Uncut 2015 Christmas Letter

Hello, people-I-swear-to-write-but-never-do, relatives, and/or those who have filled me with a sense of obligation by mailing me something first!  Greetings of a seasonal variety to you!  May your Christmas season be full of love, hope, peace, and other fruits of the Spirit.

What follows is my attempt to sum up my year, despite the fact that you probably have learned most of this information via Facebook and, moreover, don’t expect changes of any great magnitude, because there weren’t any.  Unless you count starting on an antidepressant, in which case: there was one change of some magnitude in the past few months, and it is somewhat obvious if I forget it.   …pardon me a moment, I just realized I forgot something…

Right, so.  Life!  And the aspects thereof.  Well.  First off, there’s my…

Job: Yeaaah, I’m still at the law office.  I’ve now spent half a year as secretary for two attorneys, without more salary to show for it. Awesome.  Also awesome: doing anything with the court of appeals for the first time; we are all of us flailing about and consulting the court rules every 5 minutes.

Housing:  You may recall me living in a rental house with 3 other ladies.  As one of my erstwhile roommates got married and remained with her spouse in the house, Cecilia and I moved a whopping .8 miles north and east across Washtenaw.  This is close enough to walk between them, but far enough that anything you sent to my old address will miss me.  Except that I eventually put my mail on forward.  I meant to send you a tidy little handwritten note with my new address, but that just didn’t happen.  Sorry.

Romantic Relationships: Hahahaha, psych!  There’s been nothing of the sort for the last eight years at least.  This year, I went on 3 mediocre dates and 1 decent one, followed by some uninspired texts and no calls.  Friends have suggested I broaden my field of search to include more states, or at least the Fort Wayne seminary.  I may yet do so.

But! I am not without commitments: I have bought two new bookshelves this year and, by virtue of having a roommate who did the actual acquisition, acquired two kittens.  I’ve also become an official member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, having decided after 1.5 years in their choir that I wouldn’t just run off somewhere else.  Except for the weekends when I’m off attending weddings, when I will run most anywhere given sufficient notice.  There were three such weddings this year – those of my erstwhile housemate Hannah G. W., my other erstwhile housemate Liz C. N., and my concert-going, somewhat-indie music-supplying, lemon-jousting drinking buddy Hannah M. K., whose Astoria wedding was a delight to witness and stand up in.  I also attended my friend Zach’s ordination to the Roman Catholic priesthood, which is basically like a wedding, except without a 300% markup on the celebratory cake.

There is now another wedding on the horizon, as my brother Paul is engaged to one of my dearest friends, Michelle; I am quite pleased for them (mostly because I am not the one currently dealing with obscene markups for nuptial celebration paraphernalia)(but also because I love them both dearly and, you know, hope they will carry on in delight together &c)(that said, Paul could be a bit less nauseating in his effusions of loving feeling)(someone get me a bucket).

I'm not even an engineer. Just label me "Exhausted" or "Envious" or something.

I’m not even an engineer. Just label me “Exhausted.”

Other celebrations: 12th Night (complete with Shakespeare, almond cake, and crowns); my first Feuerzangenbowle (complete with fiery sugar and carol-singing); Michaelmas (complete with more Milton than I’ve ever read in one sitting before); St. Crispin‘s Day (complete with yelling the Henry V speech to passersby on Mackinac Island); and birthday celebrations of several people, including me (complete with playing two games of Boggle at once!  Or eating Moroccan food/bowling/drinking Greek wine/reading Evelyn Waugh/however we celebrated birthdays).

I also basked in the reflected glory of my brother John competing on Jeopardy! in January, and his return for the Tournament of Champions in November.  My own knowledge of trivia has not been sufficient to get me past the online Jeopardy! test, but it HAS won me a few rounds on LearnedLeague.com.  Aw yiss.  So much less of a timesink than either TriviaCrack or JetPunk, addictions which I have overcome!   …Sadly I have not overcome my addiction to Sherlock fanfiction; please pray for my soul and/or recommend a support group.

No one can tell this deer is wearing jeans anyway.

No one can tell this deer is wearing jeans anyway.

On the bright side, I have profited greatly from reading both The Joy of Less and unfuckyourhabitat.tumblr.com, not that you can necessarily tell by looking at my work desk or my bedroom.  But I’ve managed to dispose of some papers that had lingered for the last year or six, and got rid of some brown pants just in time to miss them at Halloween.

Other consumables:  Continuing my tradition of checking things out of the library for as long as possible, I’ve had a couple books by Milosz out for 2 years now. It’s like grad school library privileges without needing to be in grad school.  Books I actually read include some volumes on orthography, a couple intriguing books by Neil Postman, and I, Robot; generally my reading material has been more poetic, word-loving, critical, depressed, and mildly feminist.

