Monday, January 30, 2017

Sunrise, Sunset

The January sun is still on weekend time, yawning its way over the eastern horizon this Saturday morning; its wake up call is worth a picture from the pasture on 3rd street. I'm enroute to the HyVee for chicken broth, onions, and frozen green beans. It's an early tip time for the 4th grade girls in Fairfax, but the recipe for Meatball Soup tells me to "combine all ingredients in slow cooker," so there's just enough time to fill the crockpot, give it a quick stir, grab coffee and head south.  

Like the old Army saw goes, weekend basketball tournaments involve a lot of "hurry up and wait." With one kid playing in the morning and the other kid playing in the afternoon, Lee and Ryan, Gabe and Abbie are in the Fairfax gym for the long haul.  Frito pies and hot dogs, Gatorade and M&Ms take care of the physical needs, but Abbie has only brought one book.  Midway through her brother's games, she finishes it..shuts the cover.....and starts over again.  

Blake and I dine upon hot dogs and Frito pies, so the Meatball Soup is still simmering, untouched, and filling our house with a comforting and inviting aroma.  Just in time for the back door to open upon a new, yet old, crowd of visitors: some strangers, but others making a kind of homecoming, a pilgrimage of sorts, coming back to a place with memories, familiar, yet changed.  It is the kind of visit I understand in my heart and bones, a need to pass the stories on, to knit the generations together, to hold on to the past with laughter and cell phone pictures and the universal love of little kids for rocking chairs.

Sooner, not later, our family will take that same kind of walk.  Through rooms echoing with the noise of holidays, birthdays, games, and music that only we can hear, full of familiar objects rooted in time, not just space. We will commit those places to our hearts, into the realm of used to be, of photographs, of happy memory.  

Christmas is Groundhog our church this Sunday.  The Bethlehem backdrop, the manger and stable, and the little kids stacked three rows deep in the front pews, costumed as stars and shepherds....all gathered this last week of January because we don't want to let a perfectly good Christmas program go to waste because it was icy one Advent Sunday. A full house at church too, with extended families present to laugh and clap for their children and grandchildren..maybe there's something to be said for midwinter Christmas programs as a change of pace and a reminder that Jesus' season is year 'round.

What better illustration, what better way to send the congregation off with celebration in their hearts, than to witness the baptism of one these kids.  What a blessing to see our Lizzie smiling at the pastor who has known her from birth, joking with him in the baptistry, professing her faith before us all.  "I baptize you, my sister", says Glenn and Lizzie smiles even bigger and the church fills with gladsome applause before we pray and disperse to eat and celebrate. 

 It is such a week: of private joy and tears, of public emotion and celebration, of the endings and beginnings that are the very kernel of the human condition.

Sunrise, Sunset
(Fiddler on the Roof)

Is this the little girl I carried?
Is this the little boy at play?
I don't remember growing older
When did they?
When did she get to be a beauty?
When did he grow to be so tall?
Wasn't it yesterday
When they were small?
Sunrise, sunset
Sunrise, sunset
Swiftly flow the days
Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers
Blossoming even as we gaze
Sunrise, sunset
Sunrise, sunset 
Swiftly fly the years
One season following another
Laden with happiness and tears

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Music Notes

The old upright is missing more than a few pieces of ivory, half a black key, and quite a bit of veneer.  One of the three pedals is detached.  But it has been tuned in the past year and despite the cosmetic defects, its music is sound; its sound is music.

Especially when little fingers pick out a melody, playing by ear, looking at the key names printed on the Scotch magic tape on the keys.  'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star', 'Are You Sleeping', and 'Away in the Manger' are the tunes Abbie and Lizzie play.

My first song was played on a black baby grand while my mother packed lunches in the kitchen and long before the bus arrived to pick me up for school. It went like this: "Stepping up, stepping down, then a skip." And it was the first tune in John Thompson's  Modern Course for the Piano, beginning with the red book, Teaching Little Fingers to Play."

Every once in a while, my parents played piano duets, but the only tune I remember is the rollicking four hands in unison of March Militaire. If our house had been built on anything but a concrete pad, the walls would have rung. I'm certain the windows shook.

I learned to play the songs I loved.  Even today, when I remember the hymns, chapter and verse, of my childhood, I find they were the ones in the little hymnbook, copyright 1942 and beautifully illustrated, that had always been in the piano bench.
"Illustrated by Miss Elliott": how quaint an attribution in Gothic script. To sing  "I Love to Tell the Story"  gives me-the-grandma a catch in my throat.  How me-the-child must have loved the melody to fight through the four flats of the arrangement in Favorite Hymns!  

