d use if you were checking a guitar on a plane. Sturdy. Good locks. He said it had been used once – when the guitar had been shipped to him. There was no point in using it. A gig bag makes more sense when you’re playing clubs and bars all around town.

“Most venues don’t have anyplace to store a case,” he said. “There’s no place to put it. Use a gig bag and you can throw it in a corner, or under the drummer’s platform or anywhere out of the way.”

So that’s next on the list. Find a good gig bag.

Saturday Science – Our Visit to LIGO

The LIGO control room. These monitors – and more to the left and right plus the banks of monitors at the work stations – keep track of what's going inside the massive detector.
The LIGO control room. These monitors – and more to the left and right plus the banks of monitors at the work stations – keep track of what’s going inside the massive detector.

Tori and I spent Saturday afternoon touring LIGO. Let me explain.

We had been watching a series of science documentaries recently, geeking out over black holes and the like. There was one about gravity waves, which had been predicted by Einstein but which had never been observed, tiny ripples in space-time spreading across the universe from massive, unseen events.

Unseen, that is, until September 2015, when a gravity wave from an event that occurred about 130 million years ago, was detected.

And then they said the words that got our attention. The observation had been made by the two LIGOs, which had been painstakingly designed and built for that specific purpose – one in Hanford, Washington, and one in Livingston, Louisiana.

Quick check of the map – that was only an hour’s drive away! Quick check of the website – They have tours every third Saturday of the month!

The two LIGO tunnels – the second is visible in front of the tree line – converge on the main building, where a laser beam is split and sent shooting down both sides.
The two LIGO tunnels – the second is visible in front of the tree line – converge on the main building, where a laser beam is split and sent shooting down both sides.

LIGO stands for Laser Interferometer Gravity-wave Observatory. It is comprised of two long tunnels – each two and a half miles long – at right angles to each other. They form a big L. Inside is a long vacuum pipe, the most complete vacuum in the country. A laser beam is split, shoots down both pipes and is reflected back, where it is recombined. If nothing interferes, the two beams arrive at exactly the same time and cancel each other out.

 

One of LIGO's two tunnels – two and a half miles long – stretches into the distance.
One of LIGO’s two tunnels – two and a half miles long – stretches into the distance.

But Einstein had suggested that if a gravity wave happens by at the speed of light, it would cause one of the pipelines to contract ever so slightly and the other to expand by the same minute amount. The laser beam would be briefly misaligned, and that would register on the sensors.

The first gravity wave detected was caused by a pair of black holes colliding. Last week they detected a black hole swallowing a neutron star.

And not too long ago they hit the trifecta – detecting the collision of two neutron stars, an event that was also observed by gamma ray detectors and visual telescopes. In fact, LIGO detected the event first and immediately flooded the wires with a report of what they thought they had and where astronomers should point their instruments. And sure enough, there was a bright new object in that part of the sky.

The “control room” is filled with computer monitors, walls full of them and banks of them on the desks. And all of them are monitoring conditions inside the tunnels. They don’t show what’s being detected, because it happens so fast a human observer wouldn’t see anything. Instead the system records all the data and if an anomaly shows up it lets the humans know.

There are three such detectors in the world – the two LIGOs, 3,000 miles apart, run by a consortium led by Cal Tech, and a third, VIRGO, outside Pisa, Italy, run by a European science consortium. They share data and analysis and between them they act like the three legs of a GPS system, allowing scientists to determine where in the great vast universe the event took place.

What’s the point? I mean, seriously, what difference does it make? Decades went into designing and building the detectors – to what end? Well, it proves another part of Einstein’s theory, it helps us understand how the universe is built and how it works. Knowing things is better than not knowing them.

It also emphasizes how damn big the universe is. LIGO had been shut down for a while to tweak the system and improve its sensitivity. It is now detecting gravity waves coming from farther out than ever before, at a rate of almost one a day! There’s a lot going on out there. The universe is a big, violent place.

The Livingston facility also had a nice visitor center with plenty of hands-on science for kids, all of them hammering home lessons on light and sounds waves and kinetic energy. It was a fun afternoon of …

SCIENCE!