Viewing-wise, this has been the year of my finally watching Die Hard, The Room (via RiffTrax Live), Zoolander, and White Christmas for the very first time.  National Theatre Live brought Coriolanus and Hamlet within my purview, for which I both bless and curse them.  2015 also involved an Iron Man marathon (which, lest you be deceived, involves no physical activity) and more watching of The Decoy Bride / Not Another Happy Ending than is strictly advisable.  Not to mention The Mindy Project, Inspector Lewis, and odds and ends from Parks and Rec.

I remain a member of the UMS Choral Union, which performed Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Handel’s Messiah; as mentioned above, I’m part of my church choir as well.  Occasionally I pinch-hit as an alto because we are as poor in altos as we are rich in sopranos.  Shocking, I know.

This year’s culinary adventuring included the eating of Moroccan bistilla (would recommend) and the cooking of meringues, gluten-free pizza, and gluten-free fried chicken.  There were also a fair allotment of cocktails: lots of G&Ts and a fair sampling of Drinking with the Saints.

Also wik:  I read with some alacrity the epic saga of Brother Orange; I learned more of the geography of John and Elizabeth’s neighborhood whilst dogsitting, when I accidentally walked their dog Hektor 5 miles longer than necessary;  and I did the most Pinterest-y project of my life, namely, using twine and clothespins to hang a bunch of stuff, mostly calligraphy, on my bedroom wall.

963

There you have it: a far longer summary of a year than you might want or need.  Merry freaking Christmas, y’all.  See you all in 2016, unless I don’t actually.

Much love,
(really, I promise)
Joy

Onward, majestic Frog Steed!

Onward, majestic Frog Steed!  Onward to 2016!

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An Open Letter to Scott H

Dear Scott,

It’s performance week of Handel’s Messiah. It’s crunch time; little, if any, can be changed about the choir’s rendering of the oratorio in these final hours. You know this. It’s too late to change the past, but I hope with a bit of constructive criticism to improve the future.

In short, I have some bones to pick.

Perhaps this seems unfair. You are not Jerry Blackstone, and one can’t expect all the same things of you. His are huge shoes: everyone said it when he stepped back from conducting CU, everyone said it as we auditioned 6 potential conductors, everyone keeps thinking it this season.

We understand that you aren’t Jerry. Given that fact, here’s how to make the best of it.

I.  Understand that you have limited rehearsal time, given several performances.

As conductor, you have had about 47 hours of rehearsal time with us this semester. That is not a lot of hours, especially considering that 5 rehearsals were mostly devoted to the Beethoven Choral Fantasy; 5 rehearsals were half-devoted to the Halftime show; and there are only 9 rehearsals devoted to Messiah, including the dress rehearsals this week.

You do not have the time, nor the necessity, to teach us this music. Consider how often most of us have performed this piece: the only thing you need to do is determine how best to polish it, how to set it as a gem for the audience’s delight. You do not have time to run each movement, start to finish, several times. You do not have time for dumb jokes, or for long extraneous asides, or for wondering at the noise in the hallway. There are opportunities for wit, but keep it relevant. Don’t break the mood when we’re all focused. Over 200 adults have offered up their time to you; for pity’s sake, use it well.

How best to do that? Plan. Do the markings in advance, and get them to us in advance, so we have time to put them in before Monday evening rehearsals. Anticipate and identify problem spots; if you know that the basses always scoop here, the sopranos always go flat there, the tenors sound weak in this movement, and the altos sound like children during that movement…why would you not work to change it? What do you observe? If you don’t know what goes wrong and where – or need to hear it several times to discern mistakes – record the first few rehearsals for analysis, and send us all your notes.  Consult with the section leaders.  Mark the especially problematic sections with Post-It Notes. Start and stop each movement, polish our entrance notes and cutoffs and very particular vowels in between: short chunks, which can be smoothed out until excellence is not a fluke, but a habit.

Likewise, be sure that each movement gets attention. Rehearse the movements in reverse order half the time, so we know we’ve sung “Worthy is the Lamb” and “Since by man came death” with as much energy and attention as we’ve sung “And the glory of the Lord.”  This is especially beneficial for Handel newbies; give them a chance to grow as familiar with the end as with the beginning.

II.  Look at your life; look at your choices.

I know you wanted us all to have a fresh score, with fresh markings. None of us want to be the odd man out, sustaining a note which is meant to have an earlier cutoff, or singing marcato where everyone else sings legato. That said, the Bärenreiter score is nearly a pound heavier than the Watkins-Shaw edition (why?! For the love of God, Montresor!); it cost us all twice as much as a fresh Watkins-Shaw would have; it leaves out the scriptural references and is thus an inferior resource; and its musical changes are so minor that I cannot understand how you think it worth the trouble.

