Friday, May 28, 2010

Luther Quote

This comes from Luther's Works (American Edition), vol. 4, pp. 191-192, where Luther comments on Genesis 23:3 and the death of Abraham's wife Sarah...
If we were so strong and could believe without any doubt that Christ died for our sins and rose again for our justification and life (Rom. 4:25), no terror or fear would cling to us; for the death of Christ is a sort of sacrament which assures us that our death is nothing. But the weak are affected more by examples than by a sacrament, for because of the greatness of the Person of Christ it does not penetrate hearts so easily and persuade them to despise death.

Therefore we cling to examples that are analogous, just as I myself sometimes take more pleasure in the example of Sarah than in that of Christ. The reason is the weakness of my faith. Sarah’s death has greater appeal and more comfort for me, since I know that she was a most saintly woman. Nevertheless, I hear that she dies, is buried, and is forgotten in such a shameful manner, as though she had been snatched from the sight not only of men but also of God and the angels. If this happened to her, I shall not be disturbed, even though the same thing happens to me.

But those who have greater strength of heart and faith cherish this sacrament; and because they believe that the Son of God died for them, they scoff at death and regard Satan an
d hell as a jest, in accordance with 1 Cor. 15:55: “O death, where is thy sting?” and Col. 2:15: “He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in Himself.” Here Paul is speaking very mockingly and disdainfully about death.

The reason is that for Paul Christ is not only an example but also a sacrament, which is richer and far more sublime than an example. For the sacrament supplies in manifold ways and without limit whatever is lacking in the example. Sarah did not die for me; nor can she bestow life on me. But it is the majesty and importance of the sacrament that it has life-giving power which will restore life to me in the resurrection of the dead.

The example of Sarah is the rhetoric, as it were, which draws, arouses, and persuades us to despise death; but the sacrament brings about and works in my body what was brought about in Abraham and many saints who were raised from the dead.

Therefore examples should not be scorned, since the rhetoric they employ is pleasant; but because the example of Christ is at the same time a sacrament, it is efficacious in us and not only teaches us, as do the examples of the fathers, but accomplishes what it teaches. It gives life, the resurrection, and deliverance from death.

The examples of the saints teach that one has to die, and they persuade us to bear death with composure. Over and above this, however, Christ’s example says: “Arise. Be alive in death. Your putridity will become more radiant and more brilliant than the sun.” For Christ’s example is a sacrament which bears witness and makes us certain; it not only teaches or persuades but proves and demonstrates necessarily that Christ’s death imparts life to us.
In this passage, Luther uses the word "sacrament" in an unusual way. Nevertheless, he also makes a distinction that has lately been growing in my mind - the distinction between using God's Word as a basis for argument and rhetoric on the one hand, and on the other hand being healed by the efficacious power of the Gospel.

In another place, Luther approvingly quotes his protector, Elector Frederick of Saxony, as saying: "Those addresses which are based on the arguments and traditions of men are extremely cold, unconvincing, and weak; for nothing can be adduced that is so keen that it cannot be refuted by other arguments. Only the Sacred Scriptures have such a majestic and powerful tone, even without our effort, that they can meet and dispose of all the debating tricks and compel one to say (John 7:46; Matt. 7:29): 'No man ever spoke like this man! He teaches as one who has authority, not as the scribes and Pharisees!'" (LW 14:283).

God forgive me for all the time I wasted in my youth in trying to convince doubters and deniers of His truth by rhetoric and argument, and help me to check the continuing tendency to do the same! For I now see the truth of what Luther and his Elector are saying here. The Kingdom of Heaven is not founded on syllogism or dialectical persusasion. Rather, the Gospel must be proclaimed, and its efficacy trusted, and the results left in God's hands. To Him be all the glory!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


I've started carrying a tiny notebook in my car, so I can jot down ideas to write about later. I find this ever so much more satisfying than getting home after work and thinking, "Darn! I've forgotten the theme I was on fire to compose at 6:00 this morning!"

One of the jottings I found today, as I flipped through my notebook, was the following one-liner which I evidently meant as part of my still-developing stand-up routine:

"All right, class. Let's have a show of hands. How many of you actually think I care what you think? Hmm. Interesting..."

Whimsy Contest

OK, folks. Now is the time! If you have a Google ID and password, use it. If you don't, get one. I want your feedback on this!

There is a street in the St. Louis area -- at least, it runs through Clayton, in a neighborhood I seldom visit. But on the few occasions when I have seen signage for this street, I have always thought it deserved a snappy comeback. The street's name is WYDOWN. Don't you just love the possibilities?

All right, my first attempt to complete the thought begun by "Wydown" was: ...WY NOT UP? A bit obvious, though, isn't it?

The last time I went through that neighborhood, my wit took me a little further: ...AND TAKE IT WYKE A MAN!

Now it's your turn. Use the comments to suggest a snarky (but family-friendly) follow-up to Wydown, or any other given street name. Go on! It won't bite!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Cashore, Croggon, Law

by Kristin Cashore
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the fantasy world where this tale takes place, it's easy to tell when someone is "Graced" with a special ability. It's their eyes that give them away: the left eye a different color from the right. One such graceling is Katsa, niece of one of the seven kings who rule the seven kingdoms. Her grace was first revealed when, at the age of eight, she killed a man with a flick of her hand. Since then, her uncle has used her as his personal enforcer. He sends her to break arms, cut off fingers, and sometimes do worse things to those who have fallen from favor. But secretly, Katsa has started a Council of good-doers, dedicated to holding the line against the madness of the kings.

One of Katsa's missions for the Council takes her to the dungeons of a neighboring kingdom, where she rescues the kidnapped father of yet another king. The question of why this sickly, powerless prince should be kidnapped, and by whom, draws Katsa into an adventure that will test her will and her heart. For she will find friendship and even love in unexpected places, discover surprising things about herself and her grace, brave unbelievable hardships, and face an enemy more dangerous than you can probably imagine.

First, Katsa meets another graced fighter, a Prince named Greening Grandemalion, otherwise known as Po. They both learn that their grace was not what they thought it was. Po challenges Katsa to change her mind about what matters most deeply. Then she is joined by a vulnerable girl named Bitterblue in a desperate chase across alpine heights and billowing seas. Their adventure comes to a gripping, scary-fairy-tale climax, then continues with an unexpectedly long and rich resolution of more intimate issues between Katsa and Po.

From what I have already said, you may already perceive that this story is not structured like a typical fairy tale. The story continues surprisingly long after the main crisis has passed. Yet it doesn't give a reader the urge to sniff: "Will this flipping book never end?" Perhaps that's because it's more of a case of the story having two crises to get over, rather than one crisis followed by an awful lot of wrapping-up. The second crisis--the more personal, character-driven one--is just as compelling as the one with the gosh-wow fantasy concept tied into it. On the other hand, it doesn't come to a predictable resolution.