Random Remarks on the Road

Tori needs her beach time, and Monday she got some. In her shadow, lower left, is a glimpse of Max.

Random thoughts on our Texas Trek (our “Treksas?)

We were in Texas four days to celebrate the graduation of a family friend. Here are random thoughts and experiences from the sojourn.

Used to be, a perfect GPA was 4.0. It was the best a kid could do. Nice round number.

More than 800 kids graduated. Some of them were insanely smart. And one had an amazing name.
More than 800 kids graduated. Some of them were insanely smart. And one had an amazing name.

But then they started adding weight for honors classes. I guess it makes sense, I mean shouldn’t an A in honors differential calculus count for more than an A in remedial basket weaving? But it throws the scale off, and I guess there’s no such thing as a “perfect” GPA anymore. Just a really, really good one.

Max had a 4.3 GPA when he graduated from EJ, which is damn good, had him in the top 10 in his class which helped a lot for college scholarships. But he wouldn’t have gotten a whiff of honors at the graduation we attended Sunday. The LOWEST five of the top 10 all had 4.7s, calculated out to the thousandth of a point.

The kid who had a 4.800 finished fifth. FIFTH! He worked his ass off, got a 4.8, and only finished fifth. There must have been a moment when he said, “What’s the freakin’ point? I might as well cut the soles off my shoes, sit in a tree and learn to play the flute.” (Bonus points for any reader who recognizes the origin of that phrase.)

Can you imagine what went through the mind of whoever was 11th in the class? Undoubtedly had a 4.7something  and didn’t get a mention.

The top in the class was 4.8615, which was the highest GPA of any graduate in the district’s seven high school. And none of these kids, when they were introduced, seemed the least uber-geeky. They all belonged to a bunch of clubs, many of which they started, played in the band, were officers in state organizations. One was even an Eagle Scout.

Amazing kids.

Tori and Ricardo and his fifth grade science fair project. At the time he took the demotion of Pluto from plant to minor planet very badly.
Tori and Ricardo and his fifth grade science fair project. At the time he took the demotion of Pluto from plant to minor planet very badly.

The graduation we attended was for a family friend – Ricardo Lopez. The family – which we call The Lopi, which we maintain is the plural of Lopez – are friends from our St. Croix days. During our last year on the island, Ricardo was in the fifth grade class Tori taught at the Good Hope School. He was her favorite student she’s ever taught. He was a little round ball full of smiles. Now, somehow, he has turned into a tall, handsome young man who will be going to Pace University in New York in the fall.

Overheard at our table at dinner – okay, I didn’t overhear it, I actually said it – “So where do the cool kids hang out around here? (longish pause) They never told you, did they.”

I take a perverse pleasure in hearing people sigh and say “Only the Baurs.” Most recently as the graduates were parading in for half an hour, we started a kick line in our row.

The Lopez Family (or Lopi, in Baurspeak) at graduation.
The Lopez Family (or Lopi, in Baurspeak) at graduation.

Far be it from me to make fun of a kid’s name, but this one is truly impressive. Just to be sure, I’m going to change ONE LETTER in the last name of this kid. The graduate with the most amazing name I’ve ever seen was: Oluwatumininu Oluwatuminmise Sadole. Wow. The name appears to be of Yoruba origin, translates to something like “God has regenerated me,” and statistically is more likely be a girl than boy, although either is possible and I missed his/her’s walk across the stage. (Give me a break, there were more than 800 kids in this graduating class.)

But when I spotted that name in the program I thought, “I’ll bet that kid can’t WAIT until she’s old enough to go to court and get the name changed legally to something simpler, something like Oluwatumininu Oluwatuminmise Jones.

That’d be SO much better.

Tori needs her beach time, and Monday she got some. In her shadow, lower left, is a glimpse of Max.
Tori needs her beach time, and Monday she got some. In her shadow, lower left, is a glimpse of Max.