Nor can I understand why you would encourage us to de-emphasize consonants, “except for d sounds…and the K of king…and two t’s here…” Those consonants took ages to put in, and now we’re all singing “All we lie she” instead of a phrase that makes any sense. To quote Jerry, “The words will never get to the ends of the world without enunciation!” De-emphasizing sibilants makes sense (such hissing), but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater there.

Lastly, I don’t understand how you relate to the work as a whole. You downplay its religious significance as if it doesn’t matter. Perhaps it doesn’t, to you; perhaps you have worked at churches and cathedrals ironically. The fact is, the dogma is the drama: we are telling a hall full of people how God became man, suffered, died, was resurrected, and intercedes for us. The realities behind this music are the biggest and most significant drama that has ever existed.

That should be obvious from the text. That should be obvious in how you conduct it, and how we sing it. Why doesn’t this come through in how you talk about the music? Sometimes you treat Handel as though he’s cheap. This music doesn’t matter simply because it’s a venerable tradition, in Ann Arbor and elsewhere, but because of what it says about the Incarnate Word of God.  Jennens himself prefaced the libretto with 1 Timothy 3:16 and Colossians 2:3, saying “Let us sing of great things!”

III. Expect More.

This isn’t a singalong, but a work of musicianship.  We may be volunteers, but by golly, we have a tradition of excellence.  That excellence is not spontaneously generated. It doesn’t just happen…but it CAN happen. You have to request and require it. Call for our attention, call for our energy, call for our eyes until we lift them to you. Conduct each of us, so that there’s some point to looking at you. Call us on our bullshit, on our muddled melismas, on our failure to sit in the woodshed with the tricky sections. Put us on the spot as voice parts. Use our pride. Suggest the altos join the tenors if the men sound wimpy. Suggest the sopranos who can’t avoid screechiness sit out for a few notes. Work on articulation and cull the bits where individuals bring us down. Point out what the MUSIC emphasizes.  Trust us to follow where you lead, and start as you mean to go on, because practice makes permanent.  We will only ever be as good as you expect and rehearse us to be.

Throughout the season and throughout the piece, demand beauty and we will provide it.

Not without reason is “beauty” scrawled in my old orange Watkins-Shaw score over and over. Beautiful notes, beautiful shaping, never louder than is beautiful: the beauty of the music was always at the fore. Identify the singing that isn’t beautiful. Call attention to it. Demonstrate what’s gone wrong (to your credit, you do this on occasion), and show us how to make it right, because we can make it right. You may have to learn to sing better to do this effectively. Use every tool in your arsenal. Ponder your metaphors in advance so that you can draw forth the desired pitch, tone, or vowel. We are a vast organ; pull the proper stops.

This is, I think, the most important point to get across. No one hears a note out of you, yet you are the conductor of this whole work. Demand more of yourself. You are our general, our coach, our fearless leader, our pickiest critic, our constant exhorter. You are Henry V, urging us on to glory. You are Jim Harbaugh, screaming in our face when needed.  You are the sun, and we a congregation of moons reflecting what you shine forth (be it bright or dim).  You are our witch doctor and our energy drink. This might well wring you dry. Singing is mental, not merely physical; lead us so that our minds join our mouths in the process. Every limb of your body, every line of your face, should display to us what ought to be happening at any given moment, tugging the music forth from us. Be the most fascinating thing on the stage, and you can bet that our eyes will be fixed on you.

Do not harp on the difficulty of the task before us so much as you emphasize how worthwhile the effort, how excellent a thing this music is in itself. Remind us what we’re doing here. Remember it yourself: that this grand work builds and builds in tension until that very last page of climactic, cathartic, resplendent “Amens.” Relish it. Cherish it, as so many looking on cherish it. Let the music thrill you! Let yourself be transported by it; in doing so, you will transport us, and thus every person in attendance.

Cordially,
A soprano

PS – Talk faster. Get some caffeine if you need it.
PPS – It takes more effort for you to conduct our standing and sitting. It will take more time, and frankly, sounds like a power trip. Just don’t.
PPPS – On the biggest movements, JB emphasized that we not oversing – not to be “louder than lovely.” The fastest movements, he urged us not to rush; there’s always a danger of some dragging on the melismas, but possibly other voices with simpler notes are rushing ahead. Or perhaps everyone is singing a melisma, and the hasty singers are keeping us from lining up properly.
PPPPS – You’ve told us a couple times to raise our faces from our scores.  It might also behoove you to ask us to hold our scores high and flat, lest they block our mouths, and to turn pages as quietly as possible.  I don’t believe you’ve mentioned either yet.
PPPPPS – Per Jerry: “Perhaps you’ve sung this a million times. But it has to sound like the first time it’s ever happened.”
“SAY Something! Don’t just repeat nonsense phrases!”
“You would sing that differently if you were thinking ‘First Noel’ instead of ‘This is the end of the fugue; I can rest now.'”
“Now put all that in a smaller, more beautiful box.”
“Don’t be safe! Be beautiful!”