And here we come to the point where this book really veers out of the folklore template. It's hard to explain what I mean without spoiling the story for you. To put it in very general terms, the romantic tension between the two lead characters doesn't find quite the release you would expect. Some readers will probably think it's mindblowingly original and ahead of its time. Many will enjoy it out of sheer titillation. But some readers, perhaps, may be challenged to think about the role traditional values of right and wrong play in making fairy stories meaningful. I, for one, was looking for a different outcome to the Katsa-Po storyline, and I personally feel the author erred in the choice she made. But apart from that, her book is a pleasure to read; and there are few, if any, perfect pleasures. We must bear with the imperfections gladly!

The Singing
by Alison Croggon
Recommended Ages: 13+

The Fourth Book of Pellinor concludes the series that purports to be a translation of the epic "Naraudh Lar-Chanë," left behind by the long-extinct civilization of the lost continent of Edil-Amarandh. If you haven't already heard of the previous books The Naming, The Riddle and The Crow, you might be surprised when I say this series could rival The Lord of the Rings as an achievement in language arts, mythic storytelling, and pure entertainment.

Young bards Maerad and her brother Hem have been separated both by geography and by the first tremors of a war that could shake their world to its foundations. But now that each of them possesses half of the Treesong--an artifact beyond the magic of all bards that could either heal or destroy all that they know--each of the siblings feels drawn to seek the other. Their meeting is bound to be eventful, for Maerad is the "chosen one," who alone can destroy the Nameless One and halt his spreading darkness. Plus, both siblings are touched by Elemental blood, a bond with beings whose power for good and ill is terrifying even to the magically gifted bards.

This, then, is what you need to know before you read how Hem attempts to save his friend Saliman from a plague called the White Sickness. This knowledge will prepare you to stand on the battlements of Innail with Maerad as she risks total obliteration to fight off a being so mighty that it can scarcely be distinguished from the mountain that shares its name. Maerad grows so powerful that she becomes a legend in her own lifetime. How strange it is when this slip of a girl hears her own heroic deeds being sung by the bards! And yet her power is frightening, even to those nearest and dearest to her, so that the final stretches of her long quest are an ordeal of painful loneliness.

The suspense does not stop building when brother and sister come together. For even then it is neither the time nor the place to heal the broken song. To do that, they must journey into the bleakest heart of a country that is now seized in the throes of a total, all-consuming war. And Maerad must figure out the mystery of her own heart in time to set it against the will of the Nameless One in a duel between good and evil to rival Frodo vs. the Ring.

This is a book full of love and sadness, friendship and betrayal, courage and danger, tension and thrills. It features an acting troupe, a clever bird, a city desperately besieged, a devastating flood, a bit of time travel, a pair of tender love stories, and a truly moving act of friendship. It has poetry and music, a bit of nature mysticism (occult-content advisory!), and some pretty grim carnage. It has an admirable young hero and an imperfect young heroine who will challenge the reader to think and to feel outside his or her comfort zone. And it has one of those lickety-split epilogues that leaves you rubbing your eyes and wondering how a novel in four thick volumes can feel like it's ending too soon!

by Ingrid Law
Recommended Ages: 12+

Mibs, short for Mississippi Beaumont, belongs to a rather queer family. As a trait inherited from her mother's side, Mibs can expect to develop some kind of super-power on her thirteenth birthday--which is right around the corner as this story opens. For example, her oldest brother Rocket has a way with electricity. He can't quite control, or scumble, his savvy yet. So, when Rocket gets upset, anything can happen from popping lightbulbs to widespread blackouts.

The next younger Beamont sibling is Mibs' brother Fish, who has a similar power over the weather. All it takes is a little slip, and Fish can cause a hurricane. This is why the family had to move from the Gulf Coast to the relatively waterless region between Kansas and Nebraska, which the Beaumonts call Kansaska at some times and Nebransas at others. They have their Grandpa to thank for that; his savvy is causing new land to come into existence. With gifts like these, it's no wonder the Beaumonts lead a private, secluded family life. The kids are all home-schooled from the age of 13.

And now it's about to be Mibs' turn. She can hardly wait. She hopes her savvy will be a real knock-out, maybe so she can show the mean girls at school a thing or two. Or maybe so she can come to the rescue of her Poppa, who has been in a coma since his car accident a few days before Mibs' birthday.

Mibs prays that her savvy will help Poppa wake up. But when her birthday comes, she starts--whoops! I almost spoiled it for you! But really, how is this savvy going to be any good for Mibs and her family? Before she finds out, Mibs will have an adventure on a pink bus full of Bibles, together with two of her brothers and the local minister's runaway brats. Together they go on an interstate spree of matchmaking, weather control, and freaky savvy-related happenings. Mibs will find out a secret about a boy who likes her, and make friends with a girl she never liked before. She will breeze through a wide spectrum of human experience, ranging from a drunk passed out behind a garbage dumpster to a trailer-park kidnapping caper. And finally, her love for her Poppa will do what not even the coolest savvy can.

This 2009 Newbery Honor Book is an engaging story about kids with the type of powers I find especially fun to read about, as (for example) in David Lubar's Hidden Talents. It is told in a perky, expressive, and highly original first-person voice. It is funny, fast-paced, and full of the warmth (sometimes resulting from friction) bewteen family and friends. The characters are so interesting that I was glad to learn that it's only the beginning of a series that will continue in Scumble, due to be released in August 2010.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Hello, Goodbye

I would like you to help me welcome a new member to my family. Everybody say "Hello" to my new buddy. (Bunny?) We're going to be spending a lot of time together. About 500 miles a week, actually, plus regular 350-mile weekend trips to see Grandma & Gramps. They'll be so tickled!
On a more somber note, please join me in mourning the loss of my partner of the last 8 years, pictured below. She was called to glory on Sunday afternoon when, after faithfully carrying me on one of those 350-mile round trips, she breathed her last only six blocks from home...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bumper-Sticker Whimsy

Guess what room of the house I was in when I was hit with the idea for this bumper-sticker slogan, best displayed on a truck carrying livestock or organic fertilizer:


And hey, when you've fallen behind the pack in the horse race of life, that may be sage advice to live by...

Monday, May 17, 2010

Lost Yuks

Alas, my car of eight years has gone to the climate-controlled garage in the sky. While cleaning out the accumulated detritus of life spanning most of the past decade, half a dozen jobs, and four homes in two states 1,600 miles apart (OK, I'm measuring from the cities I lived in, which are at opposite ends of the states involved), I came across some unexpected treasures. For example, I recovered a fragile, elderly edition of Bach's chorale harmonizations, which I had given up for lost years ago and which, miraculously, is only a tiny bit worse for wear.

To a lesser degree, I also rejoiced to recover two fragments of a comic monologue I have been composing on scraps of paper during my nomadic wanderings of the past eight years. The following bit, for example, continues to develop the character of the drunken redneck introduced earlier in this thread. It's not autobiographical humor, mind you; I've never been married. I just thought the humor of it worked with the character I was creating.
I don't remember the last time my wife and I made love. The reason is simple: I was drunk at the time.

And the time before that. And the time before that. In fact, I may never have spent a sober night with her. It isn't that I need alcohol to find her attractive... but it sure helps.