"Down in the Valley" and "St. Louis Blues"are songs I still see in my mind's eye.  With delusions of grandeur, I plunked my way through the slow parts of "Moonlight Sonata", "Cavelleria Rusticana", and Jules Massenet's "Elegie" at Granny's house.  Bless her, she was blissfully tolerant, as befitting her title, of my musical travesties and allowed the cacophony of  her 33 LPs and my preteen piano pretensions, especially my fixation with  Offenbach's 'Barcarolle' in a way my father's sensibilities would never have tolerated.  After all, he fired me from whistling within earshot, an incident I remember every time Aaron or Lizzie tell Joshie to "StopWhistling!" 

On the other hand, my father was endlessly patient with his daughter when it concerned the clarinet.  I squawked my first squeak in 4th grade, holding the mouthpiece and reed and blowing hard enough to produce not just a noise, but the most piercing harmonic possible.  Lord only knows why this seemed a good idea, but perhaps the instrument salesman was exercising damage control, assuming some percentage of the woodwind bodies would crash before purchase as the first birthing pains of  music were made.

At any rate, the early morning piano lessons were soon swapped for pre-school clarinet practice.  A half hour, every morning, with one morning a week set aside for examination or playing duets. Playing for or with my father those beginning years was a trial not exceeded many times, and from this distance, I cannot tell you why because he was a patient teacher no matter how often I got lost or mangled the counting.  The only unforgiven was lack of effort. 

Much of that music survives.  The Dixieland Combo Ork with old timey tunes like "The Tiger Rag" and "Swingin' the Blues".  The Rubank arrangements of Mozart tunes for two clarinets...because no one ever masters Mozart.  My classmates and I thought we were hot stuff in junior high sawing away at the clarinet solo in 'Procession of the Sardar'  and taking the sixteenths in the band arrangement of the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro at time and a half.  We were thirteen years old, long on technique and short on musicianship.  

Time passed....and a year later I was accompanying my father to rehearsals of the Southwest Symphony, counting an eternity of measures as second clarinets in an orchestra are wont to do.  He was going to be out of town and I had been tapped to fill in while he was gone and, he hoped, make the entrances necessary to cover the exposed solos that are the role of first clarinets in an orchestra.  It was an educational and white knuckled experience.  Educational: attempting to effect a transposition on the fly between A and B flat clarinets.  And terrifying: realizing the effrontery of imitating the clarion clear tones of the haunting clarinet solo at the end of 'Night on Bald Mountain'.  I may not have been humble as an eighth grader, but I was after that fall as a freshman!

My father did not play for years while he was the bread winner and new family man.  But he went back to his instruments faithfully in his thirties and for decades thereafter.  Despite broken fingers and smashed thumbs, he practiced on his metal B flat clarinet, a vestige of WWII when nickle was the substitute for the exotic woods used in constructing French and German clarinets.He experimented with all kinds of funky fingerings so our duets....him on his antique licorice stick, me on my antique Buffet....would be acceptably in tune.  He played whatever reed instrument was in short supply in whatever musical group he joined.  
He bought a big organ cheap.  He took up the violin.  

And we played the old favorites when we got together.  The tiny notes of chamber music scores, the two of us sharing one stand and struggling to read the accidentals in violin music by the great masters.  And Mozart, the same duets we'd played three and a half decades previously, less fluid, more ragged, perhaps.

But, then again, no one ever masters Mozart.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Our Arizona Highways

I apologize.
I apologize for every time I've complained about the bumps, the construction, or the congestion of I-70 between Kansas City and St. Louis. Why? Because I've driven I-10 southbound out of Phoenix, where our rented Elantra bounces between the ruts like a pinball and there are only two speeds....headwind RV, grind your teeth, can't-get-around-to-pass-speed and white knuckled, bumper to bumper, left lane, blurred landscape, blow-past-the-exit-I-want-speed.
We fly by oh so many exits before I can search out a spot for the lunch we seek. Our 5 am bowl of Cinnamon Chex is naught more than memory. Fortunately, the traffic thins about the time we are nearly fainting with hunger after bypassing the malls of ubiquitous eateries like Texas Roadhouse or Olive Garden, Subway or....well, you get the picture. We pull off at Casa Grande and follow the long strip into downtown, miss our turn, until finally I tell Blake to slow down at a corner where two dozen parked cars face a pink adobe wall. "Are you sure this is a restaurant?" he asks, eyeing the spires of cactus visible over the wall. But indeed it is and we walk through the portal into BeDillon's Restaurant and Cactus Garden.

It's a happenin' place. The host sports a thin gray ponytail, a bejeweled belt buckle and a booming baritone made for the stage. He's the lead in a role of his own choosing, calling back to the kitchen, "Hey, how about these tables?" The tables in question are set with bouquets of roses and marked "reserved". He turns back to us, "My inlaws are coming to eat: they don't like me." And he promptly sweeps one "Reserved" sign away with a flourish and seats us at that table.