Seeking Song and Story

Once upon a time, I read this guest post by Briana of Pages Unbound.  I put in my two cents about sidekick protagonists, carried on with my reading, and proceeded not to think about it further for four months.  But that post has been bouncing about my mind of late, for a couple of reasons.

The first is that Briana sought something that might not have existed.  She wasn’t looking for help remembering that one book she read in seventh grade that focused on the sidekick for a change and also it involved the Brooklyn skyline somehow. Had none of us readers had any volume to suggest, we might have taken it as a request to create such a narrative for her.

The second reason I’ve been thinking about it is that this post highlights the benefit of human eyes and human minds when one is on the hunt.  Google and other search engines do their very best to help one find a particular item or passage, and there have often been times when I could use such tools to find a song, a movie, a book of which I only recalled the haziest details.  But if you don’t come up with the right search terms, or if your query gets too lengthy, it can impede rather than assist your progress.

Therefore, dear readers, I bring my concerns to you, and hope that you can help with one or the other of these things I seek.

I’m looking for…

…a piece of music. 

I sang it in June 2001, at the Illinois Summer Youth Music choir camp.  It is called “Canticle,” and I sang it as part of an all-girl ensemble led by some Canadian lady whose name eludes me.  Tragically, I supposed that remembering all the words and most all of the notes would help me to find it again.  I was mistaken.  The text is Psalm 89:1 (or Psalm 88:2 for the Douay-Rheims folk) in Latin: Misericordias Domini in æternum cantabo; in generationem et generationem annuntiabo veritatem tuam in ore meo.  No idea who composed it.  No idea if it’s a setting of some earlier composer’s work or chant.  Someone, for the love of my sanity, tell me this rings a bell for you.

UPDATE: I ask, and Jenna delivers!!  Michael Levi’s Canticle!  MY HEART IS FULL OF SONG.

…an explanation for why “capital” should be different from “capitol.” 

Evidently I completely forgot this distinction in the years since my elementary spelling classes, but “capital” refers to the city or town which serves as the seat of government, while “capitol” refers to the building in which the legislature gathers.  Typically heterographs don’t bother me, but I just. don’t. understand.  Someone call the Inky Fool.

UPDATE: I have been informed that the legislative building was named, per Jefferson, for the Roman temple of Jupiter on Capitoline Hill.  Thus far I am satisfied that the difference stems from an existing difference between the words in Rome, but there has been no further illumination of the difference between Latin suffixes or whatnot.  Do feel free to ring up Inky anyway and see what capital he can make of it.

…a less-typical narrative. 

This one’s a bit tricky to explain.  Earlier today, I read this post (which, briefly, is the story of Susan Isaacs looking for love online, getting rejected from eHarmony because she didn’t fit into their algorithm, and eventually finding The Man on Christian Cafe).  I’m not 41, and my fortnight on OkCupid is nothing compared to Susan’s litany of dating site attempts.  When I reached the end, I was glad for her: she seems to have found what she was looking for, and it rounded out the story quite neatly.  But it also rang a bit hollow because it rounded out the story so neatly.

    "The artistic flaw is inaccuracy, specifically a violation of the canons of reality. Things don’t happen that neatly. It’s an upward slope, finally plateauing into a straight line. Which…when that happens on your heart monitor, it’s a bad thing." Oh, Dr. Whalen. How illuminating you are.

“The artistic flaw is inaccuracy, specifically a violation of the canons of reality. Things don’t happen that neatly. It’s an upward slope, finally plateauing into a straight line. Which…when that happens on your heart monitor, it’s a bad thing.” Oh, Dr. Whalen. How illuminating you are.

This isn’t normally a criticism I raise, because I appreciate both romance and happy, tidy endings.  I don’t recall ever complaining about the Prince marrying The Girl in any given fairy tale, or how relationships (and events more generally) shake out in Austen, Harry Potter, Stardust, or the Lord Peter stories.  I don’t whinge about Dune ending with “History will call us wives,” or the end of That Hideous Strength.  I don’t consider myself a feminist, and have never evaluated books on the basis of whether or not they pass the Bechdel Test.

But Susan’s story (and Hannah Coulter, and The Princess Bride, and any given article on Boundless) suggests that there is no other narrative, that no lady can ever be happy without The One, that the only ending possible is marriage.  This ground has been trod by a lot of women in tiresome family-vs-career arguments, but the fact remains that I want a story: a different story than my usual fare, something involving a woman who is content with a different sort of happy ending.  I’m looking for a female character who is content to live her life on her own, if only to show me that it is possible.

Surely one must exist; for all I know, there are dozens, hundreds, thousands of such stories that I’ve completely missed.  And if not, my dears, please help me write one.