She's a drinker too. Our relationship is practically based on the drink. In fact, we registered our wedding at the liquor store.
Of a more recent vintage is this bit, which may either have been part of a two-character sketch or, again, a fragment of my redneck character's ruminations:
UNCLE: Where have you been? I expected you an hour ago.

NEPHEW: I got lost on the way here. Been driving around the neighborhood.

UNCLE: What about the directions I gave you? Didn't I tell you to turn left at the swimming pool?

NEPHEW: I didn't see a swimming pool.

UNCLE: It's right over there, see?

NEPHEW: Well, it's kinda hard to see it with that big water-slide standing in front of it.

UNCLE (smacking the nephew upside the head): Where did you think the water-slide leads to? A cement slab? A pit full of sharpened stakes?
OK, so I'm not quite ready to write for Saturday Night Live. But it's a start, eh?

Bittertweet Tackiness

Now shining from the neighborhood ELCA chapel of tackiness:


OMG isn't that GR8?! So many snappy comebacks flood into my mind upon seeing this, I scarcely know where to start. For example, there's


I think I'd better leave it at that for now...

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Tacky Whimsy

During a three-hour drive yesterday afternoon, I passed a church whose sign identified it as FAMILY WORSHIP CENTER.

It got me thinking: What would it take to make it an Adult Worship Center? Topless deaconesses? A three-drink minimum at Communion? A faith healer who lays hands on your "personal problem"?

Anyway, it's nice now and then to see a church that's at least honest about what it worships!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Three Parables

The Parable of the Old Biddy

To what shall I compare this generation? It is like Grandma Schmidt sitting on her front porch, chewing a plug of tobacco and holding a loaded shotgun across her knees.

Along came a yokel stealing Grandma's horse, but she just spat over the porch rail. A while later, a local ne'er-do-well climbed up a ladder right in front of her and carried off her prettiest granddaughter, but Grandma just rocked in her rocker and shook her head. Soon after this, a posse of yahoos ran into her yard, trampling her vegetable patch, busting down her fence, and throwing eggs against the side of her house. Grandma just yawned and slapped a mosquito.

Then who should come up Grandma Schmidt's driveway but a clean-cut young man wearing a belt of tools and driving a mule-cart filled with pots of paint, sacks of dry plaster, rolls of tarpaper, and stacks of bran-new roof shingles. "What do you want?" Grandma challenged him, cocking her gun.

"Thought you might have some work I could help with," said the visitor.

Grandma Schmidt spat in the man's direction, hitting the running board between his feet. "Look at the state of your shoes," she said.

"Looks like your fence needs mended," the man observed.

At this, the old lady aimed her gun and fired. Wounded, the man fell off the side of his cart and barely managed to avoid being run over as his mule bolted in panic. "What did you do that for?" he screamed, bleeding.

"Cain't abide a man with scuffed shoes," said the old biddy as she cocked her second barrel and drew a bead on the young man's head. Let him hear who has ears to hear...
The next two parables celebrate a certain church body's glorious lawsuit against four little old ladies on the Left Coast, the officers of a congregation that voted to leave the ___ Church. Historically, the ___ Church has never claimed to own the property of its several congregations, though it is customary for a parish's constitution to state that in the event of its dissolution, its assets will be donated to the ___ Church.

So, a civil bench in the Bay Area may soon set a major precedent by ruling that the ___ Church holds equity in a congregation and can force it to dissolve (thus forfeiting its property) rather leave the church body. Paradoxically, -- and this may be worth a parable or two on its own -- counsel for the ___ Church argues that (A) its policy against suing fellow Christians does not apply to people who have voted to leave the Church; while (B) it has legal standing to sue these same people because their decision to leave the ___ Church was invalid. Hmm.... To what shall I compare this generation?
The Parable of the Beneficiary

And elderly widow was driving into town for her monthly purchasing when her car had a flat tire. She pulled it off the gravel and waited for someone to come by and help her, wringing her hands anxiously. By and by, a lawyer came along and helped her put on the spare tire. Then he followed her slowly into town and made sure the local mechanic repaired her tire properly. The old lady so relieved that she promised the lawyer, "I'm going to put you in my will."

"I'm sure that's not necessary, ma'am," said the lawyer with a big, toothy grin. "Just doing what I can to help a neighbor."

"That's all right," said the lady. "Only, I don't have any surviving kin, and I would hate to die without knowing who was going to own my 75 hundred acres with oil under it, and my pristine, 18-bedroom house designed by what's-his-face, that Swedish Jew from early in the last century..."

"Do whatever you feel is right," said the lawyer, grinning even wider.

For a few years, all was well. The widow kept making her monthly trips into town without incident, and the lawyer built up a thriving practice, mostly by borrowing against money he expected to inherit from the widow.

Then one day the lawyer read in the newspaper that the widow had put her farm up for sale. He stormed down to the widow's farm and pounded on her door. "How dare you go back on our agreement," he began lecturing as soon as the lady opened the door.

"What is it to you?" the widow retorted. "I'm too old and feeble to keep this big house up, let alone all this land. If I get a chance to trade it for a condo in Boca Raton, isn't that my right?"

"We'll see about that," spat the lawyer. "You put me in your will to inherit this farm. I think the judge will agree that you can't throw away what's rightfully mine. Consider yourself served!" Let him hear who has ears to hear.

A Sequel to the Parable of the Beneficiary

The lawyer won his case against the widow. The judge agreed that, by naming the lawyer in her will, the old lady had given him a lien on her house and land. She was enjoined to stay on the farm for the rest of her life, on pain of being evicted and seeing the property turned over to the lawyer directly.

Years passed. The widow grew more and more feeble and inactive. Work on the farm stopped. The house began to suffer from neglect. The lawyer repeatedly sued to force the widow to make certain improvements, such as paving her driveway, and to prevent others, such as installing a wheelchair-accessible bathroom. The widow's savings dwindled, and she lived in increasing poverty and desolation. Yet she kept on living, beyond anyone's expectations.

Meanwhile, the lawyer had been living the good life. Such a good life, indeed, that his debts grew beyond his ability to service them, and his health deteriorated as well. No longer a young man, and plagued by heart problems, liver problems, gallbladder problems, and arthritis, the no-longer-young lawyer realized that he could not wait for the old lady to die. So he petitioned the court to declare her dead and send her property into probate.

"But I'm still alive," the lady argued during a hearing before the judge. "You can't inherit my land until I'm dead."

"You should have thought of that before you tried to cut the plaintiff out of your will," the judge barked, slamming his gavel down. "Bailiff, remove this corpse from my courtroom." Let him hear who has ears to hear.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Album for the Young 4

30 Pieces for Children
for Piano,
op. 27
by Dmitri Borisovich Kabalevsky (1904-87)

When we were kids taking piano lessons, we played a piece by Kabalevsky now and then. You remember them: kind of charming, kind of weird, 20th century pieces that didn't mind if the voices went through unexpected harmonies; pieces driven by interesting rhythms, delicately expressive, sometimes touched by a hint of sadness or by a tint of wry humor we never realized music could express. Simple pieces: if not exactly easy to play, the type of pianism that "falls under the hands" naturally, and that gives young artists a gratifying sense of playing something that sounds deceptively grown-up. Music that sounds harder than it is, and that avails itself to inexperienced players without patronizing them.