Well, I don't know if the margaritas lived up to their billing, and while the decor might be classified as 'museum quality', BeDillon's is certainly not the only restaurant chock full of artifacts. On the other hand, one of the joys of travel is stepping into, and not just stopping by. At BeDillon's most folks don't need the menu.  In the banter of the businessmen talking land prices, the gossip about the guy with a Lamborghini and the universal bass line of all small town conversation...(genealogy, genealogy, genealogy), I feel a kinship with this Arizona town and local diner.  Fellow traveler? Reckon so.
The desert changes in subtle ways between Phoenix and Tucson: purplish peaks appear in the distance and the first spikes of saguaro cacti are harbingers of the garden like abundance of the Sonoran Desert.  But there is nothing subtle about the acres of airplane carcasses lined up glinting like a misplaced aeronautical mirage. We can't drive as close to the Pinal Air Park as we'd like, but a slow cruise reinforces the surreal atmosphere surrounding the landscape of mismatched airliners, forgotten airlines, and seeming random dismembering of the abandoned machines. Alien? As exotic and fantastical to Midwestern eyes as the desert itself.

What do I see in my desert dreams?  The pale green leaves of creosote, like a haze on the slopes in the low January light.  The backlit pads of prickly pear wearing a halo of golden needles.  Not one, not two, but an army of saguaro marching down the slopes, like the brooms in the Sorcerer's Apprentice, single, long string beans of cactus, arms up, arms akimbo, and others leaning or with black holes like eyes or mouths.  These are  not mere plants; we project our emotions onto their humanoid forms.

Finally, the indescribable hues of the far away mountains are indeed the stuff dreams are made of. Blue? Violet? They look pointillist peak fronting the next, like a stage set in a Technicolor Western.

There have been plenty of Westerns filmed around here and Old Tucson provided backdrop for many  winter weekend favorites like McLintock, Rio Lobo, Maverick, Tom Horn, the Sacketts, and El Dorado.  Sure, it's kinda kitschy; the Sweets Shop sells Prickly Pear fudge and there's a place to "Pan for Gold" (silver requiring so much more infrastructure), but Old Tucson is entertainment history, not  "just the facts, ma'am", celebrating the myth and spectacle of a genre that is as faded as the movie posters in the museum. In this spirit, we gather along the railing of Main Street as the shootout plays out.  One little boy hurries across to our side as the actors set the stage, asking breathlessly,"Have I missed anything?" No worries, son, just the preamble....not the fireworks.  It's a pretty satisfactory shootout, by the way, lots of dust and smoke and noise and stunts, with the long shadows and chiaroscuro lighting provided by Mother Nature herself.  We leave Old Tucson both satisfied and nostalgic.

All the beauty and romance and magic of sky and stars, rock and shadow, desert and adobe, mount and valley are married in the Hacienda del Sol.  

We arrive after an hour of Tucson traffic, climbing the twisting drive into the foothills of the Santa Catalinas on the east side.  Festive farolitos illuminate our way through the flowered and fountained courtyard; the staff is courteous in what would be described as Old World manners, if I were writing a travelogue.  Our room is paved with terracotta, roofed with rough beams; we wash our hands and brush our teeth in a basin of colorful Talavera tiles.  There is a real fireplace, an orange tree near the front door and a big blue agave where the patio looks up to the mountains. When we go to dinner we are momentarily disappointed when we pass through the Terraza's enclosed patio and hear the jazz trio serenading the diners, but that evaporates when we are escorted to our table in the Grill to the tinkling ivories of a particularly inventive version of Angel Eyes. 

 The diminutive host sports a bleached blond hairdo and strongly resembles either Hans (or Fritz) of the Katzenjammer kids.  His name, however, is Bing, and, he tells us, he will be there all weekend and HE WILL REMEMBER US!  Threat or promise, we cannot ascertain, but, alas, our stay here is a one night stand and we will scarce stir a neuron in Bing's memory.

The Hacienda del Sol will linger long in ours.  The former girls' school for debutantes, the former guest ranch, the former getaway for the likes of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn wears its age gracefully, the new and old blending seamlessly. We look down across the valley at sunset during our supper and the lights of Tucson are blinking like Christmas lights. We look up, early to rise on Midwest time, and the mountains are wearing clouds while we drink coffee in the predawn hour. 

So many many years ago, I used to look at the Arizona Highways magazines my folks got in the mail.  Every sky was technicolor; every silhouette die-cut; every vista extraterrestrial, fantastical, Disney, like CGI a generation before CGI was an acronym.  Reality...well, it's leaning away from a windblown semi in the left lane of I-10.  Road-wise, no romance.  But our Arizona Highway is the magazine spread, a dreamtime of purple mountains, Western shootouts, and saguaro silhouettes. 

No apology necessary....