The drive to Houston (actually Katy, Texas, where the Lopez family lives. It’s an affluent suburb just west of Houston) takes about six hours and we drove straight out. On the way home, however, we meandered.

First we headed down to the Texas coast to get just a little beach time in. Most of what we saw was a lot like the coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, much of Alabama, the Florida panhandle. Many rental houses on stilts, gas stations and strip malls. But the beach was nice, certainly better than Mississippi’s. And when we got into Galveston, that was actually quite nice. Very resortish, a well-cared for beach, good restaurants. Yeah, WAY too built up, but still the nicest place I’ve yet seen on the Gulf coast. I wish we’d had more time there, but we had only the one afternoon and night. I’d like to have spent a little time on the history of the 1900 hurricane that demolished the island, killing 8,000 people in the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Our drive home was “blue line highway” as far as we could go, staying off the main highways and interstate and poking around in the boonies. We passed through Port Arthur, Texas, a miserable place, all refineries and dust and oily smells. But it was the birthplace of Janis Joplin, so we paid our tribute. You could certainly understand why she was in a hurry to get out.

There was more, a lot more, crammed into four days. But anyone who has read this far has probably had their patience tested to the limit, and I really need to get on to other things.

on the beach Texas

Tori and John Off On An Adventure

I was last in Nashville in late December 1969. I was 14 years old when my family moved from Nashville, where we’d lived for five years, to Los Angeles.

Both I and the city have changed, and it’s hard to say which has changed most.

We got into town around 8. Between my vague memories of street names and the map on my phone we were never “lost,” but we weren’t where I thought we’d be. One benefit was that when we stopped for gas I realized we were much closer to Centennial Park than I’d thought we would be, so we took a few minutes so that Tori’s first glimpse of the Parthenon was at night, glowing under the spotlights, the way it should be.

ParthenonFor those who aren’t aware, Nashville has a full scale replica of the Greek temple. It was built for an exhibition in – I want to say 1898 – because the city has always fancied itself “the Athens of the South.” The images in the pediment were created by taking molds from the original.

The only problem with this picture is it doesn’t give you anything like the scale. The Parthenon is massive. For an idea, inside is a 42-foot tall sculpture of Athena. It’s the tallest indoor sculpture in the United States. And the bronze doors are seven feet wide, 24 feet high and a foot thick, and weigh more than seven tons. But they were hung so perfectly you can push them open with a single finger.

So we saw that, (and since Tori teaches social studies, that makes this a business trip. Take THAT, IRS!)  then decided to find a place to stay. Of course we didn’t do research and make reservations in advance, that’s not our style. We go and play it by ear. And we eventually checked into a hotel in the south end of town that was less than our budget and is nice and clean and new.

And, as I realized after we checked in, the hotel is only a few miles from the house I lived in for five years, from 1965 to ’70. Only this whole development – restaurants and stores and strip malls and hotels – didn’t even exist in 1970. This was all rolling, partially wooded hills.

We’re off now to break an old family curse and then tour the Confederate cemetery in Franklin – used to be a farming town south of Nashville. Now it’s all built up like everything else.

A Sad Story at an Estate Sale

Tori and I went to an estate sale this morning, and it just made us sad.

An estate sale is distinct from a yard sale. A yard sale is people trying to make a few bucks by selling their crap to people who say, “Hey! I’ve been looking all over for crap like this! I could really use this crap!” An estate sale, on the other hand, is usually about the family trying to empty mom and dad’s home of a lifetime of accumulated things so they can sell the house.

And estate sales usually have a story. Sometimes the story is about the couples’ travels around the world, or their love of golf, or photography, or gardening or fishing. A life spent painting, or a career aboard working ships. There’s a story, and the keepsakes, treasure and chachkas are usually laid out to show them to their best advantage. To tell the story.

Not so Saturday. We had been drawn by the photo on craigslist that showed a shelf of Toby jugs, including a pirate one. We are not collectors, but – you know – pirates.