Now to find pieces by Kabalevsky, you no longer have to winnow them out of anthologies where one or two of them appear alongside pieces by other composers. Schirmer has a book full of them, made to order by the author of some of the Soviet Union's most enduring music. He emerged from the shadow of Stalin with a less sterling character, politically and artistically, than Shostakovich (and let's not forget Prokofiev, who didn't emerge at all). Nevertheless, Kabalevsky has begun to take third place among Soviet composers in the esteem of the West. His orchestral suites The Comedians and Colas Breugnon are growing in popularity. And every piano student who progresses past the first year is likely to know his name.

Music for children held a special place in Kabalevsky's creative life, as not only this book bears witness, but also his "Album of Children's Pieces" op. 3, "24 Easy Pieces" op. 39, "Easy Variations in D major and A minor" op. 40, "Easy Variations, Vol. 2" op. 51, "Four Easy Rondos" op. 60, "35 Easy Pieces" op. 89, to say nothing of his Third Piano Concerto "for Youth." Kabalevsky also dedicated concertos for violin and cello to young performers, and wrote other sets of piano pieces (Preludes and Fugues, op. 61; 24 Preludes, op. 38) that could become part of some young virtuoso's musical journey, just as Bach's Preludes and Fugues have been an integral part of mine.

Wow. I just realized that Kabalevsky was still alive when I started noticing his music as a 10-year-old piano student working my way through an anthology of 20th-century art music. In a small way, Kabalevsky lived to be one of my piano teachers. With books like the Schirmer edition of op. 27, he can do this in a bigger way with you or your kids. Bearing in mind all that Kabalevsky wrote for young pianists, you'll realize that this review will only cover a tiny part of it. Think of it as a taste of what you might look for if you like Kabalevsky's way of communicating with young musicians.

1. Waltz Time assigns a single melodic line to each hand, with rhythmic groupings of two overlapping each other in a gently swayng 3/8 time. Technically it's not at all difficult, but the harmonic twists (including a double-sharp in bar 14) will force Junior to map a new region of his or her musical mind while observing delicate dynamic shadings from p to mf. 2. Ditty lets the hands swap between tune and accompaniment. Again, while the music is easy, it will train Junior to read chromatic chord progressions and to develop fingering appropriate to the phrasing.

3. Etude, which (if you don't already know) is French for "This piece is hard for the sake of being hard, but it's good for you," is a fingering exercise with only a bit more musical interest than the average piece from the Hanon Studies. It isn't really meant to be good music, though. It's meant to give Junior a feel for scale playing - up and down a third, a fifth; thumb-crossing, etc. The R.H. part is mostly running 16ths; the L.H., meanwhile, gets its own fingering exercise in repeated 8th-note patterns. The final cadence is disproportionately interesting.

4. At Night on the River is a typical nocturne, the type of music that makes you feel wistful and lonely. Perhaps it's the way the melody spins its way over a relatively static L.H. part, or perhaps it is the delicate dynamics and the graceful quirks of harmony. If this is an exercise in sensitive playing, 5. Playing Ball is going to be all about keeping a tightly-sprung energy in control. It's got to be fast, but no faster than you can clearly articulate repeated 16th notes; and while the loud parts will demand a certain energy of attack, the softer parts will be even harder to keep soft. It's a fun musical game, but don't let the ball get away from you!

6. Sad Story has the character of a sorrowful Russian folk-song. The key of F-minor (4 flats) may itself be the main obstacle for Junior to overcome - at least, until the "oom-pah" L.H. pattern sets in toward the end. 7. Old Dance is a rare 20th-century visit to the mostly 18th-century world of the Minuet. The squiggly marks above certain notes are "upper-neighbor" grace notes, as demonstrated in a footnote. What wrinkles will this piece put on your brain? Holding a tied-over note while other voices in both hands are moving, for one. Some provocative harmonies, for another. And of course, the stately grace of a minuet along with the execution of those grace notes!

8. Cradle Song is another piece where the hands switch roles, from accompaniment to melody and vice versa. The accompaniment is a pattern of broken seventh-chords; the melody is has a lilting chuckle in it and, not coincidentally, maps the same type of chord. It's only tricky while you're finding out what the notes are; playing them isn't hard. Toward the end, the piece drops all pretense of being anything but an exercise in seventh-chords. The trick: observing the gentle dynamic markings! 9. Little Fable is an odd piece in that both hands play the same notes, only an octave apart. It's basically an exercise in keeping both hands together through a variety of simple intervals, scale runs, arpeggios, and chromatic twists and turns. The resulting music rewards the effort with a clever, dramatically-shaped miniature.

10. Clowning is a quick little piece that looks easier than it is. Almost entirely made up of a single-voice 8th-note run in 6/8 time, it turns out (on closer inspection) to be a two-page exercise in articulation in which the R.H. repeatedly plays the note the L.H. just left. 11. Rondo is an exercise in parallel 10ths (i.e. 3rds plus an octave). Except for a couple of cadences, for half of the piece the hands follow each other in exact parallel motion, sort of a dark brother to No. 9. The other half of the piece switches to three-part chords in parallel motion, creating a remarkable texture that reminds me of Prokofiev. 12. Toccatina, on the other hand, may remind you of Rachmaninov, with its spicy, singing "cello line" in the L.H. accompanied by a quick rhythmic pattern of parallel 3-part chords in the R.H. Pay attention to the dynamics, especially the long dim. on the second page, and this piece will be simply magical.

13. A Little Prank shows, again, Kabalevsky's knack for getting out of the way of the technical improvement he wants Junior to derive from a piece. The whole point of this uncomplicated number is to control short runs of 32nd-notes so that they are exactly even. It's an exercise that will add firmness to Junior's touch, particularly in his less-strong fingers. There are a few easy hand-crossings and, toward the end, an exploration of the augmented triad that symmetrically divides the notes of the octave.

14. Scherzo explores parallel thirds and the chromatic scale (proceeding by half-steps). 15. March pushes the technique of R.H.-L.H. parallelism even further, asking Junior to play broken chords in parallel thirds and sixths. It's a boundearies-pressing exercise that Junior will enjoy because of the harmonic quirks that make it sound like a theme from a science fiction movie. 16. Lyric Piece invites Junior along on perhaps his first visit to the key of C-sharp minor (4 sharps). It's an interesting trip, with a hint of "cha-cha-cha" in the accompaniment and a melody that flows downhill in a rippling texture. 17. Meadow Dance calls for the L.H. to play triads in alternating octaves while the R.H. part stretches Junior's ability to recognize notes in ledger-lines above the staff.

18. Sonatina adds dotted-eighth figures to Junior's repertoire, together with the occasional double-dotted quarter-note, parallel triads in the L.H. part, an arpeggiated chord requiring more than an octave's reach (note the pedaling indicated at that point), and other little surprises that all work together to make this a singularly charming piece. 19. War Dance exposes Junior to long-short-short patterns, a subito p dynamic, portamento signs distinguished from both staccati and accent-marks, more parallel 10ths, and a moment of imagining what it might be like to be a timpanist.

20. Fairy Tale immediately confronts Junior with the problem of how to interpret portamenti in a melodic line of repeated notes over a spinning-wheel accompaniment. The technique is almost paradoxical: separated but not short; emphasized but not accented; and whatever it is must be appropriate to a singing line in a delicate texture. Pedaling will be vital; this, too, may require the growing musician to develop a new technique. 21. The Chase is an exercise in parallel 15ths (i.e., both hands playing the same notes two octaves apart). The triplet 8ths need to be played evenly and yet without sounding forced, so that changes of dynamic (including "poco cresc.") can be convincing. The fingering included in the score could save a life!

22. A Tale has more long-short-short patterns, only with the added wrinkle that the hands move separately in overlapping phrases. Between the three sharps of F-sharp minor, the very important eighth-rests where one voice cuts off while the other keeps going, the abundance of ledger-line notes, and the expressive chromaticism, this is a tale whose telling requires care in proportion to the pleasure it gives. 23. Snow Storm begins with the tempo marking "Presto," which very definitely does not mean, "Ta-da! By magic, you can instantly play this!" It means "really fast." And that may mean doing a lot of work to make the L.H. sound like a melody and the R.H. like accompaniment in a pattern that drives through four harmonically and dramatically fraught pages.

24. Etude is another piece that makes no pretense of having an individual character. It is simply an exercise in controlling broken chords in a triplet rhythm with both hands at the same time. Though one hand is often moving stepwise while the other does broken chords, this does not necessarily make it any easier. But again, Kabalevsky does the young musician a favor by "getting out of the way" and letting the exercise be what it is, without the complication of too many other things going on. Again, fingering will be crucial, especially where the arpeggios range beyond an octave. Your reward for navigating this purely technical number is 25. Novelette, a dark, expressive piece in which the L.H. lays down a simple accompaniment (albeit one requiring a lot of forearm motion up and down the lower half of the keyboard), over which the R.H. sings in two voices, frequently parallel thirds, and sometimes with a tied-over rhythm known as hemiola. Pedaling is crucial throughout the piece (to smooth over the L.H. leaps), but especially at the end where the R.H. begins making jumps of its own.

26. Etude takes us back to school for a four-page exercise in alternating between triplet-eighths and dotted-eighth figures. The hands, meanwhile, spend much of this piece in parallel 3rds (or, when playing arpeggios, parallel neighboring chord members). The trick is to keep a "One-and-two-and" pulse going in your head so that you can correctly articulate the dotted-eighths and sixteenths, even when coming straight off a run of triplets. 27. Dance is, again, a fine reward for Junior's studious diligence, with a brisk beat and crisp parallel thirds in both hands, often in overlappiing patterns. With ledger-line notes at both ends of the Grand Staff, it's a piece that tests a wide range of the keyboard, but it also sparkles with charm and mischief.

28. Caprice is sort of like a duet for violin and cello in which both instruments play double-stops while paralleling each other at the octave. What this description means for the young pianist is that each hand, simultaneously, will be exercised in playing a two-voice texture in which each voice, by turns, moves while the other is standing still. This combination of sustained notes with restless motion, of such simplicity that one hand could play it alone with the unique color of two voices being doubled at the octave, make this an ear-striking piece. Watch the rests that form part of the moving melody line, and be careful of accidentals; for besides being in the 4-sharp key of E major, this strangely appealing tune is full of chromatic quirks.

29. Song of the Cavalry, typical of a pattern you may have observed by now, follows up a somewhat dry technical exercise with a pure musical treat. This time the L.H. carries the tune in something like the viola range, while the R.H. furnishes an accompaniment of hoofbeats. The five-flat key of B-flat minor may be Junior's biggest key-signature challenge yet, but there's a trick that makes it easy: If you ask yourself whether you're supposed to play a given black note, the answer (barring accidental natural-signs) is always yes. Anyway, it's a really fun melody for the L.H. and even when the R.H. temporarily takes over, the tune remains in the viola range! Are pianists are supposed to think about violins, violas, and cellos? Well, I don't know... maybe someday they'll be playing a concerto with them!

30. Dramatic Episode concludes the set with a slow exercise in double-dotted-eighth figures in F minor (4 flats). Making it simple is the fact that both hands either move together in some type of parallel motion, or one hand holds still while the other moves. Again there are places where the pedaling is vital to sustain a chord while the hands continue to play melodic notes, at times creating powerful sonorities. The chordal passage in the center of the piece carries Junior through some interesting harmonic developments, only without the stress of too much contrapuntal activity.

As I played through this book, I repeatedly said to myself: "Now this is my favorite piece yet!" Even on going through it a second and third time, it often seemed that whatever piece I was playing was, at that moment, my favorite piece in the book. The number of times this happens in a book where, admittedly, many of the pieces are straightforward technical exercises with a minimum of musical interest, bears witness to Kabalevsky's genius. At the very least, he had a genius for balancing pure musical pleasure with work Junior will have to do if (s)he wants to grow up to be Sviatoslav Richter or Vladimir Horowitz. And though (s)he won't be a virtuoso upon completing this book, it could be a valued early step on that journey. I would recommend this to any young pianist who is ready to graduate beyond the vanilla custard of early-intermediate lesson books to something with a spiky, spicy tang.

Here is a youngster named Ronnie playing the Toccatina from this book. It seems to be a popular piece!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Inclusive Tackiness

Now displayed at the neighborhood Lutheran Church of the Tacky Reader-Board:


It goes on, in print so tiny you have to be Lutheran to see it:


It's always a sad day when a church's leaders decide that they are willing to offend the faithful in order to curry favor with unbelievers. Do you think this is an unfair characterization of "seeker friendly" ministries? You should listen to these folks strategize. I've heard an LCMS pastor say these exact words: "I would gladly offend 100 loyal Lutherans rather than scare one unchurched person away...."

The problem is, when you've made the church a comfortable place for non-believers to go, how can it be a community of faith?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Album for the Young 3

Album for the Young
For Piano
, op. 68
by Robert Schumann

Here is probably the first work that occurs to most classically-minded piano parents when they see the words "Album for the Young." Schumann set the mark high for future composers of short piano pieces for children in this collection of 43 Romantic miniatures written in 1848, when its composer was at the height of his mastery. Early in his career, Schumann had written another album of piano pieces titled Scenes of Childhood, which are of a more sentimental nature. Now, in his maturity, he surpassed himself by writing a young pianist's musical guide through life.

In the Schirmer "Centennial Edition" of this book, which I own, the music is prefaced by not one, not two, but three introductory essays, including Philip Hale's critical preface to Schirmer's first edition of 1893. Hale claims that Schumann actually revolutionized writing for the piano in this book, among others. So to call the pieces "miniatures" is no quibble on their artistic significance. Schumann was a master of small-scale forms, as Hale quotes Saint-Saëns saying: "Where Mendelssohn painted water-colors, Schumann cut cameos." I find this remark all the more interesting after playing through the whole book. Schumann's music strikes a unique balance between picturesque expressiveness and clarity of line, between textural intricacy and matter-of-fact concision.