We walked into the house in northern Metairie, a nice neighborhood, and into the saddest story I think I’ve ever seen. First of all, there was no order. I was instantly reminded of a reporter I had worked with who came back from interviewing an older woman and told us, “The knickknack shelves were choc-a-block with bric-a-brac.” Only this was far, far worse. It was chaos, accompanied by a smell that I can only call “little old lady funk.”

platesThere were easily a thousand Styrofoam containers – maybe twice that many, it was impossible to count them all. Most were about eight inches square and an inch thick, many still sealed in the plastic they had been shipped in. They spilled from every closet, they were piled on every flat surface, formed small, sad mountains in the corners of every room in the squalid house. Each contained a “collectible” plate. There were series of sports stars (Mickey Mantle, Steve Young, Kordell Stewart,) birds (Orioles in the Summer, Robins in Flight.) There was a Japanese series of kimono clad geishas. Religious themes, a series of sunsets. Children praying.

Closet shelves were swaybacked under the weight of them.

closet of platesMost of them you had to guess at, because few had been catalogued or labeled or accounted for in any way. They had been delivered, and immediately put away. There were also dozens of those little ceramic, Victorian buildings, each with a little light in it, that you put together into a display of an old village – church, train station, etc. Except these had never been displayed. They were all in their containers, stashed away in closets.

There were a few books, none less than 30 years old, copies of Life and Look magazine (both of which have been out of circulations since the early ’70s,) record albums – 33s and 78s – including one that caught my horrified attention, “Tschaikowsky’s Nutcracker Suite in Dance Tempo,” by Freddy Martin and his Orchestra. Thank god it was a 78 or I’d have been tempted, even though I don’t own a turntable.

In the kitchen there was a mass of dishware and appliances, all of it old. For instance, there was what I took to be the base of a blender that must have been 50 years old. A woman plugged in a coffee pot to see if it worked. It started smoking. She bought it anyway.

stack of platesThere was little in the way or clothing or personal items. No men’s clothing. A couple of canes hung over a door, they were noticeably short.

On one wall were proudly hung three well-framed diplomas. I had gleaned from the packing materials of the plates that the woman’s first initial was A, her husband’s was D. These diplomas – bachelor’s degree, masters, and doctorate, all in engineering – were all to someone whose first name was James, almost certainly a son. There was no other sign of a son in the home. Maybe he’d already gone through and taken anything of sentimental value, but why would he have left his diplomas?

even more platesThe story that emerged was of a woman whose husband had died some 30 years ago or more, who had lost contact with her son – either he had died or tired of his mother’s obsession. Her life revolved around these collectible plates. Not for their aesthetic value. The few actually on display on the wall were of Native American motifs and were nothing special. Each day that the mailman delivered a package from W.S. George Fine China or some other such purveyor was a special day for her. She lived for it. Some of these packages she opened, but most she cherished just “having” them and put them away wherever they’d fit. Even the ones she opened to look at were put back into their containers and stored.

It wasn’t a collection. It was a hoard. And it was sad.

A quick online check confirmed that these plates had only slight economic value – a website for similar objects was asking $16 a plate, and what you ask and what you actually can get are two different things. There were two guys working the sale for one of those estate sale companies, and the one we talked to was very stoned. I said to Tori that if we were different people we would offer the stoned one, say, 50 cents or a buck a plate, walked away with a couple of hundred, then catalogued them, put ’em online for five bucks a pop, and made a little money. But before I could even add the obvious she said it for me. “We’re not those people.” No. We’re not.

bad musicNetflix tidiness star Marie Kondo would have been horrified. She would have thrown up her hands and run shrieking. This wasn’t a space that needed blessing or thanking. It needed a flame thrower.

We did buy something – a book (a collection of Alexander Woolcott’s writing from the early New Yorker that I was happy to get for $2,) and a 1968 Life Magazine (that I remembered from school) containing an unpublished/unfinished Mark Twain manuscript, for a buck. There were a couple of the Toby jugs left, but the pirate was long gone, so we left those alone.

And we made ourselves a promise. As soon as we got home, we were going to throw something away. Anything. Because, damn!

And now I need a shower. To wash the sadness off.