These are indeed brief pieces, most of them one page long or less, only a handful of them requiring a page-turn, and all 43 of them adding up to only 69 pages of music (per Schirmer). They are character pieces with evocative titles such as "The Happy Farmer," "First Loss," "Roaming in the Morning," and "Vintage-Time." They are pieces in which formal structure is less important than the expression of mood and the execution of harmonic, textural, and rhythmic novelties that could set even a seasoned pianist at difficulties. Only the first third, or perhaps the first half, of the book is really accessible to children, but adolescent pianists - particularly ones of special precocity - will appreciate the swift progress beyond sugary nursery-tunes to romances, dances, musical images of sailors, hunters, and battlefields.

Three of the pieces have no title apart from three asterisks and a tempo marking. There are two pieces titled "Winter-Time." There is a "Little Song in Canon-Form." There is a "Little Fugue," actually a Prelude and Fugue inspired by the Well-Tempered Clavier of J. S. Bach, and at four pages the longest piece in the book. Early in the book there is a very plain "Choral[e]" (an arrangement of the hymn tune Freu dich sehr, known to many of us through the hymn "On my heart imprint Thine image"); near the end, in "Figured Choral," the same tune returns with a much more interesting arrangement. There is a spot-on impersonation of Schumann's dear friend Mendelssohn, titled "In Memoriam" (Erinerrung) and superscribed with the date of Mendelssohn's then-recent but untimely death. There is a "Norse Song" dedicated to another friend of Schumann, the Danish composer Niels Gade, whose last name whimsically spells the notes of the piece's main theme.

There are pieces that your child will come across in second- or third-grade piano books, and pieces that may resonate best with an adult's life experience. There are pieces loud and soft, fast and slow, easy and hard; pieces simple enough for a child to play at sight, and pieces challenging enough to reward years of practice, technical and artistic growth. There are several pieces early in the book where the accompaniment hums along in an almost monotonous way, while one piece, "15. Spring Song," may tie you up in rhythmic difficulties. There are pieces where you may lose yourself in harmonic richness, while in such pieces as "34. Theme" the harmony is so daring that Schumann seems to belong to a later generation of composers.

The word "sonority" may come to mind as you play pieces such as the deep, dark, velvety "39. Winter-time II." On the other hand, there is nothing subtle about the dynamics of "31. War Song," in which the pianist hauls off and hits the keyboard for all (s)he's worth in a display of violence and anger, and where levels of extreme loudness furnish what little dynamic contrast there is to be had.

The few pieces longer than a page do require the player to negotiate instant changes of key, texture, tempo, and style. Other pieces are more consistent within themselves, but they offer so much variety! Young pianists exploring this book must navigate such obstacles as marcato signs (upside-down V's that, most often, indicate an accent combined with separation), dynamics alternating suddenly between ff and pp, arpeggiated chords, richly chromatic harmonies with moving inner parts, melodies crossing from one hand to the other, passages in bare octaves, and pieces with more sharps or flats than Junior may be used to seeing.

E-sharps, B-sharps... now and then a double-sharp sign... continuously rolling triplet eighths... pentuplets, sometimes written as a "grace note" flourish... Big, thick, heavy chords... very specific pedaling... rhythms that alternate between triplets and dotted figures... Rapid runs of parallel thirds in the R.H.... trills... one place marked "Ped. sempre, una corda," which means that you have to hold down the pedal and let everything ring because there are simply more notes than you can physically hold down at the same time.... Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, but being able to play all this stuff isn't something he'll leave in your Christmas stocking. You're going to have to work at this, perhaps all your life.

It will be rewarding, in the long term. In the short-term, however, while you or your child is learning to play the piano, this is not a book you're going to work straight through. You'll have to attack it piecemeal, as your developing technique gets you over the next hurdle, and the next... It's an "Album for the Young" (if not the Album) that I would regard as essential for any family that nurtures a budding pianistic talent in its bosom; but not all of the book will apply to where Junior is at, at any one point in his or her musical growth. He or she will be living with this book for a while. But believe me, there are far worse things a parent may have to hear his child practicing for hours, weeks, years. This is wonderful music that will give more and more pleasure to everyone in earshot as the young musician masters it and matures.

A Big Night Music

The words popped out of my mouth last (Wednesday) night when I opened it to gasp at the end of Movement 2, "On the Beach at Night Alone," of Ralph Vaughan Williams's A Sea Symphony. I said, "That's a big night music," a whimsical title which someone seated behind me promptly translated into German. Where was I? On stage at St. Louis's Powell Symphony Hall, participating in the first chorus-and-orchestra rehearsal of this underrated masterpiece under the baton of Robert Spano.

We had another rehearsal on Thursday, then performed the piece on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday before large, enthusiastic audiences. The first half of the program was Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, with special guest Horacio Gutiérrez playing the solo. I heard him all three nights, and was enchanted by his flawless playing. Gutiérrez brought not only superhuman accuracy to the difficult piano part, but also tremendous power, delicate lyricism, and every other expressive nuance. Any member of the Symphony Chorus can testify to Gutiérrez's meticulous preparation, as (from our pre-concert hideout backstage) we could hear part of his daily, two-hour regimen of warmups and slow, detailed rehearsal of his part. It paid off.

In Amy Kaiser's pre-concert lecture, she mentioned asking Gutiérrez how often he had played the Rach 2. He surprised her, and everyone Amy told about it. Gutiérrez said he doesn't play Rachmaninoff's Second Concerto nearly as often as the Third and Fourth, which are highly virtuosic, pyrotechnic displays that the soloist can pretty much carry by himself, regardless of the orchestra. As to the Second, he only plays it with groups he can trust to handle their side of the piano-orchestra dialogue. With Robert Spano at the wheel, the St. Louis Symphony amply repaid Gutiérrez's trust. The orchestra's melodies were gorgeous, well-balanced with the piano, and fully controlled. Gutiérrez reportedly told Amy that he would like to ask Rachmaninoff, "Do you like the way I play your music?" I, for one, like it; I like the way the orchestra led by Spano plays with him; and I like the fact that a piece that I have always thought of as vague and muddy sounded perfectly clear and yet emotionally convincing.

The Vaughan Williams came off well, for the most part. It's a staggeringly beautiful piece, plundering the works of American poet Walt Whitman to create a quintessentially British, four-movement symphony wherein the chorus performs almost continuously, like an extension of the orchestra. I won't spoil it for you, except to say that it has some very challenging choral parts in it, some gorgeous solos for baritone and soprano, and a huge orchestra that RVW uses less for the colossal power of its tutti (though there is some of that) than to paint vivid, multi-hued pictures of the sea in motion, of the planets spinning in space, and of the passions of the creative soul.

It is a symphony that encompasses sea chanties, hymns, pictorial representations of steamships, glorious triumphs, funerary honors, flying flecks of foam, and vast distances. There are breath-catching moments of a capella whispering at words like "Now first it seems my thought begins to span thee," and viscerally thrilling moments like "A vast similitude spans them, and always has spanned, and shall forever span them and shall compactly hold and enclose them." And, of course, there's that "big night music" that I mentioned before, where the orchestra turns over the ideas that the baritone and chorus have sung, like the mind of a man struck speechless by the scale of the universe, lying open to a glittering procession of unspeakable thoughts.

We of St. Louis were blessed to team up with the conductor and soloits (Christine Goerke and Brett Polegato) whose 2003 recording of A Sea Symphony won the Grammy for best classical album. They sang with strength, beauty, and assurance, and Spano conducted with one of the clearest gestures I have ever seen -- yet, as one member of the chorus commented, "very emotively." And, by sheer luck, we also got to experience a program identical to the world premiere of A Sea Symphony in 1910, a hundred years ago, when Rachmaninoff himself opened the program as the soloist in his Second Concerto. At times like this it's kind of hard not to agree with Whitman when he declares that "a vast similitude interlocks all."

Brick House & The Crossing

In the past few weeks, I have had some notable dining experiences - but because I had to squeeze them in between my day job and nightly commitments, I haven't had time to share them until now. Here goes!

First, I visited Houlihan's restaurant/pub in the Chesterfield (MO) Mall. Because my job makes me keep odd hours, I happened to dine there right at the point where the day shift changes over to the night shift, so I felt kind of rushed when it came to paying my check. The food was all right. I had some type of burger about which I can't remember anything particularly bad or good. The menu offered an interesting selection of side dishes, so I went for a Greek-themed pasta salad that was supposed to have feta cheese on it, but which tasted remarkably like cold pasta in salad dressing.

During the course of my meal I ordered two beers on tap. The first was Blue Moon, an always-reliable Belgian-style ale that I make a point of ordering whenever I see it. The other was a leap into the unknowable unknown: Sam Adams' Summer Ale, a seasonal brew that I reckon tastes different every year. I sure hope it tastes different next year. I almost gagged on my first sip, then ordered a glass of water to clear my palate (because I didn't want to rule out the possibility that Blue Moon didn't mix well with it), tried it again, and spat most of my second mouthful back into the glass. It was that bad. The beer had a nose redolent of dirty dishwater. By this point in the meal, I needed to expedite tipping my server before he left the building, so I didn't make a case out of it. But the name "Sam Adams' Summer Brew" is now deeply etched in the "never, ever, ever again" lobe of my brain.

Another evening, I decided to try the Brick House, next to the IHOP on the corner of Boone's Crossing and Chesterfield Airport Road. This yuppie watering-hole opened its doors recently on the site of a defunct Joe's Crab Shack. Having been to that Shack in its day, I couldn't help but be struck by the contrast between the two places. Gone are the rubber sharks, scuba suits, and other ocean-related gimmicks that dangled from Joe's rafters. Gone are the tabletops with photos and colorful gewgaws pressed under glass. Gone is the cozily tacky family atmosphere. They gutted the place and redecorated so thoroughly that, if I wasn't assured otherwise, I would think they had torn Joe's down and built a new joint in its place.

They of the Brick House have created a spacious atmosphere with a high ceiling from which nothing is suspended but some flat-screen TVs silently tuned to sports channels, an almost blank brick back-wall, trendily streamlined tables, chairs, and booths, a couple of lounging areas where sofas and easy chairs are clustered together, a large bar, and an even larger covered patio which (at this time of year) seems to do better business than the indoors part of the restaurant. The effect is austere and professional, yet at the same time laid-back and casual. Loud rock'n'roll plays on the PA system. The waitresses wear really snug denim cutoffs and low-cut zipper-blouse thingies that draw attention to their busts. They're REALLY nice-looking young ladies, and awfully chatty too. While I was waiting for my order, three or four different waitresses came over and volunteered to make conversation, including one who slid into the booth opposite me. General observation: They aim to please at this place! Another observation: Married guys had better bring their wives with them, or face the consequences of being caught with a Brick House receipt in their pockets.

One of the waitresses told me that the Brick House is where people from a certain nearby industry go to get drunk on Friday night, or to celebrate being laid off, depending on the economy. It's that kind of place. It's also the kind of place where a man can have a tall glass of beer with his dinner. And what a dinner! The menu (full of racily suggestive items) included three sizes of burger: XL, XXL, and XXXL. I ordered a "Black and Bleu Burger" in the smallest size, XL. What arrived at my table was 6-inch hoagie bun with a deliciously seasoned beef patty shaped and sized to fit it. I've never had the like before. It was magnificent and, together with the adult beverages and the waitresses' full-court-press, made the Brick House the type of place I would recommend for, say, lunch after a circuit pastors' conference...

I had long been intrigued by the radio advertisements for Jim Fiala's fine-dining restaurants around St. Louis. Currently there are four of them, including Acero in Maplewood (which I used to drive past every day) and The Crossing in Clayton. The general theme seems to be a fusion of Italian and French cuisine with American comfort-food cooking in a setting that encourages you to pause and enjoy the pace of a multi-course meal accompanied by wine. Or maybe I'm making that up. I don't know. My Restaurant-dot-com gift certificate for The Crossing had almost come to its one-year expiration date when I finally found room in my busy schedule to do lunch in Clayton. Obviously my life is different from most people's, because the one-block radius surrounding The Crossing bears witness to being the place to do lunch in the financial district. There are a lot of places to choose from. But The Crossing has kept is doors open for a dozen years now, and it was doing plenty of business the day I lunched there.

The Crossing seems to have adapted the space left by a previous restaurant, the type that has booths surrounded by quaint woodwork details. Again, the space has been opened up, with any hint of a "suspended ceiling" removed and walls and ceiling painted in a few strong colors, a bar at one end, and an enormous rack of wine bottles forming the partition between two halves of the dining room. The menu is a one-sided card listing a modest selection of choices for each course. I went with a Romaine salad, blue mussels linguine, and (for dessert) something called Vanilla Buttermilk Panna Cotta.

Everything was interesting to look at, felt good in the mouth, and tasted terrific. The salad was a blend of romaine lettuce, onions, tomatoes, crisp bacon, and bleu cheese, all diced to a uniform size (something like a quarter-inch to a side) and tossed with a light dressing, then shaped into a mound in the center of a plate. The lady at the next table, who was served the same salad at the same time as I, complained: "This looks like a child's portion," prompting the waitress to send for more. I didn't find any fault with the size of the salad, especially given that a main course would soon follow, but listening to that lady complain became a theme that threaded through my meal: now I knew what it was like to dine among powerful people who are used to having their way!

The main course was a delicious, buttery linguine alfredo, cooked to a turn and tossed with pieces of grilled squash and "blue" mussels, which were actually orange. I said "delicious," right? The right flavors exploded in my mouth in the right proportion at the right time. I would recommend this dish to anyone who doesn't have a shellfish allergy or seafood phobia. I thank God that I have neither! The good, crusty bread served at the start of the meal came in handy as I sopped up the sauce left after I had hoovered up every last speck of noodle, mussel, and squash. And dessert filled in the last corner with a wobbly confection similar to flan, only with a creamier texture (sort of like cottage cheese that has been blended with Jello) and a more pronounced vanilla flavor. It was artistically presented on a long rectangular plate drizzled with chocolate syrup (which I didn't touch) and dots of some kind of red syrup (ditto), a fan of strawberry slices on top and two or three whole raspberries nearby. The berries made a great accompaniment to the panna cotta.

Since then, my most notable dining experience has been a visit to the newly-opened Babbo's Spaghetteria in Chesterfield. This is a sister to the Del Pietro family's flagship restaurant Sugo's in Frontenac. My dinner at Babbo's centered on the eponymous pizza--a "Neapolitan-style" thin-crust pizza, apparently distinguished from "St. Louis-style" by the use of real mozzarella. But I am more excited by the appetizer I ordered.

Eggplant parmigiano is another dish I always order when I see it offered, at least until I know how a given restaurant cooks it. Usually, however, I am disappointed. One place gives you a crispy disk of breading with no discernable trace of eggplant in it. Another gives you a soggy mess covered in marinara sauce. Babbo's does something unexpected but highly effective with their eggplant dish. First, they cover the plate with whole, cooked tomatoes that have been seasoned and crushed down to form a bed under the eggplant. This, in turn, has not been fully breaded, but only sprinkled with flour and toasted. The eggplant is sliced cross-wise, into round slices with the black peel still on, and with three such slices to a serving it's really big enough to be a main course. And the texture is just right: some crispiness, some tenderness, the flesh of the eggplant still firm, and all the flavors in balance. It's not what I would call a traditional eggplant parmigian'--not the way Mom made it when I was a kid--but in its innovative approach to the dish, Babbo's succeeds where many others have failed. Best of luck to them!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Spam Comments

First thing this morning, I checked my email and found out that someone had commented on 25 of my blog posts. In Chinese.

It's just amazing how resourceful spammers are. Spam comments can get through my security measures, in bulk, even while honest visitors complain that I have made it prohibitively difficult to leave a comment.

To what can I compare this frustration? It is like when I used my answering machine to screen incoming phone calls. I didn't have a caller-ID box; and this was before the No Call List.

Over time, I learned that 75% of my callers would hang up without leaving a message. Most of my actual messages were from telemarketers and pollsters. Meanwhile, people I knew were constantly complaining that I never answered the phone when they called. Unfortunately, the only way I could tell that a call was important enough to answer was that the caller hung up without leaving a message. Catch-22!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Maternal Whimsy

Mother's Day happens to be my mother's 60th birthday. I think I can safely disclose this because she doesn't have a computer and only knows what I say on my blog if I read it to her. For the same reason, I feel safe in letting out the secret of my "birthday joke" on her, though she won't know about it for a few days.

First, I bought a gag birthday card, signed it, stuffed it in the envelope it came with. Then I added some photo CDs from which she can make prints at her leisure, and put them both in a stiff, cardboard, 3"x5" envelope. This, in turn, I put in an 11"x7" envelope, and finally I shoved the whole package into a padded 13"x9". All the envelopes were sealed, and the last one was also taped shut, addressed, stamped, and sent today. I giggle to think of her tearing open one envelope after another, and getting a little ticked, then realizing that I'm giggling to think of it, and starting to giggle herself....

That's my Mom and me. A make-each-other-laugh society.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


Before getting on the highway toward home this afternoon, I stopped at a gas station to fill up the fuel tank. It was already half-full, but I saw "Unleaded $2.60" on the sign and lost my head. Unfortunately, the sticker on the pump that said "Price on Sign for Cash Only" didn't catch my eye until I was already pumping fuel. Somehow it had escaped my notice that, after I swiped my credit card on the fuel pump, the price of 87 Octane jumped to $2.65.

Huh. So the privilege of paying with plastic is worth 5 cents a gallon. Go figure. From here, it seems more like a 5-cent-per-gallon "Up Yours" note to all credit-card customers. But maybe that's the Chinese food I ate for lunch talking. The god of fortune cookies (who seems to be right almost as often as a stopped clock) gave me this advice today: "Do not hide your feelings. Let others know where you stand." So don't blame me!

Maybe it was my forgiving frame of mind, or maybe it was my foreknowledge (based on experience) that I was going to be fighting to stay awake at the wheel for the next several hours, but I decided to give the same filling station a bit more of my custom today. I went inside to use the bathroom, wash my hands, and buy some food and drink that I reckoned would help me stay awake. Today's haul included two diet colas (thank you, Lord, for caffeine), a bag of super-hot-and-spicy Chex Mix, and a candy bar.

Now, my favorite candy bar used to be Butterfinger. I just loved that crunchety, peanut-buttery stuff inside the electro-plated coating of chocolate. As a teenager, I was one of those fat slobs who liked to take the "Butterfinger Challenge" and compare the three rivals, the holy trinity of junk food: Butterfinger, 5th Avenue, and Clark bars. Only as a grown-up, while traveling far from home, did I have my first spiritual encounter with the Chick-O-Stick: basically, a Butterfinger with the chocolate replaced by a dusting of dried, shredded coconut. What a revelation! The bar was even better without chocolate!

So, for the last decade or so, Chick-O-Stick has been my poison of choice. Luckily for my waist size, I haven't had much access to it. I can only seem to find it in about one out of six convenience stores that I visit, and I only visit convenience stores when I'm traveling out of town and need a place to pee, wash up, and buy staying-awake food for the road. So I've only enjoyed my favorite candy bar a couple times a year. And the last few times I ate one, I was a little disappointed. I didn't know if it was a bad batch, or perhaps the candy had been on the shelf too long, but I just had a feeling that Chick-O-Stick wasn't quite as good as it ought to be, that it would be perfect if only.... I didn't know what came after "if only" until today.

Today, I was about to grab a Chick-O-Stick off the shelf at the "Cash Customers Preferred" truck stop off the highway when I spotted something unusual on the shelf below it. It was a candy bar in a red wrapper with the name "ZAGNUT" on it. I had only seen this confection once before in real life, and before that I had thought it was only a gag made up for the movie Beetlejuice. Yet there it was, displayed for sale before my wondering eyes. And the desciption on the package -- "Crunchy Peanut Butter with a Coconut Twist" -- sounded provocative.

So I bought it. As soon as my tires hit the highway, I ripped the package open and munched on that Zagnut bar. And my taste buds said: "Now we can die happy." While the Chick-O-Stick is roughly cigar-shaped, the Zagnut bar has the look of a Butterfinger that has decided to go naked except for a sexy fuzz of golden, toasted coconut flakes. It has the texture and flavor that I've always thought Chick-O-Stick should have. This was what the ideal Chick-O-Stick would be like. Oh, Zagnut! Where have you been all my life!

I suppose it's a blessing that I only know one place in creation that sells Zagnut, and several hours' worth of tiresome highway lie between us -- highway that I won't be traveling on for another couple of weeks. God is merciful and does not let us be tempted beyond resistance. But for now, this is just a note: Zagnut is hereby promoted to My Favorite Candy Bar.